They are only here about four months of the year. They live intense little lives during that time, eating heartily, mating, building nests, and hatching out two or three broods. On summer evenings they dart above the yard, twisting and diving and turning midflight. This gymnastic aerial show goes on nightly.
Anybody who eats mosquitos is a friend of mine, and I go out of my way to offer homes to them. There are a couple outbuildings they nest in and I make sure there is a door or window open each May when they arrive.
In last year’s June storm, the yard light pole that held our last overhead electric line blew down. It made sense to bury that like all the others have been. I sheepishly asked electrician Bill Walters if it would be stupid of me to put the dead wire back up on the new pole for the barn swallows. He didn’t exactly answer my question. (Thanks Bill!) But he said he had done that for other similarly impractical customers.
Barn swallows gathering is but one sign of the shifting season. A couple days of low clouds and northwest wind last week put a coda on summer if there were doubts. We will have sunny days and warm days, but things are different. Day length falls below twelve hours as dark becomes the rule. Persephone returns in tears to the Underworld if you remember your mythology.
I feel a little sad this time of year. I’m not sure why. Fall is an appealing time of year on the northern prairie, so why the melancholy? I’ll miss the summer birds. I think of them as “the swallows.” I looked it up recently; they typically live four years. “The swallows” that have been here each of my 61 summers are in fact many generations. Likely some of those on the wire won’t return next May.
I was talking to a friend about this slight sadness. We agreed that we carry residual feelings from our youth that equate this time of year with going back to school. School meant the end of carefree living and the ramping up of responsibilities. You went from a schedule that is loose to one that is ordered to the minute.
I have memory of going barefoot all summer and feeling discomfort having to put on shoes for school. I must have worn shoes doing chores or going to church. But in my mind I am barefoot for those three months. I know I stepped on a few nails. I remember getting a tetanus shot and thinking it was grossly unfair to inflict pain to treat something that was painful.
My brother Dean was blind, and the end of summer meant he would return to the Faribault Braille School. Fall meant my partner in play would not be around, and that was sad.
Fall meant the end of playing baseball, a glorious game played with friends on brilliant summer nights. That was replaced by football, a drudgery at best and a source of aches and pain at worst.
There is a scene at the end of the movie Bull Durham that sticks in my mind. Susan Sarandon (Annie Savoy) is walking in a driving cold, autumn rain on a wet, dirt road. That alternates to shots of the ballfield where the season’s last game has been cancelled by raindrops splashing off the tarp. The scene is mournfully sad; it is as if spring is an eternity away.
Fall is the end of the growing season. As a farmer, your work all season aims toward harvest. It is exciting and challenging. But when harvest is complete, it is months before the return of green to the fields. Years ago, I was writing about fall work on the farm, and noted that a farmer had about forty harvests. Now that I am nearly to that number, I hope I severely underestimated when I wrote that as a silly thirtysomething.
Speaking of forty years, it was forty years ago that I went to a show at the Caboose Bar in Minneapolis. A friend had suggested we go see Jerry Jeff Walker and the Lost Gonzo Band. Walker is a country/folk/cowboy singer from Texas. It turned out to be one of those Funnest Nights of My Life that happens when you least expect it.
I’ve seen Jerry Jeff a few times since. Most recently was July at the Minnesota Zoo. The amphitheater there is a wonderful setting for a concert. It was likely Walker’s last time in Minnesota. His voice is still strong, but he sat on a stool the whole night in a nod to his 75 years of sometimes rough living.
Walker was reflective as he worked his way through songs, many written about experiences he’s had along the way. He mentioned early visits to Minnesota, referring to that night at the Caboose as a “life-altering experience.” That was met with cheers from a few dozen of us who had shared that.
Jerry Jeff talked about being a young man traveling in the South with not much more than his guitar, playing where he could for a few dollars. Someone asked him what he did. When informed that he travelled around playing music, Jerry Jeff was told, “Well, you can’t do that forever.” After a pause, the crowd laughed and applauded at the realization that, in fact, that is what exactly he had done.
At one point the singer referring to those younger years said, “Looking back, things are a whole lot clearer now than they were back then when I looked ahead.” I suppose that is self-evident, but the line has stuck with me.
Poets have long used the seasons as a metaphor for life. Spring brings birth and growth, and is like our childhood. Summer is a time of maturing, as our middle years are. Then fall is the season of decline. Well, let’s just stop this poetic exercise right there.
The harvest looks to be an abundant one. Already tomatoes and cucumbers fill the kitchen counter. Pumpkins and squash are ripening on giant vines. Farmers are hopeful about the corn and soybeans.
I will enjoy many of these fall days. That tinge of sadness will fade in the busyness.
Baseball can be a pleasant distraction from the weightier issues that surround us. The worst that can happen is your team loses, and the sun will come up tomorrow. But sometimes real life intersects with our games. That happened seventy years ago for the town of Sleepy Eye.
When I was young, a lot of folks in town knew the story of Marty Ledeboer whose death on August 3, 1947 reads like a tragic movie script. Now that memory fades.
