Lone Trees

Lone Tree Farm was named for a huge old cottonwood tree that originally stood along Knanranzi Creek just beyond the present-day farmyard. Although it was been gone for almost a century there still are some isolated trees that carry on the tradition.

This ash tree is the lone survivor of a stand of trees that used to occupy the abandoned meander near the bridge. There were mainly willows and box elder trees in the stand, but the ash tree that remains now is pretty much alone. It does have a significant new purpose, however: it holds a bolt that serves as an elevation datum for the periodic U.S. Geological surveys of water levels in the Creek. Originally, the elevation marker was part of the previous old bridge, but the “permanent” datum was surveyed into the marker bolt on the ash tree. Bridges come and go, but the tree has preserved the elevation during those transitions. And, like the willows and box elders that used to be the ash tree’s neighbors in the abandoned channel meander, it’ll probably eventually disappear.

This elm tree was safely isolated in the pasture while the rest of the elms on the Farm and throughout the countryside all succumbed to Dutch elm disease. It was probably saved by its location. The canopy has that distinctive mushroom shape of an elm tree, in contrast to the box elder tree on the far horizon. That tree silhouetted against the sky along with the bushes around it’s base has been called the “Chicken Tree” by our grandkids because when the leaves are on it, it looks like a chicken with big cartoon boots. Not so much this time of year, however. The photo on the right shows a line of elm trees that were planted along the south property line of the original tree claim. All of those elms were wiped out and Dad spent most of the 1970s and 1980s turning all of that wood into fuel for their wood-burning stove. That project also probably helped him work through the loss of my brother Bob. I’m thinking about Dad today because he was half Irish and his birthday was on St. Patrick’s Day.

Apple tree isolated in the “wild’ far from the farmyard.

This apple tree is also a survivor and is located along a north property line marked by the fence. It’s tempting to think that maybe the tree is growing out here in the “wild” away from the farmyard because someone paused fieldwork to have lunch that included an apple. Fieldwork has changed a lot, however. The lunchtime planting of an apple core was probably back when horses or small tractors were used. Now with the big field equipment at work, trees get in the way. So, this poor old tree has been trimmed way back. The limbs piled on the other side of the fence were taken from where the circular scars mark the tree trunk. It’s ironic that there’s a little thin frost clinging to the top of this threatened apple tree, while on the long-dead elms along a different property line there’s a total covering of thick white frost.

Cottonwood matriarch and her plum thicket protectors.

This big old cottonwood tree may be a descendant of the original Lone Tree. At least it’s growing very near where we believe the original cottonwood was located. This sole-surviving offspring of the namesake tree is now the only cottonwood left on the whole Farm. I tried to transplant some of the little ones that took root near this old survivor, but the flooding in the Creek wiped them all out. As the steep stream bank has eroded back over the last couple of years, this senior citizen may be threatened with collapsing into the channel. However, there were plum thickets that helped stabilize the Creek bank and pushed the main area erosion farther downstream. The modest little wild plum trees have basically provided protection for the much larger matriarch. The plum trees have fallen into the channel and have floated away, but the grand old cottonwood lady still is standing. Maybe some day there will be seedlings that survive to continue the cottonwood tradition that started with the original Lone Tree.

There’s recent research that suggests the trees in large forests may communicate and support each other through their root systems. I’ve speculated about the implications of these ideas for trees on the prairie in this post. But if trees really do share with each other in community settings, then who do these lone trees communicate with in their isolated locations? Also, the research emphasizes relationships among trees of the same species. Is there mutual aid and support (other than protective shading and bank stabilization) going on through the roots systems of the lonely big cottonwood and the cluster of little wild plum trees?

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Farmyard Changes

The farmyard has changed in response to fluctuations in row crop and livestock markets and to the inescapable cycles of wet and dry weather. But, there have also been modifications to accommodate family generational changes. We’ve got a set of four air photos that illustrate a few of those progressive changes.

