Weeds: The old homesteads

For some years, I’ve had a part time job with the Minnesota Crop Improvement Association. Most of what I do is inspect fields that are producing various types of seed. This time of year, I look at around 60 soybean fields. It’s a lot of walking, followed by writing reports.

I’ve walked hundreds of fields in about all the counties around us. I’m a farmer, so this is interesting work. Farmers love seeing what other farmers do. I get to observe all sorts of soil types, weed populations, field lay outs, etc. I also walk around, near, and through the building sites. A lot of dogs have barked at me.

There are all types of farm sites as there are all types of farmers. There are places that look like corporate campuses with nary a blade of grass out of place. Then there are places that feel like you’ve driven into the first chapter of The Grapes of Wrath, and the Joads should be loading up the truck.

And there are the places that aren’t places anymore. By that, I mean abandoned farm sites. Places that don’t show up in plat books anymore. You’d be trespassing if you walk around there. It’s one of the perks of my job.

In some of these old farm sites, a farmer might still be using the outbuildings. Maybe the house has been left to the elements. Sometimes, the house is gone, and you have to look around to figure where it used to be. I found one this week that is four bins that are being used, a stately old silo not being used, and one giant oak tree, all that remains of the grove.

Occasionally, all that is left of a place is a single old shed or barn standing alone out in a field, crops growing up to it on four sides. To me, these always seem like the person who just doesn’t know to go home at the end of a party. Perhaps it is being saved out of respect for the legacy of the barn. Or maybe it’s respect for the cost of knocking down one of these stone/block/cement beasts.

The best ones are the farm places that look like someone just turned out the lights and left. Years ago, maybe decades ago. Often these are along a creek or into a woods that make them easy to farm around. When I walk into what-was-the-yard, sometimes I think the place might just be a lawn mower and a paint job away from coming to life. Other times, every building is collapsed into itself. All the boards are weathered gray, box elder trees might even be growing out of the cellar.

It’s surprising how often there’s a stack of sloughed-over hay bales in the barn. Buckets, tools, machinery parts are sometimes neatly ordered against a wall. Other times, they’re just strewn about. You can make out pens for animals. Older barns look miniature compared to modern day operations. You can bang your head pretty easy poking around in them.

Outside in the weeds, you find things like grinding wheels and corn shellers. The oldest manure spreaders and wagons have wood sides that are streaked with green mildew, or else simply rotted. “Newer” spreaders and wagons have steel sides that are rusted. There are various types of corn cribs. Once in a while you find tucked in the trees one of the earliest steel bins, so small they don’t even hold what a good-sized grain cart does today. Everything has been painted darker by Time. Time is a subtle, persistent artist. Time took over for humans at some point in the past, and now has painted everything in this landscape.

Up by the house, sometimes doors and windows got boarded up after being left “peopleless.” “Peopleless” is the other side of “homeless,” not as tragic but still sort of sad. More often the doors and windows were simply shut. Many have been opened by the aforementioned Time. Doors hang on hinges only so many years. Windows might have been broken by a branch, a neighbor kid with a rock, or just the sagging foundation.

You look in; sometimes there’s nothing but chipped paint and faded flowered wallpaper. Other times, there are chairs and cabinets that someone was excited to have when they were new once. There might be an oil furnace or wood stove that made this place a shelter from winter chill.

Once in a while, I find flowers, maybe tiger lilies shouting out of the brush. I’ve seen grand old peonies in a sunny opening, and delicate lilies-of-the-valley hugging a home’s foundation. There are parts and pieces of teeter totters and tree houses that tell of children who lived there.

That’s the thing; you start to imagine the family that called this the “home place.” Are some of them still living? Do they drive by, maybe even walk into the place and look around, remembering?

In these places that aren’t places any more, there must have been joyous days. Babies must have come home, perhaps were even born here. There must have been hard days; maybe there are sites of tragedies that I unknowingly walk by. Branches brush against old buildings, and doors hang loose. When a wind is blowing, there are creaks and scrapes and groans that seem to whisper at stories that I can’t make out.

Nothing will last forever. But these farm places had histories that were short, even by America’s standards. Only a couple generations spent their lives here. Are these places a failure? I’m sure at some point in the past, the farmer had in mind that unknown descendants would be there, working, raising families. Brought back from the past, would that farmer look at the busted windows and fallen-in granary and say he failed?

It’s hard to know the answer to that as I look on a dilapidated barn. Passing the farm on meant a lot to some farmers. Other farmers thought it most important to get their children schooling, and maybe even encouraged them to leave the farm.

Perhaps the farmer who was here has great-grandchildren who all have successful lives and careers in the Cities. Those descendants might even know vaguely that their family came from out here once. They probably don’t know that their great-grandmother planted tiger lilies.

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