The weathered grey wood, crumbling rock foundations, broken glass, and creaking floors echo the cries of desperation and the laughter of better times. The wind through the cracked walls whispers to hope and prosperity abandoned. The prairie relics have a story to tell—houses, churches, township meeting halls, railroad stations, barns, granaries, even entire towns left to be reclaimed by the wind and water. Often the cars, trucks, and machinery sit awaiting the return to use. What happened to these communities, these families? What caused their abandonment? Why did no one follow or rebuild? Why do they still stand? These structures are the prairie headstones marking the passage of time, culture, virtues, dreams, aspirations, relationships, love, and faith.
Thirteen miles south of Lone Tree, high up on the hill overlooking a slough filled with ducks, geese, loons, and the occasional swans and Hurons a farmstead once stood. I had many an adventurous experience in those rolling hills. I learned to drive in my grandfather’s Willys Jeep. We would fly down the graveled roads; the dust would fill the Jeep until we could barely see. You had to find the right speed so as you passed the crown of the hills; you could feel weightless as the Jeep fell from the top. It tingled the stomach and often made you pee your pants. It only took fifteen minutes to arrive at the Lone Tree General Store, black licorice, Copenhagen, bold tales of the antics of the locals, and complaints of the lack of rain or a poor crop made a nice respite before the dusty exhilarating trip back to the farm.
Even in 1959, prairie relics dotted the hills. The old one-room country school my mother and uncles attended sat with the door open, surrounded by four-foot-tall grass. My great grandfather’s home was also left behind—a reminder of the “Grapes of Wrath.” Across the county road, the machinery graveyard of broken tractors and combines, with cool cars from the ’30s and 40’s provided a young boy everything needed for a Huckleberry Finn endangerment. I always carried a Daisy bb-gun, an elephant killer that never stopped a gopher or blackbird. Nothing compared to watching grandpa start the cantankerous John Deere “D”—she had thirty-seven ornery horsepower that took a ritual to wake. The throttle had to be in a sweet starting spot, the fuel spigot turned on, and the carburetor choked. Then the dance started; the heavy flywheel had to be at an exact compression position, then back led off slightly, and every ounce of grandpa’s weak force flung onto spinning the flywheel. Black smoke would bellow from the exhaust pipe, and the engine would hiss and moan. The “D” never started on the first dance, often taking a half dozen attempts, but the rhythm was a waltz when she came to life. I could write for weeks about those farmstead days, but this short paragraph is an example of stories uncovered in each of these abandoned stories of the Dakota’s.
In my last blog, “The Dusty Bible,” I told you my grandfather was a poet, and someday I would find some of them—Linda found one I would love to share:
The River of Tears
We’ll sail our ship down the river of tears
Till we come to the ocean of love
Where we’ll leave all of our troubles and worries behind
And our blessing will come from above
The rivers of life are not always straight
The rise they fall, they twist and bend
But if we have faith and trust in the lord
He will see us through to the end
As life goes by like clouds in the sky
Like someone had given them a shove
Through all the years, there will be some tears
But there also will be lots of love
The ocean of love is not far away
And the river of tears is not wide
If we try to forget and learn to forgive
We’ll have nothing to fear or to hide
So we’ll sail our ship down the river of tears
Till we come to the ocean of love
Where we’ll leave all our troubles and worries behind
And our blessings will come from above
A Grandpa’s wise words
You have fed them with the bread of tears; you have made them drink tears by the bowlful.
I have mentioned before; I am not a photographer—I am a storyteller. I tell my short blog stories, typically in as few words as possible, six hundred or less. Hopefully, enough words to make someone thirst for more. The pictures accompany the words and give a sense of place and story.