1978 view to the northwest

Some of the buildings described in recent posts are visible in this shot: the Big Barn that has been torn down and burned, the Windmill (marked with an arrow), the two Metal Sheds, and the Silo with nearby Hog House and Corn Cribs that have all been demolished. There’s also a pretty good view of the “Greats’ House” built by the homesteading ancestors. I plan to eventually share some old-time photos on the ground that show the house from several different perspectives when the trees were all much smaller. Off in the distance you can see cattle grazing in the Creek pasture and a nearby farmstead that has been totally removed so that the site is now part of a row-crop field. They’re also marked with arrows.

1983 view to the northeast

This perspective gives an even better view of the Big Barn, Hen House, the two Metal Sheds, and the Silo-Hog House-Corn Crib complex. But, there are also some things marked with gray arrows that haven’t been described. The small granary has been removed; those tiny white boxes are beehives (the man who owned the bees paid his “rent” with a case of honey); and the Little House is just peeking out from the trees. The Little House was used by several cycles of hired men and their families and it was my parents’ first home as a newly married couple. The pens that show up around the Metal Shed and Hog Barn reflect the sheep operation that had been part of the farmyard in the two previous decades.

Raising sheep was a project that both brother Bob and I did through high school in the 1950s and 1960s. Dad fed cattle, but the sheep were mainly our responsibility. It helped pay for college and helped us both make our career decisions. I left the farm to be a geologist, but Bob’s training and experience were aimed at bringing him back after college. He was supposed to be the fourth consecutive generation of our family to farm here. That all changed when he was killed in Viet Nam in 1970. The two black and white photos bracket a time about ten years later when that new reality had finally hit the farmyard. There would not be a new generation from our family taking over, so there were few changes and what changes there were came slowly. The two color photos shown below are from about thirty years later when Margaret and I returned to be the fourth generation in our family to live here but we did not run the farming operation.

2010 view to the north

Our “new” (it’s actually ten years old by 2010) house is probably the most conspicuous change. There are several groups of cattle in the pasture, but they’re now distributed through smaller paddocks designed for rotational grazing. The clump of trees shown with a yellow arrow, started as volunteers inside the Corn Cribs; the Corn Cribs and Hog House and Silo are now gone, but those trees mark the spot. Margaret planted the three pine trees just to the left of the Corn Crib trees. She likes evergreens. The two Metal Sheds remain as enduring landmarks and the Hen House still stands. But, the Big Barn has collapsed into a pile of rubble waiting to be burned and there’s another burn pile in the lower left corner of the picture. Our renter who is doing the rotational grazing has been very patient with the slow pace of cleanup and change around the farmyard. My parents still live in the Greats’ House through most of the decade while Margaret and I are more busy with grandchildren than with our careers. The farmyard has been mostly a retirement community.

2017 view to the northwest

Things really have started to change by 2017. The folks moved off the farm in 2009 and passed away in 2014. Margaret has planted more trees south of our house, but to the north the old ash trees that once surrounded the Little House have been thinned out by old age and chain saws. The Greats’ House and adjacent Garage are used for storage and so is the Metal Shed on the left. But the other Metal Shed has been cleaned out and the metal panels outside are positioned for handling cattle. There are other changes related to our renter’s cow/calf operation: two watering tanks are visible at locations 1 and 2 and the dark green paddock in the lower right (3) is seeded to warm season grasses. The bare strip that looks like a driveway running from newest tank (2) and down along the warm season paddock (3) is actually where a new rural water hookup was installed. The location of the Big Barn is shown by the bare patch (4) where the bones of the barn were buried. Even though it’s not our family, another generation has started to reconfigure the farmyard for a farming operation in the twenty-first century.

Images from Google Earth and those taken from drones have probably put the original air photo company out of business. But, I do appreciate the time sequence preserved in these four photographs spread over almost forty years. They document changes that were not so easily perceived while actually living through those years.

