A Solitary Place
A gnarled branch of the elderly oak tree grated the shiplap siding of the ramshackle house. It looked as if it had not been lived in for over a hundred years. The structure had developed a slight lean to the south as if it had been ceaselessly shoved by the cruel north winds. An expansive porch had missing boards which left gaping holes resembling a toothless grin, and the broken glazed glass windows gave the impression of empty eye sockets blindly observing the surroundings. The house and the tree stood apart in a great plowed field ready to be planted. The sun-bleached wood of the house stood in stark contrast to the dense, dark soil like a ship on a burnt umber sea.
In contrast, to the south about mile was a more modern dwelling with a plush forest green lawn and large galvanized silos beyond its yard. Large farm implements stood ready for their assigned task beside expansive barns. This summer they would look like locust devouring the grain harvest. The residence had a homey feel to it, like you could walk in and they would immediately serve you apple pie and homemade ice cream. The traveler wondered if the older was the parent of the newer; if the old house was the original home place on the family farm.
Although he had traveled this road many times on his usual rounds of agribusiness, he had never asked about the old house. And having seen it countless times before, it still seemed to briefly draw his eye from the road each time he passed. He had driven by when the rains poured through the bald patches of its roof and when the wheat field was full of golden heads of grain, obscuring its features. When the snow fell on the empty field, it never quite covered the dark brown soil. It looked as if there were whitecaps on a restless sea. No one who knew him would accuse him of being a poetic man, but the solitary house put imaginings in his head that were beguiling.
One sunny spring day, with the bright, green sprouts of grain peeking through the dirt, he decided to turn down the long drive to the house where he was sure apple pie was always on hand. After pleasantries were exchanged about the weather and the crop forecast, the old farmer stood waiting for the man to divulge his business.
“I’m sorry,” he said haltingly, “this may sound strange, but I have driven by this stretch of road frequently over the past ten years. The old house down the road has caught my eye several times. Is it part of your place, and if so, do you mind if I ask about it?”
The farmer chuckled deeply, “why sure, don’t mind telling the story.”
“Have you lived here long? Does this land belong in your family?”
“Yep, we’ve been farmin’ this land for over 100 years, my family that is.” The farmer paused, and looked down the road toward the house you could barely see over the green belt between it and the newer home. “Are you really all that interested? Or are you just curious about sumthin’ in particular?”
“It seems to draw my attention every time. I am really curious about its history, and why you have not cleared it and the tree to use the ground for wheat.” The man took a good look at the farmer, who was probably in his late 60s. He wore a plaid shirt with the sleeves rolled to his elbows, and brown, lace-up boots peeked out from underneath frayed denim hems of his overalls. A John Deere ball cap shaded his eyes from the early afternoon sun, and his hair, in need of a trim, curled around the edge.
Pulling off his cap to scratch his head, the farmer looked at the fellow in front of him sizing him up. The man was wearing a golf shirt and khaki pants. The farmer had seen him before selling crop insurance and giving talks on the forecast for crops each year. He didn’t appear to be too bad of a guy, so the farmer said, “hang on a minute. Sit here on the porch, and I’ll be right back.”
The man chose a comfortable looking rocking chair with an old wooden barrel by it, several water rings provided a lacy pattern to the barrel’s top. The rocker had a worn pad on the seat that was faded but clean. He sat down and looked at the surroundings from the shade of the veranda. The whole place was incredibly countrified, but it seemed to have an understated elegance about it. Like a poised and dignified woman who appeared to be a china doll, but you knew she had toiled elbow to elbow with the men to work the land.
Lost in thought, the man didn’t know how long he had waited, but the screen door opened, and the farmer held the door for a woman carrying a tray with a pitcher of lemonade and two glasses of ice. The farmer had an aged photo album in his hands. “This is my wife, Sarah, but everyone calls her Lovey.”
“Pleased to meet you. Here let me help.” The man jumped up and reached to take the tray from the woman and set it on the barrel. “My name is Greg, Greg Brumlow. I sell crop insurance, but I stopped by to ask about the house in the field.”
The countenance that the woman wore was like a ray of sunshine on a darkened day. Her clear blue eyes shone, and her lovely smile showed the perfectly aligned teeth so frequently found in denture wearers. Her graying, blond hair was pulled back in a bun, but it would not stay trapped. Stray wisps escaped their bonds making it look as if she had both tried to make it look that way, and it just happened on accident. How do women do that? He mused. How do they look as if they are frazzled and fresh at the same time? She was wearing a cotton button up shirt with flowers embroidered on the yoke, and denim pants. Glancing down, he noticed her feet were bare. He thought maybe her wayward hair reflected a bit of her personality.
His thoughts were interrupted once again when she spoke. “George would just love to sit and tell you all about it, wouldn’t you dear? My George is a talker. I’ll just leave you two to chat.”
“I’m sorry I didn’t introduce myself earlier. As I said, the name is Greg.”
“And as she said, my name is George. It’s pleasure to meet you.”
“Likewise. Shall I pour us some lemonade?”
