A few years ago Ellington White, author of the article on largemouth bass fishing (page 40), requested a rather unusual assignment. For a ridiculously modest sum, he said, he could build a 3½-acre pond on his 50-acre farm near Gambier, Ohio, stock it with bass and write an article telling our readers how they, too, could find angling paradise right in their own backyards. All White said he needed was "seed money," a few hundred dollars that would be supplemented by federal funds administered by the county government, which was willing to help with such worthy recreational ventures.
It sounded like a good idea at the time—still does, for that matter—so we became the first magazine ever to pay a writer to dig a hole in his backyard. Then we sat back to await results. We were still sitting and waiting last week, trying hard to believe fisherman White had not lured us deftly and hooked us hard, when curiosity finally got the better of us, and we asked him what had happened to our investment.
Well, he said, he was extremely sorry about that, but he had meant well. And he gave us the whole story. He had begun by making an application to the county, then getting his soil tested for clay content. This is done by a process known as back-hoeing, which leaves sizable marks in the land, if not the owner's pocketbook. Anyhow, White's soil tested out fine, his application was approved and he then went looking for a contractor to give him an estimate of the cost of excavating his bass pond.
In a scene of the sort that must have inspired Eric Hodgins to write Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, the contractor looked over the land, kicked a few dirt clods and allowed as how the job ought to run about $1,500. Slightly taken aback (his SI advance, he suddenly realized, really had been ridiculously modest), White gave the contractor the go-ahead. But since it would be late fall before he could begin excavating—the pond needed a liner of grass, and late fall was beyond the growing season—White agreed to wait until the following spring.
May 30, 1971
By spring, however, the contractor was less interested, so White had to start the process all over again. This included making another application to the county (but not, fortunately, another round of back-hoeing) and lining up a new contractor. The application was approved, and White found a taciturn Amish man whose estimate of about $1,000 won him the job. As luck would have it, that turned out to be a very wet spring in Ohio, and the new contractor kept delaying the work until somehow it was too late again and another year had been missed. White surveyed his back-hoeing scars and sighed.
That winter the literary magazine on which White was an editor, The Kenyon Review, ceased publication, so White left his Gambier farm and moved with his wife and three children to the banks of the James River in Virginia, his native state. There he is working on a novel, teaching at Virginia Commonwealth University and comforting himself with periodic sessions of fly rod-ding on nature's own bass ponds, which abound in the area.
Meanwhile, if the gentleman now living on that 50-acre spread near Gambier, Ohio is wondering what those holes in his backyard are for, we've been asked to say they aren't for anything. They're called back-hoeing holes, see, and....