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Winter Harvest

Before the warm weather melted all of our snow last week, there were lots of signs that small mammals were busy with their winter harvest. Rabbits, mice and beavers all root around in the snow looking for lunch….or dinner….or second breakfast. Rabbits aren’t considered to be rodents according to online sources, but mice and beavers both are; beavers are supposed to be the biggest rodents in North America. We see bunnies all the time around the Farmyard, but the mice and beavers aren’t so easily seen.

After a fresh snow the rabbit “pastures” are clearly marked where they dig down into the snow in order to “graze” the dry grass. Without the snow it’s hard to tell where the bunnies are eating. In addition to the dry grass, they strip bark off young trees and thin out the sage and other native plants that we have as landscaping around out house. They also eat the old asparagus plants from the previous season. That’s shown near the top of the second photo above a bunny pasture in the snow.

Here’s another asparagus plant getting chewed on by rabbits. We know that its rabbits because they left their calling cards in the snow next to their tracks. In some places around the house, these fertilizer pellets are so thick after the snow melts that they almost pose a health hazard. The melting snow also exposes old trails used by mice to get to their grazing areas. There are probably poop pellets here too, but they’re not as conspicuous in the old melting snow.

Tail Trails

We may not see the mice very often, but on thin fresh snow their travels are pretty well documented. It’s like a map of mouse behavior. What’s surprising about these particular trails is how far they go without any protective cover to hide away in. The mice were probably moving pretty fast over the snow to avoid becoming a meal for the predators that are always on the hunt. Notice the trail that the tail leaves, especially in the track at the bottom of the photo.

Here’s a closer shot that shows the marks of the tails a little better. And, it looks like all tracks are leading to a clump of dry plants that’s probably like going to the mouse grocery store. The photo on the right shows tracks that are all leading home. That’s a mouse house there in the center of the picture. These guys were probably also moving pretty fast to avoid becoming someone else’s meal.

When the water started flowing over the ice in the Creek last week, this orange branch of plum wood got exposed. I think that it was probably “beaver-bit”. And earlier this winter it looked like some critter tried to get out of the water and up onto the snow-covered ice without much luck. Although we haven’t seen any beavers this winter, I think that both of these are clues that they’re around this year too. These pictures were both taken near a spot on the Creek that has had lots of adventures: an old horse fell into a collapsed beaver den; an old man lost both snowshoes when he fell through the ice; a big snapping turtle “attacked” a little girl; and a different little girl lost one of her mittens in the Creek as the ice was floating by. Some of these stories have already been told elsewhere in this blog, but some of them have not….yet.

Butterflies and birds are cool, but beavers and rabbits and mice are also all integral parts of the mosaic of life on the prairie. Beavers impact waterways and trees in both positive and negative ways. Rabbits’ job this time of year is probably to thin the thatch in a grassland. But, what possible good are mice? Small mammals like mice help to plant seeds with their caches and their burrows probably enhance soil health by providing direct conduits for water (like turnip roots in a cover crop mixture). And then of course, mice and rabbits are food for the hunting hawks and coyotes and eagles. They’re like an intermediate link between the plants and the predatory carnivores. “All God’s critters have a place in the choir” (Peter, Paul, and Mary) of life that makes the tall grass prairie viable and resilient.

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Building Memories

Memories are mainly preserved in our minds, but there are “triggers” that help us to recall specific people or events or buildings. Photos help, but that only routinely goes back to the early 1900s. Older than that, we have to use other pictures like sketches or paintings. Tangible mementos help, but then these “treasures” or “souvenirs” have to be stored and sorted and curated. And, then there’s this blog. It’s storing memories and photos and stories. Specifically this week, there are recollections of some old buildings that are no longer part of the Farmyard.

This photo from the early 1970s shows the windmill looming over a building that had many uses. It was a garage, as you can see from the International pickup parked inside. After that, it was used to store a tank of fuel oil for emergency backup heating. But, this building was originally the Hen House, before it was converted for the later uses. I remember gathering eggs from nests protected by some grumpy old hens. The building has been demolished so all that’s left now, is the row of cement blocks that were the foundation for the old building.

