The Big, Old Elm
By Rick Robinson
On those hot and sticky Iowa summer nights when I hear the leaves blowing in the big walnut tree behind my house, my mind often wanders back in time to my days growing up on the farm. On the hottest summer nights, my mom, dad, older brother and I would sometimes sleep outside on cots under a huge, 30-foot high old elm tree next to the farmhouse. We didn’t have air conditioning in those days.
The old farmhouse was up on a hill overlooking the barnyard and was surrounded by trees. It took good advantage of its 12-foot high ceilings and five-foot high, arched, wood-framed windows. The breeze through it was relatively cool on most nights. But on the hottest nights the breeze under the big, old elm seemed cooler.
Our big, old farmhouse was built in 1878 by an Irish immigrant relative, John Robinson. “Uncle John” was born in County Fermanagh, Ireland, in 1825 and immigrated to the United States in 1850. He married Margaret Swindle in Pittsburg in the spring of 1854 and they headed for east-central Iowa where I was born and grew up.
According to The Silver Creek Story (a history of the Protestant farming community written by another relative, Blanche Swindell, for our Methodist church’s centennial in 1952), Uncle John and his new bride Margaret came to northeast Iowa with a group of relatives and friends, making the trip by boat over several rivers to Dubuque, and then by ox team and wagon from Dubuque to Delaware County. They first built a log house along the creek, over the hill and southeast of the big old farmhouse that I grew up in. I remember playing in the hollowed-out remnant of that first log house in the pasture along the creek, built with lumber cut from the trees nearby.
My copy of The Silver Creek Story details how Uncle John once found an ox yoke on a road, how he carried it home, cut it into chunks and planted them in watered holes. The ox yoke chunks grew into a row of poplar trees. I’m certain that they are the big cottonwoods that towered just north of our old farmhouse near the chicken house.
There is also a story of Aunt Margaret picking up a teamster’s green willow whip she found along a wagon trail while she was walking after the milk cows. She planted her willow whip and from it grew the willow trees along the creek east of the old farmhouse. Those are some of the willows I played in along the creek when I was younger.
But it was under the big, old elm tree in the yard next to the old farmhouse were we sometimes slept on those hot and sticky Iowa summer nights growing up. And that big, old elm was often the center of family activity. It’s where the heavy gauge steel swing set was (you can’t get swing sets like that anymore). It’s where my brother and cousins and I played. It’s where we set the tent in the summer. It was where the men would come and wash-up in a pan of water after haying all day, before going in the house for supper. It was where we would get the show box ready before taking our steers to the county fair. It was where I spent more time climbing during the summer than I spent in my own room.
That big, old elm tree was huge. Now it seems it must have been five feet wide at its base. It was a good ten-foot climb up its trunk to the crown of branches. Sometimes I would get a ladder out of the shop to get up there. I vaguely recall Mom telling me not to use the ladder to get up there. I’m sure she worried that I’d fall. When I got big enough to swing a hammer, I pounded just enough nails into the big trunk so I could climb up there without the ladder. I think that’s when Mom gave up trying to keep me out of the big, old elm.
Oh, there were other trees I climbed in. There was a big, old Maple tree in another corner of the yard next to the pasture, just past the lilacs and knotty pines. Its trunk was shorter and it was easier to get up into it, but it was not as high up, or at least I could not climb as high in it, so eventually, I would find my way back to the big, old elm.
When I was up in that big, old elm, I would sometimes wonder what the farm was like when my ancestors first came here. The very first of our family came to the United States from Northern Ireland in the 1840s. They landed in New York and then settled in Alleghany, Pennsylvania. Later the others would come through Pittsburg and on to Delaware County. A few passages in The Silver Creek Story give a sense of the very first of them:
“They followed the creek south until they came to the beginning of the timber, where the old barn on the Alex Robinson farm now stands. Here they found a small stream of pure spring water and decided to make camp. They cooked their first meal, which included coon.
“When the three men were scouting for land, quite naturally they wanted to find good land. It was the middle of April and the winter frost was all out. It looked like fertile ground, but they wanted to be as sure as possible. At last they hit upon it. Here and there over the ground they saw gopher holes freshly thrown up. They stooped and examined the black dirt the gophers had dug. It was rich and heavy and showed great possibilities in tilth, they agreed. This was the place.
“In 1852, the countryside of Silver Creek was primitive. It was rich and green and beautiful of summer, though snowbound and rugged through long weeks of winter. But it was the Land of Promise to our forefathers.
