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You could say that John Halsey, a man of many talents, who despite being 87 years young, has lots of life left, has a green thumb.
Born on May 6, 1927 in Oakdale, in Breathitt County, Kentucky, Halsey is the father of five children, three step children, 12 grandchildren and “don’t ask me how many great grandchildren”--but he will tell you there are three sets of twins in the greats.
With an impish grin that belies his 87 years, Halsey will crack a joke in the middle of a conversation and never skip a beat. Such as in a conversation about the affect of the moon on planting he says “in school once, the teacher made the statement the moon definitely affects the tide; I piped up and said it also affects the untied...” Incredulously he continued, “she kicked me out!” And then laughs.
But, get him talking about one of his abilities; farming, gun repair or knife-making, and he’ll give you tips and ideas to rival engineers.
Halsey recalled a state department employee that stopped at the Grant County Farmers Market while out conducting a survey.
“We had a big display of vegetables and had blackberry cakes and had the jams and jellies. Finally, he said how big a farm do you have? I said I have one acre and 36 hundreds and I have a house and a barn and a lawn coming off of that, I’m farming about a quarter of an acre. And I was selling, averaging about $7,000 off that quarter of an acre,” Halsey said.
“You couldn’t do that with a hundred acres. But if I cut a cabbage, I set out another cabbage. I kept plants growing out there in a little bed and I kept it full all summer. And I could start selling in May. I could have new potatoes and then by the last of May I would have strawberries and black raspberries. And then of course the black berries didn’t come on until July,” he added.
Halsey said he makes most of his profit from beans and tomatoes.
“You can make if from corn if you have acres of it. Once you snap that ear off; that stalk is done for. I don’t have enough ground to grow corn on it (just) for myself,” he said.
Halsey has come a ways to get to Grant County. He came via Perry, Wolfe and Kenton counties finally landing in Grant County around 1974.
Along the way, he joined the Army Air Force, worked laying carpet and linoleum and then settled into farm equipment.
“I’ve retired three times in my life...37 years (in farm equipment), working six days a week; I never missed one days work during my working life. After 42 years (including five in linoleum and carpet work) working six days a week, I went to the Crittenden Mt. Zion School (maintenance and custodial work) and worked for 10 years. Five days a week felt; like I was on vacation!” he said.
After that, he repaired guns at home however now due to limited coordination and eyesight, he stopped his gun work. He continues to do a little woodwork.
As a child of a coal miner, instead of staying in Breathitt County and working in the commercial mines, he joined the Army Air Force.
“Yes...yes, you heard that right, I said ‘Army Air Force’,” he said.
Back when he joined, it was, indeed, the Army Air Force. Later, it split into its two separate arms of the military: the Army and the Air Force.
Laughing he admits, “I hit a lot of beaches, but all of them were in Florida!” Because his tour of duty was near the end of the war, he was stationed in Boca Raton, Florida as a clerk typist. At his discharge, though, he had worked his way up to “head of all the enlisted men.”
After serving his 15 months, Halsey returned to Wolfe County and finished high school. This was integral to his plans of becoming an accountant due to his experience as a supply officer in the Army Air Force. He had planned to attend Miller Business School in Cincinnati. However, he found the classes weren’t exactly like the job and eventually, he changed plans and took the job as carpet and linoleum installer in Kenton County. This lasted for about five years.
Next, he took a job with Butler Farm Equipment in Nicholson in Kenton County for 19 years. Thereafter, he took a job with a tractor dealer in Gardnersville, KY, now Bowen Farm Supply; retiring after a total of 37 years in farm equipment.
But, he was not done then; always on the move, he and wife, Juanita, promptly began working at Crittenden-Mt. Zion Elementary School in maintenance and custodial. He was there for 10 years. But, along with his maintenance work, he talked to the students. He would tell them stories from his life such as about the Great Depression.
“Bread was a dime a loaf. It took an hour to earn a dime; now you can get an arm load of bread for an hours work,” he said.
Since his childhood, Halsey has farmed. To care for the family, his father always maintained a garden.
“Back then, you had to have a garden, you didn’t have money to buy food.” And as a son, Halsey was expected to help work in the garden.
With only a break during his Army Air Force stint; Halsey has always farmed. Although he has retired three times, he keeps coming out of retirement. And, this year he will, once again, come out of retirement to sell at the Grant County Farmers’ Market, at the Crittenden location.
Halsey originally joined the market in 2001 at the insistence of his son-in-law, Rodney Stephenson. He remembers their first day well: “Juanita and I was going up to set up at the mall. And we heard on the radio going up there that these planes had, you know, hit those buildings.”
Later, he and Juanita convinced the market to move some of their booths to the Crittenden location which is much closer to home. There, they built a dedicated following of customers. Halsey says this is due to being “consistent when you are there, rain or shine.”
In 2009, he lost Juanita to cancer. That year, he reduced his garden and slowed selling at the market. And then, he stopped selling for the next four years, opting to work on guns instead of gardens.
In 2013, along with two other individuals for their dedication and assistance, he was made a lifetime member of the Grant County Farmers’ Market.
In 2014, Halsey is planning once again on leaving a retirement. He plans to return to the market and sell some fruits and veggies. But, he is more excited to be selling his jams, jellies and butters.
What is his ultimate goal?
A big grin breaks across his face.
“I’m going to be the last living World War II veteran. I’m one of the youngest and am in fairly good health,” he said.