My clan, the Kellys, Ryans, Feeneys and Lines, all came from Ireland, ending up here in Peoria and Huron, South Dakota. I feel fortunate in having known a lot of them, but it was the Ryans and Feeneys that held on to the old country’s ways, including story telling. My Grandmother Nora, a tiny woman, with long white hair that touched the floor loved ghost stories. On Christmas Eve, when the time was right, she gathered us around the Christmas tree and told us this story about her grandfather.
“We lived on a farm, and along with my parents and a lot of kids, my grandparents lived with us. The men worked many hours out in the fields, and we girls worked in the house. I don’t remember the year but it was a very long time ago when my father managed to buy his first tractor. Well, my grandfather loved that old tractor and he drove it whenever he could. I can still hear that old machine as he pulled it up to the barn as the sun was going down ending his long workday.
One cold fall evening grandfather never made it back home. My father found him way out there in the north cornfield slumped behind the wheel of the tractor with the engine still running. I still miss that wonderful old man to this very day. Well, about three-years later my father put up our Christmas tree and all of us kids were eager to decorate it. My aunt always insisted on asking for a blessing of the tree before we decorated it.
As we bowed out heads I heard my mother say ‘Listen!’ We all cocked our heads as we glanced at each other. ‘There…do you hear that?’ The sound of a tractor outside close by in the barnyard grew louder as we made our way to the kitchen window and the rear door.
‘Probably a neighbor,’ my father explained reaching for his coat and flinging open the door. The entire family crowded out behind my father as we heard the rather loud engine noise coming into the barnyard.
Suddenly my father stopped abruptly holding up his hand to keep us back. We huddled in the cold as we watched the old tractor chugging slowly towards us. In disbelief we saw it make a slow left turn heading for the barn, coming to a stop just outside the closed doors. As it went by it was clear to all of us that no living soul was driving that tractor! We looked on in stunned silence as my father ran over, hopping up on the tractor to shut off the engine. My sisters and I almost crushed our mother as we got as close to her as we possibly could.
My father waved us over, but no one moved until our mother scolded us into moving. We stayed close behind her as we walked up to the tractor we were very surprised to see our father smiling down at us.
‘Gather round, I want you all to see this.’ He then pointed to the tractor seat. We all gasped as he picked something up and held it out for us to see. There in my father’s hand was my grandfather’s favorite pipe!” My grandmother always paused dramatically as she slowly raised her right hand. “I swear to you that not only was it filled with my grandfather’s smelly tobacco, it was still lit and the smoke was drifting from it into the cold evening air.”
My grandmother looked at each of us with a quick, scary stare before she continued. “Well, I can tell you that we all stood there in amazement as we realized what we were looking at. My father put the old tractor back in the barn as our mother shooed us back inside.
We waited as father entered the kitchen smoking his father’s pipe with a big grin on his face. He held the smoking pipe up into the air and called out, ‘Merry Christmas, grandpa.’ We all laughed and joined in… ‘Merry Christmas’ we yelled…and indeed it was.
— Norman V. Kelly of Peoria is a retired private investigator and para-legal. He is a well-known radio personality. He has written 12 books about the history of Peoria, writing mostly about the bawdy, seedy and dangerous elements of Peoria’s long history, 1845 through 1950. You can read some of his stories at http://peoriahistorian.blogspot.com/blog and www.peoriapubliclibrary.org.