The Columbus Dispatch
Down on the farm
Northland resident grew up on famous Malabar Farm
It was a crisp, sunny November morning when Lavata Williams returned home.
The petite 88-year-old walked the path to the front door of an expansive white house as birds chirped and a rooster crowed in the background.
Upon entering the foyer, Williams looks around at the hardwood floors, and the red and white furniture that matched the red carpet on the double staircase. Williams especially noted the white wallpaper decorated with wreaths.
“This looks like the same wallpaper because … I mean, I can’t believe this wallpaper looks this good. “As a park, Malabar Farm is dedicated to perpetuating Bromfield’s farming philosophies, preserving the Big House and its many artifacts, and providing a place where visitors can explore life on a farm and the beauty of nature.”
Media and outreach specialist for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources
“It’s unbelievable how nothing’s changed,” she said. “So, you can see why for me it’s like coming back to my childhood.”
The place Williams used to call home is the famous Malabar Farm in Richland County. The 1,100
acre farm, owned by award-winning novelist and Mansfield native Louis Bromfield, has since become a state park.
Williams, who now lives in Columbus’ Northland neighborhood. She moved there from Mount Vernon with her mother, Reba Williams, in 1943 when she was 9. Reba Williams would eventually become a cook at Malabar, where she stayed until 1957.
Lavata Williams said a family from Mount Vernon that had two sons who worked on the farm told her mother about the job opening. After she was accepted for the position, Reba Williams let Bromfield, or “Mr. B” as Lavata Williams affectionally called him, know that her daughter was moving with her.
“He said that was no problem,” Williams said.
One of Williams’ earliest memories of Malabar was of Bromfield’s youngest daughter, Ellen, and her Angora rabbits.
“When I first came here that first summer — and maybe this is why I’m not an animal person — Ellen grew Angora rabbits,” she said. “Back in those days, because I’m talking about the ‘40s, coffee came in glass jars with a widget. And so, she cleaned out those jars and she would cut the fur off of the Angora rabbits and put it in there. Because, you know, your Angora sweaters and stuff, so she would sell that. Ellen was always doing some little business-type thing.”
Bromfield was born in 1896 in Mansfield. Before becoming an author, Bromfield served as an ambulance driver for the U.S. Army during World War I. In 1925, he moved to France, settling in Paris and then Senlis.
During the height of his literary fame, he was associated with respected writers including Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein. After writing “The Green Bay Tree” and “Possession,” he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1927 for his third novel, “Early Autumn,” about a wealthy family in New England.
But by 1938, Bromfield returned to Ohio with his wife, Mary, and three daughters.
He founded Malabar Farm in 1939, which he transformed and managed using organic farming techniques he’d learned in India. Pretty soon he was producing crops, raising livestock and employing practices such as contour plowing, intercropping (growing two or more crops simultaneously in the same area) and large-scale composting, methods that are now known as sustainable agriculture.
Bromfield started approaching his writing differently as a result of the farm, churning out novels and selling the movie rights to Hollywood solely to finance his undertaking. That was how Bromfield came to become friends with movie stars such as James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart.
In 1945, Bogart and actress Lauren Bacall were married on the farm inside the “Big House” at the base of the grand staircase.
Williams, who was 12 at the time, remembers the wedding being a small affair. She said all of the staff members on the farm were guests and, since the special occasion was catered, her mother was able to attend.
Williams said she was standing by the front door during the ceremony, watching photographers peer into the little side windows from outside to snap pictures.
“That’s what I was looking at really,
not the wedding,” she said.
Despite Bromfield’s fame, Williams said the author and farmer remained down-to-earth and treated everyone with kindness, regardless of social status or race.
She remembers Bromfield taking her and his children to the Ringling Brothers circus when it came to Mansfield and then up to Cleveland to see the opera “Carmen” with Reba Williams and the family nanny.
Williams, who is Black, said racism was not an issue at Malabar.
“Oh, there was no such thing,” she said. “He was just one of us.”
And no one received special treatment, even the privileged.
“When the bushels of baskets of peas would come in from the garden, guess what? He made those so-called rich New Yorkers sit there and help shell those peas,” Williams said. “You didn’t come and just sit and be glamorous.”
During her recent visit to Malabar Farm, Williams entered the room that her mother spent countless hours in — the kitchen. Memories came flooding back as she looked around the teal-colored room and out the window into the picturesque view of the yard.
She pointed to a spot in the kitchen close to the pantry room.
“Mother kept a chair right here, and if you came in her kitchen, you had to sit right there,” she said.
When Williams first moved to Malabar, her mother initially worked as “the second girl,” cleaning and dusting, making beds and serving dinner each night, reported the Mansfield News Journal.
When the cook got time off every two weeks, Reba Williams was assigned to do all the cooking from Friday through Monday. She advanced on the farm when the regular cook took her usual two days off and didn’t return.
Lavata Williams said her mother, who died in 2014 at 107, often made dinner for 20 to 30 people, including the staff and Bromfield’s guests. She had little previous culinary experience.
Williams said the only time she was allowed in the kitchen was when she had to run out to the herb garden or go to the freezer downstairs for her mother.
Other guests that weren’t allowed in the kitchen? Bromfield’s five boxers.
“Those dogs would look up and see mother and they would screech to a halt,” Williams said. “And if they were with Mr. B, Mr. B would say, ‘No boys, you know Reba doesn’t want you in here.’”
Williams’ favorite dish of her mother’s was chestnut puree, which has a texture similar to mashed potatoes.
“Oh man, I’d give anything to have some of that again,” she said. “It was so good.”
Williams lived at Malabar for nine years, leaving when she was 18 to attend
Ohio State University. Four years later, Bromfield died of bone marrow cancer. Her mother stayed on the farm until 1957 and continued to clean homes and cook for different families until 1989, when she retired at 82.
After working in Washington, D.C., for seven years as an accounting technician for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Williams moved back to Columbus in 1971 and became a teacher for Columbus City Schools.
She has lived in the Northland neighborhood since 1988.
Meanwhile, Malabar Farm became a state park in 1976 and remains a popular attraction today, said Stephanie O’grady, media and outreach specialist for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.
“This year, we gave more than 6,000 tours to guests of the house and grounds, and that number comes nowhere close to capturing the amount of people who visit us just to hike, picnic and enjoy a day on the farm, let alone the thousands who come for the twoday Heritage Days festival and Maple Syrup Festival,” she said via email.
O’grady said that in Bromfield’s 1945 book, “Pleasant Valley,” the author expressed the hope that one day the farm’s legacy would live on by being owned by the state.
“As a park, Malabar Farm is dedicated to perpetuating Bromfield’s farming philosophies, preserving the Big House and its many artifacts, and providing a place where visitors can explore life on a farm and the beauty of nature,” she said.
Williams said she is grateful that she is still able to visit the place she and her mother once called home. She said she had a good childhood while living at Malabar Farm.
“I can’t complain about anything here,” she said. “I mean, you had full range of everything.
“Mr. B was not into who you are and all of that,” she said. “He just loved people.”
Reporter Erica Thompson contributed to this story.
This story is part of the Dispatch’s Mobile Newsroom initiative, which is currently focused on Northland and operating out of the Karl Road branch library. firstname.lastname@example.org @micah_walker701