A Great Plains Lost and Found

On recent years’ annual trips across the Plains states, and lately, even on side excursions from sojourns of other purposes, Elke and I have been stopping more often at abandoned farmsteads and school sites. We’ve made these visits not just to photograph structural ghosts, but to ride the mind’s time-traveler to what was, or more properly, what we can imagine of what was.

Some places offer no answers at all, only questions. Though painted by the colors of curiosity, our inquisitiveness also grays like old wood with a faint, yet palpable undercurrent of sorrow over what we know was lost: someone’s treasured home, mill, stables or classroom. The wind whistles through these creaky memorials of bygone workmanship and purposeful devotion that now seem, at least outwardly and superficially, little more than teetering monuments of dilapidation. Other structures evoke admiration at their onetime heft and sturdiness, even as they wither into an inevitable fate of collapse, the product of years of toil destined to fall down in under ten seconds when some future atmospheric maelstrom heaves forth a furious gust.

Every so often we may catch an occasional anecdote from a nearby resident, culled from conversation in some fortuitous roadside encounter or the breakfast diner at the town square. After awhile, as variegated and interesting as they are, the stories start to sound much the same in many respects. These names and this recollection below are fictional, but they capture reasonably the overall texture of the tales…

    “Yeah, they say ol’ farmer Whitson used to have a whopper of a family in there long ago, but he died of consumption the year after the oldest son, Fred I think his name was, lost his leg. You see, his foot froze in the great blizzard when he was out searchin’ for the brood mare that ran off. Couldn’t find his way back himself for the longest time. Freddy died too, not long after that, blood poisoning if I remember right. His ma Annie Mae, let me tell you she used to make the best rhubarb pies this side of Missourah, I remember she’d give me an extra big piece down at the Presbyterian potluck…she got heartbroke having to bury her menfolk, couldn’t afford the upkeep anymore, started going plumb out of her head, and went out to stay with the eldest daughter and her husband in California. Last I saw of any of ’em. That old house sure went to hell, didn’t it? The fact it’s still standin’ at all is a damn miracle, if you ask me, but ol’ Whitson built it in one summer with his own two hands.
    “Anyhow, them younger sons and one daughter got shipped off to Omaha. Whitson’s two brothers and their wives lived up there, and they took ’em in. Them fellas that finished raisin’ the boys had an apothecary or haberdashery or some such. The money was pretty good in it, at least for the times. The youngest daughter Lucille, you bet I remember her name! She was my age and I took a shine to her back in school. Prettiest little gal I ever saw, eyes blue as the sky, but ol’ Mr. Whitson would have tanned my hide if I’d so much as laid a finger on ‘er.
    “Lucy got sent off who-knows where after her pa died and her ma had the breakdown. Aunt Betsy said she heard Lucy ended up teachin’ grade school over by Abilene and stayed single ’til she was middle aged…married some crazy old hippie and started ridin’ motorcycles everyplace. Go figure. Now them Whitson boys, they were all about my age too, y’know. They went off to war before they were full grown. All of ’em made it back in one piece, married good strong women and had a passel of kids. Scattered to the wind, they did, places like Ohio and Phoenix, or so I was told anyway, or something to that effect…reckon they’re all dead now too, haven’t heard nothing about ’em in years and years…probably never will, figurin’ as I’m older ‘n dirt and don’t have much time left m’self.”

Outside of such serendipitous and sometimes entertaining offerings, themselves tales of unknown authenticity, only the imagination can answer our questions, to an extent of right or wrong whose uncertainty we have no choice but to accept. Our mind conjures visions of some warm spring day early in the last century. Yes, imagine…

Somewhere in the prairie wind, the faint chattering of cheerful children outside, a chaotic melange of play noises, warbles all ’round the schoolyard. Can you hear it yet? A bell rings to end recess, and the play noise abruptly ceases. Inside the school, the shuffle of shoes on wooden floors, books on desks and rear ends onto hollow seats calls class back to order.

Back at the homestead, stroll around the yard and catch the faint scent of fried chicken and fresh-baked bread, wafting deliciously from a kitchen that hasn’t had a hot stove in at least 50 years. Pretty soon, those children will be home from school, changing from pressed shirts and petticoats into overalls for work, play and suppertime.

Wandering around the barn, a gust through open windows stirs up the earthy aroma of the dusty floor, molecular hints of haystraw and manure that once filled the building with their scent, while whinnying of horses and clucking of chickens echoed from within. To this day, the weeds grow a little higher around its edges, and not just from the rain concentrated into torrents from the tin roof.

