Red Grass and Rock Art

This is the season when many native prairie grasses take on a red or purple color along the stems and out onto the leaves. There are several species that turn red, but big bluestem and little bluestem are two of the most distinctive and two of the native grasses that we have on the Farm.

We’ve got at least four areas around the Farm where we’ve identified native prairie grasses. These two shots are of big bluestem in one of the three warm season paddocks located just to the east of the farmyard. This paddock has maintained a pretty good stand of big bluestem and several other native species. However, compared to last year, the other two paddocks have lost ground as the ubiquitous brome invades.

Dad always called big blue stem “turkey foot” because the seed head has that shape. The photo on the left illustrates the distinctive pattern and also shows yellow pollen clinging to the grass head that’s colored red. The photo on the right shows some other yellow colors in the warm season paddocks. There are several clumps of sunflowers that add to both the biodiversity and the esthetics, even if they’re not particularly good for grazing.

The area of big bluestem located just to the house of our house also did not do well this year. We had hoped that the stand of native grass would grow larger, but again the brome was a successful competitor and limited expansion. On the other hand, the little bluestem that’s part of the landscaping right next to the house did very well. It even expanded out into the area between the rocks that are located back away from the bunches of grass that we planted.

So, what does big bluestem have to do with Native American rock art? There’s a fairly common and distinctive motif that’s called a “turkey track”. The first image is an example on Pilot Rock near Cherokee in northwest Iowa (from a thesis by Quinn Black—complete reference available on request). This is fairly subtle rock art that is outlined for easy identification. But, there are also many examples at the petroglyph site near Jeffers in southwestern Minnesota. The image on the right is taken from a professional archaeology publication (again, the complete reference is available on request) describing a site in southeastern South Dakota. The intent is to demonstrate that the turkey track motif shown on the pottery fragment in the lower right, closely resembles the seed head of big bluestem grass. The “turkey track” motif in Native American rock art is very much like Dad’s “turkey foot” name for big bluestem.

And finally, since the season of the red grass is late summer and early fall, here are a couple of Margaret’s photos from yesterday….the last day of summer. The setting moon is from the early morning and the evening sunset is directly over the east-west Stateline. All of the photos in this post are hers. They always add an important dimension to this blog and I’m grateful for her help.

Posted in Earth Science, Life Science | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Civil War Connections

When the homesteaders came to the Farm, the Civil War had been over for about six years. Although there was no direct involvement by family members who lived here on the Farm, one of the sons (Grandpa George) married the daughter (Grandma Daisy) of a Civil War veteran who had homesteaded a few miles up the Creek. He was part of a group of veterans living near each other along Kanaranzi Creek.

James O. Walker took a soldier’s homestead claim in the spring of 1871, which was the same year that his future son-in-law’s family homesteaded farther south along the Creek. His sister and her husband were also part of the cluster of Civil War veterans who settled in the same neighborhood. Biographies for both men are included in an unpublished manuscript written by Ray Crippen available in the files of the Nobles County Historical Society. Crippen includes some political details about Great-grandpa Walker that are not a part of our family tradition. Walker served one term as county auditor in the late 1870s at a time of confusion and division among Republicans. The veterans’ organization called the Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.) dominated county politics and also played a significant role at the national level.

The Walkers left the farm and moved to town in 1888. That was the year that historians tell us the tumultuous presidential election hinged on the admission of new states, including nearby South Dakota. The power shifted from the Democrats to the Republicans and James Walker was appointed as the postmaster of Ellsworth in 1889. Although we can’t be certain, his appointment may have been related to being a Civil War veteran and role that the G.A.R. played in politics. The politics in that election stretched all the way back to the Civil War and the struggles with Reconstruction after it. Ironically, our family stories about him don’t mention his involvement with the G.A.R., but then we never knew about his term as county auditor until reading about it in the Crippen manuscript.

