The Story Behind the Legend
New Milford, NY, historical marker.

Benjamin Graham, Teenaged Farmhand (#12)

If you just read Ben Graham’s Blunder (#11), you might wonder as I do how Ben explained his late arrival in New Milford to Mr. Barman—the farmer who sent him a ticket and instructed him to catch the 4:30 p.m. train. Ben missed that train and battled to stay awake all night, in order to catch the next train which left at 5:00 a.m. When he finally reached the farm, was Ben able to keep his eyes open? I picture him striving to atone for his delay by fighting off sleep until sundown.

Ben’s grueling workday as a farmhand began at 5:30 a.m. and continued into the evening. In his autobiography, Benjamin Graham: The Memoirs of the Dean of Wall Street, my grandfather recalls his labors in extraordinary detail, considering he performed these duties over a half century before. He barely mentions the most troubling (to me) feature of the farm: there were no other kids or teenagers.


The Barmans and the Bachelor

Of course, Ben had the company of the Barmans. Three times a day, he sat down to meals at the kitchen table with his boss, Mr. Barman; Mr. Barman’s wife; and Mr. Barman’s adult daughter from a previous marriage who worked as a teacher. The two women argued ceaselessly. A fourth diner—the ”crusty old bachelor” who ran the general store and barely spoke to Ben—lived elsewhere. However, Ben noticed that a fellow farm denizen was conspicuously absent. Who lived in the wing of the farmhouse everyone avoided? No one mentioned a family member who was ill or, for some mysterious reason, required complete privacy.


Ben Graham Lived Off the Grid

Ben’s situation comes into focus when he describes his living quarters.

“I had a little attic room, furnished with bed, cupboard, washstand, and kerosene lamp. There was no electricity or running water. [Ben pumped water for the entire household from a well.] Like most farmhouses of the time, it had an outdoor privy, complete with last year’s Sears Roebuck catalogue. Needless to say, there was no automobile or telephone.”

 Rarely, Ben boiled water in a kettle and hauled it upstairs so he could bathe, perhaps in something like this portable hat bathtub.


Hat Bathtub

Sears, Roebuck & Co. advertised this Hat Bathtub, circa 1900, for $4.20 in their catalog. Smithsonian National Museum of American History.


I feel a pang of sympathy for my teenaged grandfather. He did without any of the diversions that modern kids enjoy: TV, phone, car, or bicycle.


New Milford, NY, 1920. watercolor by Robert Fletcher. Thanks to the New Milford Historical Society Museum

New Milford, New York, 1920. Watercolor by Robert Fletcher, artist.


Although The New York Times asserts that “every town had its soda fountain,” New Milford was too rural to have any social hub except a general store. Ben never mentions purchasing a single item from the store.


“Suffocatingly Dusty” and “Positively Revolting”

Farmhouse with horse, circa 1910, not the Barmans' farm.

Farmhouse with horse, circa 1910. Not the Barmans’ farm.

Ben Graham’s employer, Mr. Barman, owned a farmhouse and a few acres of land.


“He possessed two cows, both named Lucy, a few pigs, a lot of chickens—and the indispensable horse Charley, used both for farm work and transportation. He grew numerous kinds of vegetables and fruits, plus hay and alfalfa for the stock.”


The Barman farm reminds me of today’s small organic farms, where industrious people labor tirelessly to grow a variety of food crops and raise animals in humane conditions. Ben makes no mention of the two women doing farm chores, but they must have. He does mention Mr. Barman’s advanced age, sixty-three; his “white beard and wrinkled face,” and the fact that he’d been a Union Army soldier in the Civil War—he was that “ancient.” But Ben doesn’t seem impressed, as I am, that when life expectancy for a man was 48, Mr. Barman was extraordinarily hardworking.


Mrs. Barman—the farmer’s second wife—was the one who awakened Ben at 5:30 each morning. Ben milked the two Lucys, ate breakfast, fed the chickens, groomed and harnessed the horse, and then tackled a variety of chores, such as assisting with the alfalfa harvest.

“While Barman sat in comparative comfort behind the [mowing machine pulled by Charley the horse], I had to walk on the downhill side in the blazing sun and push with all my might against the mower to keep it from sliding [down the hill].”

