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Letter to Grampa

Dear Grampa,

Remember back in 1943, when I was fifteen, I told you about my big inspiration? I wrote it down: I was going to write a book especially for you, and call it “The Round Barn.” You studied my note, laughed and nodded, and agreed that, “yes, the round barn would have a lot to say.” But then you died, just five years later, and amidst my grief was regret that I hadn’t written your book. I was glad that I had brought you my painting when you were in the hospital, even though my professor hadn’t liked the brown sky. You sat in your bed, admired the mother cow and her nursing calf, and didn’t criticize any of my color choices. Somehow that picture didn’t survive the hospital visit either, though I still have the preliminary sketch.

I’m older now than you were when you died, and well –I’m just now finishing your book. I know what you meant about life getting in the way! As it turns out, it’s got more stories than it ever could have had while you were alive –four fat volumes, from the path that led to your becoming a farmer, to daddy selling the dairy in 1972, and beyond. How I wish I’d asked you for your stories when I first thought of it! I’m missing so much, like the stories of our best herdsman, Bernard Kassilke; and I want to know what it was that the employee who lived out on Shopiere road refused to tell me –although your side of it would undoubtedly be different from his!

I suppose there are chapters that perhaps it’s just as well you never got the chance to read. You’d not like the intrusion into your personal life –and of course you wouldn’t have known of those conversations between Grama and Mrs. Smith, overheard by her little pitcher, Eloise Smith. You’d want to set me straight on some other details as well, agree or disagree on my interpretations of your private papers –which changed depending on where you were in life! –although you’d sternly tell me they were intended for God’s eyes alone.

I think you’d recognize, in the pages of “The Round Barn,” the legacy you left, and be pleased.

But then you’d urge me not to write any more, and advise me to get back to living my life; that now it was the book getting in the way –you were always good at giving thoughtful advice. And you’d like to know how everything turned out after you were gone. Of course, perhaps you already do, up there in heaven. Or perhaps you’re too busy planting seeds in the clouds. For even Heaven needs plants, and water, and surely some lime in the soil. And a cow and nursing calf. Otherwise it’s not Heaven, isn’t that right?

Love, Jackie

in media res


For the addenda of my Volume 4, I’m putting in some stuff that people have asked about. One is, “why did it take you so long to write this book when you started when you were 15?” Well I did start then, actually even earlier. And then over the years, kept finding more and more material, and knowing I’d told Grampa I was going to write a book, but never finding a way to start it—and the material kept rolling in! I’ve written about my various “starts” — and this might be of interest to writers and even nonwriters — the obvious way was to start at the beginning and just keep going. That’s what I’d done in my younger writing. Why did that not work? I couldn’t really tell where the beginning was. The same problem was starting at the end and then going back and picking up everything else, but I didn’t even know where the end was yet. There is always in media res, but where was the middle? I thought of making a three-tiered pancake. I had a lot of material on my dad’s growing up from his saving the drunk and the silo to the little girl who pulled down her pants to show him what she had (and he was too upset to reciprocate), and I had a lot on my and my sibs’ childhoods, from destroying the corn shocks in the interest of beauty and design to my bad time at the 4-H fair. The third pancake should be the grandkids’ experiences on the farm—but the only grandkids nearby had (so far) pretty limited experiences: we now have only a two-tiered pancake, which wasn’t enough pancakes when you consider there were lots more stories than childhood experiences. I tried using the five aims of the farm that were written on the silo, discovered I knew plenty about a couple of them, very little about “a stable market,” for instance, and was realizing that the last, “Life as well as a living,” was really the theme of the whole book and couldn’t be contained in one section. I finally stumbled on a solution: I won’t go into how, but it was to start yes, in media res, not in time but geography. Start with all the stories that primarily are gathered around the round barn, and then move out in concentric circles to the rest of the farm, the neighbors, the town, the county, and eventually the world. The theme of the book also made itself clear: the farm’s effect on the world and the world’s effect on the farm. Voila!

On CAFOs — chickens and pigs

Pigs enjoying their lives in the barnyard.
Pigs enjoying their lives in the barnyard.