James Walker was born in county Donegal, Ireland in 1838. The Walkers had moved from Scotland to Northern Ireland in the 1700s in what was probably part of the English plantation system. This photo shows the driveway up to the Walker farmstead near Corkermore when we visited there in 2012. Unfortunately, the cousin living there was hospitalized at the time so we never talked to him. We did, however, find lots of Walker relatives in several cemeteries. That included the family of Mary Walker, James’ wife. Although she had the same last name, her family were fishermen down on the coast of the Donegal peninsula while James came from farmers who lived farther inland. Mary had a very sad and complicated life. Her first husband died at sea when they were immigrating to America. She returned to Ireland for several years, but then immigrated again. James and Mary were married in Hampton, Iowa, in 1870 five years after James returned from the Civil War. My Dad remembers his Grandma Walker as a sad and somewhat bitter old lady. However, my aunt enjoyed her company more than her more severe Grandma Hattie Shurr. Kids who are different ages have different memories. Although Mary was some thirteen years younger than James, she died in 1927, several years before he did.

James immigrated to the Unites States in 1860 and in 1862 he enlisted in the 32nd Iowa Infantry at the age of 24. We don’t know for sure that he was paid to join in place of another man, but that possibility was part of our family tradition and it was apparently a fairly common practice early in the war. The story goes that because he had very good handwriting, he was given courier duties. That suggests that he may have had some interesting experiences, but the family never heard much about any wartime adventures. In any case, his involvement with the G.A.R. was minimal, except perhaps during the election for county auditor. We don’t have any family stories about his direct participation in G.A.R. activities. That matches the impression of the descendant of another Civil War veteran in the county who shared that her great-grandfather “just didn’t care for all the fuss made about the Civil War”. My Dad always said that any of his friends who saw a lot of action in World War II never discussed them much. The men most enthusiastic about veterans’ organizations generally had pretty low-key experiences and that was probably true for the Grand Army of the Republic as well.

But, the G.A.R. was a busy organization. It’s possible that the posse that chased Jesse and Frank James through the county after the Northfield bank robbery in 1876 included a lot of Civil War veterans. Ray Crippen’s manuscript has the following quote: “It is today questionable whether any portion of the United States has an equal portion of veterans of the war among its inhabitant as has Southwestern Minnesota.” The Confederates’ “guerilla attack” in southern Minnesota turned out the Union boys in blue to meet the challenge. The James boys escape through this area is part of another of our family traditions related to the Civil War.

The story goes that several of the older boys were plowing and saw two riders in the distance who they thought might be the James brothers. So the Shurr brothers unhitched the team and mounted up to give chase. These guys would have been teenagers and probably didn’t have any guns as they headed out on a couple of old plow horses. The exciting climax to the family story says that the two strangers rode away, but fired over their shoulders at the pursing farm boys. One of the bullets supposedly lodged in a horse collar and the Shurr brothers gave up on the chase. Unfortunately, the horse collar with the bullet has been misplaced over the years and that has caused some family members to question the whole episode. It does make a good story though!

There is another Civil War connection to Lone Tree Farm, however, that carries more serious implications. This land was once part of the homeland for the Dakota people. During the Civil War in 1862, the Dakota-US War provided an excuse for the removal of the Dakota Nation (and other Native Americans) from a wide area of the upper Midwest. That included the land homesteaded a few years later by the Shurr family.

James Walker spent the last few years of his life moving between his daughters’ homes in Sioux City, Iowa, and the Lone Tree Farm. He loved the poems by Bobby Burns; his grandchildren gave this book to him in 1921. Our Civil War veteran died in 1930 in the farmhouse built by the homesteaders where three more generations of the Shurr family subsequently lived.

Posted in Family History | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

The Rock That Hides

The water level in the Creek after the rain last week was about 1 foot higher than a couple of days before that and 2 feet higher than several weeks ago. It hasn’t been this high since the spring of 2020. But, it’s still not at the same level as the prolonged high water during the record wet years of 2018 and 2019.

The flood last week did impact the electric fences that cross the channel. Although the water is slowly dropping this week, it’s still pretty high. The drought index has improved a lot in our immediate area. However, that doesn’t mean that the drought is “over”. Things will continue to change. And, one of the things that changes is the view of a big boulder in the main Creek channel.

 This is what the high water looked like last week. Earlier this summer the rock hid in tall green grass that was growing in front of it. But, the grazing took down that grass cover so the rock was visible again. Then the rains hit and the Creek rose, but it didn’t cover the boulder. The closer shot on the right was taken yesterday. The high-water line is marked by the top of the white area, which is probably scum left by the flood. Also, there’s a distinctive knob on the top of the rock that we’ll see again in earlier photos when the Creek bank was much closer to the boulder.

