The Arc of Futility For One Hip Farmer

A view of Hazel Hill Mercantile from the road.

He casually removes his ball cap, revealing dirty blond hair tied back in a ponytail, and fishes a pack of cigarettes from his front shirt pocket while discussing the finer points of futility.

“What I like to do is invest a huge amount of time in something that doesn’t make a difference,” said Tommy Thompson, lighting his cigarette.

Tommy Thompson with the Parris-Dunn wind machine by the barn.

Tommy and I sit in the shade of a large bald cypress tree, surrounded by several empty, comfortable chairs and dead butts, clearly indicating a popular gathering place for friends and neighbors.

Tommy points to a small windmill standing next to a huge white barn between his old 1913 farmhouse and the rough red barn that used to be the Hazel Hill Mercantile.

“Look at that, look at that,” Tommy says. “That’s a wind generator. I have 13 of ‘em. This is my second restoration.”

The wind machine he so fondly indicated is a Parris-Dunn. It doesn’t look like much, but to Tommy it is a useless something to master for its technical, Zen-like coolness. You see, when the wind is too strong the propeller automatically tips back to dump out the excess breeze.

“It is so hip,” Tommy says, his deep voice softening. “Put one of ‘em out there and watch it turn.”

Tommy sits relaxed in his dirty blue jeans, his face framed by a white beard. His loose demeanor indicative of a hardworking farmer who, just the other day in 90-plus degrees, was digging fencepost holes, some by hand when the auger couldn’t make it.

An old pump organ ready to be converted into a piece of furniture.

But he’s more than a farmer. Tommy’s a retired art teacher. He’s an avid birder, never going far without binoculars. He’s a tractor junkie, a voracious reader and a potter and watercolor painter. He restores furniture and old Jeeps. He’s also the co-founder of the Hazel Hill Mercantile.

He and his best friend Lou Atkinson, with whom he used to make Mission Style furniture, started the biannual sale some 12 years ago. They attracted vendors and shoppers from a wide area who sold and bought all kinds of stuff – pottery, furniture, jewelry, melted bottles, paintings, etched glass, cool felt hats.

It was a real destination shop in the middle of nowhere – 14 miles northwest of Warrensburg. People came from all over and I’ve heard it described more than once as a sort of picnic atmosphere. Strangers became friends, old friends became reacquainted and time just sort of slowed down to a country pace.

The two friends met while teaching at Odessa Middle School. Tommy retired in 2001 after 26 years. Lou is going on 34 years and teaches industrial arts technology.

Tommy sent a note to their vendors in August 2011 to break the news he was closing Hazel Hill. His insurance company demanded a separate commercial policy, but Tommy didn’t see the point in raising prices on the vendors just to make the same amount of money. So he closed. Lou has since reopened in a converted gas station just east of Sedalia in Smithton.

Together, the two friends thoroughly enjoy making projects that don’t make a difference. They spent a summer building a gypsy wagon, which was actually quite popular and a good marketing tool for Hazel Hill.

Walking through Tommy’s woodworking shop, he shows off the old cash register Lou converted into a rather bulky breadbox. Next to that is the wooden skeleton of a pump organ Tommy is restoring into a desk.

“We both enjoy trying to make something out of nothing,” Lou said during a telephone interview.

Hazel Hill Mercantile is done, but Tommy has plenty of things to keep him busy. He lives where the stars are unimpeded by city lights, where neighbors who might have broken down in the field readily come calling to borrow your truck. His morning ritual is coffee in a glass sunroom where the birds are easy to spot.

Then, it’s out to work the cows or fix something at one of his rental properties or help feed a neighbor’s herd or tinker with an ongoing project.

He used to paint with watercolors, but it’s been several years. And it’s been about nine months since he’s thrown any pottery. There’s simply not enough time. But that doesn’t mean he’s turned his back on the arts. Tommy is a member of the artists’ co-op at the Old Drum Trading Co. & Gallery in downtown Warrensburg where he has pottery for sale.

Time is precious when there’s a roof to fix, a building to demolish, additions to be built and cows to care for. But he finds time for other things. He said he was given the nickname Gonzo for his attraction to that “gonzo feeling.”

“Oh, we got us this old tractor and we’re going to take the whole day to drive somewhere and load up this old tractor that’ll maybe never run and bring it back,” Tommy said, his voice soft at first. “And when it fires up the first time and sets fire to the barn – that is quite a rush. And we did that. And all we had was snow and everybody’s grabbing handfuls of snow and throwing it on the tractor to put the fire out.”

He also has a keen eye for good stuff. His yard is a testament, not only to the hundreds of trees he’s planted, but to the perfectly salvageable items he’s accumulated. The mercantile itself is made of mostly salvaged materials, including cool rounded windows from an old building at the State Fair in Sedalia.

Three Jeeps languish behind his house, nearly obscured by the brush – more projects in the queue. And strapped to the cypress that so generously shaded us on a hot afternoon, is a massive, rusty posthole digger.

It’s a 420-pound Prewitt posthole digger Tommy salvaged from a fencerow. And he’s just as eager to describe its inner workings as he is the wind machines. The machine was manufactured in Pleasant Hill and bolts to the back of your tractor. The long Acme screw on top helps to slowly drive the augur into the ground.

“Think you’ll get it going?” I ask.

“Oh yeah! Just think about it,” Tommy says. “It’s a huge waste of time!”

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