I grew up on an Iowa farm and left it when I went off the college in 1964. I recently reflected on our rural neighbors and our interative lives together.
We knew our farm neighbors by the distinct sounds of their Farmalls and their Case tractors, their trucks and combines, climbing the hill past our place. We didn’t even need to look to see who they were. But we did, and we waved like all farm folks waved – a perfunctory raised arm and flap of the hand.
The whines, whirs and rattling of their machines contributed to the rhythm of our countryside. There was a pulse to their regularly passing our place. We always sensed what was different or out of place – who was grinding feed or being visited by a corn salesman. We saw their dogs patrolling or resting beside the well house.
Typically, there were four or five farmsteads in each square mile, and we, especially, knew those with kids. These were neighbors whose kids we grew up with, told our secrets to and hung around with under the black, starry skies of the rural night, with the mosquitoes. We roamed through their barns and woods.
Only a few homes contributed to our one-room country school, Beaver No. 2, carved out of a corner of our farm. Fifteen of us in grades 2 to 8 were left when the state shut down our “neighborhood school” in 1955.
In our patch of Grundy County Iowa, I caught the last of the oat threshing era during the 1950s when the massive clamoring machine was towed from farm to farm in July to separate oats from sheaves that had stood in shocks in the yellow fields. Neighbors were expected to set their days aside and join the threshing crews for a couple weeks, moving from one farm to the next until the circuit was completed.
From time to time, a commercial corn sheller descended on most farms, and neighbors turned out to help and provide grain wagons to capture every kernel a large corn crib could give up. Gravity sent the dried ears into the hopper, while men in the crib used hooked forks to tear the ears loose. Mice scrambled from the crib, escaping across the farmyard if cats didn’t snag them first. In the end, bulging wagon loads of golden shelled corn were hauled to the elevator in town.
As neighbors, we shared fenced lines that were ensnarled by vines and ragweed, willows and sumac. We worked out arrangements with neighbors to split the cost of new barbed wire, steel posts or galvanized fencing. Creeks flowed out of neighbors’ fields and pastures into ours, carrying their dead cornstalks and the water from the tile lines buried in their fields. Meandering creeks laced farms together. Those downstream were gifted with eroded silt from those neighbors. Then massive summer rains created flashfloods that interlocked our farms with robust bodies of water with new shorelines.
High summer winds took down sheds or barns across the countryside. After the storms broke, we’d climb in the pickup and rambled across the countryside to see who had been hit. A third of my hometown was wiped out by a May 2008 tornado with more than 200 mph winds. Six died in the greater area. That day, my family was visiting relatives 35 miles away and would see the impact of nature’s rage a day later. Fields just north of our farm were strewn with shreds of people’s possession.
The tangerine winter sunsets we saw through our grove showcased our neighbors’ barns, sheds and houses. We snapped brilliant photos we thought were prize winners.
For one year, my farmwife mother, a registered nurse, who couldn’t drive was taken daily by my dad to nearby Stout to care for the bedbound father of a woman who lived across the road and her brother who lived just up the road.
When my twin brother got his pilot’s license at age 16, he lured neighbors to take turns taking flights over their farms, so they could behold their fields and farmsteads from above. He could build up flight hours, and they paid for the plane rental.
Neighbors phoned us when they saw our livestock come up the road after escaping through a bad fence or over tall, frozen snowdrifts. We traded our farm equipment and tools. Sometimes we did their chores when they took a trip. We listened for danger, spread the word about where sons were going to Army basic training and we went to the weddings and funerals of neighbors.
When we had a rural party line (our number was 2296), we picked it up after two long and one short ring. Usually we could hear our neighbors pick up, too, to listen in. bout where sons were going to Army basic training and we went to the weddings and funerals of neighbors. When we had a rural party line (our number was 2296), we picked it up after two long and one short ring. Usually we could hear our neighbors pick up, too, to listen in.