A little more history

Ever since we bought the farm we’ve been curious about the history of the place.  Who lived there?  For how long?  Why did they leave?  Was their parting a happy occasion or one of despair.  A while ago, I managed to find the obituary of a woman who lived there from 1938 to 1968.  She died a few years ago at the age of 90.  We’ve sorted through things left in the loft of the old barn up on the hill, we’ve found two ravines full of trash one of which seems to have been used until the late 1960’s and another one more recent.

Earlier this week, a friend of my husband’s asked in an email exchange,  “About this land, where is it?  I grew up not far from there and know the backroads.  Might even know the farm.”  Wow!  I hoped we could find someone who could tell us something about it.  I NEVER thought it would be someone we already knew.  My husband’s friend Jeanne, my husband and I exchanged a few emails including a copy of the obituary and a small map showing how the parcels of land are currently carved up.  Turns out the woman who died a few years ago at 90 was married to a man whose parents farmed the place before he did.  Her father knew the man’s brother who also grew up there.  That means two generations of this family lived there.  Much longer than we could possibly occupy the land.  My husband’s friend also talked to her father who has lived either on a farm or in a nearby town for 72 years.  He knew who the farm was sold to in 1968 and that information is consistent with what we thought.  Those people or their relatives are still our neighbors to the north and to the south.  We also think given the plow that we found and our odd 38.54 acres that the buildings were parceled off with the hilly, rocky and unusable wetland and that they kept the land good for crops.  Doing a bit of map math, we find that the place probably used to be 160 acres.  160 acres used to be a reasonable size for a family farm.  With the equipment produced after World War II, a family needed a lot more than 160 acres to get by.  Certainly by 1968, 160 acres was awfully small.   Jeanne’s father said that he last remembered someone living in the house in 1979 and that he has a map from 1980 showing the farm families in the area and that it indicates no one was living there in 1980.  Or since given the condition of the house.  What I wouldn’t give to have a look at that map…

Of course we still don’t know much about the people or why they left.  I’m sure it’s the sort of thing described by Wendell Berry in The Unsettling of America.  Farms got bigger and people moved to cities and towns.  That was true in the 1970’s when Berry was writing his book.   It was already true in the early 1960’s when Wallace Stegner went back to the Cypress Hills in Saskatchewan to visit the land in which he spent his boyhood as he recounts in Wolf Willow.   It’s even more true now.  Jeanne says that no one lives on the farm where she grew up.  The house is gone.  Her father has moved to town though he still goes out to feed the cattle every day.  In Wolf Willow, Stegner is looking for a bit of his own history.  He finds the house in which his family lived in town, but decided not to look for the coulee where they lived during the growing season.  I especially love his chapter where he catalogs the sorts of things he and his friends picked through all manner of discarded things as children and sometimes found things that they recognized from their own homes.  I am fascinated by what can be learned from the ravines full of junk.   A friend told me that her boys would have a field day going through the junk.  I’ve done some cataloging of the junk in the ravines and this is also the sort of thing that I journaled on my four day Wisconsin River trip.  The things we find at the farm are full of history and I’m sure they’ll tell us a lot.  We need to tread carefully though.   The history we are discovering does not really belong to us and while those who made it may not be walking this earth any longer, their descendants are all around us.

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5 Responses to A little more history

  1. Melanie says:

    Just fascinating! My mom has always been interested in the history of their Waukesha house (was owned by a doctor, who ran the sanitarium that was nearby, thanks to the healing waters) Matt’s girlfriend’s family lives on a dairy farm in Hartford — I think 3 generations? In the last couple years her parents sold off all the cows and now rent their barns to another local dairy farmer. Her dad is in Afghanistan now with the USDA helping the Afghanis learn farming techniques. He had to work as a teacher in order to keep the farm going through her childhood. It’s too easy to lose the history and I think it’s great that you’re trying to find out more about your land. I am truly fascinated.

  2. Aster says:

    Isn’t “sanitarium” 1800’s for “spa”? And wasn’t Waukesha the “Spring City” or something like that? Even tiny Palmyra was known for it’s springs. So many stories like that of Matt’s g.f.’s family. More than not, given the “get big or get out” policies. Most of our neighboring farms are huge. And not necessarily all of their plots are connected. I have another friend whose parents sold their dairy herd as they were getting older and decided to raise springing heifers instead. That at least freed them from the twice a day milking schedule. Never did hear how that heifer business worked out. Hopefully there was a market for those heifers, otherwise they could have found themselves back in the dairy business…

  3. Melanie says:

    Yep, the sanitarium was likely a spa — I think the one in that area dealt with a fair amount of hysteria patients if I remember correctly. Those springs were what put Waukesha on the map, so to speak.

  4. Aster says:

    “Hysteria patients” probably meant women who express opinions, emotions or assert themselves. Good thing we’ve come so far as a society. Otherwise, I might be ready for the sanitarium. You’d probably not be safe either.

  5. Leslie says:

    Interesting. I should find out the history of my house since it’s over 100 years old. Have you guys gone to the library to see if you might find some old photographs of your place?

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