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.
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.
After Bill and I purchased our Decatur County, Iowa farm in 1985 we had several discussions about how we would use the land. “What would we do there?” Bill wondered. Finally I suggested, “We could grow grapes and you could have a winery. ” For several years Bill had been making wine from purchased grapes in the basement of our Des Moines house. The idea of having his own vineyard and winery convinced him to proceed with the farm project.
At that time there were 15 wineries in Iowa. But none were producing wine from wine grapes. Their wine was made from fruit, table grapes, and purchased juice. Could we grow wine grapes in Iowa? Bill consulted the small fruit extension horticulturist at ISU and was told, “You can’t grow grapes in Iowa.” I knew that wasn’t true because Iowa had a history of growing grapes in the 19th century. In June 1873 the Des Moines Leader newspaper carried an advertisement for White Elk Vineyards selling wines made from Ives, Norton, Clinton, and Delaware grapes available in the case, keg, or cask. Furthermore, when French vinifera grapes were ravaged by phylloxera in the late 19th century it was the grafting of vinifera on American root stock that saved them. Many of those root stocks came from Iowa. Bill asked the horticulturalist to explain why viticulture was not possible in Iowa. Wide use of 2,4-D herbicide was the reason he gave. (Grapes are extremely sensitive to drift from herbicides that incorporate this compound.)
Not to be daunted we hired Jacques Recht, one of the best known winemakers in the eastern U. S. In 1986 he came to Des Moines. We met with the small fruit extension horticulturalist at ISU where we learned that the university had planted an experimental vineyard with 47 varieties of native American, Franco-American interspecific species, and table grapes in 1955. During the ten year trial most of the vines had succumbed to winter injuries. After extensive research on the possibilities of growing wine grapes in southern Iowa Jacques concluded,
“With some delay I forward you my thoughts on your viticultural venture. I still have some reservations to the whole feasibility of growing grapes in Iowa, but where there is a will there is a way. I do not doubt that with a great deal of determination, hard work and a very challenging spirit, miracles are possible.”
We were not ready to give up. Bill and I continued our research by visiting wineries in the Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Missouri. We consulted with the viticulturist for the Missouri grape and wine program who recommended that we plant a horticultural garden of various French-American hybrid species and Norton aka Cynthiana, Vitis aestivalis.
In 1988 we planted two vineyards. The lower vineyard was on a hillside between Pony Farm Road and Brush Creek and the upper vineyard on the ridgetop 100 feet above Pony Farm Road. We planted 9 varieties in the lower vineyard and 550 Norton/Cynthiana on the ridgetop. The lower site was unsuccessful because it was a cold spot susceptible to early frost damage. The Norton vineyard, on the other hand, were a success. Not only does this species have bud burst in early May after the normal last frost, but it can produce a high quality red wine.
In 2001 the ISU Department of Plant Pathology conducted a grape research project in our Cynthiana vineyard. The purpose of the study was to “help Iowa’s grape growers manage disease more economically and ecologically.” Part of our vineyard was sprayed with black rot fungicide, the rest left untreated. After the first year they determined that “your vineyard would not be the best site for a second year’s test of our black rot model. Your grapes are just too darn healthy.”
You can grow grapes in Iowa.
(In 1999 Bill, and the owners of two other Iowa wineries founded the Iowa Winegrowers Association. Since then the Iowa wine industry has seen rapid growth and currently supports 101 wineries and 313 vineyards. The Midwest Grape and Wine Industry Institute at ISU Extension and Outreach provides technical assistance.)
“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.