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.
Without the expert guidance of people like our district forester Bill and I would never have succeeded in restoring the Timberhill woodlands and prairie openings. Neither of us had ever farmed or managed anything larger than the lawn surrounding our Des Moines residence. Now we needed to manage 120 acres of woodland and prairie. I had no idea where to begin. But Bill did. He called our district forester, Randy Goerndt.
On his first visit to Timberhill Randy asked us what we wanted to do with our woodlands.
“Isn’t that why you are here? To tell us how to manage our timber?” I asked him.
“I never tell landowners what to do,” he replied. “Do you want to manage for saw log production, for wildlife habitat, for recreation?”
“I want to be able to walk through the woods,” I told him. Between the multiflora rose, and dense woody underbrush I couldn’t walk off trail without a machete. Randy explained that in order for him to write a woodland stewardship plan and qualify our project for cost share it had to fit into one of the forestry service categories. He suggested that wildlife enhancement would meet our needs.
To improve our timber Randy told us that we would have to eliminate the woody understory as well as some of the mature trees. On a cold day in early November he came to mark the trees. I followed him into the timber. The bright orange safety vest he wore over his camouflage patterned Carhart jacket stood out against the drab winter background of leafless trees. In his hand he carried a tree marking gun attached to a can of blue spray paint.
To my eyes the trees were a chaotic composition of gray and black trunks. The jumble of narrow understory trees was so thick it obscured the widely spaced wolf trees, the wide-crowned oaks. But Randy easily found his way through the confusion. He walked directly to the tallest oak and sprayed a circle of blue paint around the trunk.
“That looks like a tree we should keep. How come you’re marking it?” I asked.
“I mark the ‘leave’ trees. It’s easier since there are always less of those.”
“How do you select the ‘leave’ trees?”
“First of all you select the highest quality trees. That would be the white oaks, bur oaks, red oaks, and shagbark hickory. The ‘leave’ trees should also be evenly spaced.”
White oak, red oak, bur oak? Shagbark hickory? Ironwood and prickly ash? I knew what an oak looked like but certainly couldn’t distinguish white from red from bur. Ironwood? Prickly ash? I was in way over my head. It’s a good thing Randy knew what he was doing. Although many generations of my paternal ancestors had been foresters on a Hohenzollern estate in Eastern Prussia my great-grandfather was the last. And that knowledge wasn’t something that had been passed down in my DNA.
After the bridge was completed in April, 1993 Bill and I assumed that construction of the farm house would proceed without further delay. But the rains returned and it was July before we had a road from the bridge to our building site on the ridge top meadow.
Our house in town had been a four-story flat-roofed contemporary design. Although we were using the same architect to design the farmhouse, we chose a structure completely different from the city house. With so much space we didn’t need to compress our living quarters into four tightly packed floors. Instead we chose to build a complex of three “pavilions” as the architect called them. The pavilions consisted of a garage, the main house and a guest house laid out in a U shape overlooking the pond.
We had considered building in the open woodland east of the ridge top meadow until Doyle told us that site was prone to lightning strikes. With advice from our architect we situated the pavilions in the open meadow above the pond. After settling on a site he stood on the highest point, slowly turning full circle as he took photos of the landscape. This panorama would help him frame the best views from inside the new house.
In the main house three connecting rooms, a large eat-in kitchen, living room and bedroom comprised the first floor. Centered below the peak of the roof was a second floor loft with two additional bedrooms and bath. Views of the pond and east woodland were framed by large windows on the east side and eight by eight foot sliding glass doors on the west. The guesthouse was connected to the main house through a basement tunnel that could double as a tornado shelter. There was also an extra garage to house farm equipment. Upstairs was a bedroom, bath and large sitting room.
House construction was much easier than we had expected. A Missouri contractor poured the foundations for the three buildings and a local contractor built the house. We were surprised by the level of expertise. Instead of the usual roof trusses the architect specified floor trusses to frame the roof of the center pavilion. This allowed for the high sloping ceilings above the kitchen on the north and bedroom on the south. Although this was a departure from the typical roof construction our carpenter, Bill Craig, framed it exactly as specified.
Having to meet the challenges of building a house on completely undeveloped property I often wondered if we were making a mistake. Bill and I had never lived in the country. What if we didn’t adjust to this radical change? Were we making a big mistake? But even before the house was completed I was reassured when I heard bluebirds, the symbol of happiness, springtime, and renewal, singing their low-pitched warble from the high perches on our pavilions.