This is what the rock looked like last year. You can really see that distinctive top and the high channel bank behind it has some vegetation, even though there’s no grass in front of the rock like there was this year. There’s a pretty wide gap between the top of the rock and the edge of the bank. The 2019 photo on the right is taken from a different angle to show where the rock is relative to the high bank. The gap is smaller and the bank is closer. But not too many years before that, the rock was completely hidden because the whole thing was buried in the bank. The years of high water have totally exposed the rock that hides.  

In 2017 the bank was close enough so that soil slumping off the steep slope could partially cover the rock. Gravity was doing its job. The 2016 photo on the right shows the rock only barely immerging from the dirt. You can’t see the distinctive knob on top at all. It’s hard for the rock to stay hidden because everything is dynamic. The grass grows but then is grazed down. The water levels come up but then drop back down. Even the dirt in the channel bank seems to conspire to expose the rock that tries to hide. The channel bank erosion described in a post last summer makes it look like the rock is moving. But, it’s just hiding and everything else is moving.

In addition to the rock that hides, there are rocks along the Creek that actually do move. During spring floods ice rafts will carry boulders from upstream. They probably erode out of a high bank and drop onto the ice raft to take a ride. Then when the ice melts the rock is left in a new location. That’s most likely the story for the rock on the left; the white object on it is a jackknife for scale. The rock that hides is located near where we found the boulder that became Brother Bob’s headstone. It’s another example of a rock that moved. 

There’s also another rock hiding in the stream sediments just around the bend from the one described in this post. The location is close to where we think the homesteaders’ dugout was located. It’s not visible these days, but I remember that it wasn’t hiding in 1970. There are some old photos showing it back in the 1940s, I think. Someday that hidden rock will reemerge as the channel erodes over to that rock’s hiding place.

Posted in Earth Science, Family History | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Sustainable Agriculture

The first four generations of our farming history were reviewed in a post back in July, but this current one will concentrate on just the last two generations. The “environment” was not really a factor in the subsistence farming done by the early homesteaders; they were just trying to survive. And, it wasn’t a very important aspect of the bonanza farming done by the children of the homesteaders in the next generation; they were busy trying to make money.

During the next two generations (running from about 1940 to 2020), there was a growing awareness about the significance of environmental concerns on our farm. Out in the wider world, two stereotypes of farming were emerging. Commodity agriculture is generally associated with corporations running huge, extractive operations that usually make good money, but also are hard on the environment and disruptive for existing farm neighborhoods. Organic farming is an alternative approach visualized as small farms that are only marginally economic, but have minimal environmental impacts and tend to foster local communities. However, there is also an emerging middle way that’s being called “sustainable agriculture”. Nether of the two stereotypes applies directly to our farm or to those around us, but sustainable agriculture may be a useful business model.

1978 air photo

About half of our farm has uplands of wind-blown silt covering glacial deposits. This ground is well suited for row crops, mainly corn and beans. The other half of the farm is on the flat floodplain of stream deposits along Kanaranzi Creek. This pastureland has had a tendency to flood, so row crops don’t do so well. But, it’s great for grazing; in fact you can see a bunch of cattle in the middle ground of this photo, which is a view to the northwest. The first farm visible in the background is no longer there and that whole farmyard has now been converted to row-crop. Many of the structures in our farmyard have also been removed (like the barn, windmill, silo and shed near the corn cribs).

Between about 1940 and 1980, a lot of the technical advice came from state and federal agencies. For example, we have a document that is a five-year crop rotation plan dated 1945. It came from the US Department of Agriculture, specifically the Soil Conservation Service (now called the Natural Resources Conservation Service, a.k.a. NRCS). In the late 1940s, Dad also participated in a federal program to grow seed for brome grass. In those days brome was touted as an important tool in soil conservation because the extensive root system cuts down on erosion. Ironically, now the folks involved in prairie reconstruction hate brome as a non-native, invasive species. Best management practices may change over time, but brome is still great forage in our creek pasture.

1983 air photo

This view to the northeast shows the farmyard buildings more clearly. The pens around the two metal sheds are left over from the time when my brother and I raised sheep. The transition from one generation to the next was complicated when Bob was killed in action in Viet Nam. By the time that this photo was taken, Dad was beginning to relay more on younger neighbors as renters. Those renters did do some innovative things like minimum tillage and rotational grazing. But, the state and federal agencies progressively provided less technical help and emphasized more programs for direct payments that encouraged row-crop development over grassland pastures. At the same time, a lot of the technical information on agrochemicals and genetics was coming directly from the companies that produced the products.

