Out in Greene County, Iowa
Offenburgers bought a farm: E-I-E-I-O!
On this farm we'll learn a lot: E-I-E-I-Yikes!
By CHUCK OFFENBURGER
September 22, 2003
My wife Carla says she has wanted to live on a farm “as long as I can remember,” going clear back to when her parents would take their three young daughters out to visit friends who had a farm north of Des Moines.
Now she owns one in Greene County, Iowa.
I suppose it’s more accurate to call it an acreage. But by whatever name, we Offenburgers last week bought three acres, with a house and barn that are both more than 100 years old, a garage, one large shed, one small shed and a fine swing hanging from a limb high up in a big tree.
And a septic tank. We think we bought a septic tank, too, although so far nobody has been able to show us just where it is or to offer more assurance than, “Oh, it’ll probably work.” We have discovered that the policy on septic tanks in Greene County seems to be a Clintonian sort of, “Don’t ask, don’t tell.”
A 100-year-old fixer-upper, along the Raccoon River Valley Trail in southern Greene County, Iowa.
The one thing we’re most sure of right now is how little we know about living on a farm.
But as Carla’s mother Sue Burt, of Des Moines, said Wednesday after getting her first look at the farm, “Well, you and Chuck have always had a lot of faith.”
It will be very hard for both of us to leave Storm Lake, where we’ve really enjoyed life on the lakeshore these past four-plus years.
We expect to stay here through the end of the current academic year at Buena Vista University, where Carla teaches and directs a lecture series. We’ll probably move in June. That’s when I will have the manuscript done on a new book – a centennial history of the Iowa High School Athletic Association, which sanctions boys’ sports here, wrapped around the biography of the IHSAA’s long-time executive director Bernie Saggau.
We’ll likely be frequent visitors back to Storm Lake for years to come, following the BVU Beavers sports teams and attending other events at the university and in the community.
WHEN WE GOT SERIOUS ABOUT FINDING A FARM and started looking in the past year, we each had a list of essentials.
Carla’s requirements were “three to five acres so I can do my farmers’ market gardening and all the flowers I want, and we also have to be downsizing – spending less on our place than we are now.”
The essentials for me were that the farm “be on a paved road or, if it isn’t, then be real close to a paved bicycle trail that goes somewhere, and that high-speed Internet service is available.”
We both wanted to be closer to Des Moines, but no closer than an hour’s drive.
We found the spot, or rather real estate agent Judy Von Ahsen found it for us, nine miles south of the Greene County seat town of Jefferson, pop. 4,656.
Carla got her three acres.
And while our new place is on a gravel road, it’s less than a quarter-mile from the paved Raccoon River Valley Trail, which stretches 56 miles from western Des Moines to Jefferson.
One mile north of our farm, that trail goes through the little, unincorporated town of Cooper. Three miles south of us, it goes through equally little Herndon. If a proposed east-west trail ever gets built connecting Carroll and Perry, it would cross the Raccoon River Valley Trail in Herndon.
So we like the location, a lot.
And, satisfying the other requirement, the techies at the home-owned Jefferson Telephone Company have assured us they can provide all the high-speed Internet horsepower we need to operate our company Offenburger.com from the farm.
For those of you who might consider following our path – or maybe I should say “our trail” – we’re paying $35,000 for the property, and now we’re getting ready to put $75,000 into making it livable.
The farm is a definite “fixer-upper.” Our real estate agent Von Ahsen’s husband Gary is a partner in Tri-County Lumber, a Jefferson company that builds and renovates homes all over the area. He’s going to line-up all the skilled craftspeople we’ll need to get the house and garage re-done.
And we’ve snail-mailed an appeal to our Old Order Mennonite farm friends, the Glicks, from Holland, Kentucky, asking just what we’re supposed to do, now that we own a century-old Mormon-style barn built with wood pegs.
The barn was also built a century ago in Mormon style, with wood pegs instead of nails.
It’s going to be an adventure, equal to or exceeding several other Offenburger adventures over the years.
So much so that the banker and insurance broker both winced a little while they were agreeing to help us. That’s Sid Jones, at Home State Bank in Jefferson, and Bob Ernst, who for years has done all of our insurance from his office on the banks of the Mississippi River in Bellevue.
We appreciate their support, and that of our extended families.
Incidentally, when we recently let the Burts and Offenburgers know what we were up to, their reaction was interesting.
As I explained it to Bolekwa Sifo, our “daughter” from South Africa whom we’re all helping attend college, I said, “Bolekwa, it seems like the Burt side of the family pretty much thinks this is crazy, even though it was Carla’s idea, and the banker probably agrees with them. The Offenburger side of the family pretty much thinks this is a great idea. So where do you stand?”
Sifo didn’t even hesitate. “I’m with the banker,” she said.
She’s learned a lot in America, hasn’t she?
Meanwhile, our trusted friend Douglas T. Bates III, the attorney from Centerville, Tennessee, said, “Well, if you’ve lived your whole life in Iowa like you two have, the question shouldn’t be why you’d want to buy a farm there. It should be, isn’t it about damned time?”
He added one other thing: “I hope you at least have a rooster.”
Indeed we will. It will be our only real livestock other than our old dog Ginger, and we’re going to name that rooster Douglas T. Bates III.
ONCE WE CAME TO PEACE ABOUT THE SACRED MYSTERIES OF SEPTIC TANK OWNERSHIP, our next biggest lesson has been the fascinating history of our farm. It came to light when “the abstract was brought forward,” as they say in these deals.
Our little patch of prairie was deeded from the United States to the State of Iowa March 30, 1845, even though statehood didn’t really come until 18 months later. The land must have stayed open and available until one Henry Craig homesteaded 80 acres of it in the fall of 1869.
