Ray Cather: Farmer, Ruritan, Neighbor
By Annie Young
Perhaps , like me, you enjoy traveling the back roads of Clarke County. I drive along while my baby sleeps in the backseat and find places that are new to me but have a long history in the county. One hot day this summer I passed a sign, “Ray’s Garden,” next to a lush, well-tended garden and a huge banner hanging on the window “RAY IS 98!” My curiosity was piqued!
Ray Cather began farming over six decades ago on their family farm along Cather Road. He had learned the trade as a farm manager in Pennsylvania, but came back to the Shenandoah Valley to start his own operation with Black Angus cows. Although Mr. Cather did not grow up in Clarke County, he and his wife raised five children here. Three of his children remained here to raise their own families and continue to live on the farm.
Ray Cather’s legacy stretches even further into the community with his years of service with the Ruritans. The Ruritans are a national civic organization. The local chapter sponsors and plans the Clarke County Fair as well as college scholarships and other community service projects. Cather has a stellar record of 54 years of perfect attendance at the Ruritan meetings. He was awarded Member of the Year in 1996 and the Senior Service Award in 1990. Not one to rest on his laurels, or rest at all, he worked at the barbeque dinner during the Clarke County Fair, where every night Mr. Cather filled countless cups with ice during those muggy August nights.
Farming takes a special level of commitment, especially when working with animals. Black Angus have always been Cather’s breed of choice, and that is the breed the family farm still raises. Since 1964 Cather has also tended a garden plot next to their home. It is nestled against the pasture and carefully fenced. It is on that fence that his wooden carved sign proudly announces, “Ray’s Garden.”
Mr. Cather has spent almost 50 years hoeing, planting, weeding, and harvesting from this same vegetable plot. A spring and summer crop of vegetables are planted and harvested. Then about the time some people surrender to the weeds and heat, he plants his second crop of fall vegetables, including his famous turnips.
Cather has created a system of saving seeds, labeling his own white letter envelopes with the variety of seed, then saves all his seeds from squash, melon, peppers and tomatoes. He has no need for fancy names or remembering the variety because after so many years he has created his own heirloom varieties. “Red, large tomato” or “small, yellow cherry tomato” is all that is needed to label and remember the variety from season to season.
Saving tomato seeds can be tricky. The process involves fermenting, filtering, and drying the seeds. Then, using a small greenhouse that Cather calls his tent, he plants the seeds. The family helps move and rearrange the furniture so that the sunny windows and living room can be filled with seedlings. With so many plants coming up it is hard to find room for them all in the garden. So the flower beds and planters surrounding the house have happy plants tucked into them instead of flowers. Cather’s daughter Margaret Dillow helps can and distribute the tomatoes to friends and neighbors. She observes how her mother’s flower beds have evolved into tomato beds instead. Take it from me, results of all the hard work are delicious.
Ray Cather has been a longtime member of Crums United Methodist Church. He is well known and well loved in his church community. Each year, in yet another act of service, Cather donates vegetables to their annual bazaar, with profits going to the church. His bumper crops of turnips are most notable. (The bazaar is held the first weekend of November; if you want to try some of these heirloom vegetables that is the place to find them!)
Perhaps you’ve seen the sign and cultivated vegetable plot, or enjoyed a cold drink at the Ruritan chicken dinner, or attended service at Crums Church, or even tasted a Cather grown vegetable. In over 60 years since starting his farm in Clarke, Ray Cather has worked hard, given plenty, and touched the lives of many.