I am Sibylla Brown. I was born in Germany in 1940. In 1946 my father, a German Operation Overcast scientist, was brought to the U.S. My family followed him to the U.S. in 1947, settling in Cedar Rapids Iowa in 1950. I married my husband, Bill in 1962. Bill practiced dentistry in Des Moines for over 40 years. In 1993 we sold our house in Des Moines and moved to a 200 acre farm in Decatur County, Iowa. Except for a small vineyard we had no plans to farm our land. But we did want to take care of it, particularly the overgrown oak and hickory woodlands. We began timber stand improvement in 1993. When we learned our land was actually a rare oak savanna remnant we implemented prescribed fire. These posts share how we found the land and how we made the transition from city-dwellers to country folk.
“The beginning of what? No one knows. When something begins, no one ever knows where it will take him or where it will end. And it hardly seems to matter at the time, beginnings are so small or so instantly exciting or so magically sweet. The beginning, if you notice it at all is in itself as far as you can bear to go, as much as you can bring yourself to face.” (anonymous)
Going through my files recently I found this quotation, unattributed. My thoughts returned to the early years after Bill and I concluded the purchase of 120 acres of land in Decatur County, Iowa. Now that we owned the kind of land we had always dreamed of we weren’t sure what to do next. Would we continue to live in Des Moines and spend weekends at the farm? Or sell the Des Moines house and build a permanent residence at the farm? We had lived in Des Moines for twenty years where Bill had built a successful dental practice. We were both involved in the community and had an active social life. Our house at the end of a dead end street overlooked a neighbor’s private bird sanctuary. It was almost like living in the country. Why move 75 miles from Des Moines to a town where we knew nobody except Doyle from whom we had bought our land?
Our new land was truly rural. There were no residents in our section of Woodland Township. It was so wild that it was hard to imagine that anyone had ever lived there. But from Doyle we learned that in 1900 our tract had supported two homesteads, a cabin at the edge of the north woodland and another near our south property line. The north cabin burned down before 1920. All that remains of that homestead is the cistern pit and a winter pear tree descended from one planted by pioneers. Doyle and his father tore down the south farm buildings and bricked up those cisterns in 1935.
Decatur County was in serious decline. Its population had peaked in 1900 with 20,000 residents. Now it was less than half that. Woodland, the pioneer village nearest our property was once a thriving community. A post office, bank, telephone central office, blacksmith shop, hotel, two churches, several stores and a cafe lined the streets. To serve the surrounding countryside there were even medical and insurance, loan and real estate offices. But now it was a ghost town. Only the Woodland Community Church and the old schoolhouse, converted into a community center, now stand at the junction of Woodland Road and J46, formerly Main Street.
All the properties adjacent to our land had supported homesteads. In 1888 seven Woodland Township landowners signed a petition to establish a forty-foot-wide road through the center of sections five and six, along our south property line. They needed a road that would connect with Hall Road and the Weldon River bridge to the east, therefore shortening the driving distance to Woodland. The horse trail north through Brush Creek was no longer sufficient. In 1932 Decatur County vacated this center section line road. The last resident along that road died in 1938. Now we would be pioneers resettling the land.
With our children grown I knew our life would change. To me It made no sense to maintain the Des Moines house which was twice the size Bill and I needed. And what would do after Bill retired? Would a move to the country not give us opportunities unavailable in the city? It seemed to me that life in the country afforded more natural tasks to keep us busy and give our lives substance. But Bill had grown up in a small town and was reluctant to leave Des Moines. So we compromised: keep the house in Des Moines and rent a cabin near our farm.
Before leaving southern Iowa we decided to talk to Doyle. After searching for a year Bill and I had finally found the kind of land we were looking for. Our search took us farther and farther from Des Moines to Woodland Township in Decatur County, Iowa. We were compelled by the beauty of the land we found there. The rolling hillsides and ridge top prairies still exhibited remnants of their pre-settlement plant diversity. We saw clumps of little blue stem and Indian grass, butterfly weed and lead plant that had survived years of heavy grazing and neglect. Best of all, the land was dominated by mature oak trees; they formed a canopy over the tractor trail that led uphill from Brush Creek, surrounded the ridgetop prairies, dotted the hillslopes, and etched the ravines that descended to Brush Creek. With the exception of seven acres along the Brush Creek bottom none of it had been cultivated since 1920. Doyle owned the land we had found.