Here are a couple of items salvaged from the old Hen House. The triangular bunch of boards is from the peak above the converted garage doors and the small door was originally just around the corner from the big doors. I may not have those detailed locations exactly right, but who cares? Now that they’re documented for posterity in this post, the old wood can go onto the burn pile. You can only keep so many “treasures” stored around the Farmyard!

These doors are all “souvenirs” from another building that’s gone, but unlike the Hen House we don’t have any photo of the Sheep Shed. The Sheep Shed was originally a hog barn, but we never had any hogs….we had sheep. This was where the lambing would happen about this time of the year. The people-sized door is in pretty rough shape, but the two smaller doors are more intact. Those small access doors let the sheep move outside onto a cement slab when the weather was good.

Currently, all that’s left on the site of the Hog House are these two hackberry trees and a depression located where the cistern once was. We planted the two evergreen trees after the Sheep Shed was demolished. The snow patch circled in red is filling in the hole where the cistern used to be; it’s frustrating to try to mow through that. The two hackberry trees are survivors that originally grew up as volunteers inside corncribs located along the south side of the cement slab.

The Silo was also located in this general area so it was convenient for feeding silage to the sheep. This is the way it looked in the early 1970s. One of the earliest posts on this blog has some pictures of the process of taking down the old Silo. That happened about 20 years ago and the location is part of the “tall grass”/unmowed part of our yard. After two decades, the circular foundation is still visible on recent high-resolution air photos available from the county. The three dark green shadows are the same three evergreens shown in the previous paragraph. If you’re standing next to the evergreens, you can’t see any sign of the foundation circle on the ground.

So, these buildings are preserved as memories associated with pictures and mementos. And, those memories are now part of this collective sharing of stories.

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Cold Snap

This past week has been a week of holidays: Chinese New Year, Lincoln’s Birthday, Valentine’s Day, Presidents’ Day, Shrove Tuesday, Ash Wednesday, and Margaret’s Birthday! We’re about half way between the fist day of winter and the first day of spring. The media says it was the coldest Valentine’s Day on record. It WAS cold; we didn’t get above zero on Valentine’s Day.

Here’s the temperature on the morning after Valentine’s Day. It counts as -25, but there was no wind and that helped a lot. My parents used to count the mornings below zero so I looked through some of their records. My mother kept a journal of daily paragraphs from 1982 to 2004 with temperatures sporadically included. Surfing through a random notebook, I found a -27 with a strong wind for January 19, 1985; two days earlier the daytime high was +36! Our forecast for next week looks like it’ll make mid30s, although the turn-around time will not be not as abrupt as in 1985.

Even at the below zero temperatures, there’s melting on the south side of the house in the direct sun because it’s getting more powerful. Runoff from the dark porch roof built this stalagmite and stalactite out of ice. (There’s an old retired geology prof “joke” that says in caves its “Up go the mites and down go the tights, like ants in your pants.”) The combination of a powerful sun and cold temperatures grows some impressive ice cycles and sculptures. My folks used to quote the old saying: “As the days lengthen, the cold strengthens.”

These pictures of a sunrise and sunset were taken by Margaret. The sunrise picture is from around the time of the winter solstice, but during this cold snap the sunrise position has shifted to the north. Now it comes up behind the Greats’ old House and we don’t even see it. The sunset shows a view to the west along the Stateline just last week. By the time of the spring equinox, the sunset position will shift north until it goes down at the point where the road disappears over the horizon. Our weather calendar says there’s about 8 hours and 45 minutes of daylight around the first day of winter, about 10 hours and 20 minutes around Valentines Day, and about 12 hours and 10 minutes around the first day spring. The next batch of lengthening days will bring much warmer temperatures, I hope.

