Second Day on the Farm

By Joshua Feyen

Pictured are the author, far right in his Aunt Sharon’s lap, brothers Jason and Mathew, mother Andrea and father John, and cousins Shannon and Erin.

In November, 1976 my parents purchased a 140-acre farm with pastures, woods and cropland situated on top of the rolling hills of Southwest Wisconsin’s driftless region. The day after the closing and unloading everything into house, my mom, my two brothers and I, and my aunt and two cousins sat in my relative’s Volkswagen camper van, cradling mugs of hot pea soup in our hands. It was windy with grey skies and flecks of icy snow blowing in the air. Despite the weather, my dad and my uncle eagerly tore apart an old farm building, heaping the rotten walls and roofing onto a huge burn pile. Removing the collapsed building made room for a low-slung shed to keep the family’s new pig operation shaded in the summer, and warm on days like this. It was the first of many demolitions and constructions over the next 42 years. Eventually my brothers and I would help with these projects, but on this chilly day, I was just five years old, and my brothers three and a half. Our job was to stay warm in the van.

While listening to “Free To Be You And Me,” I stared out the van windows at the land around us. From our vantage point in the driveway I looked south, where I watched our neighbor gather the last of his corn before snowfall made his fields inaccessible. We would eventually meet the bachelor farmer Ray and his parents, borrow tools and implements and marvel, enviously, at his heated garage.

I looked east, down into the hollow where a four-acre hobby farm was tucked below our own. My grandparents would eventually buy it and retire there for just a few years until my grandfather died, after which my grandmother returned to her roots in Milwaukee and more company than living alone in the country had provided.

I looked north, toward our new but very old house and the hill that rose gently behind it to the highest point on our farm. We would eventually tear down rotted parts, insulate it and build two additions. But for now, the north wind drafted through the thin walls. There were just two windows on the north side of the house, and after moving in, I frequently found frost on the inside of the hall window, confirming that it really was that cold in my bedroom at night.

And finally I looked west, a 15-mile uninterrupted view across distant hills and valleys. As the sun set below the far-off horizon, I saw for the first time a string of twinkling lights that I didn’t know it at the time, but were the streetlights of the village where my mom would eventually find work as a teacher in an adjacent school district.

One of the reasons I could see our neighbors and the distant horizons in all four directions was that the farmyard was treeless. There were four dead elms along the road, oddly topped about 10 feet from the ground. My father explained they were American Elm trees, killed by a little bug that came from somewhere named Dutch.

The following spring, we tore down the tall stumps and planted trees around the house. We started with rows of white pine and cedar to the north to protect the house from winter’s arctic wind. We planted a single row of cedars along to the west to provide privacy and a sound barrier from the adjacent road. My mom enjoyed the view to the south, so we added a few low shrubs so the sun could shine on the house. We planted a fast-growing poplar tree to the east to shade the only flat stretch of yard on our hilltop homestead. Over the course of 42 years, we planted 150 trees around the house, and more than 10,000 pine, oak, walnut, ash, and black cherry in rows between farm fields. But that was all to come, for now, I returned to my pea soup and thought back to what we had just left behind and wondered what was ahead.

I have a few fond memories of Waukesha, Wisconsin where my parents had beautifully restored a farmhouse on a couple acres of suburban land. We played with the neighbor boys under a huge tree where my dad strung up a swing. There was plenty of room for my mom’s gardening interest. It was an easy drive to my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, who were sprinkled throughout the Milwaukee area. My dad taught high school shop, and once my brothers and I started school, my mom could have returned to her own teaching career. But our family took a much different path.

In the 1970s, the back-to-the-land movement was in full swing, and young adults, often with children in tow, moved to rural parts of our country to make a living and raise a family. While this urban-to-rural movement occurred across the United States in the late 1960s through the 1980s, there were some pockets where this activity was particularly noticeable; northern Missouri, parts of rural Oregon, and the southwest corner of Wisconsin. Wisconsin’s Driftless region offered hilly but affordable farmland for those who wanted to raise animals or truck farm, and the deep valleys and long country driveways for those who sought privacy.

Many sought to escape the Viet Nam war, either dodging it or the repercussions of having been part of it. Others wanted to avoid urban violence, crime, and as my mother often cited as her reason for moving, “drugs in the city.” Yet this corner of Wisconsin was close enough to Madison, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, and Chicago where many of our soon-to-be friends could return to visit friends and family they left behind.

So, with a few copies of Mother Earth News and the Whole Earth Catalog in hand, my parents seized upon their dream to raise my brothers and I in a rural setting. After the early sunset dwindled and flashlight batteries died of exhaustion or from the cold, my dad and uncle called it a day. My brothers and I bid farewell to our relatives and they returned three hours east to their home in Milwaukee. And we started the long process of turning this house into a home, this farm into a source of income, and this corner of Wisconsin into somewhere to grow up and become a local.

© 2022 Josh Feyen

Josh Feyen was raised on a farm in southwest Wisconsin, went to college in Milwaukee, lived abroad for four years on three continents, and now finds himself with stories to tell. In the middle of 2021, Josh set about writing 50 short memoir stories in his 50th year. Sharing this story with is an unexpected surprise; the main focus of Josh’s 50 in 50 writing journey is to share what he’s learned with his four teenage nieces and nephew. Josh lives in Madison, Wisconsin.


About first person productions

My blog "True Stories Well Told" is a place for people who read and write about real life. I’ve been leading life writing groups since 2004. I teach, coach memoir writers 1:1, and help people publish and share their life stories.
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