Thursday, June 05, 2008

The Rise and Fall of Heartland Farmhouses

It's hard to imagine what it once looked like before the prairie became a checkerboard of farms. In an area that stretched from Texas to Manitoba, and Indiana to the Great Plains, the predominant features were grass and an endless horizon. In places, blades of big bluestem grew higher than a man on horseback. To find a lost pilgrim on the prairie, you needed to head for the nearest hummock and look outward for a rolling splash in the flora.

A year or two ago, I encountered a film presented by the Public Broadcasting System: "Death of the Dream: Farmhouses in the Heartland." It is a beautifully done, one-hour documentary that "weaves a tapestry combining images of vanishing farmhouses with stories of historians, farm experts, and people who lived 'the dream' of life on the farm." The film was inspired by photographer and essayist William Gabler's book of classic farmhouses, Death of the Dream, published by the Afton Historical Society Press."

The whole idea behind the commemoration of an American way of life that is rapidly vanishing really struck home. So much of my family research deals with the Midwest during the late 19th century, when my immigrant ancestors built farmhouses alongside crop-filled prairie acres they bet their very existence on.

The L-shaped farmhouse on the Johnson family homestead, Granite Falls Township, Chippewa County, Minnesota, was built by the late 1870s, and photographed in 1941 by my mother. Under other ownership since about 1901, the farmhouse was eventually torn down when it became too unstable to leave standing.

Whenever I look at a photograph of an old house or barn, it is more than faded and tired walls. Inside the corners and beyond the panes, there is life that surges just beyond realization. I find myself longing to step through a virtual canvas. If I could only slip through a wrinkle in space and time into another dimension and stand alongside my pioneer ancestors within their reality, I would do just that. "Death of the Dream" touches upon this human need to connect intimately with those who came before us, through the remnants of homes and shelters they left behind.

Also photographed in 1941 was the earliest barn on the Johnson homestead property, also built in the 1870s. Note the sleighs in the forefront of the photograph. Granite Falls Township, Chippewa County, Minnesota.

"Part celebration and part bittersweet elegy, 'Death of the Dream' provides a window towards the past, while looking towards the future. Viewers can explore the remnants of vacant homesteads, and imagine visiting with friends on the back porch, sitting around the cook stove in the farm kitchen, or singing around the piano in the parlor."

So much of who we are as a nation is linked to that rural vision that one can't help feel both a sadness and sense of dilemma of what the role of rural America should be.
- William Cronon

1 comment:

  1. Chery,
    Thanks for the link and the pictures. They are very timely for me as I transcribe Ella's letters. I don't know if she had one these L shaped houses but chances are good that she did.