South Main Street in Lake Mills, Wisconsin, had deteriorated into a tree-lined cattle path. My preferred modes of transport are a three-quarter-ton pickup and a mountain bike, so it didn’t bother me much. But when the Prius’ and mini-vans started to bottom out and we lost a Smart Car in a sink hole, it was time to repave.
To make room for parking and bike lanes, and to secure state funding, it was dictated the trees along the boulevard had to come down. Smartly-dressed, persuasive, and articulate, Charlie Roy and the whole town rallied, but the government won. Today, Main Street looks like Barneveld, Wisconsin after the ’84 tornado.
We can take some solace. Walter Cnare was an arborist for the city. He said if the Stihls hadn’t gotten the Ash trees, the Emerald Borer would have.
For two years, crews worked on replacing the underground utilities in increments.
Early spring of 2019, the barricades came up and the A-1 Excavating army rolled in from the North. The boys from Bloomer had a dozen Cat, Case, and John Deer ‘hoes, ‘dozers, and end loaders hauled in by a fleet of lowboys. Some still had plastic on the seats and paint on the buckets.
Not for long.
The Lakers Athletic Club has anchored the one hundred block of South Main Street for over thirty years. For most of that time, three days a week I’d idle down the hardwood-lined main drag waving at the dog walkers and marveling at the seasons, en route to my workout. When the construction gates closed, I redirected to the Woodland Beach-Ferry Road back-door route. It upped my eighteen-minute commute to twenty-one, and doubled the stop signs, but I was able to watch the daily progress on a couple of waterfront mansions under construction and wave at Diane Alward being walked by her German Shepherd pup, Quinn.
Stage 1 of deconstruction took place just outside the glass door. I get to the club by quarter-to-six. Sources reported the crew would do last call at Sporty’s Saloon or TT’s Tavern, but by the time I was done with crunches and sit-ups, the guys were oilin’, greasing, and fueling their machines. By six-thirty, they were blowing black smoke and moving material. When they tore out the old road, the triple-axle Macs were lined up nose-to end gate. The guy on the hoe swung steady as a metronome. Every stroke, he laid four yards of broken asphalt in the bed of the trucks gentle as a baby in a bassinette. When they hauled in breaker rock for the new base, every load of limestone was greeted with a dozer blade. It was like a choreographed, diesel-powered dance.
When things go well at the clinic, we get off at six; seven on Mondays. More often than not, A-1 Excavating would just be sweeping the sidewalks and idling down. Early in my practicing years I was whining to my dad after a long day at the clinic. “Son, it ain’t the same twelve hours driving between calls and B.S.’n with the farmers as setting rebar and pouring concrete.” Point taken.
Summer evenings I’d ride my bike through to see what they were up to. You could not find an empty tobacco tin, Mountain Dew can, or sandwich bag on the A-1 Excavating job site. Their equipment was lined up in formation. They were bound-by-contract to have the first phase done by Memorial Day for the sake of the small-business’ in town. All spring it rained like Noah and the Ark and they had to core down twenty-two feet in the three hundred block to reach solid base. Still, by mid-May they were a month ahead of schedule and had to wait for school to get out when they got to Lakeview Terrace on the edge of campus.
The job foreman was a hard-handed young man named Cody. He looked like he could have won a state-championship in wrestling at a hundred-eighty pounds. Mid-June his Brittany Spaniel ran through a barbed-wire fence. He apologized profusely for disrupting my Sunday. I explained the clinic he was standing in and my education were subsidized by a heavy-equipment operator working overtime; it was the least I could do.
For twelve years, we were entertained by an exuberant English Cocker Spaniel named Lilly who belonged to our friends Joe and Wanda Pleshek. If ever there was a dog that would live forever, it would have been her. Alas, we finally had to say goodbye, but the void would not last long. Joe found Buck, heir apparent to the legendary Lilly from a top-flight breeder in Vandalia, Illinois. I know the area well.