 Sometimes he harvested hay, or hauled hay up to the hayloft, an endless job Ben describes as  “boiling hot” and “suffocatingly dusty.” Performing the distasteful job of cleaning out the horse stable and cow barn, he tells us in the Memoirs that he buoyed his spirits by thinking of Hercules toiling for King Augeas.

Daily, he faced the ordeal of feeding the pigs. The hungry animals shoved their “big snouts” into his slop pails. He had no choice but to “pour the slops over their heads,” rendering them “positively revolting.”


Ben Graham Almost Learned About the Birds and the Bees

“Of course, a farm is the best place for a young man to learn about sex. When you live among farm animals, there’s no such thing as innocence.”

 One day, the elder Lucy had a date with the neighbor’s bull to “freshen” her. Mr. Barman set off early that morning for the county fair, leaving Ben responsible for this chore. Ben understood that the Barmans needed their cow to get pregnant and give birth to a calf, if she was to produce milk. Mr. Barman had simply instructed Ben to “take Lucy over the Jones’ place,” assuring him “there’s nothing much to it.” Dutifully, Ben led Lucy by a rope to the Jones’s farm.

A girl of fourteen, sitting on the porch in a rocking chair, asked him what he wanted. Feeling blood rush to his face, he said, “I’ve got this cow.” With cool indifference, she pointed Ben to the barn. Her father was “down in the south meadow,” unavailable to help.


Antique Postcard of 1900 Era Dairy Bull


“I found the bull, all right, in a pen by himself. He seemed enormous, gigantic, titanic. He stamped in his stall, and I could swear that fire came out of his nostrils.”

Ben tied Lucy to a nearby fence and waited, feeling “more scared and helpless every minute.”

“I hadn’t the faintest notion how to introduce a cow to a bull.”

Miss Jones and her mother discovered the hapless Ben and skittish Lucy, who stood too far away from the bull for any “matrimony” to happen. A few days later, Mr. Barman and Mr. Jones wrangled the bull, while Ben was given the job of “bridesmaid to Lucy.” I visualize Ben standing near the cow’s head, holding her rope.

“I am sorry to say that these duties, whatever they were, rather obstructed my view of the proceedings.”

Apparently, Ben’s embarrassment, after the girl questioned him that first day, kept him from talking with her—the only girl he met all summer. He did encounter a few “lads [his] own age” in New Milford, to whom he bragged that cars were commonplace in New York City, and demonstrated his fearlessness by perilously ambling toward an oncoming car.


Greek to Me, Not to My Grandfather

“After supper and final chores, I would carry a lamp up to my bedroom and set to work at self-instruction. There I would read the Anabasis, helped by the Greek Grammar.”


19th-century illustration by Herman Vogel, “The Return of the Ten Thousand under Xenophon.” Greek mercenary forces (including Xenophon, who recorded the event in the Anabasis) finally reach the sea after their 401 B.C. defeat.


Ah, so Ben Graham brought along another formidable book—a book that makes the Francis Bacon look like a beach read. The Anabasis, a classic Greek text written in 401 B.C. by a professional soldier named Xenophon, narrates the story of an army of 10,000 Greek mercenaries who marched to Persia in the service of Cyrus, a rebel Persian prince. He read the Anabasis in Greek. A wave of affection for my sixteen-year-old grandfather washes over me. I picture Ben bent over his book in his attic room, the only teenager in New York who fed slops to hungry pigs by day and fed Greek to his hungry brain by night.

This unusual sixteen-year-old summons up fond memories of my seventy-something grandfather, retired from Wall Street, spending happy hours translating the Iliad from the Greek, his beloved cat Minet pawing at his dancing pen.


Struck by a Lightning Bolt

I just read David Brooks’ moving article about culture, in which he posits that experiencing art, literature, and music allows us to sympathetically enter the minds of our fellow human beings. Brooks says that culture makes us better people—more perceptive, empathetic, and generous. By paying close attention to others, including fictional characters, we enlarge our capacity to “understand people with as much complexity as Shakespeare did.”

Ben didn’t finish reading the Anabasis, nor did he admire it as a work of literature, but one night he encountered an incident in the book that shook him to his core.

