Last weekend I returned to the county where I grew up and the family farms in Andrew and Holt County, Missouri. It had been at least six years since I had returned to the place my great grandfather homesteaded over a hundred years ago. Strangers live in the house where I grew up and my father lived 80 of his 90 years. On the site where he was born, only the old carriage house still stands, a sentinel to a lifestyle long gone. Repeatedly, I tried to write a poem about all this, but have not been able to do so–perhaps the experience is still too close. Additionally, for the first time, I attended my high school reunion and chatted with individuals I had not seen since I was 18. Decades truly change people; I would have recognized only a couple without the name tags. Northwest Missouri this year presents an intense emerald landscape. Having travelled there from the semi-arid land where I now live, I suffered “green” shock. And tree shock. The Panhandle of Texas grows few large trees outside of towns and cities. Even with my very ordinary camera, these photographs capture the beauty I witnessed and family memories I want to remember and share with my children and friends.
This is the house where I grew up and Dad lived 80 years. The building in the foreground was built during the depression. Before it was put to its final farm use–for hogs and chickens at various times in my childhood–Dad held dances here. Because of prohibition, the sheriff always sent someone to make sure no illegal alcohol consumption occurred.
The old carriage house, just south of the site where a large house stood during my childhood, still stands. The stained glass transom window hanging in my own house now and an etched glass hunting scene are all that remain of the house where Dad lived as a small child. Emptiness and raccoons finally destroyed it. When he gave me the windows over thirty years ago, Dad said it was impossible to keep an empty house in good shape forever.
At the age of 18, my great grandfather, Gottlieb Werth, came to the United States to avoid being drafted into the Swiss army which hired out soldiers as mercenaries. My father told me what his mother told him: my father’s mother stood on the roof of her house in Switzerland and waved until she could no longer see her son; she never saw him again. This photograph shows his grave in the Fillmore, Missouri, cemetery.
Nearby, perhaps fifty feet away, lay the graves of Mom and Dad and my grandparents. I never knew this grandmother; she died long before I was born. My grandfather died when I small and sadly I do not remember him. The family stories tell that he taught me to talk at a very early age, nine months, because he held me on his lap and told me about everything occurring outside the windows. My first word was “tractor”.
Another family story tells that this grandfather walked to Andrew County, Missouri, from Illinois. Andrew County’s rolls are full of Lightles. It remains the only place I have ever lived where I am not the only person with my last name in the phone book. Dad claimed there would be even more Lightles except for the fact that several brothers died when they tried to walk across the Nodaway River on winter ice and it broke. They all drowned.
Dad built the large pond in this photo and stocked it with fish. Until a few years ago when someone bought the land and destroyed all the trees, a small forest of ancient oaks, black walnuts, and chestnuts grew between the house and pond. Dad kept it mowed and groomed–a park. Sadness filled me when I saw the trees all gone.
All my childhood we attended Antioch Christian Church. Although I could not see it from my house, if I walked across the road to where the carriage house still stands, it looms across the distance. Potlucks were a very popular activity here. Mom made such fabulous pies that everyone would get her pie first to make sure they got a piece.
The sign in front of the Andrew County Courthouse. This county remains filled with people of Swiss descent to the point they have celebrations commemorating their heritage. The following include photos of the courthouse and some of the restored buildings on the courthouse square.
Several reasons exist for my returning “home” at this time, including attending my high school reunion for the first time. The following photos show several people I had not seen since I was 18, including Melanie Eisiminger, who was the valedictorian when I was salutatorian so many years ago, and Jim Ahillen and his lovely wife. Melanie is in the middle.
My mother grew up in Holt County, Missouri, in the town of Fortesque and her family farm next to the Missouri River still remains mostly in the family. In my childhood, Fortesque was still relatively prosperous. Now fewer than fifty people live there. The farm lays right next to the Missouri River. I walked down the levee and took photos of this mighty river, the Rulo, Nebraska bridge, and the farm. If I turned one direction, I faced the bluffs where White Cloud, Kansas, resides and the other direction is Nebraska.
Between the Missouri River and the bluffs lays one of the largest wildlife refuges in the United States, Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge. It is especially important for migratory birds, bald eagles, wading birds, and various mammals. One can drive the new road ten miles through it to observe birds in particular but also other species. The huge cottonwoods and oaks fascinated me. It appears I had totally forgotten just how grand these trees can grow if given adequate water. In one area I drove for at least four miles through a tree tunnel, then several raptors screamed at me while I tried to photograph them, and finally I managed to photograph a red winged black bird and geese. After several days of semi constant rain, it felt fabulous to experience a perfect sunny day for my tiny trip to the wild.
After I left Squaw Creek, I drove to Mound City to find the graves of the Duke side of my family. The last time I had been there was when we buried my aunt, mother’s sister. I also remember going with her there more than twenty years ago. I recalled the general location but had to hike around a bit to find them. Because Grandfather Duke was much older than Grandmother, I never knew him. Aunt Julia came to visit me at least once a year until she neared ninety and could no longer travel easily. She never married and remained admirably independent until she became too feeble to get around on her own.
The E stands for Evelyn. She was named after a woman Grandmother worked for on the White Cloud Reservation, Evelyn Le Clair. On my previous visit to Missouri, I went to the White Cloud Reservation and inquired about the Le Clairs but had been told they had moved away a long time ago. Grandmother had to work because her father went blind and could no longer work. His name was Kaiser and he, too, came from Switzerland. The following is the gravestone of my great grandmother. Mother frequently recited sayings from her, e.g. you can’t tell by the looks of a frog how far he can leap.
In my childhood, we cut across the country side to go from the Andrew County farm where we lived to Grandmother’s Holt County farm. I remained unsure whether I could recall exactly how to do this but tried and met with success, feeling very happy with myself, remembering something I had not accomplished in decades. Because it had rained six inches the previous week, unlike last year during the drought, knee high grass grew along the backroads, corn was coming up, ponds were full. I drove by the houses of people I remember from childhood, not knowing who lived there any more except a few. People change, life proceeds, but the country still holds endless promise and beauty. Finally, with a few hours left before flying back to Texas, I stopped by a new area north of Kansas City, Briarwood, strolled around, visited an excellent natural food market, ate a rather exotic lunch, and took a few photographs of huge new houses and the Kansas City skyline.
Everyone asked me to bring some rain back to the Panhandle of Texas. It has rained three times since I returned home. A coincidence, of course, but very welcome.