2010 air photo

In this view to the northeast, you can again see cattle out in paddocks designed for rotational grazing and off in the upper right corner there are two fields of row crops set up for two-year rotation. The farmyard has been simplified with the removal of more old buildings; our new house, which was built about ten years earlier, has been added to the picture. By this time most of the technical information was provided to operators by “agronomists” who worked for the large agribusiness corporations that made fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and pharmaceuticals. However, there was an emerging alternative source of information. Nonprofit organizations began advocating for sustainable agricultural practices and several small companies were busy with educating operators about alternatives to the prevailing business model of commodity agriculture. The alternative approaches emphasize profit over production and incorporate environment concerns into the best management practices. The “recipe” for this alternative, sustainable agriculture model could be summarized as cash, conservation, and community. A farming operation must be economically viable, must have minimal adverse effects on the environment, and must foster healthy rural communities. This set of three characteristics is basically the same as the three mandates employed by urban “B-corporations”: profit, planet, and people. Wikipedia describes these b-corps as companies certified for responsible environmental and social performance.

2017 air photo

This most recent view back to the northwest shows basically the same farmyard setup, but there are some more subtle changes. In the lower right corner you can see two of the paddocks seeded to warm season grasses and the black dirt “road” marks the route of the pipeline that now brings in rural water for the cattle. So, these changes are moving the operation in the direction of a “grass farm”. In the last couple of years, sustainable agriculture has picked up some new emphasis and undergone some clear shifts in meaning. Cover crops and soil health have been part of our operation for several years, but now sustainable ag, seems to be morphing into something new called ”regenerative agriculture”.

During the COVID year of 2020, two companies in particular have pushed the idea of regenerative ag. They’re basically responding to a perceived market demand for products beyond just organic. One company kicked off a social media campaign with a documentary that featured some of the original people who encouraged sustainable ag. However, that company is now mainly emphasizing advocacy and education; there’s not many specifics for our farm.  The second company includes old-guard environmental nonprofits and big multinational food corporations. They’re trying to develop a certification process that will lead to marketing environmental services credits similar to the more established carbon credits. It’s an interesting concept, but their initial demonstration farms aren’t near us. And, they don’t have anything developed yet that we can incorporate into our operation.

So, what sustainable ag practices are we doing on this family farm? Mostly we’re following the lead of our renters and doing things that the previous generation did. We know that these things work: crop rotation, minimum tillage, and rotational grazing that integrates livestock into the operation. We’re also encouraging new approaches like cover crops and soil health. This translates to using cattle as “combines” to harvest the grass crop, increasing the biodiversity in the paddocks, and minimizing expensive inputs like agrichemicals and pharmaceuticals. The idea is to emphasize profits over production because it’s better to sign the back of a check for deposit than the front of the check paying for inputs.

Best management practices in agriculture are like nutrition and health care guidelines: as the science evolves, the guidelines and practices change. A friend who is a linguist teaching the Dakota language recently taught me the word hdihunni which means to go and come back around again. That’s the way our land management is working out. We’re using old ideas, but adding some new twists that are compatible with the things that we know have worked in the past.

 Earlier this month I gave a talk at Augustana University’s Dakota Conference on sustainable agriculture as it’s been used on our family farm and that presentation forms the basis for this post. If you want some specifics on the two new companies that are pushing for regenerative agriculture, please use the “Reply” section below to post your questions.

Posted in Farm History | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

The Hunt for More Homesteaders’ Art

The post back in May describing Great-grandma Hattie Shurr’s artwork was followed up by one in July that featured more of her pictures. That second post also includes paintings done by two sisters-in-law in Murray County. This current post is a follow-up on that follow-up. It has a couple more paintings that might be Hattie’s and it expands the list of rural women who produced art in Rock County. Family members have shared stories and pictures produced by two women who lived in Beaver Creek Township in the early twentieth century.

 Do YOU know of any other families who had artistic homesteading ancestors? Do YOU have a great-grandma or a grandma who lived between 1880 and 1920 and painted? Maybe there are more women to be “discovered” than just these five?