“Sounds great. I have some pictures here to show you what she—the old house—looked like in her prime,” he paused while thinking, “which would have been around the 1920s and 30s.” George opened the picture book, and flipped the leaves to a page that had a black and white photo of the house. It looked clean and polished. The windows gleamed, the porch looked solid, and the shingles were in place. There was a family posed on the large porch—a man sitting with a child on his lap, and a woman standing behind them. Greg noticed there was no oak tree in the photo. George took the glass from Greg with a quick “thanks,” and continued. “I don’t want to bore you entirely. Just remember, you asked.”
Greg laughed. “I really want to know, so please, continue.”
“Well, this here picture shows the house and this little boy,” he said pointing at the solemn faced child sitting on the knee of his father, “is my dad.” George flipped the picture over, reading the blurry, blue ink scrawled across the back. “It says this was taken in 1922,” he said more to himself than Greg, “so…dad would have been four or five.” Coming back to the conversation, he continued. “So, the house would only be about a year or two old in this picture. This is my grandfather,” he said pointing at the man holding the child, “and this is my grandmother,” he motioned to a serene looking young woman in the photograph. “They were the ones to build the old home place, but that wasn’t the first place the family lived on the land.”
He gestured to a line of trees about five hundred yards or so behind the house running parallel to the road. “There is a creek that runs back there, and they built a dugout in the bank of the creek. Do you know what that is, a dugout?” He continued without waiting for an answer, “it’s like a cave they dug into the bank and built a front wall with a door. It was their shelter the first winter here. That would have been around 1907, I think. But that would have been my grandfather and his first wife, not my grandmother.”
He paused only long enough to turn the page to a picture of the man, only younger, standing behind a plow pulled by a horse. The horse’s reins were draped over the man’s shoulders. “Farmin’ has come a long way, hasn’t it?” Greg nodded his agreement, and the George was off again. On the page opposite, a woman who looked even younger than the one in the previous picture, no more than a girl really with wild dark hair. She was sitting in front of a fire with a huge caldron hanging over it. The girl was scrubbing clothes on a board. She looked like a hot mess, and had a look on her face that should have rendered the photographer six feet under.
“I’m surprised you have pictures that far back,” said Greg. “Who took these pictures?”
“Well, these two,” George pointed at the pictures of the man plowing and the woman washing clothes, “were taken by a city newspaper photographer who wanted to show what life was like for the settlers. The story told is that grandpa allowed him to take the pictures because the photographer paid him for them. However, as you can tell from this picture, grandpa’s first wife—I think her name was Rosa—wasn’t too keen on it. Back then though, she had no say in the matter.”
He drawled on, “Granny was grandpa’s second wife. He had a child with Rosa, but she died in childbirth, and left him with a baby. Grandpa was just getting the land where it would start making some money, and there was plenty of work to be done. He thought about giving up the baby, but rather than do that, he took a wife and a young wife at that. I think Granny was about fifteen when they married, and he would have been about ten years older. It sounds terrible when you say it now, and I am sure it was awful then as well, but people did what they could to survive. He needed someone to care for the baby. She needed a place to live after her parents died. It made sense to marry back then. But, I suspect he felt she was too young also, because she didn’t have my dad until she was twenty-one. Since they didn’t really have family planning then, I’m guessing my grandfather waited until she was an appropriate age before consummating the marriage, although no one has ever talked about it. You probably don’t want to hear all of that though.”
“No, go on, please. I find this sort of history fascinating.”
“Well, okay then. Anyway, that first baby—Rosa’s baby—died when he was around five or six. I think it was polio, but no one talks much about him. His name was Richard, but that’s really all I know about him. Grandpa and Rosa lived in the dugout the first winter and expanded it the following spring adding on a room. They lived in the soddie, they called it, for about two years. Then they built a wood frame house—so that would have been in 1910—and used the soddie for the livestock they were collecting. Richard was born in 1911, and Rosa died. That same year, Grandpa married Granny, and lived in the wood frame house for about ten years. Richard died in, let’s see…1916, maybe? Dad was born in 1917, and I think it was after Richard died that they decided to have another child, or rather Grandpa did.” George paused in the story to take a long drink of lemonade.
Greg took that opportunity to ask a few questions. “Okay, I just want to make sure I am following the story and the timeline. Your grandfather settled this land you currently are living on and farming in 1907, correct?”
“And your part of the family started when he married your grandmother in 1911, and then had your father in 1917.”
“Wasn’t this area of the country settled long before 1907?”
“It was. My great grandfather staked a claim in 1889, during the run, and he farmed the quarter section for the required time to get the deed. However, when he came out west, my great, grandmother and his children did not accompany him. He went back east to get them in 1899, but he fell ill and died before returning. Great grandmother did not have any inclination to leave her family and home in the east to come out to the wild unsettled lands, so she stayed.
My Grandpa, however, felt that this land was his opportunity to start his own chapter of the story. He was still young, and great grandmother needed his help to care for his younger siblings, so he didn’t leave home until 1906, and headed west for the homestead. Great grandpa met Rosa on his way west, and they were married. When they arrived, deed in hand to prove rightful ownership, he found that the log cabin built by his father had been burned. So, they made the dugout to survive the winter.
