Granddad called it “Bill Long’s place.” The small, hillside farmstead was scattered with box elder, ash and Chinese elm trees and wild plum brush. A gray, weather-worn barn was the only building left standing and a disconnected windmill spun aimlessly in the westerly breezes. It was what others and I called “a ghost farm.”
Many of the early settlers in northwest Iowa succeeded in taming the tall grass prairie, but some settled, struggled, stagnated and failed. Either they were unlucky, unwise or unwilling to put in the long, toil-filled hours under harsh circumstances. Their farms eventually became part of larger farms and they either went to work for the neighbor or moved to town.
When those first landowners departed, the buildings left behind were sometimes rented to hired help, but in may instances they were destined to stand abandoned until either they fell on their own volition or they were torn down to be replaced by a corn or soybean field. There were many of those vacated farmsteads dotting the landscape when I grew up; each stood silently, telling a quiet story.
I didn’t know Bill Long. Grandpa told me that he like to play baseball with the Whiskey Creek team and that he smoked huge, brown cigars. He farmed the northwest quarter of our section and Whiskey Creek cut its way through his property. It seemed to me that the gently sloping hills and the creek bottom would have been excellent farm ground, but for some reason Bill Long didn’t make it pay and he ended up renting the farm out to a neighbor and the farm was finally sold.
They found Bill dead on the steps of his root cellar one day. He had applied for a pension for fighting in the Civil War and was denied. Some say it pushed him over the edge and they found Bill dead on his own property shortly after the decree was made. The house eventually fell in on itself along with most of the other structures excluding that old gray barn and that clanging windmill.
I hunted pheasants along the creek and since it was at the other end of our section, I would many times walk up to the vacant yard and rest on the cement steps of the barn. Being there caused an eerie feeling in my bones as I petted my farm/bird dog’s head. The barn doors would snap open and shut and the wind made a humming sound as it passed through one side of the barn and exited through the opposite wall. It made a wailing sound, not unlike someone singing a soft, lonely lullaby to a child unseen.
The dangling windmill chain would provide a sort of chime to the song of the wind and with the background sound of the moving tree branches, I heard a full symphony. I could imagine Bill Long and his family doing chores in the barn and if I listened closely, I could almost hear the harness being lifted from the workhorses and the soft whinnying of the beasts as they were given their evening ration of hay and oats.
Many times I walked up to those cellar steps and imagined how they found Bill Long. The steel doors were still closed on the cellar and I never had the courage to open them up and look into the dark space below. I probably passed up finding some priceless antique glass jars or Red Wing crockery, but my imagination wouldn’t let me go into that dark place.
There are still a few “Bill Long” places scattered across the countryside, but they are getting fewer by the year. Most have been bulldozed to make room for more cropland. Those that remain are rapidly giving way to gravity and the weather and not too far into the future they will only be a memory for those families that have moved away. I find it rather sad to lose that part of a person’s history, but it is and will be.
Bill Long’s place is now a field. No one would guess that there is a family’s life story hovering over that piece of ground on the northwest corner of our section. But, I know where the “ghost farm” sits. It will always be “Bill Long’s farm” to me.
See you next time. Okay?