Martin Ledeboer came to Sleepy Eye as a fresh faced, 18-year-old in the summer of 1945. He was recruited to play for the Sleepy Eye Indians. The nation was entering the post war period. Baseball was immensely popular, nowhere more so than around here. The New Ulm Brewers, Springfield Tigers, along with the Indians played in front of crowds in the thousands.
The Western Minny League was a semi-pro league that hosted a high level of baseball. Each town mixed the most talented local players with hired talent from further away. Ledeboer came to Sleepy Eye out of high school to play for the Indians. He also played college ball at Moorhead State Teachers College and was talented enough to draw attention from pro scouts.
It was common for hired players to be given a job to supplement their baseball earnings. Marty worked at Hollmer Drug Store on Main Street. Ray Hollmer was on the baseball association board and a big supporter of the Indians. By all accounts, Ledeboer was personable and liked by all he met. He was known for putting on an apron to work the soda fountain at the drug store and joking with the customers. Kids were especially drawn to Marty. When I talked to folks who remembered him, it was invariably with a smile.
In Ledeboer’s first season in town, the Indians made the State Tournament. In that time before pro sports teams in Minnesota, the State Baseball Tournament was a big event, receiving front page coverage. Unfortunately, Sleepy Eye’s ace pitcher in 1945, Chief Wonson, was declared ineligible for the tournament because he had played a few games early in the year for the Minneapolis Millers, and the Indians lost out. Regardless, a love affair had been cemented between the community and their team. Ledeboer was the fleet footed centerfielder and a fan favorite.
On August 3rd, 1947, the Indians had an afternoon game at Redwood Falls. It was an important late-season match for playoff position, and hundreds of Sleepy Eye fans would make the trip to Redwood as they did for every road game. They liked their team’s chances with Dick Lanahan on the mound. The 35-year-old Lanahan had pitched for the Washington Senators and Pittsburgh Pirates. The year before he had played with the St. Paul Saints before signing with Sleepy Eye.
The team had a makeshift locker room in the basement of the Lincoln Tavern in downtown Sleepy Eye. As they were preparing to leave for Redwood Falls, Marty assured friends there that he would get a hit that day and break a mini-slump he was in. They wished him luck as he flashed his infectious grin.
The game was something of a slugfest when Ledeboer led off the seventh inning. Sleepy Eye was ahead 9 to 4. Marty was still looking for his first hit. He laced a single to right, his Lincoln Tavern promise fulfilled. It was a hot, muggy afternoon and Marty was sweating as he pulled into first base. The Indians coach was Bugga Stellges, and he flashed the steal sign from the third base coach’s box. Catcher Casey Dowling was coaching first and Ledeboer asked him to lift the sign. Something wasn’t right. He felt fatigued. Worse, his heart was racing.
Years later I talked to Marty’s sister when I was doing work for the Brown County Historical Society. She told me that a doctor had identified a weakness in his heart. Marty also had high blood pressure, and the doctor recommended Ledeboer stay away from strenuous activity. His family talked about him quitting baseball, but Marty said he loved playing too much. He knew there was risk. He even told his parents once that if he was going to die he would just as soon it be in his uniform.
Carlie Sperl was the next man up for the Indians. There would be no chance for Marty to catch his breath. Sperl pounded a ball that got all the way to the fence for a triple. Ledeboer took off as best he could. Fans noticed that he began to weave as he rounded third, and appeared to stumble across home plate. He turned toward the Indian dugout, but only made it part way before collapsing onto the grass.
Marty’s father Garret had travelled from Moorhead for the game. He was sitting with family friend and Marty’s pastor Hillis Slaymaker. As the crowd grew silent, they raced on to the field and knelt over Marty who was conscious yet. When he saw his father he said, “Dad, I got a hit, didn’t I Dad?” Then, “Dad, I’m leaving. Say goodbye to Mom and the kids and Millie for me.” Millie was Marty’s girlfriend back home. Marty looked up at Pastor Slaymaker and said a small prayer and then lost consciousness.
Marty was taken to the hospital in Redwood Falls where the town’s two doctors did what they could for him. He briefly came to and told Ray Hollmer that he would have to take care of the store now. Marty passed away soon after.
Word spread quickly in Ledeboer’s adopted town. Al Anderson of the baseball board said, “Ledeboer had the best disposition of any player we have ever had here. He will be a tremendous morale loss to the team and the town.” Marty had many friends among players in the Western Minny. Hank Nichlasson of the New Ulm Brewers said, “What a swell chap Marty was. If every player conducted himself like he did, what a pleasure it would be to play baseball.”
A funeral service was held Wednesday to a packed church in Prinsburg, the town where Marty was born 21 years before. Besides Marty’s parents, three brothers, and seven sisters, all his teammates and many fans from Sleepy Eye attended.
A lot of us talk about doing something we love in our final moments, dying in the saddle, so to speak. Few of us get that chance. In Marty Ledeboer’s case that is exactly what happened. The death of such a personable and talented young man is of course sad. But there is a nobility in the story.