Just before the cold snap there wasn’t much snow cover so the frost depth has probably increased a lot. That could be tough on those earthworms who were busy back during our January thaw. The depth of freezing most likely varies with differences in vegetation cover. Earthworms under the bare lawn may not be as comfortable as those under the snow near the long grass. The picture on the right is in a paddock with warm season native grasses. Hopefully the worms are really happy and healthy under this tall grass where the snow is providing some insolation from the cold that’s creeping deeper.

Depth of freezing temperatures and earthworm survival may also be influenced by snow cover that’s trapped in small-scale rises and depressions. The picture on the left shows snow along a slight rise in the land surface in the Creek pasture. I wonder if the soil microbes are different under the snow when compared to the brown areas that have blown clear. The linear white snow bands in the right picture mark old cultivation furrows where potatoes were planted in the early 1900s. Even those really subtle depressions might trap enough snow to influence depth of freezing. Do micro-topographic features like these, impact the well being of the soil microbes and earthworms? Are there observable differences in soil health associated with really small changes in the landscape?

Beyond the techy soil science, there are other questions about the cold snap. Why is it so quiet? It seems like it’s really easy to hear the wind in the tall grass or an owl trying to be sociable. Maybe it’s because the cold air suppresses sound? Or, maybe it’s because there are no neighbors out driving tractors and trucks around in the frigid weather? In any case, there’s been a cold silence around the Farm “in the bleak midwinter”.

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Two Sheds

Many of the original buildings on the farmstead have been torn down and replaced. But, there are two metal sheds that are more than sixty years old and sit side by side on the north side of the farmyard.

In these photos taken in the early 1970s, the machine shed is shown in the left picture and the cattle shed is shown on the right. The corrugated metal siding and roof have been repainted from time to time on both buildings. Most recently that paint job was done by two guys who had southern accents, but local license plates on their pickups. In order to get their sales pitch started with a farmer, they burrowed pickups from helpful local friends. That way the conversations were easier to get started when they showed up unannounced on some farmyard. Turns out that they come up from Mississippi every summer to roam the countryside looking for metal outbuildings to paint. I guess they thought that the cooler temperatures up here made the work easier. They worked fast using a spray painting outfit and in general the job was okay. However, they never came back to check on how the paint held up.

These two shots are of the north wall of the west machine shed. You can just make out the industrial logo on the galvanized siding; it was sold at a discount because it had been stored outside for an extended period of time. That was a good deal for a frugal farmer. The wooden beams that were salvaged from the old horse barn were another cost-cutting aspect. The shed originally was used to keep tractors out of the weather. But now it provides a place to store “treasures” that are waiting to be sorted, recycled, or thrown away. Back in the day, the big doors allowed for getting a load of bales under cover fast if there was rain approaching.

The beams on the left are in the machine shed. Not all of the salvaged wood is in equally good shape and you can see that we have hornets in residence. The shot on the right is the inside of the east shed, which has been used for livestock, including both cattle and sheep. You can see the dirt floor and cement foundation and those big red boards are siding from the old horse barn that originally stood on this spot. So not just the structural timber, but also the siding got repurposed in this building. The missing board was a sample for someone who planned to use it for rustic paneling in a house, but that didn’t work out. Maybe it was because in addition to the original paint there were smears of cattle manure?

Both sheds were built in the late 1950s after the old horse barn had been disassembled for the construction components. The cement slab on the south side of the east cattle shed records the exact date (1957) and the names of four people: the hired man on the farm at that time, one of the contractor’s helpers, my younger brother Bob with his handprint, and me (but you can’t see my name because it’s mostly covered). I’m the only one who is still alive now. Ironically, the four of us were not the main builders. The boss contractor, my dad and my grandpa did the planning and supervised the work, but their names are not preserved for posterity on the concrete slab.

Here’s the way these two sheds look now. The wooden doors just got a coat of fresh paint this past summer, so they’re more bright white than the new snow. Both sheds preserve the bones of the old horse barn, but are also part of the changes that are planned for the farmyard over the next several years.

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Who’s Awake?