But was Doyle interested in selling ? Bill and I went to his farmstead across the road. The white frame house was surrounded by a collection of ramshackle sheds and a large red barn. The front porch listed on concrete block supports, but its intricate gingerbread eaves indicated a more genteel past. Chickens scattered across the farmyard when we pulled into the driveway. An assortment of mixed breed dogs barked and nipped at our heels as we followed the sidewalk to the kitchen door.
A man with a broad, sculpted face answered our knock. It was difficult to tell his age. His thick dark hair barely showed any gray above his ears. But the deep lines that cut from his nose to his chin made him look about sixty.
“We’re looking for Doyle,” Bill said.
“I’m Doyle,” the man said. He lifted the bill of the seed corn cap from his forehead and looked us over.
“Wonder if you would be interested in selling your land across the road?” Bill asked.
Doyle gave us a hard stare. “I hadn’t thought of selling that land. But Ruth here,” he said, pointing to a woman eyeing us from the dark-paneled living room, “says she’s got to have a new kitchen.” His mouth widened into a grin and he gave an embarrassed laugh. “I could use the money.”
Ruth was Doyle’s new wife. They had met at a Christian singles group. Except for service during World War II Doyle had lived all his life on the family farm. After his mother died he was alone and decided to marry. Now at age sixty he had married for the first time.
Bill asked Doyle how much he wanted for the land. There was a long pause as Doyle thought it over. “To tell the truth I don’t know what it’s worth,” he said. “My dad tried to sell that property in the sixties. But it wasn’t no good for nothing.” Another grin and self-deprecating laughter.
“Only place you can plow is the ridge on top of the hill and that soil up there isn’t much good for growing anything but grass,” he dutifully informed us. “And the hills are too steep to grow anything but trees. That white oak soil, you know, you cut too many trees and it will start washing. Besides, it’s too hard to keep the water gaps secure and the cattle on the land. But those acres along Brush Creek, they’re worth more. You can grow a lot of corn on those fields.”
Bill and I had no intention of farming, but agreed to pay more for the bottom ground in order that that we could purchase the woodland and prairie we wanted. We also purchased 45 acres of adjacent woodland. We now owned 120 acres in one of the poorest and least populated Iowa counties.
(Bill and I are often asked how we came to savanna restoration in Decatur County. With this blog I’ll begin telling our story and carry the story into future entries.)
April 25,1985 was the first time my husband Bill and I saw Timberhill. We were squeezed into the front seat of Mike Whitfield’s pickup truck with Pauline Warren, a realtor we had hired to help us purchase land in Decatur County. Mike was driving us north on a trail that ran uphill through oak and hickory timber in section five of Woodland Township, Decatur County, Iowa. At the top of the hill we reached a gate. Here the trail opened into a ridge top meadow. Branches of oak trees surrounding the meadow grazed to tops of grasses and wildflowers as they reached out into the prairie opening. Sheltering and private, this was completely unexpected.
“So how come you’re selling, Mike?” Bill asked him.
“The interest rates on my mortgage are killing me. You know how bankers are, you ask for $100,000 and the banker says, ‘Why not $200,000?’ Next thing you know you’re carrying too much debt.”
Mike’s land was heavily mortgaged. Interest rates had climbed steeply since he bought the property and he could no longer keep up with the payments. He was anxious to find a buyer for his farm. The land was in two tracts: one hundred sixty acres of cropland and upland woods that lay along the Weldon River and 100 acres along Brush Creek to the north.
Mike had just shown us his fields along the Weldon River. Flat and fertile they produced bumper crops of corn each year. But Bill and I weren’t looking for land to farm.
As Mike drove through the meadow I nudged Bill, his smile indicating like mind and casually asked Mike, “Who owns this land?” This was exactly the kind of land we had been looking for.
“Oh, this is Doyle’s,” he said. “He lives in that white house across the road. He doesn’t mind if I cut through here to get from my south farm to the Brush Creek fields.
Mike continued driving along the trail. It followed the highest point of the ridge. Sloping gradually away from both sides of the trail the hill top meadow melded into the surrounding oak woodland. Bright sunlight highlighted the wildflowers and grasses and reflected off the surface of a small pond dug into the hillside below the trail. As we drove by red-winged blackbirds nesting in cattails at the water’s edge scolded us for intruding into their territory.
At the north end of the meadow we entered woodland again. The dense tree canopy blocked out the sunlight as we left Doyle’s property and descended a steep hill to Mike’s north field.