“It is when Apollo flays Marsyas alive after he has beaten him in a song contest. The edition contained an illustration of this gruesome act, copied from some ancient frieze or jug.”


Apolla Flays Marsyas, by Jan van Orley, 1685-1735, Rijksmuseum, Netherlands

Apolla Flays Marsyas, by Jan van Orley, 1685-1735, Rijksmuseum, Netherlands


This is not the same illustration Ben saw, but it depicts the same disturbing event. To flay alive means to peel or cut off the skin of a living person or creature. Fifty plus years later, Ben Graham wrote in his Memoirs about the devastation this story and image evoked in him.

“In a single flash of enlightenment or despair I saw a vista of the depravity and cruelty of man. The classic Greeks, who sought truth and loved beauty…could still revel in the image of pain, could ascribe to their Phoebus Apollo—God of light and song and joy—a sadistic satisfaction in scraping the skin off a living human body!”

 In fact, Marsyas was a satyr—a male nature spirit in classical mythology, depicted in ancient art as part human, part horse or goat. My grandfather tends to be meticulously accurate in his scholarship, particularly about the Romans and Greeks, whose languages he read fluently. This shocking realization of man’s “depravity and cruelty” must have still affected him half a century later when he wrote his Memoirs—to the extent that he forgot that Marsyas did not have “a living human body.” Whether the victim was human or satyr, the pain the Greek god inflicts upon him was horrible. Apollo meted out this sadistic punishment—for the satyr’s hubris in challenging a deity in a music contest—and the Greeks did not condemn him for it. They continued to view Apollo as the god of music and dance, the god who heals, protects the young, wards off evil.

An Opinion writer, Peter Wehner, writing recently in the New York Times, agrees with Ben: “The Greek gods of myth who lived on Mt. Olympus were defined by many things, but compassion was not high among them.”


Becoming Kind 

“There is always a moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in.” Graham Greene, The Power and the Glory

Alone in a dark room, squinting to read the Anabasis by kerosene lamp, the teenaged Ben opened himself to culture, and culture pierced him to the marrow. This moment may be the one when Benjamin Graham became the man who would exemplify kindness and generosity in the mind of his most prominent protégé, Warren Buffett. A man whose wounds caused him to struggle with personal relationships and to sometimes hurt others, as we’ll explore in future blog posts, even as he strove to be the opposite of cruel Apollo—friendly, decent, kind. 

This lifelong striving pulses at the core of Benjamin Graham. In his “Self-Portrait at Sixty-Three,” published in the Memoirs, he revealed that early in his life, he built a “breastwork” or wall around his heart to protect himself from “those who loved him dearly” who wounded him. This wall cut him off from his own and others’ feelings. But on this night, shaken and stricken, his wall breached, he ached with compassion for Marsyas, who suffered at the hands of a powerful tormentor. He felt appalled at the “vista” of man’s savagery. For him, “history drew a straight line from the myth of Marsyas” to the atrocities that filled his reeling mind, perhaps the Mongol invasions, beheadings, slave ships, lynchings, then back to the present, and the person who lived in the farmhouse’s forbidden wing. Were the Barmans inflicting cruelty here, too? Surely it was unkind to keep someone shut in, never allowed to step outside to breathe the scent of sweet hay and hear the thrum of bees.


My Great-Grandmother Dorothy Surprises Me


Gala Apple, Photo courtesy of the New York Apple Association

Gala Apple, courtesy of the New York Apple Association


Ben found Mr. Barman’s apples—”the largest and reddest [he’d] ever seen”—so delicious that he sent one to his mother. She wrote back that although she appreciated the thought, he had spent an exorbitant eighty-nine cents on postage for a gift that arrived “in somewhat dubious condition.”

“Not long afterwards Mother actually came to see me. She nearly always managed to take a little summer vacation, and this time she had the brilliant idea of staying at the Barmans’ for one week as a paying guest. They were pleased to have her, and the $8.”

Dorothy takes summer vacations? This is the first I’ve heard of it. We know that, aside from a rare shopping junket on 125th Street, she never took her boys on outings. If she took a holiday with her sons since her husband’s death eight years before, Ben would have reported it in the Memoirs. She must have taken solo vacations, after she deemed the boys old enough to stay home alone. Now, in 1910, she had left Leon, age 18, and Victor, age 17, in New York while she vacationed at the Barmans’ farm.

