AS MY FATHER'S FORD camper stirred up clouds of dust down the gravel road toward the old family homestead, I looked forward to the occasion: about 80 descendants of Oscar Bud Nichols, my great-grandfather, returning to the small farm empire he built in Gould, Ark. (population: 1,690).

There were reasons to celebrate. It was no small feat for a black man 62 years ago in the Deep South to take 40 acres of swampland few people wanted and build it into a spread of more than 70 acres of fertile farmland, cattle herds, orchards, a country store and livery stables. My great-grandfather could neither read nor write, but townspeople, white and black, called him "Mr. Nichols."

Now his children and their children and their children's children, who had scattered to the northern and western cities in this century's great migration of American blacks, were coming "home." It was wonderful seeing old relatives and meeting others for the first time.

But the occasion wasn't all joy.

Warm smiles and hugs masked tension and fustration among relatives who are split over whether to sell the farm outright, divide it into small parcels, among the descendants or keep it all together as the Nichols estate. Some wondered whether this first reunion of the Nichols clan would be the last held on his land.

What is happening to the Nichols' farm strikes a cord common in tales of other families, black or white, rich or poor. Family farms, our link to the past, are moving closer to demise, battered on one side by the inability to compete economically with inflation and absentee-owned, managed farms and large farm-corporations, weakened on the other side by the loss of young talent and energy to carry on what parents and grandparents struggled so hard to preserve.

The family farm that nurtured homespun 19th century virtues of pride in family, self-reliance, independence and a trust in Providence, has fallen into ruin. That dusty country road that leads to home, that tells us where we've been and sends us into the future armed and shielded with the knowledge of the past, is in danger of extinction.

Since 1950, according to the Department of Agriculture, the number of family farms has decreased from 5.6 million, averaging 213 acres each, to 2.9 million, averaging 444 acres, in 1978. Thus, in the last two decades, the rate of decrease has been 1 million a decade, and the USDA predicts that there will be only 1.7 millions units remaining in the year 2000.

All this is happening at a time when some blacks are migrating back to the South to cities that offer new opportunities that didn't exist a generation ago. While the opportunities are opening up, small farms are expensive and increasingly hard to find for those who want to return to farming.

"I love this land," said my Great-Aunt Julia Mallett, 70. She waved the towel she used to swat mosquitoes toward the acres of open, pink-blossoming cotton fields stunted by the 100-degree heat.

"I was 8 years old when Papa brought all of us in January 1919 to this land," she said. "I had never seen as much mud and woods in my life. We hated Arkansas then, coming from Benoit, Miss., which was open land. All around here were mudholes and woods. The roads were so muddy, the fields were so muddy, that it took a pair of mules just to pull an empty wagon.

"Papa didn't understand Arkansas rules of farming; he farmed like they did in Mississippi, with large plows rather than the small, single-edged plows that they used here at the time," she said. "Other farmers watched him use that big ole plow and told him he'd never grow anything because he was turning up too much soil.

"Their plows turned up furrows about this deep," she said, indicating about six inches deep with her fingers.

"When harvest came, he had bigger crops than anyone around and farmers started coming to him for advice."

Soon after, Nichols took his profits and invested in other land, paying cash, and bought stock, planted orchards and built up his farm.

"He had one of the first Model T Ford cars of any farmers around, and he could figure in his head faster than I could with pencil and paper, even though he couldn't read or write," Aunt Julia said proudly.

Neither Aunt Julia, nor any of the rest of us, however, can take pride in what has happened to the farm since O. B. Nichols' death in 1954. Around us, we could see the ruins of the Nichols' empire, some 700 acres at his death reduced now to 326. A bare concrete pad remains where the country store stood, providing dry goods and sustenance to the townspeople and eight sharecropper families whose homes no longer exist on great-grandpa's land. Barns have fallen down and cattle herds have vanished, sold to the highest bidder.

Gone are the orchards, the dozens of apple, peach and other trees that bore bushels of fruit once stacked on Grandpa's back porch ready for the canning. Worst of all, the roof has collapsed on Grandpa's fine old farm home, and wasps and mosquitoes reside where a proud man and woman raised a family.

Remembering what once had been, fathers took sons and daughters, aunts took nephews on nature hikes around the old homes that Nichols built for his children on his land, through the family cemetery and into the fields, explaining old ways of farming.They told of family histories and memories of their own childhoods on the farm many years ago in desperate attempts to keep part of that past alive.

"Families used to stay in one place," said Aunt Julia, who lives on the farm and is one of two Nichols children alive. "You'd have aunts and uncles, grandparents and children all living in the same area or on the same farm.

"But these days, when the young ones get to high school, the next thing you look for is for them to take off for the city," said Aunt Julia, who raised three sons now living in Cleveland, two now in Arkansas, a daughter who died young and two grandchildren on the farm. "Young ones don't want to work with their hands and do a hard day's work. These kids won't do what we had to do. We had to pump water for the hogs, stock the barns and chop and pick cotton."

