The farmer saw me photographing his old dead cars behind the barn. “If you’re from the county,” he said, “you can get the hell off my property.”
I said I wasn’t from the county.
“Damn county tax guys insist I buy licenses for them old cars."
I gestured to the old tractor in the field.
“1926 McCormick,” he said. “I still use it.”
“But does it have a license?” I asked, grinning.
He scowled. “You sure you ain’t from the county?”
Emil had been a farmer his entire life, refused chemical fertilizers, and collected rainwater to feed his vegetable garden. His crop yields were low but his life meaningful. He was 99 years old when I met him and was still farming.
Stylish in their hats, the farmers gather to bid on a tractor.
Farmer Lee Geymon told me that his dad bought the farm in the 1920s. He pointed to the deserted farmhouse behind him. "I was raised in that house. Nobody's lived there since I don’t know when. Weren't many trees back then. Wind would blow right through you. Now I grow corn and beans, raise beef cattle and sheep. I’m 74 and lucky to be alive. Twenty years ago, they removed a tumor as big as a chestnut from my pancreas, gave me two years to live. And I've had two heart operations and a busted shoulder.” The old farmers, they live to work.
When I stopped by his farm, Calvin Olson told me was 83 but still worked. Later, he took me to the one room school where he’d attended classes in the 1930s. This little schoolhouse still stands, now a ghost of its former self. He even showed me the desk he'd occupied or thought he had.
She travels around America as a troubadour and sings to the glory of God in a voice that carries for quite a distance.
He still rides in the senior rodeos.
Craig lost his beloved wife Elizabeth after 40 years of marriage. He keeps her kitchen cheerful and stocked with memories.
Long time ago, there was a little girl, and she loved me like no other doll, but then she grew taller, and I watched her imagination shrink to reality. I found myself in an old wooden chest, and when her family moved away, I was left behind on the prairie. Now all I have left is the fractured memory of having once been loved.
Childhood in the Amish world where there is still innocence.
Some Americans want some other Americans to know the truth, an exhausting subject.
Part time farmer and handyman, Jim Uren, relaxes in his man cave. He said, "Helps me get away from things."
Thirty years ago, Keith Gredeforth was driving his motorcycle on a remote country road. He stopped at this farmhouse and asked if it was for rent. For almost thirty years, he’s been living alone here. “I’ll never leave,” Keith explained, glancing at the house, the windows boarded up.
Once each summer on auction day, Kenny Johnson brings his homemade quilts to the Amish who auction off his quilts and their quilts to the tourists.
Rural men sometimes gather at the grain mill for gossip and kidding before heading back to their fields.
Don Hood ran an auto shop in Anutt, Missouri. We got to talking about his bold, political sign out front. Passionately, he explained, “I feel like I’m fightin’ the U.S. government all alone. Honest, I do. They just keep takin’ over our lives. Everyday, it’s somethin’ else. More forms, more regulations, more taxes, more lawsuits. They took prayer out of the schools. Now they wanna take our guns away.”
Paul Blomberg owns Reubens Discount Steel in northern Wisconsin. He buys and sells scrap iron, and makes his sales in cash or on credit through a handshake. His scrap iron business has been thriving for 74 years including his dad before him.
Motorcycle gangs often cruise the rural back roads on weekends, bar-hopping. Some gang members have a soft heart. A biker mama poses with her beloved dog, Sophie.
His wife has been confined to the nursing home for a long while, creating a world of her own that resides inside her imagination. Every afternoon, he comes for a visit and holds her hand.
The old retired farmer, his cropland now leased to the neighbor, walks the road where he first sat on the lap of his dad driving the gray and red 1948 Ford 8N tractor.
In rural Wisconsin, farming can be a lonely life. A farmer might rely on his country church for worship, gossip and communal connection.
Minutes prior to the Sunday morning church ceremony in the Amish community. Worship consists of a gathering of families and is held in their various farmhouses.
Sam, the Red Heeler, is 11 years old. He lives outdoors on the Saunders farm. He has never been linked to a leash, visited a veterinarian, or taken a pill.
Years ago, stray cat Blackie decided to adopt the old Blaschka Feed Mill as his home. Blackie likes to greet the farmers, and listen to their opinions and hearsay. He might even purr to entice a pet.
After no one answered through several knocks, I concluded the resident was alone and could no longer get up without help, that his frustrations were many after a lifetime working the farm.
This brokenhearted woman stands in front of what's left of her property the day after a tornado roared through the town.
After her husband died, she did not have the heart to get rid of his tools. Now and then, she would trudge up to the attic and stand, staring at his toolbox. He had believed in hard work and made his living with his hands.
He is a hard worker, spending almost all his days in his carpenter shop. On occasion, he takes a break and contemplates the church where he spends his Sunday mornings.
In the war between the states, an officer’s wife would find herself alone, waiting, wondering, hoping. Once in a while, for a short time, she might get to meet her husband in a remote encampment.
In a fit of rage, Randy Durst once dragged his brother Dan’s motorcycle behind his pickup. Another time, he fired a shot at Dan riding that same motorcycle. Randy lives alone in a falling-down house on the family farm, and brother Dan looks after him.