“The timber was full of berries and nuts, ‘black-caps,’ red raspberries, blackberries, wild cherries, wild grapes, wild crabs, haw apples, hazel nuts, and hickory nuts bushel upon bushel. The creek, which now and then spread out into what the settlers called a lake, was full of fish, good fish. In fact, [one ancestor] had salted down a considerable quantity of fish, as well as a barrel full of prairie chicken and quail salted thoroughly, ready for the newcomers.
“[Another ancestor]…says he can remember when the sky would actually be dark above his young eyes from the flights of wild geese and wild pigeons. He says that one could stand still and shoot squirrels and bring down any number of them from one position, so thick were they everywhere. [He] maintains that frequently a man would put himself into a range where he could kill two or three birds with one shot.
“In the timber there were plenty of wolves and foxes, coons, rabbits, rattle snakes, and other wild creatures that populated the place generously. …the timber has been cut away in large part, but there are still spots in Adams township…that are thick with braken, jack-in-the-pulpits, bittersweet, wild grapes, May apples, ivy, woodbine and the like, enough to give more than a faint idea of what the woods was like a century ago.”
Some of that thick timber is still owned by relatives. I can still remember when some great uncles had a team of Morgan work horses they retired by turning them loose in the timber, never to been seen by me, or anyone else that I know of, again. That timber is still a good place to hunt deer, turkeys and squirrel. One place in it has a fen wetland perched up above the creek.
It’s still an amazing place today full of history. I remember an old shack that was still there during my youth that I was told some loggers had once lived in while cutting lumber. There’s an old rail bed running through it that used to cross Silver Creek and connect the towns of Monte, Robinson and Ryan.
I couldn’t see what remains of the timber from the big, old elm tree; it was too far away. But because the farmhouse and the big, old elm were up on a hill, I could see all over the barnyard down below with ease and imagine what it must have been like. Just part way up in the big, old elm, maybe 15 to 20 feet high off the ground, I could see over top of the grain bins, the cattle barn and the shop down the hill in the barnyard. The timber frame barn with hand-hewn beams and pegs was too big to see over it, or maybe I just didn’t have the nerve to climb high enough to see over it. It’s amazing to me now that I never fell out of that thing. I was just lucky, I guess.
Things were just different back then. Growing up on a farm in the 1960s and early ‘70s was a relatively safe place. There were times I would disappear for hours playing along the creek and in the trees in the pasture and no one would worry about me. No one had to. Imagine doing that today. I’d bet a kid couldn’t do that. I’m not sure I’d let my kids do that. Things are just different today. There just isn’t the innocence that there was back then.
That innocence began to fade by the 1970s with the Vietnam War. But while Nixon was being brought down by Watergate, a fungal disease was bringing down the big, old elm. Dutch elm disease devastated native populations of elms in North America because they had not yet developed resistance to the disease. The disease was first reported in the United States in 1928 and spread by beetles believed to have arrived in a shipment of logs from the Netherlands. The disease spread slowly from New England westward and southward, reaching our northeast Iowa farm by 1972.
The day we cut down the big, old dead elm was a day I will never forget. At first I wondered if it I was responsible for it demise because of the nails I hand pounded into it a few years before so I could climb it easier. My dad’s big chain saw could hardly get through it. Dad had to cut all the way around the tree. It made a huge crash when it fell on the gravel driveway between the well and the house. I can’t remember if we counted its rings to age it or not. I’m sure we did.
I haven’t been on the farm in 25 years. I wonder if the big, old stump is still there. Someone else lives there now. Dad got sick in 1980. The auctioneer at the farm sale said later it was literally the last good sale he had in February of 1981. The infamous farm crisis had started and it seemed the bottom dropped out overnight. My folks moved to town. They had a few good years together traveling and getting ready for the next stage of their lives. Dad lived until 1985.
Mom still lives there in town. She has her church, clubs and great grandchildren now. They sometimes play under her two big trees, a locust in the front yard and a maple in back that are both almost as big as the old elm. The maple in back shades the whole house, but it’s not the same as the big, old big elm. She fusses about those “dirty trees” because they drop leaves and small braches in her yard, the roof and in her gutters with the lightest of breezes. I think she just misses the big, old elm, and way of life and times on the farm, too.
But it’s still a nice place to sit on hot and sticky Iowa summer nights.