The skeletal remains of farm life on the Plains

Aloys Intersection, Cuming County, 2007, from page 77 of "This Place, These People," a visual study of places left behind in the Great Plains.

Photographer Nancy Warner.

Author David Stark.

Image of This Place, These People: Life and Shadow on the Great Plains
Author: David Stark
Publisher: Columbia University Press (2013)
Binding: Hardcover, 128 pages

If you go out to the Great Plains today, it's pretty easy to find the past. A way of life that included family farms and farm houses all over the area. Photographer Nancy Warner grew up visiting her grandparents' place in rural Nebraska. And in going back as an adult, she was struck by the disrepair of empty, broken down houses. Farm houses that had been left behind when families sold their land and moved on. Nancy started taking pictures, and teamed up with her cousin David Stark, a sociologist, to interview some of the people who were holding on. Their book is called "This Place, These People: Life and Shadow on the Great Plains." Stark says the study struck on a sentiment that is as complicated as it is melancholic.

"There's a sadness about something that's lost, and there's also a kind of stubborn persistence about maintaining a kind of life. It's not only sad, it's a mixture of remorse, regret and anticipation of a future because these places are disappearing but the farms are still being farmed."


Wedding Dress, Herchenbach Place. Cass County, Iowa, 2007, from page 37 of "This Place, These People." (Nancy Warner)



About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.

Photographer Nancy Warner.

Author David Stark.

Image of This Place, These People: Life and Shadow on the Great Plains
Author: David Stark
Publisher: Columbia University Press (2013)
Binding: Hardcover, 128 pages
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Thanks so much to the authors for documenting this, and to Marketplace for the coverage.

I'm grateful to the people who are doing what they can to preserve this heritage despite the long odds. It involves sacrifice and commitment just like restoring antiques, art, buildings and vintage cars. And like those people, these rural Great Plains dwellers are curators of the heritage so many Americans share--even for those Americans 3 or 4 generations removed from the farm, whether they choose to remember it or not.

These old houses and the way of life they represent are a now mostly-neglected but critical part of our American cultural heritage and ethos (one expression of which is the old "Protestant [work] ethic"). The only time in many years outside of my friends I've even heard mention of the Protestant work ethic was this year in another Marketplace story, about Germany.

With some of the more urban, affluent parts of our society focusing so enthusiastically on cultures beyond our borders and encouraging their appreciation, expression and empowerment here, it seems impossible for the culture memorialized in this book to survive much longer. This seemed like the case at my alma mater, where they placed such emphasis on study abroad and learning about foreign cultures and languages. But with respect to my urban classmates, how many knew anything about agriculture, rural America and the people who live(d) there?

My friend who taught at ASU has taken his students to many countries abroad, and I remember an interesting and wise comment he made about taking them to Greece. He said he didn't want them to see the contemporary people and their artifacts as obstacles (to whatever degree) to their appreciation of the ancient ruins. I think many of us yearn for the _____ of the past (simplicity, peace, quiet, pace, beauty, fun, romance, whatever). I might need that reminder from David when going to visit ruins preserved in an urban setting.

I had the privilege of hitting a few sales on the Nebraska's Heritage Highway 136 annual Trail of Treasures event the first weekend of October. The first sale I went to was on a farmstead that had been hit by a tornado. They lost some newer buildings but the old farm house survived intact. But they had already moved their residence to another property. This was the house's last hurrah. It was that typical old farmhouse with large bedrooms, high ceilings, small bathrooms, wallpaper, an attic and solid, generous woodwork. Someone had already bought the original pickets from a picket fence. The doors, windows and woodwork were all for sale--"bring a crowbar tomorrow" she told people--as they were going to try to burn the house down before the first snow.

Of course this made me sad to hear. But I don't have to pay the taxes on that land or take care of it. They do. I asked her what it was like living there, and she said upstairs she'd open the windows in both of the bedrooms and enjoyed a refreshing cross-breeze on summer nights. Sigh. And she hung her laundry to dry in the clean, clean air.

I didn't live in a farmhouse until I was an adult. I loved it. Without the skills and maybe strength to cut firewood, I'd forage for smaller pieces. I hung the laundry out to dry, and I didn't hear any noisy neighbors with their cars and air conditioners. The stars I could see at night were breathtaking. I didn't need any curtains, since there was nobody there to look in the windows.

That house was well-built too--it also has survived tornadoes. I'm grateful that it is still occupied and so well-cared for. It's not the original large two-story house with a huge porch and balcony. That burned down decades before I was born. There are fewer and fewer of that house's country contemporaries left standing.

I love driving on the unpaved country roads around there and when I see such an old farm house, I give myself time to stop and admire it. One of my favorites reveals a limestone block wall under the wood.

I think of the people who lived there and wonder about their lives. I admire the people who built it. Many likely weren't professional builders, but rather men who simply had a lot of useful skills. And they were motivated to get the job done--without all the distracting entertainment we now have available to us. Whether or not they were protestant, they had the Protestant [work] ethic.

Good story. Yes, it is sad to see the decline of the family farm.

But, let me pick a nit concerning one thing that was said in the story, "A 2 x 4 was a 2 x 4." Well, city boy, your lack of knowledge about building materials is showing. There has been no campaign by "The Man" to reduce the size of 2 x 4's, as your story seems to imply. 2 x 4's have pretty much always been the same size. As anyone who understands building materials will tell you, a board is called a 2 x 4 because that is the size of the board when ROUGH SAWED. After being rough sawed at the mill, it is then put into the planer to make the board smooth and square. After this process, the board is 1-1/2" x 3-1/2", the actual size of a finished 2 x 4. It has been this way for many, many decades. Here is a link to a place that shows the actual size of common sized lumber: http://mistupid.com/homeimpr/lumber.htm If an older building has lumber that is of the actual size 2" x 4", the chances are it was made with rough sawed lumber. You will see this in some old barns. As for reduced sizes, yes, some of the newer buildings built using a modular process are built using smaller dimension lumber. But, that lumber is not called a 2 x 4 unless is is the standard size of a finished 2 x 4.

For your penance, I suggest a remedial course of the excellent PBS show "This Old House". Just teasing. Love your show.

Look, when I visited my father's North Dakota home town in 1977, it had a population of about forty. There's no one living there now (though a number of storage buildings remain in use). In 1977, none of the inhabitants imagined that the town was going to last. They were very pragmatic about it. They new how long it would be useful to continue inhabiting the town. A certain number of hands were required to farm a certain amount of land; the math was easy to do and no one was boo-hooing over it. They were thinking about Florida.

The notion that farmers "want to grow food, but (sigh) are forced to grow evil Michael-Pollan-despised mono-corn..." blah, blah, blah is a lot of malarkey. Grassland farmers plant what they think will make a return- that's corn, safflower, rape, sunflower, linseed or whatever combination is appropriate for the soil and climate and they use synthetic chemicals that are appropriate and that treat their land well. They do this, or they go out of business. And that's what farming is - it's a business. It's not romance.

There are two kinds of farming: agribusiness and outofbusiness.

Chalk it up to another topic about which communications majors know nothing.

Very well put! That's how it is now, but the larger-scale "agribusiness" relatively new in the history of agriculture. Today's elderly farmers might well remember a very different agriculture culture.

People can be melancholic; sentiments cannot. Sentiments can be melancholy.

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