I didn't realize how much I appreciated the old farmstead, until the day it was gone
by Curt Arens
Nebraska Life Magazine
Usually itís the barn that easily catches your attention, probably a worn and weathered old specimen with holes in the rooftop. Sometimes there is an empty farmhouse where the occupying family spent their lives, now shrouded in overgrown trees and weeds that were once kept dutifully mowed.
Link to Nebraska Farmer Magazine|
Down to Earth: Celebrating a Blessed Life on the Land - Introduction and Book Excerpts
Prayer for Farm Families
Farm To Family - Curt's Weekly Column
From Woolworth Avenue to the White House: For His First 16 Days, Gerald Fordís Home was Omaha Ė Nebraska Life, July/August 2001
Abís Place: I Didnít Know How Much I Appreciated the Old Farmstead until the Day it was Gone Ė Rural Voices: Literature from Rural Nebraska, Mead, Neb.: Dirt Road Press, 2002
Bergland Looks Back: Ag Secretary Who Served 30 Years Ago Has Very Modern Ideas - Successful Farming, April 2007
Strolling Down Privy Lane: Digging to the Bottom of Outhouse Lore Ė Living Here, Winter 2005
Lost Towns of the Missouri River: Searching for Tales and Ruins Along Nebraska's Northeast Border - Nebraska Life, September/October 2004
Select Articles and Publications 1996-2009
The vacant farmsteads are the last reminders of families who took a chance on the land. Some took that chance and lost, but many won and made good livings, but had no one to pass their legacy on to.
What we donít notice are the ghosts of farmsteads that have disappeared from the landscape. We canít imagine in the middle of an enormous cornfield, that a family once carved out a living raising crops, with barns housing chickens, pigs, lambs and an old milk cow named Betsy.
I live by one of those ghostly places, where a bustling farm once stood. This is the place on West Bow Creek where my Dadís sister Ceil and her husband Albert, affectionately known as Ab farmed and raised their family.
I grew up there too, playing around the place with my cousins. Ab and Ceil were more than neighbors and family, they were our close friends. So I knew their farm, much like I know the one where I grew up with my family just a quarter mile across the field where Iím farming and raising my own family now.
Even after Ab and Ceil were gone and the farmstead had been abandoned, living in another old house owned by my parents just across the creek and driving by Ab and Ceilís place everyday on my way to work, I appreciated that their buildings were still there. It reminded me of those happy days of childhood. But I didnít realize how much I appreciated the physical presence of that farmstead until the day it disappeared.
I was late that morning getting to the home place for chores. Having graduated from college a couple of years earlier, I was home for good, working our familyís farm with my parents.
That morning, my muscles were sore from playing basketball with some friends in town the night before, but not too sore to hit the snooze button on my alarm clock several times.
I finally rolled out of bed and drove the half-mile from my house to the home place. When I walked into the house, Dad immediately announced, "Well, weíve got a job to do already this morning."
I had noticed the bulldozers parked on Ab and Ceilís place. Now it was time for the dozers to do their thing. Dad explained that the new owners of Ab and Ceilís farmstead were planning to demolish the place and plant crops where the abandoned buildings once stood.
This was nothing unusual. We had torn down an old house and barn on another farm that we were renting years ago to make room for cattle sorting pens. But the news of the demise of Abís place hit me like a load of bricks.
"The house and barn on Abís are going down today. Theyíre gonna light the fire this morning, but we can have anything we think is valuable in the house if we get it out right away," Dad said.
Our family farmed the quarter section of land surrounding Abís place after Ab retired from farming. After Ab and Ceil passed away Ė both in 1979 Ė our family sublet the house to several families over the years while we stilled leased and operated the farmland.
Ab and Ceil Reifenrath
Even while other families lived there, occupying the house, garage and barns, no one could call the farm Kleinschmitís, Shoatís or Ibachís. To the neighbors, it was still Abís place.
But when the original owners decided to sell the land, we couldnít afford to buy it. The renters left. The buildings began to deteriorate. Now it had been sold again.
I fed hogs and did a few other chores while Dad hastily gathered some tools. We drove the pickup into the driveway of Abís place and around in front of a big majestic cottonwood tree that always looked like a giant to me when I was young.
I hadnít been on the farmstead for four years. I drove by it several times a day, but didnít pay much attention to condition.
I hadnít noticed broken windows and weeds growing six feet tall around the porch. I hadnít noticed how Ceilís old willow tree had been reduced to a few weak sticks.
Her tulips were still there, ready to burst in spring color. The old giant cottonwood wasnít the stately monument I remembered it to be. The barn had been altered and remodeled, so it didnít even resemble the building where Ab and Ceil raised broiler chickens each summer.
Dad and I didnít have to open the porch door to enter the house. It had been torn off. Fly strips hung from the ceiling of the kitchen.
I remembered how warm that kitchen always was. Whenever we visited, Ceil was always baking fresh bread, pies or cookies. My brother and I looked forward to hot cookies from her oven burning our mouths. They tasted better that way. The sweet smells of the kitchen were all gone, giving way to the odors of mice and dust.
