Ken Spielman's sunglasses rested on top of his farm's hay-baler, evidently where he had laid them before trying to unclog the giant machine. The tractor that killed him was still running.
Now his widow and six adult children can only guess at the cause of the accident Tuesday that took the life of a man who loved farming despite its punishing routines and ruthless economics. If anything, the family had feared for his bad heart, what with the stress of running a small family farm in Libertytown in an era of factory farms, global imports and suburbanization.
"My dad was always perfect at stuff," said daughter Andrea Ruseski, who lives in Gaithersburg. "He always prided himself on being methodical. That's why this doesn't make sense." It seemed doubly cruel, she said, that her father lost his life in a work-related accident only a year after he sold most of his dairy herd, and after he had begun to slow down and enjoy his form of retirement.
Kenneth F. Spielman Sr.'s death Tuesday evening has resonated beyond eastern Frederick County as a reminder of the dangers that farmers encounter every day. Until then, his life was also a compelling story of struggling against the odds and surviving in a hard business that is steadily disappearing across the state.
Spielman was working alone near his house, and no one can explain why the tractor backed up sometime before 7:35 p.m. Tuesday, pinning him against the baler and crushing him, said Detective Tracy McCutcheon of the Frederick County sheriff's office. A neighbor saw the tractor wheels churning the earth and realized something was wrong. Spielman died before emergency workers could arrive.
On Wednesday, members of Spielman's large family and friends drove down the farm's pitted driveway off Fountain School Road to pay their respects. Cakes, potato chips and sodas were laid out in the kitchen decorated with antique gadgets and a portrait of the Virgin Mary. A scrawny barn cat scampered among the cars that filled the grassy fields around the farmhouse. On Friday, there was standing room only for the funeral at St. Peter's Church, where Spielman had served as an usher.
Spielman might not have been well known beyond eastern Frederick County or his parish, but he was, friends and family said, a remarkable man. He worked hard on a rented farm until he bought his own, and then worked harder to hang on to it when he thought it could be lost. Yet he also found it in himself to sing his favorite country tunes with passion while performing chores.
"He had a very rough childhood, and you know what? He never showed any sign of it," his wife, Priscilla Spielman, said.
Spielman's mother died about six months after his birth. He eventually was taken in by a farmer and his wife who treated him as their own, Priscilla Spielman said. Every year, the farmer gave the young man a calf to build his own herd.
By 1975, Spielman had borrowed money to buy a farm. But there was a drought that year, milk prices were low, and interest rates were climbing. "And we struggled, and we prayed," Priscilla Spielman said. "We prayed so hard."
In the late 1980s and 1990s, things became so grim that she asked their bank if they could pay only interest on their loans until milk prices turned around. The bank responded by classifying their loan as high-risk and sending around someone to upbraid them, she said.
Only after a rise in the price of milk and the sale of some land for homes did the farm get on a solid footing. "It broke our hearts to sell those lots," his widow said. "Because we love the land and want to keep the farmland [as] farmland."
Year in, year out, the pace on the dairy farm was never less than grueling: twice a day, every day, before dawn and then at dusk. Miss a milking, and you risk having the cows develop infections that can ruin the milk or ruin the animal's health.
And then there was danger. Farm families know about the dangers so well they almost do not think about them. Only mining has a higher rate of on-the-job fatalities than agriculture, fishing and forestry, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
Machinery is the leading cause of fatal accidents, particularly the tractor. Rollovers account for one of every five farm deaths each year, the institute says. Farmers also are killed or maimed by the spinning drive shaft that provides power from the tractor's motor to field equipment: brush against it, and it can seize a piece of clothing and not let go. There are other dangers, too: conveyor belts that raise bales of hay into lofts, laden wagons that can tip, animals that kick.
"I've seen him stumble out of the dairy barn and collapse," Ruseski said, recalling a time a cow shot its hoof into her father's chest. Priscilla Spielman worried when she saw her husband and sons climbing the silo.
But as with so many other farmers, a streak of self-reliance, passed down like a stubborn gene as land is passed from generation to generation, drove him to do whatever was necessary to keep the farm going. He did not ask for help without good cause, Priscilla Spielman said.
But his life, centered on church and family, was rich. He hosted bonfires and hayrides for his church's youth groups. He loved to sing. His favorite tune was "Folsom Prison Blues," but just about anything by Johnny Cash would do.
"I would ride to the livestock auction with him a couple times a week, and he would sing on the way and back," Ruseski said. At her wedding five years ago, his performance of "Our Father" made some guests wonder whether he had received formal voice training, she said.
"Professional training on the tractor," she said, adding: "He was a gentle, strong, loving man who you could always talk to. And he always had something funny to say to cheer you up."
A year ago, Spielman sold most of his dairy herd, hoping to retire. A month later, he and his wife took a three-week vacation -- their first in memory -- and visited family in Colorado. He landscaped the farm's pond, removed its snapping turtles and built a dock where he could fish with his grandchildren. He was looking forward to celebrating his 64th birthday and his 45th wedding anniversary this month.
"I'm going to miss him tremendously, but his spirit is with me," Priscilla Spielman said.