We had owned our Decatur County land for 8 years before we were finally able to build a house there. Our building site was in the ridge top meadow overlooking the pond. To reach it we had to bridge Brush Creek. I would have settled for the least expensive option, a low water crossing, locally known as a Missouri crossing. But Bill knew that would never work. After heavy rain the low water approaches would silt in with gumbotil. This leached out, deoxidized clay soil is as hard as a clay pot when dry, but a rainstorm can loosen it so much that a vehicle is sucked into the gumbo. The low water crossing would have to be bladed after every high flow event. Such constant maintenance was too impractical.
We consulted a civil engineer who specialized in analyzing water flow. After calculating the maximum water flow in Brush Creek he told us. “You are out of the culvert class. That creek drains too large an area. You’ll have to build a bridge. And it will have to be an uninterrupted span. All those trees upstream,” he said, indicating the thick stand of cottonwoods, silver maple and walnut trees west of our property line, “it would only take one of those trees carried downstream to knock out a center support.”
Building the bridge became an obstacle. Spanning even the narrowest portion of the creek required a seventy foot bridge. We considered several options. One was a recycled steel railroad flatcar. Another was to purchase a custom designed model from a bridge fabricator. In the end the most economical was to build the entire structure on site.
But that was still much more expensive than we could afford. The engineer had designed a bridge of horizontal steel beams supported by abutments at either end covered with a wooden plank floor. Forty-four thousand ninety-four pounds of steel components were required for the structure. So much new structural steel was simply more than we could afford. Then we learned that it was possible to purchase used bridge steel. The weathered steel I-beams, H-beams and the channel rail supports for the curbs were available at a steel yard only forty-five miles from the farm. The used steel was a fraction of the cost of new components.
Finally, in late winter, 1993, the bridge steel was delivered. After the bridge contractor unloaded it onto the narrow strip of land between Pony Farm Road and Brush Creek he telephoned us, “You can go down and touch it now,” he said. He knew how anxious we were to get started.
I asked him how soon he would build the bridge. “You tell me when it’s going to dry up and I’ll tell you when we’ll build the bridge.”
The spring rains had begun early that year. Brush Creek flowed almost bank full with clay colored water. Then after weeks of rain, the weather finally cooperated and by early April we had a bridge across Brush Creek. But it wasn’t much good without a road. In order to reduce the rise of the steep grade south of the creek the bridge angled upward into the hillside. At the south end the bridge was ten feet above ground level. We would have to build up the road with fill before we could drive across the bridge.
There was plenty of soil available on land east of the bridge but it was too porous for road construction. The road builder searched for an alternative and found heavy red clay soil at the far east end of our property which he hauled to the site. After he had packed the red soil into the hillside south of the bridge he continued uphill following the old tractor trail under the canopy of white oaks.
In 2001 Bill opened Timberhill Winery. Besides making wine from our own grapes he also produced wine from purchased grapes. Sparkling white wine made according to the French méthode champenoise was a particular favorite of his. This is the traditional method in which the effervescence is produced by secondary fermentation in the bottle. Since the base wine is a hostile environment for the yeast, the process involves making a starter solution which is gradually added to the blended wine.This process allows a genetic re-adaptation of the yeast to the alcohol in the base wine. The wine is then bottled and stopped with a crown cap. After sufficient aging the lees (yeast sediment) are consolidated in the neck of the bottle (riddling) and disgorged by popping off the crown cap and corking the bottle (or serving the wine immediately).
In 2007 Bill decided to try a new type of yeast product: yeast cells encapsulated in alginate beads that could be directly inoculated into the blended base wine in the bottle. This eliminated the lengthy starter solution process. But it didn’t work. The secondary fermentation didn’t occur in the bottle. The only solution was to repeat the process with a starter solution.
He recruited volunteers to help him strain the wine into a barrel and remove the encapsulated yeast. It was a cool September morning when Bill’s volunteer crew began. The winery doors were wide open. But as the day warmed they closed up the building and turned on the air conditioning.
