Late this spring, I traveled with my husband, Jim, and our little seven-pound Yorkie, Sophie, up and down the highways from Colorado to Northeast Nebraska. We didn’t venture to any big cities, but were on a mission to bring back an understanding of farming practices used in the communities of early settlers.
We began by stopping in a little town (population 400) of Leigh, Nebraska, 86 miles northeast of Omaha. I came to Leigh to seek out anyone remembering my grandfather, who owned a tavern on Main Street in the 1940s. The town looked abandoned that day—a ghost town. (It reminded me of a poem “Ghost Town” that I had just written.) However, leaving the car and standing smack dab in the middle of Main Street on cracked slabs of concrete, we heard the bustling of laughter coming from a small convenience store/gas station about a half block away at the end of the street.
Leaving Leigh, we drove past the fields of dark soil planted in corn. It was too early in the season to see any significant growth, but much of the landscape was verdant with grass pastures, trees and shrubs, and field windbreaks. We looked at the scenic beauty of brown and green hills and valleys on our drive from Leigh. We traveled a few miles west and stopped at a memorial that grasped our attention.
It was only 10 more miles going north to visit the town of Madison, Nebraska (population 1200). My grandparents also owned and managed a tavern in Madison during the 1950s, all the while farming just outside of town. I had come back home to visit with anyone who could recall these grand folks and inform me of farming practices back in the early part of the 20th century.
Madison opened its arms to us. We were in town on a cool and drizzly day, the rain creating barriers to our walking down a side street under re-construction. Divots in the street had become large mud holes and the sidewalks were blocked. We were on our way to meet the director of the Madison Historical Museum, Carol Robertson. Carol is a petite one-woman band with a dynamic personality who became Madison’s Chamber of Commerce for the day. She arranged to unlock the museum and proceed to give us a private showing of the historical displays, all the while discussing the history of Madison. As a special surprise, she arranged to have Gary White, a descendant of one of Madison’s founding fathers, meet with us. He was able to inform us about farming practices and explain the functions of various farming machinery.
Carol and her husband farm outside of Madison and she, also, is well versed in agricultural equipment. Carol had taught home economics at Madison High School and explained some of the domestic farming practices of earlier times.
Most folks had passed who knew my family, but several people directed me to a delightful woman with whom I corresponded earlier. Addie Schmitz is a nonagenarian, active, and congenial. My husband, little Sophie, and I met Addie in her room at a senior community center located north side of Madison. She and her family had been friends of my grandparents. I feel it was a gift to me to have an opportunity to reminisce with her. She could recall my grandparents’ kindness and engaging personalities, and relate a few humorous anecdotes. I learned a lot from this pleasant woman and from her niece, Lois Peterson, who came to visit Addie.
These small towns of Nebraska reflect the soul of communities, hard work, and love of the land. The people are rooted in spirit with the crops, the hardships of their ancestors, and with the memories that they share.