Like all of her artwork, Hattie’s pieces aren’t signed or dated. We rely on family traditions and memories to identify her as the artist. Hattie may have produced these two paintings, but we’re not certain. The dark one on the left is a canvas with a house that looks like it might be one her scenes from upstate New York. The painting of pine trees on the right also looks like a New York landscape. But in addition, it has a sticker on the back advertising art supplies. That label is the same as one on a painting that we know she did. So there are some other ways, beyond just family memories, that can be used to identify the artist.

Olla Dunn was born in a sod house in 1873, the first white child born in Beaver Creek Township. She did the charcoal drawing of the mountain scene on the left. Olla’s mother was born in the Green Mountains of Vermont so this landscape may have been a tribute to her mother’s origins. Winnie (Argo) Dunn was Olla’s sister-in-law and was born in 1888. Winnie did sign some of her work including the black and white picture of kittens on the right. In addition, she did colorful still lifes and landscapes. These two sisters-in-law shared an interest in art just like the two sister-in-laws in Murray County. Is there a pattern emerging here? Did rural women provide support for each other in activities that we don’t usually associate with life on the farm?

Winnie did sign the still life on the left, but the one on the right is unsigned. So we have to rely on the collective family memory to attribute that one to her. There’s a great family tradition that says nobody in the town of Hills, MN, was certain about the color of the walls in Winnie’s house because they were covered by paintings. Like Hattie Shurr, Winnie Dunn was a prolific artist. But, there’s another similarity between Hattie and Winnie and that similarity relates to the landscapes that they produced.

Winnie painted both of these bright pieces, but she didn’t sign either one. Although the pictures share a mountain motif with Hattie’s work, they couldn’t be more different. Winnie’s colorful renditions are a startling contrast to Hattie’s more dark and brooding scenery. The differences may be due to their personalities or even the medium that they worked with. But, these two women did share one important attribute: they didn’t paint the landscape around them. It was art inspired by something other than by looking out the window. One of Winnie’s grandchildren shared a family story about her trips to Lake Superior. She suffered from severe hay fever, so in August she would rent an apartment on the North Shore and spent the time painting. But, she didn’t paint the lakeshore! Like Hattie, Winnie took inspiration from her memories and imagination. Maybe there’s another pattern here?

If you know of a rural family that included an artist who worked between about 1880 and 1920, please let me know in the comments section at the bottom of this page. The count is currently five women in two counties. If you’re interested in seeing updates on this search for rural woman artists, please follow this blog. You can do that by clicking the bar that appears in the lower right when you scroll up.  

Thanks to the family of Winnie (Argo) Dunn and Olla Dunn who shared stories as well as the artwork of these two ladies from Rock County. It’s the policy of this blog to protect the privacy of people who are still alive by not giving their names. As always, Margaret’s photography is an integral part of this post

Posted in Family History | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Midsummer Birds

At midsummer we’re seeing some of the same birds that we saw last spring. But, we’re also seeing some that we haven’t seen since last year at about this time. And, we’re seeing one that we haven’t seen in a long time….years, in fact.

Both of us remember seeing red-headed woodpeckers around our family farms when we were growing up in the 1950s and 1960s. But after we moved back here to Lone Tree Farm around 2000, we don’t recall seeing these guys. Lately, however, we’ve seen several pairs. Anybody else remember seeing them as kids, not seeing them after that, and now seeing them more often? We wonder if they’ve been in decline, but are now making a comeback? Or maybe it’s just a local situation confined to Lone Tree Farm?

We saw several of these flycatchers last year at about this time, but weren’t sure what they were called. Margaret put out the question on Face Book and got several suggestions back. The consensus identification was flycatcher; we hadn’t even heard of that bird. Sometimes Face Book does provide helpful information rather than just raising our blood pressure! We’re seeing these flycatchers around the yard again this year. Wonder if they’re late arrivals or just more shy early in the season. We’ve also got some birds around that we haven’t seen since last spring. After that lapse we’re now seeing humming birds dance around the available flowers again and the geese seem to be flying up the creek valley like they usually do in the spring.

Turkey vultures or buzzards? It doesn’t matter what you call them, these are not pretty birds. But, they do an important job because Nature needs scavengers like these to clean up “degrading biological material”. That includes the carcasses stacked outside hog barns (waiting for the rendering truck to pick them up) or a sick calf that has died in the pasture. Our buzzards have a reputation for roosting at night on the water tower in the town just downstream from the farm. Then in the morning the crowd takes off to do the daily cleanup chores. They all return at night and the next morning the routine starts all over.