My great-grandmother surprises in more ways than one. Ben Graham attests that she quickly became “friendly with the three Barmans” and learned more about them in her first two days than he had in a month. I’ve pored over everything Ben wrote about her in the Memoirs, and I’ve never before seen this side of my great-grandmother. Dorothy exhibited excellent social skills, with people who lived totally different lives from her own. Come to think of it, this is the first time Ben depicts his mother interacting with other adults, except for Dorothy’s distressing arguments in Polish with her older brother Maurice, who was the family benefactor.


Dorothy Grossbaum Cracks the Mystery

Ben Graham discloses another unexpected development.

“[Mother] solved the mystery of the secluded wing of the house. It was inhabited by Mr. Barman’s sister, an epileptic. I can only conjecture about why her illness should condemn her to the life of a prisoner…You can imagine my amazement to see Mother over there conversing with an old lady in a rocking chair. All that Mother would tell me about the interview was that the invalid spoke quite lucidly.”

People with epilepsy have been stigmatized since ancient times, and the kind of ostracism and family shame Ben describes here has persisted through the twentieth century and beyond.  Thankfully, today we are more accepting of people who have seizures. Medical treatment and effective behavioral approaches, including the approach detailed in this workbook, published by Oxford University Press in their Treatments That Work series, are available to help improve the lives of people with seizures. That Mr. Barman’s sister could speak “quite lucidly” with a stranger after living in solitude, banished from the company of her own family, indicates she must have been a remarkably stalwart person.


Ben’s Mother Shows Caring for Ben

When she arrived, Ben reports that he and his mother had a “happy reunion.” The Barmans were glad to host her and provide her with meals, for a sum of eight dollars. It warms my soul to see Dorothy make this effort to show Ben that he mattered to her. This was Ben’s first separation from his family. Rather than stay in touch only with letters, she went to see him. She spent the money, which may have been a sacrifice, to buy the round-trip train ticket to New Milford and pay the lump sum to spend the week. She joined in the life of the farm, eating three meals a day with the Barmans and Ben. His brief account of her visit includes some of the most positive things he’s ever said about his mother. She didn’t see him off at the station, where she could have helped him catch the train, but she expressed her love by her choice of vacation.

I know that Ben’s bond with his mother was hugely important to him, because his father had died when he was young, and she was all he had—the only adult who stayed by him, and made sure he was fed, clothed, and housed. Still, their relationship was fraught with a mix of hurtful and caring maternal behaviors—from neglectful nonchalance to this display of family devotion.

I’m a little astonished at my own relief that Ben’s mother Dorothy didn’t entirely abandon Ben that summer. Yet even with his mother’s visit, Ben must have been terribly lonely. Ben had little chance to talk with other people, and practically no chance to socialize with other teenagers. My grandfather never formed close friendships and may never have told a living soul about his blunder, his tough night at Pavonia Terminal, or his epiphany about human depravity, until he wrote his Memoirs fifty-five years later. But surely, he would have liked to schmooze a bit about the state of the farm, from the crazy chickens to the disgusting pigs.


Uncertain Future

At summer’s end, Ben Graham bid the Barmans goodbye. He admits in his Memoirs that he was  not “tremendously happy” at the farm, and found the work “hard and unappealing,” yet “the complete change in my way of life, coming at an especially impressionable age” made his memories indelible. He stayed the course, worked harder than most city kids ever do, and from what I can tell, had no fun at all. Back in New York, this boy who had skipped grades and excelled academically had faltered socially, because he was younger than his classmates and worked when his peers relaxed. This summer on the farm cemented his pattern of bearing burdens alone.

Many teenagers feel unmoored during that interlude between finishing high school and venturing into the world as young adults. Ben Graham exhibited remarkable resilience. He labored all summer long not knowing what September would bring. Would he join the work force like his brothers, teenaged Jewish immigrants with high school diplomas? Or would he would win a Pulitzer Scholarship and realize his dream of attending Columbia College? His future hung in the balance.

Fit and strong, easily hefting his black valise, with I hope a sweet rosy apple or two stowed inside, Ben Graham made sure not to miss his train.