Later in August, 1947, the Sleepy Eye Herald Dispatch printed a tribute to Ledeboer. It was a poem written by a handicapped man from Lake Lillian who Marty had befriended. Here are a few verses:
The final game is over, the ninth inning has been played, And our centerfielder has laid his bat away.
He went out, as God would have it – among a sporting throng, With his fans and pals around him – after a run so very long.
It was not the opposing pitcher who did finally him retire, It was Death who made the putout, and God was the Umpire.
Now the Angels are his teammates, and they’ll see him safely thru To a richer, better ballfield, where all men are tried and true.
I got to see 2,000 miles of America from quite different perspectives. First from 30,000 feet above in four hours. Then from ground level. That took three days.
Daughter Abby was moving home for a few weeks before starting grad school. She was driving her ’96 Mercury Sable from San Jose, California to Sleepy Eye with as much of her stuff as it would hold plus Leo the cat. I flew out on Sunday and drove back with her on Monday to Wednesday. This was a journey that took settlers months, so coming or going was remarkable if you think about it.
This is half of a continent, the emptier half as far as human beings go. But in the emptiness, it is often beautiful, sometimes breathtaking.
On the flight out, I got a window seat just ahead of the wing. The fellow next to me looked like he would rather stick pins under his finger nails than have a conversation. It was mostly a clear day, so I spent the trip with my face pressed against the glass looking down.
As you ascend from MSP heading west-southwest, below is green. Even from that height one can distinguish between corn and soybeans which dominate the landscape below. I found myself guessing which town that was down there, wishing towns had giant “Hello my name is” labels stuck to them.
Shades of lush green stretch to the horizon for about an hour, with swatches of blue in lakes and rivers. Much of it is divided into perfect mile squares, like some sort of game board. Remember that carving this up into 640-acre parcels happened before GPS and electronics which makes it more astounding. I assume I flew near my farm, and that a few of those little squares down there are mine to cultivate.
In my part time job inspecting fields, I use plat books to find my way. I’m used to thinking in terms of section squares. Roads being exactly a mile apart seem natural when you’re driving in the country. Looking down on it from on high is another matter.
There were puffy cumulous clouds. For each there was a shadow cast on the ground below it. Oddly, it felt sort of upside down being on the other side of the clouds looking at the shadow.
Just the day before I had been working around and under wind generators out in western Minnesota. I shot video of them “whoosh, whooshing” above me. When the plane went over the Buffalo Ridge, suddenly these huge machines were little toy models, spinning silently below me.
Somewhere in South Dakota, the green dries up and is replaced by hues of brown and gray. Probably more so this year since the west has been in a drought. There are ribbons of green in river valleys. Then there are irrigation circles that look like round remnants of artificial turf.
There are less roads and cities. When the hills turn into mountains, there are even fewer. It is difficult to discern the heights and depths of the mountains and valleys from that distance, but I assume it was rugged landscape I was going over.
A day later, we began the trek home, reversing my four-hour flight. Out of California, we drove through the Sierra Nevadas. You cross the Donner Pass near Donner Lake and Donner Memorial State Park. It’s odd that this small piece of history is so prominently memorialized. I told Abby that if things turned bad for us, we were eating the cat first.
After those mountains come a lot of open spaces. Most of the drive across northern Nevada is through the Great Basin. This is called a “cold desert,” hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It was over 100 degrees outside the car, and a little less inside our old car with iffy air conditioning. Nevada was endless brown hills, interspersed with casinos. Every small town had a casino or two. It seemed there are more casinos than people.
That was followed by the Salt Flats of Utah, shimmering white, looking deceptively like water in the distance. Past the Great Salt Lake, Salt Lake City sets between mountain ranges. We had lunch there and would have liked more time. I marked it as a city to go back to.
On the border of Utah and Wyoming, we had car trouble. We spent a morning In Wendover, Utah trying to get that resolved. We described that as a cross between being in an episode of the Twilight Zone and a Monty Python skit, but we were going by noon.
Wyoming is buttes and plateaus, with badlands coloring parts of it. Here and there are herds of cattle when slight amounts of green would appear. We turned off the interstate and took two lane road up toward South Dakota, spending an evening driving through ranch country watching an entrancing thunderstorm off in the distance.
A lot of the West is defined much by what it doesn’t have: rainfall. Green doesn’t reappear until well into South Dakota. We take growing things for granted. I remember when my father who never got off the farm much for his first 60 years came back from a bus tour out west. He was struck by how much land there was that didn’t grow anything. We teased him about that, but gosh, he was right.
There are not a lot of cities on the way: Reno, Salt Lake City, Sioux Falls. We went through the least populated county (Niobrara) in the least populated state (Wyoming).
What towns there were had long distances between them. They were not unlike the small towns of Minnesota with a lot of things that used to be. We saw closed gas stations and empty schools. One town had five closed motels. Out in the country, there were old farm and ranch buildings scattered along the road, well preserved in the dry climate for decades. These were rural places, and rural places everywhere are changing and adapting in the best cases and simply declining in the worst.
As I said, much of it was beautiful, an evolving watercolor painting out our car window. I thought of the Woody Guthrie song, This Land Is Your Land. We saw half of “from California, to the New York Island.” And if it is so that “this land is made for you and me,” America is truly blessed.
