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for people who care about the West

The old ways sink into the earth


The farm equipment graveyard -- a row of horse-drawn plows and mowers overgrown with prairie grass -- is a common sight at the edge of rural fields in the West. Collapsing hay wagons, disemboweled tractor hulls and other antique machinery sinking into the earth tell a story of farming, past and future. Each item was probably added in historical succession but also kept for parts, the past empowering the future in a knuckle-busting sort of way.

These days, many are prized as yard ornaments and even used as Western kitchen décor. My family calls them "rusty things," and I admit I once drove 500 miles with all my windows down and my trunk open to bring home a particularly lovely circlet of metal that had once rimmed a wagon wheel. Amazingly round and smooth with golden rust, it was too huge to fit inside, despite my car's enormous trunk. It seemed appropriate that I arrived home grit-battered and punchy after seven hours on the interstate keeping exhaust fumes at bay.

As a child, I wandered with my grandfather down the long row of machinery that framed his barnyard. I could hardly tell the rusty things apart, but he remembered using each one. When he paused by a corroded lump that he called a seeder, I climbed onto the naked metal seat that had no give under my small weight.

"When I was a boy," he said, "I begged and begged my father for this." He didn't beg for a car of his own, let alone a cell phone; he wanted a seeder.

As we continued down the row, he told me a story about each piece. At the rotting sleigh, he talked about how he'd splurged, buying a spirited buggy horse to pull it. "What a beautiful sight it was to see him go." Grandpa took my hand as we walked. "But that little Sam, he held his own with the drafts, too. He had to."

Grandpa described delicate Sam the buggy horse, in a halo of lather pulling alongside plodding Barney, who could carry five children on his wide back. I pictured a young Grandpa bouncing along behind the mismatched team, as the smell of their sweat and the fresh turned dirt enveloped him -- and the corn seeds dropped automatically, perfectly spaced into the furrow behind. At first I imagined Grandpa as a teen-aged boy, realizing later he was probably much younger than that.

Then there was the old Samson truck, sheltered in the airy barn. Grandpa cranked it up when I was four, and I remember all the cousins leaping from the truck's 72-bushel bed and running barefooted across the pasture to clamber back aboard as the motor chugged and Grandpa laughed. Built in 1920, with open carburetors and one headlight still powered by kerosene, few vehicles from this short-lived company exist today.

Of the handful of heirlooms I owned, the truck was the one I prized the most, with the kitchen table a close second. Anyone could have a china cabinet or desk, but who else remembered all of us sitting around that wobbly table, and who else could claim to be the only woman on earth with a Samson truck in her bedroom? (Until last year, my house was so small I slept in the garage.)

I stored it there for 10 years, wondering if it might be valuable some day. Recently I gave it to my cousin, Greg, who hauled it back to the family farm. It seemed the right thing to do, to send the old truck home. And Greg would surely fix the wheels with wooden spokes and replace the dried engine seals to make it run again. Maybe he'd even find the missing chains that once interlaced that long wooden bed to keep it from exploding outwards when it was loaded with heavy grain. Perhaps they were already cobbling something together in the barnyard's lineup of rusty things.

Recently, I headed out on a dirt road north of Bozeman, and stopped to admire an old farmhouse. With a new foundation, straight roofline and fresh paint, it was beautiful. But there was no listing barn in the background, not even the remains of a rock and rubble foundation. Instead, two sheep stood in a chain-link kennel, scanning the sweep of grassy hills. And at the edge of the old farmyard, along the barbed wire fence and pushed up against the trees, was a row of new things: a power boat, an elephantine new camper and a trampoline – a different sort of legacy.

Joanne Wilke is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She lives near Bozeman, Montana.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].