We visited the old farm a week or so ago to film a birthday greeting for my big brother, and what struck me wasn’t what is gone but what has endured.
What is gone? Well, almost everything. The house where my four siblings and I grew up. The once-stately barn that in its later years leaned and swayed in rain storms and blizzards. The garage where my dad taught me about handling tools and where I learned — all on my own — to take an old sickle blade, rivet it onto a cut-down ax handle and create a pretty serviceable hatchet. The bunkhouse where the hired hands used to stay until us boys got old enough to take their jobs away. And the granary, where I knelt in itchy oats and choking dust to shovel the grain into the farthest corners so another truckload could be dumped.
What has endured? Well, not much. The pole building we used as a machine shed and catch-all. I helped dig the holes for the posts, helped frame up the sides with two-by-fours and helped attach the metal siding, nail by nail, with a heavy old claw hammer. I must have done something right, because that building is standing. In truth, though, I must have been in college or at least high school when we built it, so it was probably the newest structure on the home place when we finally sold our land after Dad died in 1968.
The pole building is about the only structure around, but it isn’t the only thing that endured. A few strides from that building stands what remains of the windmill. In its day, while it looks as if it might have been built from a child’s erector set, that spindly-legged thing lifted (when the wind blew) water from a deep artesian well to fill the stock tank the Herefords crowded around, competing to drink on hot days. The windmill these days looks like it should be spending its last days somewhere in the Sand Hills of Nebraska, waiting for photographers seeking nostalgic scenes to happen by.
The only other thing of note — to me, at least — that has endured is the REA pole. Maybe it’s been replaced over the years. Probably has been. But it looks just as weathered as it did when we left the farm. It represents for me a time when a federal program changed entire rural neighborhoods almost overnight. Before the REA strung its wires across the prairie, a windcharger and a pack of batteries provided power. With the REA, we had power at the turn of a switch.
I’ve written about this before, but if you never experienced farm life without rural electric service, you can’t really appreciate what it was like to flip a switch and light up the kitchen or bedroom or garage — or the whole farm yard, if you wished. I can’t remember how long, but it was a long time before Dad started to remind us to turn off lights when we left rooms. It was five or six months before he stopped leaving the yard light on from sundown to sunrise. He liked to step out the back door before he went to bed, just to see what he could see in the middle of a dark night.
I tend to get a little disoriented whenever I drive into the farm yard these days. Having so many buildings gone leaves the area unfamiliar, a place where strangers once lived. When I stand quietly near the REA pole, though, and let the scene bring memories and images from the past, I can begin to place each building, each tree and each fence and gate in its proper place — or pretty close, anyway. Gradually things begin to feel familiar and the place begins to seem like mine again.
As I stood in that spot the other evening, it occurred to me that the windmill and the REA pole, those things that endured, represent huge contributions to the quality of rural life. Without dependable water and power, this is a tough country. With those two things, it can be a wonderful place to live.