Pam and I are trying out this grandparenting thing. It comes highly recommended. Levi is going to be two in September. He’s the cutest kid ever. I might be biased.
Daughter Anna asked if I could watch Levi for an afternoon while she visited friends in New Ulm. It turned out to be the Sunday of Bavarian Blast. Perfect.
After the parade, I spent the afternoon toddling around the fairgrounds with Levi. Levi’s new favorite band is the Bockfest Boys. He was quite taken by the Narren, especially Gertie the Goose. He ended up following the dance line with them under the big tent, something of a mini-celebrity. I enjoy German music and I enjoy Schell’s beer. It was about a perfect afternoon for old grandpa.
Of course, we were outside all day. That was part of the attraction for Levi. He is that age where he wants to go out as often as someone will take him. Whenever we get together it is my role to take him out to the yard or the park or for a walk. Levi doesn’t care if it’s twenty below or the heat index is 100. He’s ready to put on his boots, sneakers, or bare feet and head out.
I remember this age with our kids. They were drawn to the outdoors, almost magnetically. One of the first words Anna said was, “tside,” an abbreviated form of “outside.” She walked around all day, demanding, imploring, pleading, “Tside. Tside.”
You can’t just send them out the door alone at this age. So, I spent hours toddling around the farm with Anna. Their curiosity is voracious at this age. Every rock, bug, weed, puddle, and bird is worth consideration and exploration and play if you can pick it up. There is the temptation as a parent to see this as wasted time, especially when there are a hundred things you’re supposed to be doing. Of course, it is not wasted. This is exactly what parenting is.
As time passes that urge to go “tside” fades. There even comes a day when you’ve got to kick them out of the house.
But for most of us the urge never goes away completely. I’ve got friends who are hunters, golfers, bikers, and gardeners. For each of these the chance to be outdoors is a big part of it. I am fortunate to spend the majority of my time outside. Usually I’m glad for that. Even on the worst of winter thirty-below-with-a-howling-wind days, I make myself go out for a while.
We live in these two worlds. “Inside” is generally safer, constant, and predictable. We are blessed to have places to go into that are heated and cooled. Not everyone in the world does. I sure like my home. It’s just not that interesting a place to be if you are two-years old.
“Outside” can range about 130 degrees in temperature around here with winds anywhere between still and tornadic. It can certainly be unsafe. Most days we can get ourselves comfortable layering coats, jackets, sweaters, etc. But outside is often dramatically different than coming into the house, knowing it will be 70 to 72 degrees.
I said inside is predictable, and that’s a good thing. The hot water in our shower turning cold is about all the surprise we want in our homes. Outside is filled with surprises if we are paying attention. Many of these can be delightful and even awe-inspiring: a sunset of blazing color, unique clouds, wild flowers. The thing is you have to be out there to experience them. If you put in the time, you will be rewarded.
This time of year, I walk a lot of soybean fields in my part time inspecting fields. There can be a lot of sameness in a 320-acre soybean field for sure. Then comes a year like this when I am surrounded by small orange butterflies. I found out that these are painted lady butterflies, and they actually lay their eggs on soybean plants. Whatever the conditions are in 2017, they are right for an explosion of them. I have had dozens of them flitting about me.
Then there are fireflies just before dark hovering above soybean fields, another unique thing to 2017. A week ago, I was finishing my work in a field as fireflies began to surround me. Meanwhile in the northern horizon, there was lightning from a far-off thunderstorm. It was an amazingly beautiful scene. And one I got to see only because I happened to be there.
(Of course, I can’t talk about the outdoors without mentioning our shared nightmare that was indoor baseball. For thirty years the Twins played in an environment that was as interesting as that of your living room. As a state, we are just now recovering from the trauma.
I have been to Target Field when it was thirty degrees; that was against the Miami Marlins of all teams. I have been there when it was ninety and muggy. I have been there when it was gorgeous, when I could barely keep myself from singing out the old song, “It’s a beautiful day for a ballgame, for a ballgame, today…” I’ll take any of those days over the sterile 70 degrees of the Metrodome. There, I promise never to speak of the place again.)
If you look at old articles on health, there is often an admonition to go outdoors. It was considered therapeutic and good for all manner of ailments. I suppose houses of long ago would have had wood or coal smoke in the winter and been hot and stuffy in the summer. Today, we know there are benefits from the vitamin D of sunlight. I’ve read too about measurable positive effects on our brain waves.
In speaking with friends about the outdoors, I hear references to seeing God in nature. There is a reverence as they mention being on a lake fishing or in the woods hunting. We know God is in our house and our workplace, but it is not the same as being in his Creation. There is the chance to see how you fit in to that, a chance for perspective.
Who knows what is in the mind of a small child like Levi? But who knows that he isn’t feeling the Creator’s presence out in that big world that is so new to him? For him and all of us, it’s good to go “tside.”
The excitement has built to a crescendo. Thousands are lined up at newsstands (whatever a newsstand is). Without further ado, here is the Annual Weeds Vacation Guide! Please, stay in line, no pushing and shoving.
