January 2, 2017

Landscape forensics

It's the end of the holiday break for the University, which means our family has just completed our round trips to southern Iowa for Christmas spent with family. These road trips are a good opportunity for some landscape analysis--to see what's been happening on farms across southeast Nebraska, southern Iowa, and far-northern Missouri.

Christmas Eve found us driving through some unique fog, and my son and I decided it would be nice to get some photos as the day waned and the fog thickened. We found an old homestead--pretty common in the Midwest as farm size has increased and number of farms has decreased since the 1930s, and we stopped for some photos. 

A unique farm building in southern Iowa.  Photo by Larkin Powell.
Only later did I realize we'd taken a photo of a building that was fairly unique--I didn't know what it's purpose had been. Too many windows to hold grain, and the second story seemed almost useless (no hay storage capacity with so many windows). So, the photo of this building became part of our Christmas dinner table conversations. All discussion ended with uncertainty. My father-in-law called some of his friends. No new ideas, but fun discussion. Later, my parents figured out that they might know someone who had grown up near this farm. I emailed this person, and got a most interesting response that I've posted here. I've removed names, as I didn't ask for permission to post the response--but I really enjoyed the reflections of this farmer from southern Iowa:

That building is just a mile from my folk’s farm and we went by it just about every time we left the farm. It was not particularly new when we moved to the farm in 1950. It is on what was then the [name removed] farm and I remember being told it was originally built as a chicken house.  I remember it being used as a hog house and in later years for small bale storage. It has obviously not been used for quite a while.  Its function can best be thought of as a predecessor to the modern chicken or hog factory buildings with the pens on the sides, the central driveway for delivery of bulk feeds and overhead storage for supplements.  Most of the farms allowed the chickens and hogs free range and the structure would have been a new concept. 

The windows were necessary because REA didn’t bring in electricity to our area until the middle of the 1940’s and the building would have preceded that time and chickens would have needed the light.  Directly across the road was the very large traditional farm barn with a modern (for the times – there was still and outhouse) home building to the west of the barn.  So the smelly chicken/hog building was to the NE, i.e., generally down wind.  Like some many of the Iowa family farms, when the children were gone (four daughters- two older and two younger than myself) and the parents retired/passed, the farm passed into other hands who did not live there and you saw what is left.
If you enjoy reading the history of landscapes, this is a great example of finding clues to dynamics that caused landscape change. This building represents a really important transition in farming--it would be similar (I'll not build this up too much, but you get the idea) of a biologist finding evidence of feathers on a dinosaur (which was announced last month). Here, the building represents a first step toward more production and specialization in commodities produced on a single farm.

Happy New Years all--history continues on our landscapes.

1 comment:

  1. Very insightful! It's a good thing and reminder to take time to dig deep and appreciate the historical legacies around us.