In Paoli, Wisconsin I ran into Dana Dupler, a tough old guy who restores and sells antiques out of an old house. He told me, "I wasted 20 years of my life restoring old buildings from the Civil War era down in the old mining country. Worked for a non-profit restoration group. The real estate market dropped out between 2008 and 2012, and we got about 30 cents on the dollar on the buildings.”
Dave Pickering lives in a small apartment above Augie’s Bar in downtown Bangor, Wisconsin, population 1400, 5 bars and 3 city blocks. Everyday, he sits on a city bench and smokes Marlboros. He served in VietNam in 1966-68. “I made it back,” he told me. “I was born and raised here, been here all my life and this is where I will die.”
Aftermath of an auction. The organ sold first, then the record player, and with them the last symbol of his late wife’s love of music.
Frank Jorn is a retired sign painter, having painted almost all the signs in Hillsboro, Illinois, population 6,000. Now Frank spends part of his mornings at the coffee shop, trading stories with the locals.
Jim Schubert is the owner & chef of M&M Eat in Monticello, Wisconsin. The small diner was opened in 1906 by a Greek immigrant who ran it for 50 years. Then, it went through four owners until 2003 when Jim took over. He told me, “We’re open 7 days a week, 6AM to 2PM, except for Easter and Christmas, and we’re always busy. It’s just me and one waitress. I live in the back.”
Henry Elrod of West Memphis, Arkansas, is a retired auto mechanic who owns Elrod’s Fix N Flat. He still comes to the office each day, sits at his desk and trades gold, silver, coins and guns with anyone who will bargain and listen to his stories.
The Peachy family has been in the grain elevator business for 132 years in Burnett, Wisconsin. Don Peachy carries on the family business. Key to his success? Knowing his customers and knowing where everything is in his office.
Plant fibers and wool twisted together to make yarn: a textile art that goes back 10,000 years. The woman’s responsibility was to clothe her family, an art onto itself. Laura demonstrates.
The farmer said I’d find his wife in the kitchen. I walked past the chicken shed to the farmhouse and found her over a hot stove. She said she was Nancy. The radiant Nancy fit the old room like life from the 1800s.
The farm wife. A thoughtful moment.
Margaret spins wool and hand-knits clothing, often working by window light.
A farmer has to be resilient. He spends many a day in isolation, battling Nature.
Gary and Harold Alt live together in the old brick house their grandfather built in 1913. They farm 200 acres of corn and have a herd of 26 dairy cattle. They can’t afford to fix up the family home because they spent $6300 per month on their mother’s care in a nursing home until she died.
Wilbur Martin gestures to what’s left of his boyhood home. “I should tear the old place down,” he admitted, “but I can’t seem let it go.”
At this rural flea market, the gentleman seems to be impatiently waiting for his wife to make another wrong headed purchase.
The older gentleman is retired now. Each morning, he drives his pickup into town for home cooking, coffee, and conversation about his community of Argyle, Wisconsin.
I said I didn’t mean to interrupt her. She said, “That’s all right, I was praying. I do it every morning. Today, I thanked God for the sunshine.”
I knocked at the farmhouse door and waited a while, was about to leave when the door opened by an old hunchback woman. She was Lureen Fuchs Sprechler, and she had lived here for 92 years, the house built in 1868 by her grandfather. She told me she was 96 and now lived alone. Her farmer husband, Ervin, had died 7 years ago at 92. We sat at the kitchen table and talked. “I can’t hear. I can hardly see. I can’t get around. I’m cold. My back is killin’ me.” At one point, she took my hand, said, “It’s good to have company.”
For over 30 years, Mary Zermalhen has owned the Lucky Farm Tavern in Monticello, Wisconsin. She works the bar seven days a week. When she was 18, her father migrated to America from Switzerland. Mr. Zermalhen had been trained as a cheesemaker, and he found his calling in the rural midwest.
There was a time when some American households would display a lawn statue representing an African American boy in shabby clothes. An American flag sometimes added to the shameful display.
All that’s left of the family who once occupied this farmhouse is a remnant of faith.
How many people had slept on this bed? How many had died in this bed? How many children had been conceived in this bed? How many promises had been broken in this bed?
Long ago, a country church preacher would stand in the pulpit high above his congregation and convince them they were sinners.
This framed portrait of a respectable family once hung above the fireplace for ancestors to admire and talk about. Apparently, this family is now dead to history like the photograph holding their likenesses.
Along a narrow rural road, I came upon an old sagging house surrounded by fading farm machines. A man was fixing a rusty tractor, auto parts arranged in milk cartons. He was Lawson Brereton, and he told me his farm had been in his family since the Civil War. “I don’t farm no more,” he said. “I went to the University of Wisconsin in the 1960s. I hated the Viet Nam war, but I got drafted just the same.”
“Did you go to war?” I asked.
“Nope, I was judged insane. Psychiatrist gave me a bunch of pills, sent me on my way. I’m still insane. Where the hell you from?”
“Madison, I admitted.
“Government town? Then, you’re not welcome here. I don’t let anybody from Madison on my land.”
Road worker Dwayne Saunders can’t part with his old pickup truck. “I am a patriot,” he told me. “We are losing pride in this country.”
Doctor Martin Thorsen had been practicing dentistry through two generations of Shullsburg, Wisconsin residents. I caught up with him on his last day of work before his retirement.