The herons are back again. Although it’s hard to catch them flying in a photo, we do hear them croaking down at the Creek beyond our back yard. That’s a different location for them than in other years. For the past several summer seasons they’ve been hanging out in the abandoned channel meander called an oxbow. This posing bird is from a post that describes animals in the oxbow. One of the things that herons probably eat is cricket frogs. The inset shows a cricket frog in a post from last year when there still was water in the oxbow.

But, this year there’s a drought and the pond and wetland in the oxbow have totally dried up. So, the herons seem to be standing around in the water closer to our house. Maybe the cricket frogs have moved to a new wet location? I suspected that and have been listening for their unique “croak”, but haven’t heard their “rock music”. Their call is supposed to sound like two rocks clicking together. That’s the dinner bell for herons.

But, the story of the herons and cricket frogs has an additional twist this summer. Last month our Colorado family visited the Farm they way they often do in July. Our nine-year old granddaughter tried to call the cricket frogs because she remembered how to do that from several years ago. I was surprised that she tried the rock banging to call them and sorta grateful that they didn’t answer back any better for her than had for me. Seems like the herons have to eat something other than cricket frogs in this dry, drought year.

Thanks to Margaret for putting together these collages.

Posted in Life Science | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Mourning the Loss of a Tree

Early in the evening last Thursday, a thunderstorm blew through….literally. You could see the gust front on the National Weather Service radar before the rain in the main cell even got to us. It dropped about a half inch that we’re grateful to have, but it also damaged a big old ash tree just to the northeast of our house.  

You can see that the windfall didn’t really threaten the house and didn’t even block the driveway. We’re grateful for that too. However, the huge limb that got torn off did knock down some braches from the younger hackberry tree at the end of the driveway. We really don’t know how much damage there is on the hackberry. Although the main trunk of the old ash tree still has a couple large branches sticking up high, the windfall basically ripped into the major part of the trunk. The tree is doomed.

Several years ago when we had some trimming done, we were warned that the old matriarch was at risk. That’s her without any spring leaves yet, looming above and beyond the truck. Now, we’ll have to have the whole thing taken down. We’ll get this equipment out again to work on the upper part that’s still standing. But it’s obvious looking into the broken heart of the trunk, that it’ll be hard for the tree to survive.

When the equipment was here earlier, there was another big ash tree removed. The tree with the most recent damage is just barely visible on the right side of the first photo. The weird-shaped companion that was removed first is more in the center of the picture. Together the two huge old ash trees stood guard on either side of the gate and sidewalk that lead to the “Little House”. Now, only a couple of pieces of the sidewalk will be all that remains to mark the memory.

There are lots of memories associated with the Little House. It was originally part of the homesteaders’ house, but was removed and moved down to this ash grove in 1912. In 1940 Grandpa George and Dad refurbished it so the newlyweds could move onto the farm. In the last few years of her life, Mom had a black and white photo showing her sitting on the front step with a car nearby. She said that it was comforting to look at that picture because it reminded her of her first house, first car, and first job. The folks lived there about three years and then there was a progression of three or four young families that started out there while the fathers worked as hired men. The Little House was abandoned for several decades and then taken down as a part of the cleanup before we built our house.

There’s not much left of the original ash grove and windbreak. The tree shown here at the end of the trail is one of the originals, about the same vintage as the two guarding the gate to the Little House. It has a split in the main trunk and is probably also toward the end of it’s life. Although most of the original ash trees are dying out, there’s a new generation of hackberry trees coming on. And, the most recent additions to the succession of species are the fast-growing mulberry trees. The larger tree on the right is one of the hackberries and the smaller tree on the left is a mulberry. The littlest tree right in the middle between those two, is a young ash tree. So even though the Little House is gone and the newer trees are taking over, there still are juvenile ash trees growing that are probably related to matriarch that just blew down. Maybe someday there will still be ash trees preserving the memory of the Little House and the families that lived there.

Posted in Family History, Farm History | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Images of the Lone Tree

The Lone Tree that gave this Farm its name was supposedly a landmark for travelers and possibly a boundary marker between Native American territories. Located about a quarter mile north of the state line between Minnesota and Iowa, it probably was a useful way for people to locate themselves back before global positioning systems (GPS) were even dreamed of. And, it’s provided inspiration for a variety of art over six generations.