In the cycle of seasonal rounds, winter is a time when many organisms—plants, animals, and humans—slow down. But in the morning after a fresh snowfall, there are tracks that make you wonder exactly who’s awake and who’s hibernating. And after our January warm spell, there’s a real mystery about earthworms. Don’t they “sleep” in the cold winter weather?

Cottontail rabbits are busy around our house all winter. They’re not hibernating. They’re so thick that they follow the same “bunny highway”, both before and after I put my tracks down. There are some areas on our lawn where the snow is thin and the rabbits have harvested the dry grass…a lot. One of those “bunny pastures” is shown in the photo on the right. We see bunnies and birds all winter. Although there are other critters that we don’t directly observe, they do leave trails to let us know that they’re not hibernating either.

In the morning after a fresh snowfall, we can see the results of the mouse patrols during the previous night. This looks like a random walk experiment, but it was no doubt a focused search for food. The snow wasn’t deep enough to hide this guy’s tunneling, but in another part of the trail he pops out and digs down to get to the seeds and then continues on his way. On still another part of the trail, he leaves the exposed tunnel and we can see his individual footprints.

But, that mouse is not alone. There’s a coyote out hunting for food too. The mouse tracks look different on these two photos, so maybe they’re documenting two different types of mice or maybe different body weights? But in both cases, a coyote crossed the mouse trails. He wasn’t sleeping either on the night after the fresh snow and he doesn’t eat seeds or dry grass. He eats mice and bunnies!

“Varmints” are animals that cause a problem, but that definition is a little like the definition of “weeds”. It all depends on your perception. Milkweeds are good for attracting monarch butterflies and pigweed used to provide food for Native Americans. If you have new lambs, coyotes can be a problem. But, they also keep the populations of bunnies and mice from exploding. If you think that coyotes are “bad guys”, here’s a link to a prairie ecologist in Nebraska with some science that says otherwise. Coyotes serve an important purpose and so are welcome in our pasture and around our farmyard.

There are some other animals that aren’t so welcome in winter or in summer. Skunks, woodchucks, raccoons, and possums have all caused problems when they make themselves at home in one of our sheds or dig under the old house. They’re fine if they poop in the pasture or they poop on the lawn, but if they poop on my porch, They are varmints!

Now, how about that earthworm mystery? The photo on the left was taken earlier this fall and shows piles of earthworm castings where they were busy in the bare, high-traffic area near a stock tank. Those piles of castings are slightly worn down and flattened; early in January you couldn’t see them at all. The photo on the right was taken at the same spot after the warm spell that we had about mid-January. The piles of castings have been restored. So, don’t earthworms hibernate? Or maybe the warm temperatures “woke” them up? Maybe global warming will help the health of our soils?

And so we’ve reached the end of our story about critters hibernating in the wintertime. Here are the tracks of  an animal (maybe a raccoon?) that’s awake and traveling west in the pasture toward the sunset. Turning around to look east, we can see the trail that marks some poor old guy wandering around looking at the tracks of mice and coyotes. But he is  headed back home.

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Burn and Bury

When we first moved back to the farm twenty years ago, the cattle barn was still standing. The family always called it the “Big Red Barn” as opposed to the older “Horse Barn” that had less paint, I guess. The older barn had been taken down and the beams recycled into new metal sheds in the late 1950s, but the Big Red Barn stood more than forty years after that. It fell down shortly after we moved back.

This is a view of the Big Red Barn (sounds vaguely like the title of a kids book?) from the east in the early 1970s. It had a central area for storing hay surrounded by areas where the hay could be fed to livestock. It was just north of the main feedlot, so cattle had access when the weather got bad. Although we did salvage some beams after it collapsed in the early 2000s, that timber wasn’t recycled into a new building. Times change. The remnants of the Big Red Barn were burned and buried. Looking north today, the site looks like the picture on the right. That whole open area in the foreground is in the process of being redesigned into a new corral complex for the current cow-calf operation.

