October 23, 2012

Author's Notes: Big Dreams and High Hopes

In Big Stone Heart, our heroine Carrie Smith, is traveling by train from St. Paul, Minnesota, to Dakota Territory.  She is watching the countryside go by from her seat in the train:

The train picked up speed as it climbed out of the river valley and up onto the plains.  Carrie watched from her window as the buildings of St. Paul and then the huge mansions on the bluffs receded into the distance.  The plain was flat and monotonous with very few trees.  The sky was a dull gray and a few thick wet snowflakes drifted down and splotched on the windows.  Small clapboard farmhouses stood stark against the darkening sky.  Great patches of rich dark earth alternated with patches of unplowed prairie.  Everything looked frozen in place. 

The houses Carrie saw were built by the hard working, resilient pioneers who settled the Great Plains.  Most had big dreams of a prosperous future made possible by rich harvests of grain and corn.  Some made it.  Many did not.  Today, the plains of Minnesota, South Dakota, Iowa and Nebraska are dotted with abandoned farmsteads.  Sometimes all that remains is a shelter belt of trees planted to comply with the law and secure the land.  More often, though, old abandoned houses, barns and outbuildings remain.

The picture above shows just such a farmstead.  The land on which it sits is owned by my sister-in-law, Sharon, and my brother, Bob.  The surrounding land is no longer farmed by the family, but rented out to others.  Yet, the old buildings still have stories to tell: the window on the upper left that was Sharon’s bedroom growing up; the old cistern that collected rainwater for the family’s use; the decaying barn with hay fifty years old still in the loft and horse tackle on the wall. 

Like so many others, Sharon’s family moved off the farm to seek greater opportunity in the small towns nearby.  Still, next to this abandoned house is a brand spanking new house built by hand by the Bob and Sharon.  It’s the pioneer spirit reborn:  the lure of the wide open prairie; the need to make a home on the land; the desire to preserve a way of life.


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