“Vandelly” is an hour south of Decatur, and half-way to my Aunt Mary and Uncle Kelsey’s farm in Greenville. My grandma and I would road-trip in her ’74 Plymouth Valiant. Grandma drank ice tea dark as a Guinness Stout, by the gallon. We always took an obligatory bathroom break at a rest stop in clear view of the State Penitentiary. She called it The Peanut Farm.
Joe is the CEO of a large biotech firm, and looks the part. He spoke highly of his experience with the breeder Jay Lowry. The drive he could have done without. “Man, Dr. Stork, once you get south of Rockford, there is nothin’ to see.”
Boredom is in the eye of the beholder.
Since Dad died, I make that drive every Thanksgiving. It’s an hour to Rockford, and another to LaSalle Peru, then Bloomington, and finally Decatur. The road is straight-as-a-snap-line and the land is flat as piss-on-a-plate, but to me, there is plenty to see.
Unbeknownst to my wife, I plan our departure to have us just south of Rockford at sunrise. By mile marker one-fifteen I feel a physiologic lack of encumbrance. As you climb out of the Kishwaukee River Valley, you’re greeted by red flashing lights atop the wind turbines.
Ten years ago, I attempted to count them. I lost track at sixty-six. They’ve reproduced like the Haack family since. Each tower is three hundred feet tall. The blades are a hundred feet long. The concrete base is a hundred-foot cube, and the generator weighs fifty tons. On the windiest days, the blades look to be turning like a second hand on a Timex. I had Paige count the RPMs. Calvin was in geometry, so he remembered the formula to calculate circumference. We multiplied the length of the blades by two times pi. Knowing the distance traveled per revolution, we could multiply to conclude the tip of the blades are travelling a hundred and twenty-two miles per hour! Last Christmas, my father-in-law asked about how the towers were constructed, so we watched a time-lapse video on YouTube.
2019 is a year the Wisconsin farmers will talk about ad infinitum. One could counter that farmers talk about every year, forever. Touché. The same near-biblical rains that hampered the road crew in Lake Mills made it impossible to get crops in the ground. There was talk at the diner of planting corn by pontoon boat or float plane. June and July felt like summer on San Francisco Bay. I’m not sure what a “degree day” is, but we begged for enough of them to even get the quickest-maturing corn to the finish line.
I had to see how the farmers in Illinois were faring.
A staple of a dairy cow’s diet is corn silage. The entire plant is cut and chopped at sixty-five to seventy-percent moisture, then stored in those tall concrete silos you see next to barns or in a concrete bunker covered in plastic. Silage is usually cut mid-September, but there is a narrow window. Too wet, and it all runs out the bottom of the silo. Too dry and it won’t ferment. Cows won’t milk, breed-back, and get really sick. Even if the field it’s standing in is a swamp, the corn will continue to dry down. In Wisconsin, a lot of big tractors got stuck, and fields got rutted, trying to make good feed.
In Illinois, there are precious few dairy farms to feed silage, so six or eight weeks later we hope corn and beans are below twenty-percent moisture so we can harvest them for dry grain. Harvest too early and wet and you’re docked at the elevator to dry it down. Wait for the crops to dry in the field and you risk Halloween 2019 – it looked more like Christmas. Three late October snowstorms with thirty miles-per-hour wind resulted in thousands of acres of soybeans at five hundred dollars per, lying on the ground, molding brown to black.
Now in late-November, I thought for sure I’d be reporting a sob story to Rick at herd check Monday morning, “Oh yeah, the guys down in Illinois still can’t get their beans off, and there’s corn standing everywhere.” I saw two sections of beans still standing just after the Paw Paw exit to confirm my suspicion. If I were Facebook or Fox News I’d go to print with the story, but Sheila was sleeping and I had another three hours to kill. I figured I’d put some numbers to it like Pam Jahnke, The Fabulous Farm Babe. I didn’t see another bean field standing until LaSalle Peru, so I’ll report that they were doing pretty good on beans. Corn was a different story. It’s not as easy as it looks to take inventory on. both sides of the Interstate, and drive at the same time, so I did one side of the road, one section at a time. I concluded by my head-math there was a solid thirty-percent of the corn still standing.
