A gravel road is what, in southern Iowa—the old hippie’s home state, is called a Rock Road. The land there isn’t flat as the Midwest stereotype would suggest, but gently rolling, the hills sizable enough to conceal intimate bits of landscape until one pops over the rise. The roads follow the edges of the old quarter — section homesteads and are fairly straight. This landscape probably contributes to there being no left or right in Iowa — just east, west, north and south.
I was once torquing the multiple bolts of a cylinder head on a combine engine while the farmer who I was assisting helped me maintain the all important tightening pattern and sequence. Reading from the technical manual, he translated the diagram to Iowan — “north south-south, east-west, north-north-east…” Newly arrived from the Mid Atlantic and New England, I was soon lost and just used a standard pattern.
As some farms expanded, many of these old roads were abandoned and some were simply plowed under. This left some isolated fragments of roads still in use. I’ve actually heard it said “You can’t get there from here — all the roads here run east and west — out there, they all run north and south.” Prominent in this landscape are the scattered, lonely windmills left over from smaller, abandoned farmsteads.
Usually, the house and barns would have disappeared — burned, collapsed or swept away by a tornado. Windmills, though were maintained so as to pump water for the now larger cattle farms. This was the situation when we lived out there, anyway. Last week, I called Brenda DeVore at the Wayne County Historical Society in Corydon, Iowa, to find out if this was still being done. (We used to live in the countryside. She had to help me out here since I had lost my Midwest sense of direction — northwest of Corydon).
She said that “rural water,” a centralized water system had been installed throughout the county and that even the Amish were using it. Because Iowans are always keen to recall their small farm heritage, many windmills were being restored but the majority were collapsing where they stood. She didn’t know whether the trend toward abandoning these old mills was due to the aquifer dropping or was simply a matter of convenience. If you’ve ever had the opportunity to install new “leathers” in one of these old‑time pumps, you may be inclined to guess the latter.
If you happen to be in Winchester, Va., stop by Solenberger Hardware on Baker Lane. Way in the back of the store, near the industrial department is a tool used for extracting one of these pumps. It’s been there for years — nobody wants it. There’s a reason for that.
The Iowa farm house that we rented (circa 1890) had a shallow well with a tall, old-fashioned hand pump in the yard. Even the most vigorous pumping brought forth only an anemic trickle. We presented the problem to Dave North our landlord, a large, boisterous local veterinarian. He acknowledged that the problem had been getting worse of late and said that he would round up some help and be out to replace the leathers in the pump the following weekend.
Dave found his crew of masters of the rustic arts at a little dot on the prairie called Promise City. I had previously compared the little towns along the Iowa/Missouri border to a movie set from The Grapes of Wrath (1940, version) and Dorthea Lange photographs. Promise City was a fine example. In the week leading up to the “pump pullin’,” everyone else we spoke to who had some experience with these events had their own story to relate. Very few made it sound like an event that anyone would want to attend on purpose.
Favorite among these was the story of how the entire three-member male contingent (this number would eventually grow with each telling until it reached an even dozen) of one farm family was wiped out. The pump was being pulled in the usual manner with the metal pump rising higher and higher into the air when it contacted some overhead electrical wires from which the old cloth and rubber insulation had crumbled in the weather and fallen off. The pump had surely been installed prior to rural electrification.
Other dangers inherent to balancing 200 pounds of cast iron overhead at the end of a fifty-foot tall pipe were enumerated along with the subsequent local tragedies. By the time that the day of the pump pullin’ rolled around, Stephanie and I were sufficiently terrified at the gruesome prospects.
Mid-morning of the dreaded day saw Dave arrive with three rusty late-1940s Studebaker pickups following. Four very large Swedes emerged and, without ceremony, walked right up to the pump, tied a long rope to it and grabbed hold of the seemingly immovable device. The pump rose a couple of feet from its concrete base. The apparent patriarch of this family of rusticians affixed a foot operated clamp (like the one at Solenberger’s) which held the pipe while the pullers got a fresh grip. The heavy pump rose higher and higher over the barn yard.
Using the rope and the sheer strength of the crew, the pump and its long iron pipe were laid out horizontally on the yard–no easy task. The two leathers; the “flapper” or check valve and the “cup leather” or piston seal (also on display and in stock at Solemberger’s) were replaced. Again using the rope, the pipe was inserted into the well and the pump carefully lowered.
There were few words, some handshakes, the transferral of a sizable amount of cash then Dave and the crew left. I watched the dust settle behind the last Studebaker about a half-mile away. It suddenly got very quiet. I was fetched back from my little reverie by the sound of Stephanie hanging a tin bucket from the hook on the pump’s spout.
“Did that really just happen?” I asked. She worked the handle and water cascaded from the spout filling the bucket in seconds.
“Yes, I think it did,” she replied.
I just kept looking down the narrow gravel road as a gentle prairie breeze whistled in my big Opie Taylor ears.