Cleaning up the bones of the barn took several years and multiple burning attempts. The first few stages were relatively simple because the dry wood burned easily. But, there was also old wet hay in that central area so it took much more planning and messing around to get that burned. These three photos show the before, during, and after shots of one of the later efforts. You can tell from all of the green plants that the burn events were far enough apart for vegetation (a.k.a., “weeds”) to move into the vacated ground.

The barn was originally designed to store loose hay and these two “treasures” are part of that apparatus. The iron track shown on the left, ran along the ridge of the inside of the barn. The “trolley” on the right, traveled along the track to carry the slings of hay back into the west end from the haymow door on the east side. When we were little kids, we were allowed to pull the trip rope to drop the load of hay at the right place inside the barn. However, my most enduring (not endearing!) memories are of stacking baled hay inside the hot barn on a summer day. We took turns working outside on the bale wagon where it was little cooler. That way, nobody put bales into the elevator too fast because they knew that there would be revenge when it was next their turn inside the stifling barn.

This scanned photo was taken of the feeding operation back in the 1950s. Wooden bunks stood beside the wagon of ground ear corn. The feed was spread into the bunks by carrying in five-bushel baskets and then the supplement was spread out over the feed and mixed in by hand. You can see the barn dominating the cattle yard on the north side. Things are a lot different a couple of generations later! Now, a scientifically-formulated ration is unloaded by driving a wagon along cement bunks. Even the cattle are different because you don’t see very many white-faced Herefords around the neighborhood anymore.

Everything changes. These days, it’s cheaper to burn and bury the Big Red Barn rather than take it down and recycle the lumber. Back in the 1950s, we pulled a lot of nails out of the wood salvaged from the old Horse Barn in order to reuse it to frame metal sheds. More than one hundred years ago, the homesteading family took down a house over on the Rock River about three miles west. They brought that salvaged lumber back home to build a part of the original farmhouse. That wasn’t being miserly; that was being frugal. And now today, there’s talk about an emerging “circular economy” that’s not extractive and wasteful, but makes money by reusing, repurposing, and recycling. Maybe the future will be back to the past? Everything changes and nothing changes.

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Watching the Wind

Last week we had another ground blizzard similar to the one that we had back in mid-December. Both of these storms had lots of wind. The “dust of winter” made it possible to “see” the wind.

What little snow there was, came in horizontally and in gusts that made visibility variable. You can see the haze of blowing snow close to the ground in these photos. The tall trees stick up above the ground “fog”, while the lower plum thickets come and go with the gusty wind. It makes for a really dynamic and changing landscape, but it also made the roads slippery and dangerous. It’s much nicer to watch it through the windows and in the warmth, rather trying to drive someplace that we have to be.

Last week included January 12, which is the day that the Children’s Blizzard hit in 1888. I don’t remember any stories from the homesteaders about that storm, but Rose’s History of Rock County has a description of local conditions. There’s also a 2004 book by David Laskin that describes lots of sad stories, but it includes an early history of the need for and origin of the National Weather Service. That’s why there’s a photo of our primitive weather station. However, it’s hard to accurately measure sideways snow. The Children’s Blizzard is also the subject of a new novel by Melanie Benjamins that is this year’s selection for “One Book South Dakota”. I haven’t read it yet, but I plan to because it’s set in southeastern South Dakota.

The photo of the dusty boots is from the warm, dry days before the storm hit last week and provide a transition into another way we can watch the wind. There are some stories of the Dust Bowl Days in our family tradition. Dad played baseball in high school and he had a game canceled one afternoon because of poor visibility. There are also low ridges along many old fence lines where wind-blown dirt drifted in from the adjacent fields back in the 1930s. Actually, you can still see that going on with wind erosion of bare fields and deposition of the black dirt on the white snow that fills road ditches.