Once again we begin with a hearty recommendation to vacation Sleepy Eye. Sleepy Eye has a lake and a water park. A lake, a water park, and endless fun! I mention our lake and water park knowing that tragically there are places that don’t have a lake and a water park. Some of these are cities not that far from Sleepy Eye, cities that consider themselves kind of a big deal.
There was hope for these unfortunate places when our president promised during the campaign to, “Make America Fun Again.” He vowed to build a water park and dig a lake in every city in America. Crowds roared their approval when he announced that not only would every community have a lake and a water park, but that Canada would pay for it! (Don’t ask me, I’m still trying to figure out how we’re getting Mexico to pay for a wall.)
The House passed the “American Happiness Act!” (AHA!). Then came the news that 23 million Americans would still be without a lake and a water park. The president said the bill was mean, and a new version got tied up in the Senate. Since, the president has turned his attention to…oh look, a squirrel.
So Sleepy Eye remains a top destination. When you’re in the area, be sure to check out Brown County’s other vacation mecca. I’m talking about the grand old city of New Wallum, located at the confluence of those two great waterways, the Minnesota River and Ruheheim Creek.
A trip to New Wallum is like a trip to the Old Country. You know, the one our grandparents all left. New Wallum embraces its German heritage, and if you doubt that, they’ll gobsmack you over the head with it. New Wallumers are defiantly German. New Wallum was originally settled by “Chermans.” Chermans are the most serious and stern branch of Germans.
When you’re talking about German tradition (ignoring those nasty little wars), you’re talking about beer. When in New Wallum, be sure to hoist a tasty Mel’s Beer. Mel’s has been synonymous with New Wallum since its founding. It is the second oldest brewery in America owned by a guy named Mel.
(Of course, we all know Mel’s Brewery in New Wallum should be number one. Mel’s Finest out in Schenectady was actually owned by a cousin named Stan for a while in the sixties when young Mel ran off to live in a van with some floozy flower child named Melodious.)
The beloved brewery has survived all manner of plagues and pestilence. Mel’s made it through Prohibition by selling soda pop, near beer, and some things out the back door and some other things out the cellar door. In anticipation of Prohibition’s centennial, Mel’s brew masters are working on a near beer they are calling Faux Beer. Faux Light will especially appeal to the health conscious. It will be an empty can.
The hard-working brewers at Mel’s are also excited about their new line of sauerkraut beers. A special off-site brewhouse had to be built because of the danger of the sauerkraut tainting the other Mel’s beers. Melania IPA is another new offering honoring our nation’s first lady. It is attractive yet mildly hoppy, a quiet beer that seems to be able to tolerate a lot of stupid behavior.
Mel’s fans are excited to know that Mel’s Brewery looks to be in good hands for years to come. The owner, Mel, is bringing his three sons into the business: Melvin, Melton, and Melville.
While a Mel’s “schmeckt gut” any time, it is especially so during one of New Wallum’s gala festivals. There is a long tradition of New Wallumers putting up a tent, cranking up the band, and festing till the wee hours of the morning!
Many of us fondly recall Hereticfest. For years the fest grounds echoed the oompah-pah of old time music and the Mel’s taps flowed steadily, as heretics from across the nation gathered. Heretics have been unfairly stereotyped as a stodgy, not-so-fun group. But they let loose every year at Hereticfest! When New Wallum’s own Discord Singers took the stage at the end of the night, everyone was up and dancing.
It turned out to be a bit too much revelry. Heretics aren’t used to that much fun. Luciferians and Nestorianists with a few beers in them often got out of hand. Alas, Hereticfest was cancelled. Undaunted New Wallum replaced it a few years later with Contrarian Blast. Turns out contrarians can handle their beer. Arrests and faulty inferences through deductive reasoning were reduced dramatically.
Contrarian Blast is just the tip of the festival iceberg. Of course, no German community would be complete without Octoberfest. New Wallumers wondered why stop there? Novermberfest and Decemberfest were huge successes. Unfortunately, the taps froze during Januaryfest.
That leaves quite a few weekends left, and New Wallum is resolute in festing as many of those as humanly possible. Besides, there is a lot to celebrate if you use your imagination.
Toothbrush Fest draws legions of fans of the orthodontic arts every year. The flossing competition attracts a big crowd. Gravity Days packs ‘em in to the fest grounds. Who among us doesn’t appreciate gravity? Try to imagine drinking a beer without gravity. Pretty messy, huh? Dish Towel Jamboree, Lawn Ornamentapalooza, Summer Sausage Carnival, New Wallum celebrates them all!
Even things that others might perceive as a downer, New Wallum can turn on its head and have a party. Lack of Affordable Housing Fest has been a bigger hit than anyone could have imagined.
After the last census, New Wallum was noted for being the second most ethnically homogenous community in America. (Number one was…darn it, I can’t remember now.) New Wallumers want the vacationing masses to know that doesn’t mean all aren’t welcome. To highlight New Wallum’s inviting and cordial attitude, the newest and biggest festival yet was announced: New Wallum Celebrate Diversity Days.