Meanwhile, I was in the house preparing dinner for our volunteers. Around noon I walked to the winery to check on their progress. On the concrete between the house and the winery I found Bill passed out, bleeding from a cut on his forehead. I helped him into the house and administered oxygen. Then I rushed back to the winery to check on the crew. They were all sitting in the grass outside the winery, woozy and taking in deep breaths of fresh air. Carbon dioxide released from the unfinished wine had polluted the air in the winery. All were all suffering from carbon dioxide poisoning. We were indeed fortunate that no one was seriously injured.
After our “killer champagne” experience Bill and I agreed to close Timberhill Winery. One of Bill’s goals in opening the winery had been to stimulate wine and grape production in Iowa. To that end we hosted several grape and wine workshops. In 2001 two grape and wine field days included presentations by ISU small fruit horticulture specialists, discussed legislative issues related grape and wine production, and a special presentation by Murli Dharmadhikari, director of the Midwest Enology Center. In 2002 we hosted workshops demonstrating grape pruning, trellising, and vineyard management. By 2007 there were over 100 grape vineyards in Iowa. Our small winery had become dispensable.
We had also become active in the Southern Iowa Oak Savanna Alliance, a non profit organization formed to promote the preservation and conservation of Iowa’s oak savanna and prairie ecosystem. Restoring southern Iowa’s remnants became a much higher priority for us. And we chose to focus our efforts on this globally endangered ecosystem.
Now that we had a vineyard and Bill was making wine, we wanted to learn more about food and winemaking. Although Bill and I had visited American wineries in Virginia, Missouri, and California we had never visited any European wineries. In October 1989 we took the first of several memorable trips to Italy and France.
I had read about the cooking school at Badia a Coltibuuono (Abbey of the Good Harvest) in the Tuscany region of Italy. A former monastery, Badia was founded by an order of Vallombrosan monks in the 11th century. They planted the first grapes and made wine there. Napolean confiscated Badia in the 19th century. After a succession of owners Florentine banker Guido Giuntini purchased it in 1846. His grandson, Piero Stucchi-Prinetti, restored the winery and his wife, Lorenza de’ Medici, offered a week-long cooking class. Perfect! A winery with a cooking school.
Besides learning about Italian wine and food Lorenza’s Villa Table course offered insight into the lives of Tuscan landed gentry. Each day began with a three hour cooking class followed by lunch that we had cooked that morning. Afternoons were free to stroll in the garden, take a walk in the woods, or swim in the pool. At 4:00 PM the class gathered for excursions to the countryside led by John Meis, an American expatriate.
We visited a small farm and observed Signora Nella Annichini making pecorino cheese with milk from her herd of 20 sheep. The second day we toured Siena, Italy’s classic medieval city. Another excursion to Volpaia, a hill top medieval village owned by the Stianti-Mascheroni family, provided a stunning view of the villages at the heart of Chianti. Modern wine-making equipment had been installed in the historic buildings without disturbing their architectural integrity. So stainless steel fermentation tanks were lowered through the roof of the medieval chapel from helicopters and wine was ageing in oak vats in the vaults below the Renaissance church.
Best of all were the evening dinners at the private homes of Lorenza’s close friends. It isn’t often that a middle class couple from Iowa is invited to dine with counts, marqueses, and barons. The highlight was dinner at Castello di Brolio with the Baron and Baroness Ricasoli-Firidolfi in the castle’s great baronial hall decorated with medieval armor and 17th century tapestries. Bill and I learned a great deal about graciousness and hospitality from these aristocratic hosts.
I was surprised by the simplicity of the food. Tuscan cooking is essentially a country cuisine, food simply prepared from high quality ingredients. Bruschetta, for example, is country style bread toasted over an open fire then liberally doused with cold pressed olive oil and seasoned with garlic. An uncooked sauce of fresh tomatoes. garlic, basil, chili pepper, and more olive oil is served as a topping. At Brolio we were served braised beef with thinly sliced carrots, new potatoes and sautéed green beans.
That was the most valuable lesson. That food must reflect the countryside where it is prepared. As much as possible Bill and I use local ingredients in our cooking: grass fed beef from local producers, chickens from an Amish farm, and eggs from a neighbor. Wild greens and mushrooms from our woodlands supplement our garden vegetables. And, of course, venison. We are particularly found of venison loin marinated in own wine and served with wild blackberry chutney. Or venison stew prepared with wine and wild mushrooms.
Several years later at a cooking class at the Cordon Blue in Paris a frenchmen asked us why we travel so far from home to take a cooking class. “To learn how to live well,” I replied.