Long before the Dirty Thirties back when there were glaciers in this area, there was a lot of dust blowing around off the front of the melting ice. The regional map on the left shows that the immediate tri-state area was located between two separate glacial lobes, so there was much dust in the air. This “rock flour” was ground-up rock material that was liberated when the ice melted and it settled over everything in the area beyond the glacier’s margin. This wind-blown dust (called “loess”) is shown as the dark tan area on the left side of the more detailed colored map. The location of the Farm is also shown because we’re in that loess-covered area.

The photo on the left illustrates the loess over-lying a layer of older glacial gravel in a terrace along the Creek. But, there’s other evidence on the Farm for wind activity during the Ice Ages. The boulder on the right is probably a “ventifact” that was polished and faceted by wind-blown dust. We found it when we put in a drainage tile because it was buried several feet deep. I hauled it up to our house as a curio.

Ironically, while the blizzard was raging last week, I had an exchange of emails with a former colleague about wind erosion and ventifacts from glacial times. She reminded me that many of the polished surfaces on red quartzite outcrops in the area, have been interpreted as buffalo rubbing up against the rock. That idea of buffalo polishing the hard rock might be an alternative explanation for super-smooth surfaces. But, my little curio boulder is too small for a buffalo rubbing station. It was probably polished and faceted by dust blown around in the wind, just like the snow in the ground blizzard.

I’m posting this today because the wind is blowing like crazy (20 to 30 miles per hour out of the northwest)! It is the prairie, after all! But, it’s not just snow or dust that’s swirling around in the air. It’s also change.

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Tall Tower

This is the first in a series of posts that will describe the buildings spread around the farmyard at Lone Tree Farm. Some are still standing, but many have been demolished, repurposed, or replaced as the farming operations have changed through the generations. We’ll start with the windmill.

We don’t have any pictures of the windmill standing alone, but these photos from the early 1970s do show it as background. The shed converted to a garage was once used as a chicken coop and is gone now. So is the classic old pickup (although it wasn’t yet a classic when the picture was taken). The metal shed is still here and is framed with beams salvaged from a barn that once stood on that exact spot. But, both photos show the tall windmill.

The windmill tower was about 60 feet high. When the tower fell sometime in the 1980s, a neighbor had parked his new pickup about 70 feet to the south. This recent screen shot from a satellite image shows how close the falling tower got to the new pickup. He often parked a little farther north, but that would have dropped the heavy gearbox on the top of the tower squarely on the pickup! It wasn’t particularly windy, so we’re not exactly sure why the old windmill went down that day.

Even after 40 years of salvaging straight pieces of angle iron, there still is a tangled pile of the twisted pieces. That’s the ladder there in front. In recent years the fins on windmill wheels have been used for interior decorating. The pieces from our wheel have gone to sisters who used to visit the farm when they were little neighbor girls.

Here’s one of the other souvenirs from the windmill. This is the tail that directed the wheel into the wind and yes, those are bullet holes. But, they may have been added after the tower fell and before this “treasure” got stored in one of the metal sheds. Aermotor placed a lot of windmills around the country. It was wind power long before the modern wind farms. The stenciled name is probably the local supplier. Frank J. Seitz was the plumber in Ellsworth before his death in 1971, according to the town’s Centennial Volume.

After the tower fell, an electric motor on a pump jack brought the water up out of the well. The middle photo shows the process of formally plugging and abandoning the well as encouraged/required by the State. Here’s a post that has lots of pictures and describes how the well was sealed. It was educational because the family tradition was that this well had been drilled to a depth of 400 feet, but they only pulled 200 feet of casing out of the well bore.

Before the deep well was drilled sometime in the late 1940s, water was a problem. Lots of shallow, curbed wells were dug, but the deeper bedrock aquifer provided a reliable quantity. However, the water quality wasn’t so good. Dad’s sister used to take jugs of it home because it was helpful for constipation. This is the same person who, as a little girl, climbed the tower and got stuck. She panicked and froze so Grandpa had to climb up to rescue her. At that time the well wasn’t located where it was when the tall tower fell. There have always been lots of family stories about the tall tower because it was a distinctive feature of the farmyard for so many decades.

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