Festival organizers want the public to know EVERYONE is invited. Lefthanded people, people with blue eyes, people in baggy shorts, come one, come all. New Wallum is open to all types. Cat owners, people who drive Fords, guys that wear their baseball caps backwards: New Wallum accepts them all. Never let it be said that New Wallum doesn’t embrace diversity!
Traditionally men passed their occupations to their sons. Cobblers raised cobblers and millers raised millers. We picture Jesus working with Joseph in the carpentry shop until he was called to his larger work.
That happens less today. There is one occupation where the old pattern holds. Most farmers learn farming from their fathers. Most of us work for a time with fathers and some of us with sons. There is something good and natural about that. But the transition from one generation to the next isn’t always smooth. Growing up a couple of decades apart means father and son can have different ideas. Control and decision-making can be tugged on for some time.
My own father and I had our moments. Looking back, there was probably a time I thought I knew more than I really did. We had a few good arguments. Like arguments in a marriage, there was often more to it than the issue on the surface.
I saw a cultivator in a field the other day, an increasingly rare sight. It reminded of a story the Kretschmers told. Bart and Katherine Kretschmer farm out south of us near the Cottonwood. They shared this when Pam and I got together with them after Hugo Kretschmer’s funeral a few years ago.
Hugo was Bart’s dad. Hugo and Irene moved into town after Bart came home to farm with wife Katherine. Hugo drove out to the home place most every day. It was what he knew. Bart might have wanted a little more independence, but he appreciated the help.
On a typical day, the jobs made themselves known. Pig chores and raising crops each had their duties. For the most part Bart and Hugo worked well together. One day, an odd sort of conflict rose up to disturb the peace. This was a wet year back in the 1980s. Bart had banded Lasso herbicide on the corn with the planter. Getting weeds cultivated out between the rows was essential. Steady rains meant the weeds were quite vigorous.
The Kretschmer’s had an old 4-row cultivator back then with C-shanks and wide sweeps. They also had an 8-row Danish tine. The 4-row was slower, but Bart thought it was needed with the bigger weeds. Hugo thought the 8-row would work fine. That was the last piece of equipment Hugo bought, and he felt a special affinity for it.
The seemingly minor disagreement grew into an argument. Who knows what all went into the stew that day? The weather, but there were other tensions. This was the eighties; there wasn’t much money in farming. Bart had taught for a few years after college, not sure if he wanted to farm. Then he chose the worst time to go into agriculture. There wasn’t a lot for Bart and Katherine to live on, and Hugo and Irene were trying to figure out how much to help them.
Katherine was working in the kitchen with the windows open. She had put two-month old Billy down for a nap. She could hear the men outside, especially since they were raising their voices. Small disputes were common, but this one was escalating enough to make Katherine cringe. They were coming up to the house where Bart wanted to get some feed slips.
As the argument spilled into the house, Katherine gave them a big, “Shhhhh! Billy’s sleeping!” Bart and Hugo were standing in the entry way now. Suddenly Bart raised the ante from mere cultivators. “Maybe I should just get out of here and go back to teaching. Then you can cultivate. However. You. Want!” He was retreating outside and slammed the door for emphasis.
The porch was down a couple steps from the kitchen. Suddenly it was Katherine and Hugo in silence. Hugo had spent forty-some years in that house, but he never knew how to be in there since Bart and Katherine moved in. Slumped, Hugo sat down on the steps. He used to sit in that spot all the time to put on his shoes and talk to Irene. He hadn’t sat there since the new occupants.
Katherine wasn’t sure what to say here. Finally, “Hugo, you want some coffee?” He looked up, “Sure” and turned his eyes back to the porch. Katherine shuffled around the kitchen as the coffee maker bubbled. A minute or two passed which felt like an hour to Katherine.
Hugo broke the silence. “You know, Katherine, I’m right. I’m right about the cultivator. But I’m wrong. I’m wrong this time.” Now his eyes came up. “Katherine, you know it means everything to Irene and me to have you and Bart here. But I miss things. I miss how it used to be.”
“Sometimes I want Bart to be little again following me around the farm. And I want Irene to be here in the house so I can eat dinner with her and the kids here in the kitchen.” Hugo made sort of an apologetic look. “I suppose that means you’d still be a little girl in Bloomington.”
Katherine smiled, “That’s OK. Sometimes I think that wouldn’t be too bad.” The coffee was done. Katherine brought two cups over. Handing one to Hugo, she sat on the step next to him. She never quite knew what to say to her father-in-law; now she thought it best to not say much.
Hugo cradled the cup in both his hands. “You know what I miss, Katherine? We made a little ballfield out there west of the machine shed, where we had a pasture. Me and the kids played games after chores that used to last hours. I pitched all the time. I was Warren Spahn. Bart was Rod Carew. That was his favorite player. The girls all wanted to be Roy Smalley cause they thought he was cute. Once in a while Ma came out and played, too. She was Eddie Mathews, cause we used to be Braves fans before the Twins came.”