“I took 1200 bushels of corn off that field last year,” Mike declared, pointing to the flat, fertile land that lay on the Brush Creek bottom. But Bill and I were no longer interested in anything that Mike had to show us. After more than a year of searching we knew that the ridge top meadow sheltered by broad-crowned oak trees was the kind of land we’d been seeking.
I developed a taste for wild mushrooms in 1945 post war Germany when I used to accompany my mother on her treks into the alpine foothills to gather mushrooms, greens, and fruit for the table. We had fled west ahead of the invading Russian army to land occupied by American troops. We found refuge in the stable of an estate in northwest Austria. Food was scarce and Mother often supplemented our meager rations with wild edibles. When we could find them Pfifferling, as she called the golden chanterelle mushrooms, and Steinpilz (king boletes) were a special treat.
Those treks became a distant memory after my family moved to the U.S. in May, 1947. It was all too easy to forget nights spent in the bomb shelter, the sound of bombs exploding in the city and being cold and hungry. I learned English at vacation bible school at the Presbyterian church two blocks from our house. By the time I entered school in the fall Germany was a distant memory. After school one day my sister told Mother she needed extra money for school the next day. When Mother asked her what for she replied, “For the poor, starving German children.” She, too, had forgotten our recent past.
It was Bill’s and my move to Decatur County that revived my taste for wild mushrooms. One of the first species I collected at Timberhill was a chanterelle. After we began restoration they increased in abundance each year. Now they fruit throughout the white oak woodlands east of the house and in the West 40 white and bur oak savanna.
It has been my experience that golden chanterelles, Cantharellus cibarius, usually fruit during the early summer mushroom season that begins in June. As long as there is adequate precipitation they will continue to fruit into July. This year we began harvesting them on June 18. The season lasted until the middle of July when the summer dry spell began. When I took Dr. Tiffany’s field mycology course at Lakeside Lab she told me that chanterelles have a season similar to morel mushrooms, that is, that the seasons ends after four weeks.
But this year is different. Our mid-summer dry spell was broken by over two inches of rain that fell on August 6 and 7. To my surprise we began seeing chanterelles again on August 22. And we are still finding fresh specimens.
The king boletes usually fruit at the same time. Whereas I usually find chanterelles clustered in groups of five or more specimens the boletes are scattered singly throughout the same woodlands. They are easily distinguished from the other brown capped boletes by the chewed-up cap. Not only are they tasty to humans, but also to slugs that begin chomping in them as soon as they emerge.
Bill and I have taken full advantage of this bounty. Once or twice a week breakfast consists of chanterelle frittata made with locally produced eggs, homegrown garlic, chanterelles, fresh chives, and a handful of grated, cooked new potato topped with parmesan cheese. For a delectable entrée we combine chanterelles, king boletes, and hedgehog mushrooms (also plentiful this month) for a sauté of chicken with wine, fresh herbs and mushrooms. When I want to keep it simple I combine the mushrooms into a sauté with garlic and butter served with crusty homemade bread.
I have always considered New Jersey tea, Ceanothus americanus, a conservative plant. Its Iowa coefficient of conservatism is 8 which means that one would expect to find it only in high quality remnants. When we purchased Timberhill I found it only in two sites in the East Savanna: on a steep sunny slope above Brush Creek and in the woodland-prairie interface of our highest quality oak opening. (It is more abundant in the prairie remnants in our West Creek and West Forty units.) After we implemented timber stand improvement and prescribed fire I was surprised to find it becoming established under the denser canopy of our east woodland where there is strong root competition for sunlight, water, and nutrients. So how can a plant as conservative as New Jersey tea flourish there?
According to “Native Actinorhizal Plants of Illinois” by Jeffrey O. Dawson & Mark W. Paschke which was published in the June 1994 edition of Erigenia it is New Jersey tea’s ability to fix atmospheric nitrogen that gives it a competitive advantage. This is due to its symbiotic association with Frankia, a genus of actinomycetes that is able to nodulate the roots of plants. (Actinomycetes are anaerobic bacteria that form extensive colonies of fungus-like branched networks of hyphae. Some species play an important role in soil ecology. ) Frankia enables New Jersey to fix atmospheric nitrogen and out-compete plants without this association.
Our annual dormant season prescribed fires give Ceanothus an additional advantage. It’s large taproot which pioneers called “rupture root” because it often stopped the sod busting plow enables New Jersey tea to resprout rapidly after fire.