I was ahead of my time back in the mid-60s writing a book about a chicken CAFO called Chicken 10,000 — she escapes and discovers “life as well as a living,” not that she had much of a living in the CAFO. Anyway, the town of Petersburg near us, which boasts Lincoln’s New Salem, is fighting a 3,500-pig CAFO. I understand the locals don’t want it because of traffic, smell, and particularly tourism, and the other side wants it for profit, jobs – although how many jobs are supplied when 3,500 pigs can be fed by computer? I’ve been following this controversy and even wrote a letter to the editor, which they didn’t print, saying the only thing that is not being taken into consideration is the PIG. Pigs are smart. Given space, they defecate in the same place in their pens. Real farmers give them play toys, balls, things to keep their busy minds occupied while they fatten up for market or for breeding. Their little trotters are on the ground and their shovel noses are rooting into the ground. They are happy. I’ve never had a chance to question a CAFO pig, but it leaves its mom, who it never gets to know, and is shipped to a large building with slatted floors, and there, with a crowd of its peers, eats from an ever-full trough until it’s sent to market, almost certainly with hormones and antibiotics to promote growth and prevent disease. I had numerous pet pigs, usually runt pigs raised on a bottle. They even knew how to open the back door screen and see if there was anything for them inside. What a life for a modern pig! I hope the Petersburg folk prevail.

The value of re-writing history

I have found in an ancient file the beginnings of a novel I wrote when I was 13, shortly after the 4-H debacle when my calf behaved so despicably at the county fair and I was horribly humiliated. It’s fiction, so my heroine is doing everything right with her calf and winning a blue ribbon at the fair. I can see that I was trying to make everything “right” by writing it right. I realized this may be the reason for much writing by many novelists. Anyway, after all was well at 4-H with my heroine, she wanders in the fields at night enjoying the moonlight and watching a storm approach, sees lightning strike the barn and manages to sound the alarm, all animals are saved, etc., etc. Talk about compensation! And then the novel petered out and I remember at the time not knowing where to go next. I’d saved my psyche, I’d saved the farm, where else was there to go? Too young for sex.

I’m putting this pic back in because it’s of my calf and me at the fair. This too I drew at about 13, but showing the problem, not solving it.


a short history of ice

I’ve just been writing about ice. In my milk delivery days, we used to carry ice in the trucks in the summertime covered with heavy canvases. Actually ice in the summertime, or in mild climates, has only come about with the invention of refrigeration. In England from prehistoric times, you can see a passageway in Cornwall that catches the wind and game was hung there to keep it cool – called a fogue. I have a book of letters by E. Parmalee Prentice, where he quotes Sir Walter Scott in 1822 saying that he built an icehouse last year and could get no ice to fill it, so this year, he says, “I packed it full of hard-rammed snow, which in March was already melting.” My sister owns property on a remote lake in New Brunswick, only a mile from the ocean, and all during the 19th century, ice was harvested from it, skidded on long wooden tracks to the shore and shipped to Boston and New York for summer use in hotels. In my own childhood, we cut ice from the river and kept it in an icehouse covered with sawdust, and it lasted most of the summer. There were big icehouses on the river. Many memoirs talk about following the ice man and gleaning shards of ice to suck. My elderly generation still often refers to an ice box instead of a ‘frig. Well enough about ice. Daylights savings time and (dare I say it?) spring are upon us.

winter still

In my book Taste of Spruce Gum (1966), Libby’s stepfather spent the long icy winter evenings doing what he called his knittin’ work. This could be to sharpen saws blades or mend logging equipment. We’re not over winter yet – still snowbanks over what I trust are my snowdrops. Do they bloom underneath the snow? Funny to go into daylight savings time with snow, and robins blowing on the tips of their wings to keep warm. It’s hard to know what farmers do now, the big factory farms and CAFOs operating all year regardless of weather. Of course, they aren’t farmers…