The bulldozer operator burst into the house and said he was ready to start as soon as we were finished. He hovered over Dad and I like a vulture waiting for a meal. There wasnít much time.
I began cutting wires and unscrewing lag bolts from an electrical box Dad had put in the house for the first renters after Ab and Ceil died. It was still in pretty good shape, so we tried to salvage it. I smashed my hand against the wall and my knuckles began to bleed. I used my pliers to unfasten the lags in the back of the box and pinched my thumb between the arms of the pliers as it slipped from the head of a lag.
I cussed at the box and the pliers, the house and the situation. I didnít like being rushed into saying goodbye to Abís place.
Dad hurried to the basement to see if the hot water heater was worth salvaging. He sprung up the stairs to check on my progress.
I asked myself if he had the peculiar sense of loss that I was feeling. All he seemed to care about was getting that hot water heater or electrical box and getting out.
Finally, the wires were all cut and the lags loosened. We pried to release the box from the wall, but it was stubborn. Dad used a pry bar to pull the wood paneling away from the wall. Large chunks of the finish flew from the walls. The demolition seemed violent.
There were faded spots on the paneling where maybe a family photo or a painting hung, or one of Abís fishing plaques that he picked up from their many travels. You know the kind, "Old fishermen never die, they just smell that way".
We tore at that wall to finally release the electrical box. The hot water heater was rusted, so we removed two old pressure tanks and an outlet. That was all we could find to salvage.
The cupboards were gone. The photos were gone. The chairs, tables and even the bathtub were all gone. A few ragged curtains and memories remained.
We walked through the house silently. Looking into the living room, I could see an image of Ab lying in a hospital bed that was set up there while he withered away with a cancerous tumor at the base of his spine.
Just months before he was diagnosed, he and Ceil asked me to join them on a fishing trip to northern Minnesota. I had fed their chickens and done chores for them while they were on vacation and they wanted to pay me back. It was the first real fishing trip Iíd ever been on, so I was anxious for a week of fishing and getting out of pitching straw bales into the barn back home. That week of fishing walleye, northern pike and perch allowed me a special time with my aunt and uncle.
That fall, Abís back began to bother him. The diagnosis was grim and within a few months he was bedridden. Ceil cared for him at home, listening to his terrible cough and making him as comfortable as possible.
Seeing the empty living room reminded me of Saturday evenings sitting beside his bed with my parents, visiting about old times. Every now and then, heíd wince in pain. Even as a teenager, I knew that he would die.
It was not only my first real awareness of death, but I also learned about unconditional love by watching Ceil caring for Ab as he prepared himself for the end.
After he died the next spring, Ceil went on with life, but missed her companion terribly. Two months after Ab passed away I drove through the place after working in the fields nearby. Ceil came from the house as she often did for a visit, but this time she handed me Abís old fishing tackle box that we had used in Minnesota. Shortly after that, on my Dadís birthday that same summer, Ceil had a heart attack and died a few days later.
We walked into their bedroom. The windows were smashed out. Two beer cans lie on the floor. Dad still said nothing. We walked outside. The dozer man said he was ready to start. "When do you think this old house was built?" he asked. "Probably 100 years old, donít you think?"
"I donít know," Dad replied. "The basement is made of rock and mortar, so itís pretty old."
I looked over toward the barn. The fishtank where Ab kept minnows heíd seined from the creek and sold to passing fishermen was still there along with the crank pump that kept fresh water flowing into the tank.
"Look at those peonies coming up," the dozer man observed. "They must have liked flowers with all the different stuff growing around here."
"A lot of these old places are gone now," the dozer man said. "Everybody needs more acres to make a living, but there just arenít many farmers left in the country who need houses."
He was right. There are fewer farmers and fewer homesteads. The vacant farmsteads stand for a few years and the memories of the past fade silently. When the land changes hands, the use of the land sometimes changes too. The economy of the day dictates the use and the memories disappear.
I was sick to my stomach. The dozer man had already pushed many of the trees including the old willow into the side of the house.
Dad climbed into the pickup beside me. We began to drive away. We both looked back as he started the fire. Suddenly, flames broke through the windows and the siding.
The building was engulfed. Dad raised his hand and waved goodbye to the old farmstead. He turned to me and moisture welled up in his eyes. This place was no longer.
I still see shadows of Abís place when I drive by almost every day, now farming my familyís land and living on our home place. My parents moved to a house in town when my wife and I moved in, but Dad comes out to help on the farm all the time.
We can look out our living room window and see cedar trees Ab planted along the highway outlining their old place, but soybeans or corn grow where the house and barn once stood.
One day a couple of years ago, as I drove by I noticed a single peony flower blooming above the soybeans where Ceilís garden used to be. She planted it long ago and now it bloomed almost defiantly among the crops.
That peony reminded me of the lessons of love and caring I had learned from Ab and Ceil. Because of those lessons, launched by vivid memories of a dying man and his loving wife in the mind of an impressionable teenage boy, I can pass Abís place with new perspective. The buildings may be gone, but that special place they created in my life will never fade.