Whenever I get out in the country, I see some of these old farmhouses. They are falling in, you know, wrecked. I never fail to think, that old place was somebody’s home. They probably had a bunch of kids and chickens, and fruit trees and flowers. I always think of that. —Roxie Davis, Martin County, Indiana (born in 1917)
Our ancestors lived uncertainly on these vast plains. —Bill Holm from Landscape of Ghosts
I may be more aware of them than some, but Roxie Davis’ observation about the abandoned farmhouses in her area of Indiana, and Bill Holm’s writings about the lost farmsteads of western Minnesota indicate I’m not the only one. My heightened awareness of such places traces to one special morning in May of 1974. Here is what happened.
I had just completed my Master’s program at Colorado State University in Ft. Collins and my wife, Mary Ann, and I would soon be moving to St. Paul where I intended to continue my graduate studies at the University of Minnesota. Our plan was to take both of our cars with us to Minnesota, but since Mary Ann was to give birth to our first child in early May, we deemed it best for her not to make the trip to Minnesota by car. We decided instead that I should drive one of the cars to the Twin Cities myself after our baby arrived, stay a few days to look for an apartment, and then fly back to Colorado to finish preparing for the move itself. My Dad was planning to come to Ft. Collins at the end of May and help me to drive the second car to St. Paul along with the rental truck hauling our household goods. Mary Ann and the baby would come by plane after Dad and I had things settled into the new apartment.
Daughter Jill arrived on May 7th, and after I was sure that all was well with her and Mary Ann, I made plans for my initial trip to Minnesota to deliver the first car and to rent an apartment. Early one morning, it was probably about May 20th, I left Ft. Collins in our 1967 Volkswagen Squareback and drove east on Highway 14 towards Sterling, Colorado. I had taken this road many times during the previous two years as I traveled to eastern Colorado to do my Master’s field research. However, this trip was different. My head was spinning from all the momentous changes and transitions we were experiencing then—completion of my Master’s in March, the birth of Jill just the week before, and the anticipation of moving to a new place and beginning a different graduate program. I was apprehensive about what Mary Ann and I would find there—or not find. We had loved living in Colorado and couldn’t imagine Minnesota being as good for us. Plus, in the immediate term, I was concerned about difficulties I might encounter in finding an affordable apartment in the Twin Cities that would accept a newborn child.
As I drove across the Pawnee National Grassland in northern Colorado, these concerns receded for the moment. I was caught up in the early-morning light as it spread over this unique prairie landscape. I looked forward to this portion of the trip because the area reminded me of what I envisioned the West must have looked like before settlement. This was truly “big sky country,” and on this particular morning it never looked finer. As I drove, my eyes mostly scanned the left side of the highway towards the north hoping to catch a glimpse of the Pawnee Buttes and the Pine Bluffs, which were landmarks to which I had been initially introduced when I flew over them in helicopters as I was transported to various Minuteman Missile Launch Centers in northeastern Colorado during my time as an Air Force officer before entering graduate school.
I don’t recall now whether I even saw the buttes and bluffs that day because my memories have all been trumped by my recollections of the farmhouse—that farmhouse. It was on the right side maybe fifty yards back from the highway. It looked abandoned and I probably wouldn’t have given it much thought were it not for the lilacs. In front of the boarded-up house were two lilac bushes covered with blossoms. I slowed my car, pulled to the side of the road and got out. I walked slowly towards the house not knowing exactly why. There were strip fallow wheat fields in the distance behind the house, but no other signs of human habitation besides the house itself. There was a breeze, of course; there is always a breeze or wind in eastern Colorado.
I had always been fond of lilacs since childhood and I may have been surprised to see them growing so vigorously in such dry country. I was impressed by their beauty, and perhaps I intended to walk downwind from the blossoms to a place where I could experience again their intoxicating fragrance.
Sometime during my walk to the house, I considered an obvious question—how did these lilacs get here? Situated as they were symmetrically on both sides of the doorway, I knew they had been purposefully planted, possibly by the farmer and his wife who had built the house in the first place. I surmised that it had been constructed about the time of World War I, and had perhaps been abandoned sometime during the 1960s.
As I walked, I envisioned the house during the “Dirty ‘30s” years of the Dust Bowl, as well as the war years of the early 1940s. I imagined a mother and her children leaving the house in the morning on a day much like this one to pick blossoms from these same bushes to take inside the house and decorate its simple interior. I envisioned those children, maybe five or six of them, bunched tightly together at night in two small beds in a dormer bedroom on the second floor. There would have been no indoor toilet, at least not initially, and everyone in the family would have used a small outhouse located several feet from the back door. There may have been a hand pump and washbasin in the kitchen, but water is scarce in the Great Plains and baths happened once a week at best. Highway 14 would have been a more lightly-traveled gravel road then, and trips to Sterling or Greeley, the nearest towns, would have been infrequent. Perhaps the children were fortunate enough to have a one-room school located in the vicinity—but maybe not. They may have received most of their schooling from their parents. Even today, this area is sparsely populated and has few amenities.
I expect that, in time, the children grew up and left the farm. As they aged, the farmer and his wife also probably left their house and moved to town where they could be closer to medical care and other necessities. Finally, there was no one left to live there—except the lilacs.
Twenty-five years passed before I drove that highway of my youth again. It was August and Mary Ann and I were traveling from Minnesota (where we had remained after I completed grad school) to Ft. Collins for a visit with friends. As we exited Interstate-76 and turned onto Highway 14 once again, I thought of that long-ago farmhouse. I had, in fact, remembered it many times in those intervening years living in Minnesota, and each time I felt a mix of melancholy and inspiration.
As I drove west, I wondered what might have become of that house and whether it still remained. My eyes scanned the south side of the road looking for any remaining evidence of its existence. Nothing. I had mostly given up hope of finding the house site and I blamed my faulty memory since I assumed I had missed seeing it, if it still existed. Then, out of the corner of my eye as I passed at highway speed, I caught a glimpse. I looked back, braked the car and turned around to take another look.
It was a large, fallow field into which I assumed the farmer intended to plant wheat that coming September. Alone and isolated in the expanse of bare soil were two bushes. Because of their location in relation to the highway and to each other, I knew they must be the lilacs. There were no blossoms in August, of course, but as I got out of my car and slowly walked towards those bushes, as I had done so many years before, I again considered their meanings.
The old house was gone now—not a trace was left. Even the native sod that once surrounded the house twenty-five years before had been turned under to make room for more agriculture. But whoever had broken that sod to expand the field had left the lilacs to continue to grow. She or he continued to cultivate around them each year. I wondered who might care so deeply about these two old lilac bushes that they would go to such bother? Maybe it was simply someone who appreciated viewing and smelling lilacs. Maybe it was someone who had known the family who originally lived in the house, and had kept the bushes as a kind of memorial to them. Maybe it was even a member of the family itself—a son or grandson perhaps—who was still farming the land. I will never know.
I’m grateful that, for whatever reason, those lilac bushes were left to grow and blossom after the house was torn down. I still feel a tinge of sadness as I think of the farmer and his wife planting those bushes maybe ninety years ago with their hopes of a bright future grounded in that place. Yet the lilacs bring even stronger feelings of inspiration for me now as I think of them blooming every May—each remembering the hopes…and echoing the dreams.
This essay was written by Steve Robert Simmons in 2011. All rights reserved.