Picture stories

“Dad, is this the old home farm?”

My daughter’s short and sweet question went with the internet link she recently sent to me, the site offering thousands of old aerial farm photographs from around the Upper Midwest.

She knew she was strumming my heart’s strings by sharing the linked photograph and asking me that question, her knowing all too well about how that sort of thing is right up my barn’s alley. Heck, I’ve even gone so far as writing a book about my times at that place and how it relates to so many other people who know such a site.

My profound answer on another day might have been that she could have shared an aerial photograph of nearly any dairy farm of that era and, for many reasons, and I’d have found a way to answer “yes.” I’ve learned over the years that the experiences people had on their old home farms are similar to the experiences most other old farm kids had.

We all knew the chill of dew-soaked jeans after getting cows from pastures on June mornings.

We shared a hatred for picking rocks and pulling yellow-rocket.

We knew the smells of freshly-turned sod, newly-cut hay and good corn silage.

Optometrists and ophthalmologists have commented on the scratches cows’ tails have left on our eyeballs.

We know the soothing comfort of resting our heads onto a cow’s warm belly on a cold morning or after a long night of parties.

The haymow’s bales that during summer drew so much sweat and built so many callouses become great for forts, play and peace from autumn to spring.

A little cow manure on our clothes or accidentally consumed goes unnoticed for us, but we know the importance of paying attention to which cows cough excessively so as to not pass closely behind them after they’ve been on the spring’s first pastures.

Each farm has its own personality, each so different yet each so similar.

The similarities extend so far that I have to have a good look at those black-and-white proofs of the aerial view before I can pick out other farms from around my old and new neighborhoods. That’s especially true because, from the sky, a photograph’s third dimension – depth – is greatly reduced.

Since my daughter first shared the photograph with me, I’ve shared it with several friends. In the days after, I saw the Web site’s link being passed by many folks. That’s made it fun for me to see so many of our northern Driftless Area friends identifying perspectives of friends’ farms as I’d never seen.

One of my favorites was the excitement when neighbors found the photograph of the Huskelhus School across the ridge from us. The joy in their memories rang as loud as any recess bell the school ever knew.

There is excitement in notes when people find their old family farms among those photos. I suspect that was the purpose of the site’s creators who, after all, want people to be tied to the photographs with enough excitement to purchase one or two of them.

However, I see in those notes more than the potential for a sale. There are stories begging to be told and memories to be shared among generations.

Some of those stories and memories are as basic as describing where an old granary or chicken coop used to stand, and what’s been put there to replace those buildings.

Some of those stories and memories can be as complicated as describing the place where the teller shared a first teenage kiss with a neighbor kid.

The story tellers might see their farms’ old stone piles in the photographs, and describe to others childhood times spent picking those rocks or playing on the piles’ sun-warmed stones on sunny spring or autumn afternoons.

Somewhere in the photos are stories about children whose boots forever disappeared in a barnyard’s mud.

No matter the uses, the Driftless Area land in our rural countryside can never be the same tomorrow as it was yesterday – or even as it is today. Those photographs and the stories and memories they coaxed from the soil nourish us just as the land’s bounty nourishes us.

And, the flurry of interest in the photos is further proof in my belief that it’s important for those stories and memories to be told and saved.


— Scott Schultz

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