“I miss that. Irene and I was talking the other night about memories like that. She said it was time for you and Bart to make memories on this place. I know that’s the way things are supposed to work. Ever since Bart was little, I wanted him to take things over. I know that, but I get sad sometimes. I remember my dad used to sit on a bucket down in the barn and just stare out the door. Now I know that he was probably sad this way.”
Hugo glanced over at Katherine. She was looking down at the floor, too, a little tear in the corner of one eye. Then she offered, “You know Hugo, you can play ball with Billy in a few years when he grows up.”
“I don’t know.” Hugo made a crooked grin. “I’m not sure old Warren Spahn’s got too many pitches left in his arm.” He felt a little misty, too.
Bart chose then to walk back in to the house. Seeing his wife and father sitting on the steps like that, he had a “What the hell?” look on his face.
The good news is that son and father usually let things fall away quickly when they disagreed. Bart wanted to put the argument in the past. There was too much to do to dwell on that. “Hey Dad. We need to get sweeps at Miller Sellner. They got sauerkraut at Eddie C’s today. You wanna go? We can call an executive meeting there about the cultivator.”
He looked at Katherine. “Is that OK, Kath?” On the baby monitor they could hear little Billy stirring. Starting to get up, Katherine said, “Sure, you two go ahead.”
As she walked out of the kitchen, she turned. “Billy and I might go play ball later. He could be the next Rod Carew.” Hugo grinned as Bart gave a “Huh?”
Early in the morning I was paging through one of the farm magazines that pile up this time of year. I came to a photo of a driverless tractor. Case IH is calling it a concept vehicle. All the equipment companies are experimenting in this brave new world. I sent the photo out to some friends with the comment, “I guess I’ll be looking for work pretty soon.”
I have spent a large share of my career driving a tractor. It’s mildly disconcerting to see something you know so well, only you’ve been cut out of the picture. The tractor is an odd-looking beast. When you remove the cab from a tractor, it begins to look like an animal without a head.
This is not a surprise to us farmers. There have been tremendous leaps in agricultural technology over the last decades, and this one is predictable. With the combination of GPS, auto-steer, and guidance systems, the driverless tractor is a logical next step. Almost assuredly, you will see a driverless tractor in a field near you soon.
There are “early adapters” as technology moves out of the lab and on to the farm. I am not one of them. I still actually steer my tractor. That puts me in the minority of farmers right there. My rows still have embarrassing wobbles in them. The wobbles might indicate taking a sip of water or checking my phone. Regardless, I can see my dad Sylvester shaking his head from the beyond.
It humbles me to have to admit that the neighbor’s rows are straighter than mine. Those straight rows may be mostly cosmetic, but auto-steer does point to the future. In that future, there is no doubt a next-generation farm operator can be more efficient than me. I could make a go of it partly because I’ve put off purchases and used my labor instead, farming on the cheap. But as modern machinery investments get spread out over thousands of acres, my advantage slips away.
Even if I’m a “non-adapter,” I can’t help but be impressed by the possibilities. Drones will go out and relay information about crop condition, weeds, insects, and diseases. Then precise amounts of fertilizer and pesticides can be applied exactly where it is needed and no more. The environmental benefits are apparent.
What happens to labor requirements on farms in this rapidly approaching future? The answer to that is obvious. A farm operator with a few workers and the capital to purchase top of the line technology will literally be able to run a county. Or two.
Of course, it wasn’t always so. Go back just a few generations, and there were families working on 160 acres all across the middle of this continent. Big families had an advantage because there were more workers.
A century ago, it took twenty hours of labor to produce a hundred bushels of corn. Today, that might be down to minutes. There aren’t many of us who would choose to go back to live and work on a farm in 1917. It was tough, physically demanding work, dirty. Often it was dangerous. In addition, it wasn’t that lucrative. For most of our nation’s history, farm families accepted twenty per cent less income than workers in the city.
For all of that, there was something unique and worth commemorating about what we had in the United States. Our ancestors, really, most people who ever lived on this planet, wanted nothing more than a place of their own to live and work and raise a family. Being able to own a piece of land was something generations wished for but few were given the opportunity. For most of human history, land belonged to the pharaoh or king or whoever held power.
When America came to be, there was a whole continent to divvy up. (That is if you ignore the Native people who were here, which is no small matter.) For all its flaws, America offered a chance to live on a piece of land that the worker owned. Thousands of families spread out across our nation, both citizens and landowners. They had a stake in the land, which meant they had a stake in the future.
Again, it was not perfect. There are myriad stories of abuse, alcoholism, and dysfunctional families on the frontier. It was not perfect, but it many ways it was as close to perfect as human society has come. Now, we are giving that up.
There is little doubt that less and less people will be needed in this future of driverless tractors. It is part of the American story that the economy is always churning, ever changing. Jobs constantly become obsolete.
I was talking with a few friends around my age who farm. All of us grew up on the diverse labor-intensive farms of a half century ago. Those were places where manure making its way from barn to field usually got there aided by a pitchfork. Weeds were often pulled by hand. Feed for livestock was shoveled or baled. There was work for a whole family and then some.