Hattie Shurr homesteaded the Farm and did a large number of paintings, including this one of the Lone Tree. The tree died and fell down in the early 1930s and she passed away in 1928, so this oil painting was part of her work in the first couple decades of the twentieth century. The perspective is looking south from a position on the north side of the Creek. The old photograph on the right was taken from that same location and may have provided the image that she worked from.

Both of these paintings were based on photographs. The oil painting on the left was done by Agatha Shurr who was Hattie’s granddaughter. Aggie lived in North Dakota, but she did visit the Farm and took a photo of two of Hattie’s great-great grandchildren playing in the Creek very near where the Lone Tree once stood. The watercolor on the right was done by our friend in St. Cloud, MN, who was a refugee from Viet Nam in the 1970s. He worked from a black and white photograph looking off to the west of the Lone Tree’s location.

I did this pen and ink drawing for my parents in 1971 and I’m Hattie’s great-grandson. The photograph on the right is of the only remaining cottonwood tree on the Farm. It’s located in about the same place as where the person stood taking the old photo that Hattie used for her oil painting. The view is to the west; the Lone Tree stood just to the left this living tree. We like to think that this is the offspring of the original Lone Tree. Margaret took this photograph as well as all of the others in this post.

Our two granddaughters did these pictures before they were ten years old. They are Hattie’s great-great-great granddaughters and have continued the family tradition of making images of the Lone Tree. Both of the girls worked from some of the pictures shown earlier in this post, using colored pencils and charcoal. And, both of these images obviously show the tree after it has died because there are no leaves. But, both of these two girls are still very much alive and so is Hattie’s heritage of doing art along Kanaranzi Creek.

Here’s a word of explanation about people’s names. This blog never uses the names of folks who are still alive because of the risks associated with digital “exposure”. In contrast, the names of people who have passed away are used so that there’s a potential for recovery in genealogical searches.

Posted in Family History | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Four Generations on the Farm

There were people living here long before our family farm was established. The homesteaders encountered Dakota Indians from the north and west who routinely traveled along the Creek. There are also local landmarks that suggest there were Native Americans in the area from the south and east. For example, “Kanaranzi” translates to “place where the Kansa were killed”. The Kansa once lived a long way down into Iowa and Missouri, but this incident along the Creek happened well before our family landed in southwest Minnesota.

My great-grandparents, John and Hattie, homesteaded here in 1871 and built this house in 1874. We think that this is John and Hattie, but aren’t certain which baby is on Hattie’s lap. It was a subsistence farming operation that produced crops and livestock and babies. There were four girls and five boys; a subsistence farm in the late 1800s needed big families to do the work. Human muscles and animal muscles did all of the work and used locally-produced fuel. They grew or made what they needed and anything that was left over was sold locally. Lone Tree Farm wasn’t large enough to support the grown children and their families, so two of the sons moved to North Dakota to raise wheat. Son George stayed on the Farm.

My grandparents, George and Daisy, were married in 1904 a year after his homesteading parents retired. They’re shown here with the house that was remolded in 1912. The family was small, one girl and one boy, but the farming operation expanded using new machinery and tapping into distant markets. George shipped livestock by rail to Chicago and invested in land near his brothers in North Dakota as well as near the home place. The operation was probably based on the extractive approach that characterized “bonanza” farming in the late 1800s and early 1900s. However, most of land was lost when the expanded operation collapsed during the drought years of the Great Depression. Son John was left to clean up the debts.

My parents, John and Bernita, were married in 1940 and Dad was thrust into the management role when Grandpa George died suddenly in 1943 while shelling corn. The folks lived in the same farmhouse shown in this painting done by a friend in 1978. Again, the family was small, two boys, but the excesses of the previous generation required that the ambitious operation be cut back to the original farm site. Following World War II, government programs did provide some technical expertise and conservation programs. For example, Dad used a five-year crop rotation that included both small grain and hay. However, markets became more dominated by large companies and industrial farming based on expanded use of agrichemicals was on the rise. Polluted water and depleted soil started to become problems.

