Ours was a 160-acre Iowa Century Farm, born in 1853, in our family over 150 years. The 36 x 60 hip style barn, not the house, was our focal point from which we navigated. From the haymow, my brothers Kenny and Edward, my sister Sharon, and I viewed the panorama of our universe: Walls’ barn to the north, Christensens’ to the west, Bricks’ to the south, and Zousels’ to the east. The metal weathervanes, one a trotting horse and one a dairy cow, were mounted on either end of the roof and swiveled, announcing the storms from the northwest. Dramas played out in the barn where life began and sometimes ended during spring lambing.
The barn’s native oak rafters and haymow filled with hundreds of bales surrounded us with quiet, muffling the sound of the Massy Harris tractor outside. Rusty the hound used his nose to lift his custom-made trap door and enter his winter palace, a house of straw bales we positioned with loose straw in the center. There he curled up and made a nest. Like a down quilt, the barn enveloped the animals and us in warmth.
Our Christmas party included horses Shorty and Joker, rewarded with apples after tolerating construction paper hats with cutouts for their ears. One Christmas Eve Day after chores were done, we built a fort in the plum grove. Night fell, so we explorers followed the North Star home, even though we could see the barn’s cupolas in the moonlight.
The day began and ended in the barn. “Make sure you water the hogs and hay the cattle. Last one out—shut out the lights.”
Where is your true north?
From the oak trees we built the barn, corn crib, and hog house, but from the apples—joy, generosity, and comfort. Our only fresh fruit of winter, we would bob for them at Halloween and share a few windfalls with the horses after a ride. After feeding the 4‑H calves in zero degree weather, the apples reassured us as we walked into the kitchen and smelled a cobbler or a crisp burbling in the oven alongside a pork roast.
Our apples were descendants of those planted by my great-grandfather Tom Moore in 1880 with exotic names and a job to do: Allen’s Choice, sweet and early; Black Annette, green with black dots; Northwestern Greening, red with freckles; Strawberry, small and delicate; Snow, sweet but late—you had to be patient.
Edward and I would pick apples for the second time from the fruit room in the basement, Snow apples for everyday eating and Johnathans for pies at Christmas. They kept well, outshining the Mason jars of lifeless cherries and pale peaches.
When we bit into a Snow apple in our school lunch in December, its stripes of green throughout the red skin, the shiny white inside, its sweet juice, brought back the smell of the shimmering pink blossoms that decked out the trees in spring; the feel of the bark’s split surface where we would grab a branch, step up, and sit. At dusk we felt as powerful as the Great Horned owl looked as he sailed through the north timber branches and then perched in the walnut at the corner of the orchard.
The apple was the workhorse of my great-grandfather’s farm and ours, too, quietly providing but not asking for much. My dad Tom Moore III said, “Plant an apple tree and you’ll have something to show for it.”
Anyone else knew them as common locations on our farm, but adding the word “hideout” was secret code for adventure to my brothers, my sister, and me. To find a hideout was to travel miles away from the chores of carrying water to the 4-H calves and corn to the hogs.
Black Haw Bush Hideout was a cluster of wicked thorny brush. After a Sunday dinner, we packed provisions and crawled in at dog level, finding our way to the center opening “club house” where we built a one-match pioneer fire and re-roasted turkey wings on sticks.
We sat in the coolness of the Cave Hideout, an eroded dugout on a pasture hillside. In a nearby junk ditch we found rusted cans from Folgers’s coffee and Van Camp’s baked beans, a chipped enamel mixing bowl, and real arrowheads. We set up a trading post where cowboys and Indians bartered with these found treasures, often to be rid of an unpleasant chore, say cleaning out the horse stalls.
One night in the north timber a thunderstorm split open an oak tree and left half leaning down like the tongue of a boot, our ladder up to investigate. Not only hollow but full of honey, we named it Honey Tree Hideout.
In the snow, we were north woods explorers on assignment for Sergeant Preston and scouted the Plum Thicket Hideout for our enemy, the mystical White Wolf. In luck, we were protected by Rusty our hound renamed Yukon King the Husky. In the Haymow Hideout we sat in our roofless log cabin built by rearranging the square hay bales and speculated—what would the horses say this year? Everyone knew that animals talked at Midnight on Christmas Eve.
Now, where do we hide out?
The Age of Equine
It began with Joker, a buckskin quarter horse for Sharon and Kenny, and for Edward and me, a bull-headed, short-legged bay, tall for a pony, short for a horse—Shorty. We rode with the six Wildman kids, every Sunday, all year.
