While Americans feel more divided than ever, a farm field in Yates County delivers a simple, unifying message

The Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and aftermath may seem like a long-gone era as Americans focus on surviving a global pandemic along with, also at times deadly, racial and political turmoil. As in the post-9/11 period, America is hurting. Unlike post-9/11 when people pulled together, today’s crisis has many Americans divided.

One symbol of unity created 19 years ago in a farm field in Yates County continues to flourish, with three letters for all to see: “USA”

Darlene Cronk never expected the USA field of wheat she and her husband Gary first envisioned after 9/11 to take hold — or take off, the way it did. Feeling helpless after 9/11, they just wanted to do something, she said. She recalls tears in her eyes that first Fourth of July after 9/11 when tens of thousands of lights trimming the three letters — each letter the size of a football field — stopped traffic all along Route 54A above the field adjacent to Keuka Lake State Park. Volunteers had come from all over, in blazing hot weather, before that Fourth of July in 2002, to string some 17,000 lights fueled by generators placed in the field, Gary recalled.

“Then all the pictures started,” said Darlene from their home on County House Road near Penn Yan where their walls are filled with photographs, paintings and framed newspaper articles about the USA field.

Ever since that first post-9/11 Fourth of July and throughout all the years since, the field has remained a topic of magazine articles and a focus for photographers, painters and pilots. A friend of Gary’s who served in Afghanistan took a photo of the USA field back with him after being home on leave and presented it to the U.S. Air Base Bagram.

“I’ve heard from soldiers and recruits that they have seen it over there,” Gary said. “It was a little like home for them.”

It all began with Gary scribbling the concept on pieces of paper. Darlene gave the drawings to her sister, Kathy Gernold, a graphic designer who owns KG Graphics in Penn Yan. Her sister thought they were crazy, Darlene said. But Gernold came up with a graphic they could use to lay out the letters on their vacant 10-acre field.

First, they marked the area using utility flags but those proved hard to pinpoint, so they ended up marking the letters with the tire tracks of their pickup truck. Friends at Birkett Mills in Penn Yan came through in a last-minute crunch to get enough wheat seed to fill the colossal letters, each covering a little over an acre of land. The Cronks returned the harvest to Birkett Mills, which turned the wheat into flour.

The Cronks sold the USA farm field in 2011 to Greg and Jeff MacDonald. Greg and his son, Jeff, maintain the patriotic field and plan to keep it that way. There wasn’t a formal agreement, but a verbal one to keep it going, Greg said. They bushhog the area two or three times a year, once always before the Fourth of July. Grass, rather than wheat, now grows in the letters.

It takes work to maintain and they lose farm revenue, said Greg, who produces corn and dry beans. But the field means too much to let it go, he said.