A question for the sages

When I published Taste of Spruce Gum back in 1968 or so, I used actual names gleaned from Grandma Vi of people who lived and worked on top of Shrewsbury Mountain in Vermont in 1905. To my surprise, I got letters from people knowing those folks and telling me what happened to them! So this is something I’ve had to be aware of in using real names. Current problem: In Vol. 4, I have a lovely chapter of my dad in the 50s traveling Wisconsin with a young Swede, visiting seed-corn salesmen. He has written this trip up in a lively letter to his kids. At one point, he describes having lunch with a family: “the father, a widower, married a school teacher. Together they added a half-a-dozen more children to the ones he already had.” My dad describes the house as “dirty,” the former school teacher as “blowsy,” and the children as “absolutely beautiful.” The last name is distinctive and he gives the town. So, I looked up that name in that town and find the area is absolutely crawling with this family. If this chapter is published as is, there’s a likely chance this unusual name will be recognized and the adult kids will read Dad’s description. Question: Do I change the name in the book? Or, do I let that extensive family know how beautiful they were? Of course, the house was dirty – so is mine. Of course that overworked mother was blowsy! This might sell a lot of books. So what would you advise?


If I didn’t have deadlines, all this Round Barn work would be total fun and absorption and interest. But with the amount of material I have, that lopped over Vol. 2 into Vol. 3, now ditto into Vol. 4, I really have to get Vol. 4 out and finish up this project, especially since it’s been advertised as out last year. Just got a phone call from John Onken up in Madison, Wis., who publishes the Agri-Dairy Newsletter, and writes a column in another dairy publication, informing me that Farm Progress Day of 1961 was held on the Dougan farm and 160,000 people came, and how come I haven’t written about that? Did I know about that?! Well, of course, I’ve known, and I told him that Vol. 4 has three chapters, rich with pictures, on Farm Progress Days. Well, he wants to write about it NOW. And so we have had to send him pictures and other data, even though I tried to dissuade him til Book 4 was out. So, deadlines and I’m not getting any younger…

Here’s how old I was when I began this book: jat006

Here I look now: sol-1102

I’m heading to Nevada to put Book 4 together, with my “staff,” before this is my deadline:


Speaking of tombstones, my friends have come up with the epitaph to go on mine: “It’s around here somewhere.”

The little red cupola

How can you see me in living color and talking, too? How did the Round Barn become part of Illinois? Listen, my children, and ye shall hear –
I’d heard that Illinois’s two major museums: the Illinois State Museum and the Abraham Lincoln — were into a big oral history project on Illinois farming. So of course, I ignored it. However, I attend an archaeology lecture once a month at the Illinois State Museum, and one night after the session, a man approached me holding the Northwestern “Stories from the Round Barn” and a colorful map of Illinois marked off into counties, and on the very top – Illinois makes a straight line – a little red square cupola. I began to laugh for it was obviously Rock County, Wisconsin: from our back field, you can spit into Illinois with a high wind. The man laughed, too. It turned out that Illinois wanted to incorporate Rock County, Wisconsin, into Illinois for the purposes of their oral history, for I had more going back than anybody. I figured Rock County wouldn’t mind, so I didn’t ask it, but the oral history project recorded me talking for nine hours (yes, we did it in two sessions) and I still have a half hour to add because their last question was important and took me by surprise (I’ll write about that later). You can find the whole interview at the Illinois State Museum’s Audio-Video Barn along with a lot of other interesting interviews, but of course, none so interesting as mine. 🙂 Another reward of all this activity: the museums had a show at the State capitol, their booth right in the middle of the rotunda, huge television screen – I walked in and there was me, talking away. I found me rather fascinating, but needing a hair cut.

My bicycle, tea, and a bum

In my last post, I talked about Watership Down by Richard Adams. One of my England trips, with 24 students, was for my course, British Children’s Lit. The year previous, I was alone in England on my bicycle and pulled up to Richard Adams’ doorstep. When he answered my knock, I told him how much I liked the book, and he invited me in to have tea with him and his wife. We had a grand time and I asked him if I could bring my class to meet him. We did – and he actually climbed Watership Down (a big breadloaf-shaped chalk hill) with all of us. On that earlier visit, he told me to bike on down to Arundel and call on Rosemary Sutcliffe, a famous writer of British history for children. I did; she served me tea graciously, and the next year, served tea -– each cup and saucer beautiful and unique — to 24 students. When she died a few years back, her ceremony was at Westminster Abby and a disreputable bum sat in the back waving and singing. She would have loved it.