Lessons I Learned On A North Dakota Farm

Image ©2017 Clarence Holm

  • Never dig an outhouse hole deeper than what you can climb out of.
  • The fluffiest cats were always skunks.
  • Grabbing an electric fence in never fun, despite what your older brothers tell you.
  • The facts belong to whichever sibling is telling the story.
  • To judge a man, look into his friends eyes.
  • It is never good to take a bath in the same water as the youngest child.
  • Brakes on a John Deere only work if you can reach them.
  • The best neighbors come when you holler.
  • A man plows straightest when he looks at where he is going.
  • When your hands are full, it is harder to pick a fight.
             – Clarence Holm

On Display

It was a source of pride between farmers, demonstrating agriculture skills. The most obvious, the ability to plow a neat straight line was on display to all who passed by a farmer’s field. After church on Sunday, a few received advice on farming from helpful elders.

This farmer’s furrow
Plowed deep, straight as an arrow
For Sunday judgement

-Clarence Holm

Gophers, Twine, Alfalfa, and Snipes

I don’t know if my mother knew much about hunting the mythical snipe, but she did know a thing or two about young boys on a farm, twine and gopher holes.

Our farm was situated on the prairie in North Dakota. It was so-so land, that was at least good enough for a small yearly grain crop, if the rain came. To supplement the grain, we kept a small herd of beef and dairy cows which provided milk and cream for our household. They also added hamburger to our meat, mixed with ground venison that somehow was caught on our land and supplemented our food supply.

To provide feed for the cows, one of our fields that was more rock and slew than black dirt, was seeded with alfalfa. While the grass and alfalfa didn’t take well to the land, the gophers did.

That part of North Dakota that we lived in had two types of gophers, the “Pocket” Gopher and the” Striped” Gopher. Both types feasted on our crops, but only one was a danger to our cows and horses. Those little striped gophers dug and left holes all over the pasture. The holes were big enough that a horse or cow could drop a leg into one and break an ankle (A fatal condition). A pocket gopher filled in his hole behind him leaving a soft mound of dirt, that while the dogs were keenly interested in them, they posed no risk to the animals.

It was our job, as the young men of the farm, to man the small collection of gopher traps and manage the striped species. We would secure the traps with chains and spikes in or near a gopher hole, and then leave it till we got results. Then the tails were collected for the bounty and the traps were redeployed. The traps were checked twice a day and the whole job took about a total of one hour tops.

That left us a lot of free time, time in which we investigated, poked and fiddled with the old and broken farm machinery. I guess we just want to see how it worked, but more and likely it was just a contest to see who could get the most bolts off the old junked machinery. When we would get too close to the old hay sickles, mom always managed to find us something else to do. That something usually involved baling twine, the alfalfa field and gophers.

She would get us a nine foot length of twine and would tie a slipknot on the end. Then we would run the twine back through the knot to make snare. Mom would then show us how to place the snare around the gopher hole and get back to the end of the twine and lay quietly on the ground waiting for the sneaky gopher to appear. Mom told us if we were patient and quiet enough, we could catch a bunch of gophers to increase our tail profits.

That “snipe inspired” woman would get us set up on the holes and get us to lie down in the soft alfalfa field, with the summer sun on our back and she would go back to the house. It would take less than a half an hour of the sheer boredom and the sweet smell of the grass to put us to sleep in the sun.

Mom would come out at lunch time and would send our dog to go wake us up for sandwiches and cookies and listen to our tales of hunting.

Green Acres – The Search Continues

Green acres is the place to be
Farm livin’ is the life for me
Land spreadin’ out so far and wide
Keep Manhattan, just gimme the country side.

The rain, wind, and snow held off for the weekend so my wife and I continued our search looking for our retirement home near Laura Ingall’s stomping ground between Walnut Grove and the big city of Mankato, Minnesota. Specifically we looked at properties in and around, Trimont, St. James, and Comfrey, Minnesota.

Properties ranged in price between 62K and 102K. Some were farmsteads and others were in the city. (if you consider a town of less than 2000 to qualify as a city.) All of the homes had multiple bedrooms and had buildings that could accommodate a generous workshop. All properties had room for a generous garden, which would make Aunt Bea jealous.

Our host for the day, was our trusty real estate agent, James Olson of the Homestead Agency of Winnebago, Minnesota. This was James second attempt to help us find our utopia, but like Atlantis our goal appeared to be doomed.

The first farmstead we visited was located just outside of Trimont, on seven acres of trees and prairie. The property included a two pole sheds, a garage, and three silos. The house was a 1920’s story and a half that had been moved to the farm in the sixties after the original home was destroyed in a fire. The occupied building was left open for us by the owners so we could tour the properties, with instructions to our realtor to make sure the doors were closed when we left.

The main design feature of the home was the fake log siding attached to every wall of the main floor, reminding us of a night in an old Northwood’s cabin. Unfortunately the main scent of the place was of cat, not smoke and pine. There also appeared to be a home rewiring project going on, as part of the wiring on the exterior of the home was spliced together with electrical tape. For safety reasons, we moved on.

The next home was located in Trimont, and was a 1920’s two story with original wood trim. Entering the home we could see hardwood flooring in the entry leading to a carpeted living room and formal dining room. We believe the rug was covering more of the solid maple flooring. Unfortunately the house had a kitchen that had been not brought up to the later part of the century. The refrigerator was placed by itself on a diagonal, a good ten feet from the stove and sink. It was apparent that a kitchen rebuild was in order.

