Late yesterday afternoon we had occasion to travel for a few hours through the lower mid section of Wisconsin. In between the small villages and towns stretched rural spans of dairyland. A strong and strangely southern January wind blew a low foil of snow from fields on the left, across the highway, to fields on the right and the late day sun snuck an angled glare between the field’s crusted surface and the blowing sheet. The state highway we travelled followed a curved route carved with deference to glacial remnants and the clout of some long ago landowners. As is often the case along these long rural routes, prosperous and well kept farms were interspersed with those that were less so, and every now and then, like periods in a Faulkner novel, abandoned homesteads appeared.
My eyes are drawn to these unsigned historical markers as I drive by, but I always settle for a passing glance and the thought “that place has a story.” What if I were to stop and actually take the steps and time needed to learn that story?
If I did I might learn that the quarter section it sits on was originally claimed and cleared and plowed by somebody named Fredrik or Karl or maybe Ernst. I might learn that with the exception of the bottomland on the northeast forty, the land was fertile and the harvests were generally good, God willing. And that the stone foundation over there was to a smokehouse built under US Grant and used through most of FDR. I would learn the names of the children and draught horses and the make of the first tractor on the farm. Which daughter went to the State Normal School and came back to teach. I would learn that the drought years were bad but the war years were worse, that Johnny didn’t always come marching home.
It might be learned that the GI Bill and opportunities elsewhere pulled the boys away from the farm and that grandpa moved into town to live with Bill and Marie two years after grandma died. That he sold the farm but couldn’t attend the equipment auction. That he wasn’t cut out for town life, much less being a burden to his son’s family, and that the reaper took him the first harvest season after he left the farm.
Then again the real story might be different on all counts. How would I know? We had places to be and the way that snow was blowing there’s slim chance I would have found the smokehouse. Even if it had been there in the first place. What I can say with certainty is that history casts shadows and the house still stands. And there’s a story in there.
Photo: First Snow, by Swainboat, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0