“Did your grandfather and grandmother have more children?”
“Yep, all together they had nine although only five of them survived. It was hard times back then.”
“Yes, it was,” Greg agreed. He could not imagine losing one child, let alone five children total.
George continued his story. “When the second child came in 1919, Granny decided they needed a bigger home, so Grandpa started work on the house you see down there,” he pointed north in the direction of the old house. Grandpa and Granny lived in that house from 1920 or so until they passed. The house was occupied by a member of the family until 1990.
When the house was built, it had a water closet, something that my Grandpa deemed to be frivolous. They kept the privy outback for Grandpa and the boys to use while they worked outside, so they didn’t get the house dirty.” George paused in the conversation. After a bit he said, “Do you want to go look at the house?”
“Let’s take my truck here. Lovey, we’re driving to the old place” he loudly called in to his wife. Greg heard her acknowledge the information and they climbed into his old 1970s model Ford truck. This here was my Dad’s truck, and I got it when he was deemed too old to drive. He didn’t like that much.” George chuckled recalling the memory. “It’s a good truck, he took great care of it, and I finished restoring it.”
Greg looked out the window of the truck at the fields. The new wheat was starting to grow. “How much land do you have now?”
“We purchased the surrounding properties as they became available and now we have a section of land. Most we farm, and some we don’t anymore. Our son has a house on the property a mile over.”
They pulled into the field where the old house stood—grand, even in her state of disrepair. George continued his story, “They put in electric lights in the 1930s, and improved on the plumbing over time. The house was solidly built, and although they had to redo all of the electrical wiring in the 1960s, it was a house I thought would stand forever.”
“What happened? Why did you move out?” Greg realized he was totally caught up in a story that had nothing to do with him, and felt a bit odd about it. Like he was a voyeur prying into intimate details of this man’s family history. “I’m so sorry. That is really none of my business. I don’t mean to pry.”
“That’s okay son. I won’t tell you anything I don’t want to. Grandpa died in 1958, so Mom, Dad and us kids moved in with Granny, and built on a bedroom downstairs for her and the rest of us had bedrooms upstairs. Granny lived with us in the house until she died in 1970.
Dad and Mom built the house up the road, and moved there in 1971. They wanted something smaller as all the kids had moved out. That’s when Lovey and I moved into the old homeplace. We were expecting our boy and needed more room than we had in that little apartment in town. I was helping dad keep up with the farm anyway, so it was easier to live out here.
After our kids were grown and moved out of the house, we decided that we would move into the newer house thinking maybe one of our kids would take the homestead, but none of them wanted it. It’s just been sitting here ever since. We took out most things of value, but left the rest of it just the way it was.”
The men got out of the truck and walked around. Greg noticed that there was a patch of grass surrounding the house and tree, but everything beyond that small area was plowed field. Through the windows Greg could see faded wallpaper covered walls, and a broken cane bottom chair laying on its side. Trumpet vine was twining around the balustrades, decorating the house with its bright orange flowers. His mother had called it hellvine because if you touched it, you could get a nasty rash that was difficult to heal. He decided to steer clear of the unsteady, vine-covered porch, and walked around the house to the old tree. The vine had started creeping along its trunk and twining in the branches.
“We try to keep the vine cut away,” George said by way of explanation, “but it comes back every year,”
“I noticed in the picture with your dad, the tree wasn’t here. When did the tree get planted?”
“They planted that tree in 1945 to commemorate the end of World War II, and in memory of my Uncle James. He was the one who was next oldest in the family. He was killed in Normandy in June of ‘44. My dad went, but came home in ’43. I was born in ’42, and he had been shipped out three months before. My Uncle James had never married, so with no family to come home to, he enlisted for another tour of duty.”
They fell into an easy respectful silence for a moment. Greg continued to walk around admiring the structure, and thinking of all the memories that had been shared here. “If these walls could talk, right?”
“I, for one, am pretty glad they can’t. I first kissed a girl on that porch, and it wasn’t Lovey,” he said with a mischievous grin. “If you’re ready, we can head back.”
“Of course,” Greg looked at his watch and saw that he had been caught up in this story for several hours. On the way back to the house, he asked, “why have you never demolished it and plowed the field?”
“Well, I figure, the few bucks of wheat from that patch isn’t anything in comparison to the sentimental value of the old place. I just kinda felt like it could stand a few more years. ‘Sides it gets curious fellas like you to stop by and ask.”
As they came down the drive, Greg was explaining how he should get back on the road, and head on home.
“Well, if you can spare a few more minutes, come on in and sit a spell. I have other pictures I can show you.”
Looking at his watch he said, “I’d like that very much, just let me call my wife and let her know.”
“Sure thing. Just come on inside when you’re ready.”
When he finished the conversation with his wife, Greg walked into the coolness of the dim house. He could smell some wonderful aromas coming from the direction of the kitchen. Lovey came around the corner with a couple of plates and sat them on the big farmhouse table. “Come on in and sit down,” she said. “I thought you might be hungry, so I made a pie.”
Greg chuckled. “What kind?” He knew what he was expecting to hear.