Right next to the kitchen was a half bath which led to a side deck. Obviously that allowed guest to wash up as they came in from the deck for meals.

Upstairs were three bedrooms and a full bath. The second floor was accessed via an ornate wooden staircase featuring a landing and a turn. Again there were hardwood floors throughout.

Outside was a new heated four car garage and an older two car garage. The four car garage would make any craftsman weep with joy as there was room and power aplenty for any type of project.

Even though the kitchen needed work, the property itself remains on our list for more consideration.

The next property James showed us was a farmstead near St. James. Sadly the home seemed as if the previous owner had said “enough” and hastily moved on, leaving a lifetime of junk and cats to fend for themselves. Again we moved on.

We traveled to Comfrey, where we had three houses to inspect.

The first home was an older story and a half with a large garage. The owner, a very nice lady who was unable to move, stayed in her recliner as we walked through the home. She was watching the noontime soap opera and our realtor stuck with her to watch as we checked out the house.

The home itself was small and suffered from a collection of “everything” that spanned decades. There were dolls and doily’s a plenty, mixed in with her son’s Budweiser supply stashed throughout the house and garage. The building was too small for our needs, so we thanked her for the hospitality and went back to our car.

It was nearing noon and since I had seen a bar and grill not far away, we convinced James to stop for lunch. We pulled into the ample parking lot of the Comfrey Bar & Grill, and even though it was noontime, there was plenty of room between the seasoned regulars. Today’s special was a hamburger with your choice of a side dish, which included French fries, skillet fried potatoes or onion rings. The portions were generous and the prices were reasonable, with us and the realtor fighting over the $17.00 lunch tab. He won, but I saved face by leaving the tip. To give you an idea of the Comfrey “ambience” attached is a “Youtube” presentation on this actual Bar & Grill.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zs4gZnHXmC4

With two homes yet to inspect in Comfrey, we moved on.

The next home was an early 1900 house that had been updated to within an inch of its life. Where ever possible an addition had occurred or a space had been converted. The end result was 2000 square feet of paneling and carpet held together with homemade and heart felt decorations. While I am sure the family had the money into the project, we could not see paying to support their craft.

The last home we visited was a 1950’s two story home, which had been tastefully maintained. The home would have easily appealed to the Brady Bunch both in size and décor. Even though I was still beginning to feel the effects of the noon meal, the home kept my interest.

The property was on a 70 by 200 lot that included and extra detached two bay garage that could easily be used as a private workshop. The lot itself had room for a garden and was near the edge of town bordering a field. The view out the front window was of the town’s carwash featuring a cleverly stenciled drawing of a very happy auto.

Unfortunately, a closer inspection of the sales brochure showed a yearly tax that would almost equal the house payment. Time to call it a day.

Looking to Go Rural

My wife and I have been considering relocating to rural Midwest location.  We are interested in finding an older farmstead, with a smaller home on about 5 acres of land. We would need a garage and a free standing outbuilding where I can put my workshop.

This weekend we began our search in southern Minnesota in St. James in Watonwan County. A friend of mine recommended a Real Estate Agency to aid in the search. The agent, Gary Sturm, works for the aptly named Mayberry Realty and he spent part of his Saturday driving us around the town of about 11,000 people, that he so happens to serve as Mayor for.

During the drive through town, he pointed out places and persons of interest, including his wife on her way to football game and two of his children on their bicycles.

The town features a branch of the Mayo Hospital system, a school system with about 1200 students, parks and an adjacent lake.

Small town living includes eating at the HomeTown Cafe, featuring a hot beef sandwich heaped with potatoes and gravy, followed by the highly recommended homemade pie ala mode.

The town itself has undertaken a rebuilding of its city streets and utilities and the people pride themselves on their property and the city.

Gary showed us a number of homes ranging in price from $50,000 to $120,000. Unfortunately, lot size and the ability to have a shop knocked all of the locations out of contention. Gary promised to watch for homes in the rural area that would be a better match.

Overnight we stayed in a Days Inn at Austin, MN. I asked if they had a swimming pool or a hot tub for the guests and was informed that they did not. However the clerk stated that the Holiday Inn next door is owned by the same people and if we wanted to swim they would bring us over and get us in. (You just got to love rural hospitality!)

The next morning, we got up and drove through the Root River Area of Minnesota, which includes Preston, Chatfield, Eyota, and also features an Amish community near Harmony, MN. In Preston we stopped at the Preston Apple and Berry and bought some fresh Honeycrisp apples. Since it was noon time, I asked for a lunch recommendation and was steered to Estelle’s Eatery in Harmony, Minnesota. The restaurant was located in a classic 1900 small town bar with a wood and tin ceiling and original oak flooring that had been had sanded and refinished  with a dark stain to accent the patina.

The bar is owned by a young couple originally from the area. Their family’s provides home made produce and meats for the café. The cook/owner makes the most out of the fresh Angus and tops it with multiple types of cheese and strips of locally cured bacon. Top it off with spiced homemade fries and you have a meal you’ll remember.

After lunch we continued our tour of the area by heading down to Decorah, Iowa where one of my daughters attends school. With the fall color in bloom it is a perfect time to visit Dunnings Spring Park, near the campus. With the October temperature approaching nearly 85 degrees, it seemed everyone was out enjoying the day.

After eating a bowl of real ice cream at the Sugar Bowl Ice Cream Parlor, we called it a weekend and headed back up Hwy 52 to Minneapolis.

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