Which made me wonder about fall tillage.
Once you get the crops off and the combine cleaned out, and in the shed, it’s tempting to go to town and have a beer. That works fine if you can count on next spring being warm and dry. Not likely. If ’20 is anything like ’19, there will be about 18 hours in late-May to get crops planted. You’d better get the corn stalks chopped so they’ll decompose under the snow and break up the ground.
I was noticing that in The Land of Lincoln they pick up the chisel plow six rows before the waterways to avoid erosion, then came a distraction that kept me entertained all the way to Clinton.
Ten-feet wide, and a football field long, there were huge plastic bags sitting at the far-end of fields. In Wisconsin these would be full of corn silage. Cattle feed. The closest thing to a Holstein in Ogle County, Illinois was a quart of chocolate milk at the Huck’s store in Hillcrest. (I find Hillcrest, Illinois comical in the same sense as subdivisions with names like Oak Crest Village and Maple Bluff rising out of a cornfield.) These bags were a mile away from the nearest buildings, and I couldn’t see or smell a trace of a ruminant of any magnitude.
By then we were slowing down for the suburbs of Clinton. I needed to take inventory, so I’d have to table the big-bag dilemma.
Altorfer Ag Products is a CLAAS-LEXION dealer out on Old Highway 51. I usually have to pull over and count. One trip there were thirty-nine combine harvesters at half-a-million dollars a copy, on the lot. Thanksgiving Day 2019, there was one, and it was parked at the service bay. Translated, farmers are hopeful.
The speed limit dropped to forty-five and Sheila stirred to consciousness at the first set of stop lights on the north side of town.
We try and arrive a little early. We only get to see the family once a year. Not to mention, Dad’s cousin Jim is a retired machinist. His job was to take the most intricate parts and products from the engineer’s CAD design to the assembly line. In retirement he took up Blacksmithing and Coppersmithing. While the turkey is cooling, we’ll step out back. Jim has a shop with mills, lathes, grinders, and a fridge full of Apple Pie hooch he brings up from his forge trips to Tennessee.
By the time the turkey gets carved, Sheila has talked Jim out of a hand-hammered copper vase and my ears are warm from the moonshine. I’d ask him if he could make a couple of hooks to hang pots from the cow stanchion Sheila and I hung from the ceiling. His first answer to every job was, “Well, Little Bill, I cain’t really do that because…” Don’t worry about it Jim, I’ve got a guy up-home that’ll handle it. A week later it would show up UPS; stainless steel, spot-on, and polished.
For those of us who are concerned about kids these days, we’re gonna be OK. As evidence I present my Dad’s cousin’s son and his family. Derek and Mandy live on four acres in central Illinois with their two kids Colton and Maddie. They raise two steers for freezer beef, a handful of chickens, and a garden. They fish in the neighbor’s pond and hunt. The kids know well, if you kill it, you eat it. Derek works for Mandy’s dad on the farm.
He’d know about these damn bags at the edges of the fields I’d been eyeing on the way down.
He explained with fluctuation in grain markets and the seasonal shortage of propane, farmers could store grain, off the field, for pennies a bushel. A lot like putting your paycheck in a savings account, waiting for the stock market to jump. If President Trump gets off Twitter long enough to cut a trade deal with China, producers just might be able to cover their costs.
The point of this all is perspective.
I ate dinner with a construction worker for my first eighteen years. I got six months of entertainment watching a road being built. I’ve worked for farmers for nigh on to twenty-five years. On the same piece of highway that Joe Pleshek saw nothing, I never nodded, without so much as a radio, iPad, or smartphone.
My friend Jennifer Rodriguez once shared a quote, “We come away from every human interaction, forever changed.”