F.H. Pittman continued the development of the farm, probably building the house we will be living in, and eventually Clair and Lova Thornburgh became the owners. Then in 1948, John M. Travis and his wife bought the 80-acre farm for $17,000 from the Thornburghs.
You still hear it called “the old Travis place,” and there were three Travis kids who grew up there – son Ray and daughters Elaine and Gayle. After their father’s death in 1984, they kept ownership, and various renters lived in the house. The Travises, all three of whom settled away from Iowa, eventually decided to have the property sold at auction. In February, 1999, Carl E. Stukenholtz, of Perry, was the high bidder at $136,800.
The Stukenholtzes still own the farm ground, and contract somebody else to do the actual crop work.
In May, 2000, they sold the three acres with the house and outbuildings to Scott and Shari Carroll, of Jefferson. The Carrolls, who have two young daughters, gutted the old farmhouse and began renovating it as time allowed in their work schedules, Scott on the railroad and Shari in health care. They were planning on eventually making the farm their home.
But they were understandably wearying of all the work, and in August, they got a phone call from real estate agent Judy Von Ahsen, who was wondering if by chance they were interested in selling.
So now we Offenburgers become the, what? Seventh or eighth owners over 135 years? All have probably come to it with the same dreams and hopes we do – that it seems like it’ll be a great place to live and work.
It’s located near a good road, Iowa Highway 4, which is just a half-mile west of the farm, and that’s probably been an important amenity for 75 years or more. And now there are two other important connectors – one of Iowa’s best recreational trails a few hundred yards east of us, and this still-bewildering new “Information Highway” with silent traffic zooming all around us.
I WENT SEARCHING ON THAT INFORMATION HIGHWAY to see if I could find any of those Travis kids, figuring they had to be about my age and wanting to ask what it was like for them, growing up on that farm in the 1950s and ’60s.
Within minutes, I knew where to contact Gayle Travis-Keene, now 54, the youngest of the three, who is an elementary school teacher in Severna Park, Maryland, outside Annapolis. Also an artist, she has done illustrations for a book of Maryland history and other publications.
The little farm near Cooper, Iowa, was indeed a great place to grow up, she said.
“Well, I guess that was my real home until I was about 25 years old, even though I’d grown up and went away to college,” she told me. “So, yes, I have a lot of memories about it.”
When her father bought it in 1948, an 80-acre farm was considered to be of modest size, but it was more than enough for the corn, soybeans, oats, timothy and alfalfa he wanted to raise. And they always had beef cattle, hogs, a milking cow, chickens, and “at one time two little lambs, as well as a million cats and always a dog,” she said.
“The barn, that just has to be a treasure,” she continued. “I’ve thought about it a lot over the years. They’re not creating buildings like that one anymore, with those massive beams, the wood pegs holding them together. We’d play basketball up in the loft. And the cats would have their kittens up there, so every spring we’d have to go on a big search up through the hay to find the new little ones.”
The house she remembers “as just a typical little, wood frame farmhouse, with some nice gingerbread details around the porch. The heating was always deplorable. We never had a furnace. Instead, we had this oil-burning stove, which was on the main floor, with open registers to the bedrooms upstairs, and those were always bitterly cold in the wintertime. There was precious little insulation anywhere in that house, if there was any at all.”
She said they loved the garage “because it had a nice cement floor, so we’d sweep it out and roller skate there.”
She described the locations on the farmstead of an old coal house, a cob house, chicken house, machine shed, hog house, corn crib and windmill – all of which are gone now.
The farm neighborhood was full of kids, 40 to 50 years ago, she said.
Her older brother Ray graduated from Franklin Township High School in Cooper, which closed in 1959. Gayle and her older sister Elaine both graduated from Jefferson High School after the consolidation. Ray now lives in Peoria, Illinois, and Elaine is in Champaign-Urbana, also in Illinois.
When I told Gayle that our closest neighbor will be nearly a mile away, it confirmed what she’d heard about how most of the small farms are now gone from the Iowa countryside.
“What happened to all those people?” she said. “And I guess they must have bulldozed a lot of the buildings on those old places by now, too, right?”
It is pretty sparse out there, I told her.
I invited all the Travises to come visit us when they’re back in Greene County, once we get “the old Travis place” refurbished. Gayle said her husband John Keene will be especially interested in the bicycle trails near the farm, since that’s one of the things he does in his job with the parks department of Anne Arundel County, Maryland – develops recreational trails.
THE FARM CERTAINLY WON’T BECOME KNOWN AS “THE OFFENBURGER PLACE” VERY QUICKLY, but Carla and I do want to name it something. We invite your suggestions.
Early recommendations from our family and friends include “Greene Acres,” “Happy Trails Farm,” “Trailquility Farm,” “Doin’ More With Less Farm,” “Second Chance Farm,” “The Looney Bin” (from a wiseacre nephew who has just been removed from our will) and this long one, “It’s A Pretty Good Ol’ Farm If You Don’t Weaken.”
That last one comes from Lisa Furler, a young friend of ours who graduated from Buena Vista U. last year and is now living in Austin, Texas. She, Carla and other students always make fun of me because one of my favorite business slogans in Iowa is that of the Owasa Tap in the little town of Owasa, 75 miles northeast of Des Moines: “It’s a pretty good ol’ life, if you don’t weaken!” We may have to adopt that as our own motto once we’re living on the farm.
We hope to make it a place where family, friends, bike riders on the trail and even customers for Our Iowa Store will enjoy visiting.
I’ve got a feeling that before long, there will be a lot of stories you’ll want to hear or read – from out in Greene County, Iowa.