The transfer of the farming operation to my generation was complicated by the Viet Nam War. My brother who was educated as a range manager and who was supposed to take over the Farm was killed in action in 1970. Dad continued managing the operation, but rented the pasture and crop ground to younger neighbors, as he got older. The renters generally followed the “progressive conventional” practices that relied on artificial fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, and seed genetics. Agronomists hired by agribusiness provided a lot of the technical assistance and incentive programs.

Margaret and I returned to live on the Farm in 1998. We built our own house and my parents continued to live in the original farmhouse through their eighties. When people asked Dad if he had lived on the farm all of his life, he always joked, “Not yet”. After they died in 2014, the old house has fallen into disrepair and is now mainly used to store artifacts and buffalo bones. Although I had no training or experience in agriculture, our renters did do some minimum tillage and initiated rotational grazing. These practices and others have become part of an emerging approach to farming that we are very interested in: sustainable agriculture. It’s not the small-scale alternative called organic farming and it’s not the extractive industrial model of corporate agribusiness. Sustainable agriculture is a “middle way” which recognizes that a successful farming operation not only depends on economic viability, but also on environmental responsibility and a strong neighborhood community.

This post is based in part on a talk that will be given at Augustana University’s Dakota Conference in early August. The theme of the conference is “Farming and Ranching and Sustainability on the Northern Plains”. Maybe some future post will look at how sustainable agriculture might be used on Lone Tree Farm.

Posted in Family History | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

The Hunt for Art Treasures

Several months ago I did a post on Great-grandma Hattie Shurr who homesteaded here on the Farm. After retirement around 1900 she had more free time and started to paint. She shared many of those pictures with friends and family, but none of these works of art are signed or dated. It’s mainly family tradition that preserves the memory. Most of the pictures are landscapes in oil, watercolors, and pastels and most of the landscapes have trees and buildings. That leads to speculation that she was probably recalling her upbringing in upstate New York, rather than painting the prairie that she lived in.

After putting that post together, we figured out that she also did do this seascape because the fiberboard label on the back matches one her other paintings. It’s a real contrast to her other landscapes. AND, in response to the post two cousins told us that they each had two of Hattie’s pictures. The Montana cousin even sent photos of his two and one of them clearly uses the wooded landscape motif.

However, the other painting is of a pair of lions. His nicely framed picture is in better shape than our slightly damaged version. But, both show the same sleeping lioness “guarded by her ever-vigilant male companion”. There are some differences, however. The damaged painting has a gray background with a dark rock in the lower left corner. The framed one has a brown background and no rock in the corner.

Although the lions are a departure from Hattie’s preference for landscapes, they’re not the only animals that she painted. I’ve never cared for either of these two pictures because they seem to be flat and lack the depth of her landscapes….kind of a “Grandma Moses” primitive feel. But, family tradition says that Hattie painted these animals as well as lots of landscapes. The count on her landscapes is now up to more than a dozen and the hunt goes on.

Hattie Shurr was not the only woman creating art just after the turn of the twentieth century. The bucolic scene on the left was painted by Lora Adams (my Grandma Bell) at about the time that she married in 1915. The darker painting on the right was done by her future sister-in-law, Olive Bertleson, around the same time. Lora was 20 years old and Olive was in her late teens. So, Lora and Olive were much younger than Hattie who probably didn’t start to paint until she was in her 60s and 70s. And, the two younger woman didn’t live near Lone Tree Farm; they lived on the banks of Plum Creek near Walnut Grove, Minnesota.

So, why were these women of different ages in three separate families doing art? Was it the “genteel” thing for a lady to do back at the beginning of the twentieth century? Or, maybe it was an activity that kept them out of trouble during this time when the suffragettes were raising hell? Or, maybe it was an uncontrolled opportunity for self-expression that was more socially acceptable than agitating for the vote?

Here’s another question related to woman doing art at this time: are there other families that have these treasures preserved but lost in attics and closets? Those paintings are probably also unsigned and undated and their origin is probably only known because the family traditions remember who did the art. It would be really cool if the hunt for these art treasures expanded out beyond the three families described in this post! And, what if there were enough of these discoveries that could be shared and displayed in local museums or history centers or art galleries? That would be real grass roots affirmation of the historical significance of the art created by these women.

Once again Margaret, the woman who I live with, deserves thanks for the photographs and for the organization that helped to preserve Great-grandma Hattie’s artistic legacy.

Posted in Family History | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments