Monday, April 30, 2012

The Mystery Field of the Invisible Farmer

A motel and farm field, circa 1950.

All these years later, the motel is still there -- and so is the farm field.

On any farm field, the signs of life come gradually. Tilled soil one week, pokes of green a little bit later, soon a full crop swaying in the wind and then the hustle and bustle of harvest.

Yet there’s one farm field where the signs of life have always intrigued me. Because beyond the work of Mother Nature, I have never seen a human being working this field.

That wouldn’t be so uncommon in a field out in the country, you might not catch a farmer on his or her tractor or combine every time you drive by. But this field is in the midst of the town where I grew up, more or less across the street from where our house once stood. Yet I’ve never seen anyone working that field in nearly 50 years.

The crops come up. Someone plants them. Someone harvests them. I say it’s the work of the Invisible Farmer, others suggest perhaps it’s the Vampire Farmer because there is a cemetery right next to the field.

In this day and age, it would be easy enough to find out. A quick Internet check of the tax rolls would provide the name of the property owner. Then again, this is a small town; I probably could walk to the hotel across the street and ask the owner if he knows.

He probably does -- he might even own it himself -- but I like the mystery of the place.

After harvest at the mystery field.
The field is about the size of a football field, if that. Small fields like this aren’t uncommon in my neck of the woods. This is hilly terrain in southwestern Wisconsin; some farmers find patches where they can and plant a crop. It’s a far cry from corn as far as the eye can see when you drive along places such as Interstate 80 through Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois or Indiana.

It’s not the size of the field that intrigues; it’s the location. The field has been there for decades, maybe even a century, and likely was once on the edge of town. The village has grown up around it. The field’s border to the west is the cemetery; its border to the east is a bike trail that was once the railroad tracks. Right on the other side of the trail, however, is a strip mall with a big grocery store and beyond continues more development that includes franchise restaurants and stores. The town grows; the field remains.

Over the years, there were always rumblings of what might happen to the field. When I was a kid, there was a rumor that a McDonald’s was going to go there. When you’re a kid, it’s exciting news that a McDonald’s is coming to your town, much less across the street from your house. Now, as an adult, I really don’t care that we have a McDonald’s at all and I’m grateful it’s not in that field.

The mystery field butts right up to a subdivision.
I’m not sure how long that field will hold on; no doubt the Invisible Farmer is battling the inevitable pressures of development. What you can’t see about the field as you drive by is that it goes up over a hill, back down and right up against a subdivision. It’s the fate of many fields in the Midwest, and if you’ve never seen a farmer cry, watch an elderly farmer talk about the development near his field in the marvelous documentary, “The Real Dirt on Farmer John.”

So much change has come in my lifetime to my old neighborhood, which once had more homes than businesses. An empty lot sits where my house was, as various developments are planned and then fall through; a crazy busy convenience store replaced what used to be the home of a guy named Wild Bill. Other homes were replaced by fast-food restaurants and the cemetery that once was an acreage of strangers is now dotted with people I once knew.

But the field survives. And like the mystery of the Invisible Farmer who works this field, the fate of it remains to be seen.

In this 1908 postcard, the cemetery and the field are the town's eastern border (left center).