She stopped talking, I started daydreaming and we continued walking toward the compound called "Nichols Park" in city records. I thought about what she said, about the changes I saw even before I reached the farm.

Main Street Gould -- pronounced "Goul," without the "d" -- still has Murphy's Dry Goods, the Post Office and the tiny First State Bank. On a Friday afternoon, it is virtually a ghost town. Some towns have monuments to their war dead or statues of famous heroes; Gould has a huge cotton gin in the center of town on Main Street, dominating all other structures.

In the compound, the laughter and mealtime merriment cannot always hide the sadness amid the ruins and the knowledge that through years of arguments, divisiveness, selfishness and greed following Nichols' death, we have done this largely to ourselves.

Already, relatives are taking one another to court to bust up the estate that was never legally divided between the heirs. On his deathbed, Grandpa Nichols requested that the estate be held together for five years, and thereafter could be divided. He was afraid that his two good-looking sons, known for their penchant for women, liquor and rowdiness, would lose their inheritance. He had kept them out of jail many times by paying off the local sheriff.

"What's going to happen to this estate? We're going to lose it, that's what I think," said cousin Leatrice Nichols Cannon, Nichols' granddaughter, who raised two children on California soil. Leatrice, named after my father's mother Beatrice, stood barefoot in Nichols' family soil and cut thick slabs of ham from a whole hog roasted for the occasion.

Adults kissed cheeks and marveled at the passing years while teenage children or young adults stood idly by, shifting from one foot to the other, suffering from the "My, how you've growns."

"I don't know what I expected when I went down there," said Cousin Harold Edward Moss, 31, a prosperous accountant with a St. Louis firm. We call him Edward.

"I wanted to see the old folks, Great-Aunt Julia and Great-Uncle Booksie," Cousin Edward said. "I hadn't been there in 12 years.

"But I realized as I looked around at the cousins that we didn't even know each other," he said. "After we said 'Hello,' we had nothing to talk about." Cousins tended to hang around the same relatives they had hung around all the other times -- Kansas City people with Kansas City people, St. Louis people with St. Louis people.

"I'm sure what was on everybody's mind was how bad the place was," Cousin Edward said. "I certainly didn't want to bring it up. I get depressed every time I go down there. Grandpa Nichols gave his children so much and all they did was let it crumble. They didn't have to buy it, or make payments. They let it go because they couldn't get along and agree on anything."

Cousin Edward is older than I am, twice married with two children of his own. He remembers the things that I have only heard about: the wood-burning stove in Grandpa Nichols' kitchen, the maple trees, the horses and cows out in the pasture, the big barns and the town hall with the juke box in it that Grandpa Nichols built for the blacks in Gould on his own land during segregated times.

The two-story, wood-frame hall once was the only meeting place for blacks, other than churches, and Grandpa Nichols donated much of the money for one of those. It was a hall used for political speeches, club meetings and high-spirited Saturday night dances. The land where it stands was for years the only park in the area, and today the town of Gould still holds the July 4 picnic at Nichols Park.

I stood inside that old town hall, now reduced to a large, one-story room, and placed my hands on the walls, wanting to feel something of the past, but a stereo blasted disco soul, and a couple of my cousins, their hair in corn rows or braids with beads at the ends, passed a marijuana joint out of the sight of their elders. The feelings I sought were gone.

I found Aunt Julia once again inside the living room of Great Uncle Booksie, her brother, and his wife Naomi. After 14 children, Naomi's skin is still nearly wrinkle free and smooth as a baby's bottom. Aunt Julia was in there with the women, talking about a number of things until I started asking about the past.

"There are just two of us left now, Booksie and I, and I guess the Lord blessed me to stay here awhile," she chuckled. "I got my three score and 10.

"Your great-granddaddy, O. B. Nichols, came to this land in 1918, by himself, to buy some land," she said, leaning back in an old wooden chair as I leaned closer to her, almost at her knee.

"The white man wouldn't sell him no land where we was livin' in Benoit, Miss., and told Daddy that he could sharecrop," she said. "But Daddy said, 'oh, no, if I'm going to farm the land I want to own it.'

"He came here to Arkansas and bought 40 acres and then came back to get us -- six children and my Momma, Mary Stanton, a fair-skin woman with straight brown hair down to her waist," said Aunt Julia.

"People thought she was white, but she wasn't. But her granddaddy on her momma's side and her papa's side was," she said. "You know what used to happen way back then, back in slavery times. On Papa O. B. Nichols' side, his momma was mostly Choctaw Indian, but his father was a colored man.

"My Daddy was a jolly fellow, and oh, he would crack jokes. When he got older, he had snow white hair," said Aunt Julia, dressed in pink pearl earrings, pink print dress and her hair, long and wavy -- reminding me of my grandmother's -- rolled in a long loopin curl to one side and a bun in the back. It's dyed coal black and still styled the way I saw it in 1940s pictures of her.