Nearby at St. Bridget’s Church, the fenceless orchard was fair game. David, the tallest, sidled up to the trees on Comanche, stood on his saddle like a trick rodeo rider, grabbed pears, and tossed them down until we were full. Inspired by Lone Ranger matinées, we galloped from a posse in pursuit, or better yet, we imagined the Indians who walked the ridge trail we rode that cut through the farm. After Dad plowed, their sharp, beveled triangular arrowheads surfaced along with their stories.
One Christmas, Shorty received a saddle, and Ed and I, “sleds” called Flying Saucers—shiny aluminum discs that sent us spinning downhill. Later, we put the horses to work. A rider took a dally of a lariat around the saddle horn and tied the other end to a saucer. “Hayaa!” propelled Shorty forward. The rule to slide off the saucer if the horse went too fast applied to all horses except Shorty.
Stories of the trail, sweet juice of filched fruit, Flying Saucer rides, freedom—Sundays on horseback.
Riding the Route
We were a family of 45, kindergarten through 12th grade, riding the school bus. The winter wind from the northwest blew straight in my face as I walked out the lane to board, but the reward was seeing everyone, every day. With finesse, our driver, George, took the bus through the gears, double-clutching into first, then working the “splitter” to go through the second set of gears, navigating up and down the hills.
We laughed, told secrets, and argued. One game was “You have to read this…” with a “no spoiler” rule. I thought we were just like Francie in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Alec in The Black Stallion, and Nancy in The Password to Larkspur Lane. Rather than a route on a bus through Cedar County, ours was a journey on a motor coach through a city, a desert, or a mysterious forest. Jane and her sisters Jo Ellen, Pat, and Barbara promoted Little Women by pretending to be characters from the book.
Sometimes we learned more on the bus than at Herbert Hoover School. Phyllis, the voice of reason, reassured us that it was true: In 5th grade, you got to make real pioneer candles, carve a model canoe, fry bread, and glue thread spools into a Christmas tree topped with glitter.
With her ringing-out-soprano voice, Phyllis led the singing of Christmas carols and taught us the harmonies of “Silver Bells.” The day before vacation we decorated the bus with streamers of red and green crêpe paper, crisscrossed and Scotch taped above the windows. Everyone brought sugar cookies and brownies, the feast augmented by George’s yearly treat of Musketeer bars.
Eventually, a driver’s license made us feel above it all. Kevin, a former rider, would wave and pass the bus on the blacktop in his new, glossy white ’65 Mustang with cherry red vinyl interior.
My brother Edward and I agreed that we came to miss the days when we would get off the bus, the wind out of the northwest at our backs, pushing us down the lane to the house and supper.
The Old Pond
The Old Pond was elusive. To get there you walked up the dirt road past the brooder house and windmill, down the cattle lane next to the cornfield, and into the pasture. There you joined up with the Indian Trail, walked along Raccoon Hollow Ridge, and just like the deer, picked up the game trail that led through the shell bark hickories and oaks, to the low end of the hollow—an irregular shaped cache of water—the Old Pond.
I could imagine our farm as prairie with Indians traveling between the Iowa and Cedar Rivers, not because we watched TV westerns, but because Dad’s stories kept it all close. We fished the descendants of catfish stocked by my homesteading great-grandfather, and from the hill looking north, we witnessed billows of morning fog from the Cedar River, equal to my grandfather’s sighting of the Rock Island steam locomotive’s smoke as it crossed the tall bridge west of Mechanicsville, six miles away.
One especially cold winter my mother bought Edward and me sharp-bladed, made-in-Canada figure skates. We made our way through drifts to reclaim the trail, scoop shoveled off a rink, skated races, and built a fire next to the overturned rowboat where we sat to rest, wrapped in warmth. And in the spring, why would we picnic in the house yard when we could unload a basket of fried chicken, buttered bread, and vacuum bottles of coffee and Kool-Aid on the bank of the Old Pond?
As teenagers, we joked that life began at the end of the lane when we turned onto the highway, away from the farm, but now I think it began for us at the Old Pond.
I am here, now, standing on the ridge. You have to know where the path turns at the top of the ridge to get here. I don’t know of another such place of solitude and contentment than this, the Old Pond.
Now, where do we find such places?
Martha Moore Davis served as a VISTA Volunteer on three Indian reservations in Nebraska and taught as a tenured, associate professor at Grand View University, Des Moines, and as an Advanced Placement English teacher. Her book, Sarah’s Seasons: An Amish Diary and Conversation, was published by the University of Iowa Press. She has been a contributor at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and the recipient of two residencies at the Anderson Center, Red Wing, Minnesota. She earned Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from the University of Iowa, and a doctorate from Columbia University.
Cagibi Issue 6