Hey, what’s that banging racket over yonder? It seems to be the flapping of sheet metal in the breeze, or maybe something else…

Standing alongside the workshop, the steady clang, clang, clang of hammer-on-metal echoes to the rhythm of whistling. Is that Rock of Ages? Nevermind, that dull thud we just heard has unbottled a withering torrent of profanities! Time to head back across the yard…

Inside the house, from within the skeleton of its wooden walls, we almost can hear the voice of a devoted farm wife singing hymnal lullabies by candlelight to adoring and obedient children, in a bedroom now sheltering only ephemeral beams of afternoon sunlight. How would her fastidious tidiness reconcile now with all these vermin now clustering across the ceiling?

They’re different physical places, but in a way, they’re all part of a single ideal. Images of the past abound, fact or fiction, or more likely a nebulous amalgam of both, with a bias toward the comforting concept of home and hearth. Is this the tug of nostalgia, a deep longing for our ideal of a cleaner, simpler, more wholesome time of yore that grows evermore Utopian-American, visions of Norman Rockwell’s whimsical innocence or Thomas Kinkade’s luminous simplicities, even as our rational side begins to itemize the ever-expanding spreadsheet of hardships and sorrows surely endured by those who once lived and toiled within those walls?

Reality likely was both more perilous and more Puritan than we now experience. Were the good times then really so good? Is today the good times, future fodder for wistful lamentations by our own children, as they grow old?

When these places stood new, the everyday risks of physical injury, financial ruin wrought by fifteen minutes of hail, and death by disease or accident. All that potential for unpredictable peril loomed darkly in a way utterly unfamiliar to today’s inhabitants of a scientifically and medically advanced, materially pampered and yet decidedly more morally and ethically aimless culture of self-gratification. Can we really consider someone with a car, cell phone, flat-screen TV and a pair of Nikes “poor”? Perhaps we can, but not necessarily in an economic sense.

Privacy, of much the same sort that we now lament losing to electronic snooping and screening, then got sacrificed to watchful vigilance and prying interrogatives of family, neighbors and the network of gossip amongst nearby townsfolk. Pay $50 a month for half-hour workouts at the health club to burn calories consumed at the sports bar last Sunday, or gross $50 in a good month busting sod and working the back forty from dawn to dusk on a daily basis, save Sundays?

Pick both your bitter poisons and soothing poultices of whichever era, for they were and are intertwined — the stifling vapidity of conformity woven through an ethos of giving, thrift, faith, foresight, and neighborly familiarity of the 1930s farm community, or the unrestrained individualism of today with its creative freedoms unleashed, but its net worth shackled to the curses of selfishness, shortsightedness, casual debt, and 10-second attention spans. Have we evolved or devolved from an implicit dictum of excellence to an explicit acceptance of planned obsolescence? “Waste not, want not” then, and “reduce, recycle, reuse” now, seem to be outgrowths of the same concept, but with what difference in motives? What have we lost, or gained, or perhaps more truthfully, swapped for newer iterations of much the same?

Yet, lest we start to get too jaded, we come back to these lonesome places. The images of real lives at work and at play return. Maybe a tear wells up — that is, if we’re so fortunate as to have maintained a modicum of antecedent empathy. If not, stop and consider this. Someone’s hard work and life’s savings sits there, decaying before our eyes, rusting and rattling in the wind. What ever became of the occupants, the folks who lived inside and made their living off the land? Some sort of adverse circumstances obviously drove them out of their dwellings, be it old age, fiscal bankruptcy, lack of descendants willing to maintain the place, divorce, death, or various combinations of them all, ravaging a once-robust farming family. There’s a story in each and every one. What is it?

Do their descendants know or care anymore of the lingering relics of ancestral craftsmanship, a work ethic more sturdy than the structures it yielded, edifices themselves built to hold for a lifetime (now long overwith) against some of the most pendulous extremes of weather in inhabited civilization?

One thing I do know: these places aren’t long for the world, and deserve some thought and attention before they crumble into the dust on which they were constructed. And so we stop, look, photograph…and most importantly, experience.

Please visit our online photo gallery, “Abandoned Structures of the Great Plains“, containing all the images above, and more. The site will grow as we visit more such locales, so come back every several months to check for new imagery, or to take a new look into a familiar scene. There are no captions, so that your own mind can ponder, imagine, and wander harmlessly into idle speculation about the whos, whens, whys and whats of a certain place in time that has vanished forever.

“This ol’ house once knew my children, this ol’ house once knew my wife, this ol’ house brought warmth and comfort as we fought the storms of life.”

          Stuart Hamblen


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