A couple of us have a son or daughter interested in the farm, but nothing very settled. As we imagine the future of our farms, it’s hard not to see drones and driverless tractors in them. But not so much a farmer. If a next generation is going to work these farms, it probably will require an off-farm job. Or perhaps it will mean joining somehow into one of the larger operations.
But as we head down that path, it’s good to remember where we came from. We will continue to produce food in these fields that surround us. It will be with less labor, and it will be efficient. But it won’t be the same.
I hate Garrison Keillor.
Okay, I don’t really hate him. I’m jealous of him. He’s an uncommonly gifted writer, and I’m not. When I spend time with words, vanilla comes out with specks of chocolate. Keillor’s words come out in bright, colorful flavors.
Granted, Keillor is a “writer,” and I write a little bit. Unfortunately for me, we plow the same ground: small towns, fields, gardens, church, and the people in them. We poke around these places looking for humor and a bit of meaning. About a million times listening to Garrison, I have said to myself, “I wish I had thought of that.”
I had the opportunity to consider my anemic ability when Keillor was in St. Peter a few weeks ago. He spent an evening in Christ Chapel at Gustavus Adolphus College, part of what he called The Gratitude Tour. The liner for the program said, “Mr. Keillor has now reached a certain age when you realize how lucky you are and you stop complaining. Complaint is a mainstay of comedy, so he is now experimenting with a comedy of gratitude.”
It was just Garrison walking about the sanctuary, telling stories, reflecting, making observations. There was a podium he didn’t use. He had no notes. Occasionally I’ve been asked to speak to some group. If I stand in front people and try to sound half ways intelligent without writing things down, I will be lucky to sound coherent. Garrison did that for two hours! Songs were interspersed through the program, no instruments, the audience singing along.
My one-way relationship with Keillor goes back to St. John’s University. Minnesota Public Radio was birthed there a few years before I came for schooling. Garrison Keillor was an early hire, broadcasting a morning show from the campus which was the genesis for the Prairie Home Companion Show. The small towns around St. John’s begat Lake Wobegon, Powder Milk Biscuits, good looking men, strong women, and above average children.
While in college I ran around St. Joseph, Albany, and Cold Spring. Pam grew up between Long Prairie and Osakis. Lake Wobegon may have sprung from Keilor’s mind, but it sure seemed that if you drove the county roads up in that region you would come to it.
I became a big fan of the Prairie Home Companion Show. There was an eclectic mix of music and humor bits each Saturday at 5:00. But the core of each show was the monologue. For twenty to thirty minutes, Garrison stood alone on stage with a microphone. Sometimes on a stool, sometimes with his eyes closed, he would tell stories that I felt like I could walk right into. Ralph’s Pretty Good Grocery and the Sidetrack Tap might as well have been Broich’s Piggly Wiggly and the Lincoln Tavern. Father Emil from Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility and Pastor Inqvist of Lake Wobegon Lutheran Church became as real as Father Wyffels and Pastor Freimark.
The stories were always funny, sometimes tinged with sadness. They had a way of revealing the characters’ humanity and vulnerability. I felt like I knew those people; sometimes it felt like it was me.
Keilor is an amazing talent I have admired for forty years. But there have been bumps in the road. It seemed like he abandoned me when he left the show suddenly in 1987 to move to Sweden with his new wife. A few years later the show was recreated as the American Radio Players of the Air and was broadcast from New York. New York? That was as far from Stearns County as you could get.
Later Keillor wrote a satire column for the Star Tribune, wherein he repeatedly bashed then-president George W. Bush. Bush for his flaws, is a good and decent person. Keillor had always made jabs at politicians, but this seemed mean spirited. (Now Keillor writes a column for the Washington Post in which he satirizes the current president. I don’t have the same concerns about our 45th president being a good and decent person.)
Time moves on. The Prairie Home Companion Show came back to St. Paul. I forgave Garrison those indiscretions. For which I’m sure he would not care even if he did know. Besides I wasn’t always faithful. My listening ebbed and flowed with life responsibilities.
I went to see the Prairie Home Companion Show broadcast from the Gibbon Ballroom in 1997, a show which honored polka music and the grand old ballrooms that used to dot the Midwest. I saw the show a few other times in person. Mostly I listened on the radio while making supper with Pam or dancing with one of the children. Those are good memories.
Now Garrison has retired from the show, although it continues with a new host. I suspect he will continue to do stage work like at Gustavus. He is scheduled at the Grandstand at the State Fair. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him back on his old show as a guest.
All my adult years I have followed Mr. Keillor’s career more or less. TV and movie stars have never held my attention like this radio star. When I was young Harmon Killebrew was my hero, playing baseball at a level I aspired to but could never achieve. I suppose it is like that with Garrison Keilor in my adult years, writing at a level I can only dream of.
People with exceptional talent are to be appreciated. They can lift us up as we watch them hit a baseball 500 feet or listen to a beautiful story. It is good to have people that push you, even if you can’t match them. I’ve got them all around me here in Sleepy Eye. Tom Larsen is a better singer than me. Scott Demaris is a better runner than me. Tom Hirsch is a nicer guy than me.
There was a country song called, “Pretty Good At Drinkin’ Beer.” I might have to fall back on that.