Dad, Uncle Stan, and I spent that Sunday morning driving around the wrong part of the county looking for the family homestead. We drove those gridded roads, east-west, north-south, over and over, scouring the five square miles southeast of Gaylord, Kansas, driving down every dirt lane that seemed to match their memories. We “found” the place several times only to realize that each location lacked an essential detail. Hope nearly gone, we pulled up to a beautifully restored farmhouse, in a vale, next to a stream—just as remembered—and for a moment the mood lightened. But, the hill was too steep and the setting of the house not quite right. The couple on the front porch, though, knew the house we spoke of—sixty years after being sold out of the family it was still called “the old Ratcliffe place,” southwest of Gaylord, not southeast.
It was a beautiful spring day in 2005. I had driven east from Denver, where I would be attending a conference the following week. I wanted to see the family homestead in Smith County, Kansas. Dad and Uncle Stan had flown from Indiana to Kansas City and driven west to meet me. We had spent Saturday visiting with a cousin and visiting various sites. Sunday was the day to visit the homestead.
As we turned off the county road, Dad and Uncle Stan recognized the curve and slope of the drive, and the hill on the right. “The water tank was on top of the hill, with a pipe that ran to the house.” A house stood at the base of the hill. I compared it to the one in the photo we had—the one with my great-grandmother standing on the porch next to the sunflowers—but they already knew, the looks on their faces confirmed it. They were boys again, arriving after the long drive from Virginia; suburban kids come to spend time with Kansas cousins; memories of summer days and nights flowing as we reached the house.
Equipment and implements were strewn around the yard and the drive, rusting where they had ceased to run, or where they had been left to be hauled off another day. The house was worn, the sandstone blocks of the original portion, yellowed and cracked, the wood siding of the addition—the main part of the house—weathered grey by the prairie wind and sun. The porch roof sagged, layers of old plywood patches forming a record of the years. The wire fence around the small lawn had not held back weeds and cane. The brothers sighed—orderly farmers at heart—but this was the place. This was the place! They pointed to where the alfalfa field had been, and remembered how their father talked about water transpiring off the plants in the afternoon, water drawn from the aquifer below, and how cool it was in that field after a long day working. And over there, between the house and the stream, was Aunt Delia’s garden, which Uncle Harold had tiled with flattened tin cans for irrigation. They remembered running with their cousins up and down the hill between the water tank and the house, barefoot, trying to avoid sand burrs, stepping on quite a few, but still running anyways.
We walked around the house and the out-buildings and barns where they had helped with chores, boyhood memories tempered by sadness that the farm was no longer in the family. But this was a tough land to farm, arid, uncertain, and unforgiving, so their Uncle Harold sold it in the 1940s and moved to Missouri.
As we strolled around the homestead, the owner arrived to check his cattle. He had been raised on the farm—his parents had been tenants—and when he bought the land, he was told to expect Ratcliffes, who would come and walk the farm, drink water from the well—pilgrims of sorts. He traded stories with us, the land providing a bond between strangers.
Dad, Uncle Stan, and I still talk about that afternoon. I think of the barns and sheds storing memories harvested from the past; and the new memories planted in those fields.