"Papa was a good Christian and he played the organ by ear, all the old-fashioned songs like "Leaning on the Everlasting Arm," and "Bringing in the Sheaves."

The memories I drew from her that evening made her sad. "Things have kinda gone downhill since Momma and Papa died, and when Papa died on Christmas in 1954, Christmas has never been the same," she said.

Later, when I apologized, she laughed and said: "That's all right. If you feel happy all the time, you don't know how to sympathize with those who feel sorrow. You'll learn that, if you live long enough. If you're happy all the time, how can you really appreciate the good times? You have nothing to compare it to."

Away from the chatter of the women, Great-Uncle Booksie sat beneath a thick-trunked oak tree at least two generations old. A chicken scratched the earth nearby and young children giggled and chased each other or shot baskets at a netless hoop behind him.At times, his gaze was directionless, as if he did not see us at all. I interrupted him, and asked him to remember.

"My brother Gus and I were pretty wild in our younger days, and Papa was afraid that when he died, we would mortgage the land to get out of trouble," said Uncle Booksie, without emotion. Here was the son of the famous father, and I searched his keen features, his sun-darkened skin and his wispy white hair to match the mental pictures I had of O. B. Nichols from other people's memories.

Uncle Booksie leaned closer as he talked, our folding chairs side by side, our knees touching, and he placed his hand on my wrist. I was immobilized, nervous at first only because I had never said anythng to him other than "Hello." Now he was talking to me, not as the child who had seldom visited him but as an adult. And his touch, gentle but firm, reached, somewhere deep inside me in ways I cannot yet explain. I fought to control my thoughts, choked my emotions, to just let go and listen. My Great-Uncle Booksie was touching me for the first time that I can remember.

"Papa thought that by keeping the land altogether, we could avoid one of us messing things up," Uncle Booksie said. "Now, my kids don't want to do any farming. When my head is cold, they will see it [the farm] and try to get something for it and go on back to the city. You know, you have to get older sometimes and mature before you can come to your senses. Life is like that sometimes."

"My papa loved this land and it was close to his heart," Uncle Booksie said, staring off into the distance. "He wanted this land to be passed down from heir to heir, and built on so that it would grow.

"He wanted a place where his heirs would always have a home, where, if times got bad, they could come down here, raise some pigs and some beans and make a go of it," he said. "But now, nobody is ready to take over when we die. Nobody wants the responsibility.

"The houses, the barns, the fences -- nobody wanted to pay to keep them up," Uncle Booksie said. "I could not, I had a family to raise, and the younger ones all left the farms for the better paying jobs in the city.

"Right now, there's a lot of confusion going on, some want to sell, some don't, and those who don't can't afford to buy out those who do," he said. "But the white man around here is waiting to buy -- he got more money than we got, and he's going to divide and conquer. What has happened to all the family farms around here will probably happen to this one." h

"Daddy, what's that?" said Cousin Bernadette, 19, to her father, my uncle Walter, also Nichols' grandson, as Walter led the younger cousins on a tour of Nichols' house.

"Those are blackberries and this is how they grow," Uncle Walter said, pushing open the gate. This was a tour of the Nichols house, the family cemetery and some of the fields that I vaguely remembered from childhood.

The wooden front door creaked as we pulled it open, and directly in front was the blue, silver-lettered sign that read: "What is home without a father?" Peony-flowered wallpaper peeled from cheesecloth attached to wall boards, exposing light from the outside. Sunlight flooded the interior of the house, and Uncle Walter shook his head.

"This reunion is important to remind the younger ones, and to share our experiences with them," he said, pointing out the concrete pad where the store once stood. He stood on the back porch and listened as the crickets chirped during late afternoon. I could imagine that those were the same sounds that O. B. Nichols heard decades ago, as he sat, old and blind, rocking on the porch.

Acres of cotton plants grew in rows before us and I could imagine the pride a farmer feels seeing hard work and sweat turn nothing into something.

About a mile away directly in back of Grandpa Nichols' house is the family cemetery, surrounded by a new wire fence. Nichols is buried there, as are his children, including my grandmother Beatrice. Silently, I wondered if she knew we were there, if she shared our sorrow at the condition of the farm and the concern that some day, this too, might pass away. c

"The old heads sacrificed a lot," Uncle Walter said, the emotion showing in his voice. "If you live in a city, this is the basis for life, period," he said, extending his arms outwards towards the cotton and soybean fields.

"It all starts here," he said. "To attempt to get away from it, you're only fooling yourself. Take the farms from the cities and the cities will dry up."

He stopped, focused his camera and took pictures of the gravestones and markers side by side. One, marked Raymond Nichols, April 3, 1902-April 9, 1975, read: "Your memory is dear to us." My grandmother Beatrice's gravestone said: "Gone but not forgotten."

"You see, they are buried right on the farm" said Uncle Walter, turning and speaking to us all. "So if you get rid of the farm, you get rid of more than just the land."