Against the Wind

Guess we didn’t want to sit outside anyway...

It’s always a crapshoot as to when to bring out the lawn furniture here on prairie. The warmer temps tempt its retrieval from the shed, but the wind of spring frequently laughs at my optomism.

These chairs sit at the back of the house, hypothetically having a buffer from the predominantly west wind. But "predominant" is not synonymous with "always", and for fun the wind likes to change things up sometimes and come from, say, the south.

The gentleman who completed our roofing project made note of this as well. After the project was finished he said "you know, the wind out here just comes from every direction". And given that they were not only out here, but high up on the roof, I’m sure they became intimately familiar with the peculiarities of our air movement patterns.

So the picture represents a not-uncommon sight for us. You look out the window, or come up the walk after arriving home, and find the chairs face down (I guess - do chairs have faces? If so, would they be on the backs?). The miracle in this picture is that the table is still in position, and not, say, halfway across the yard.

It all works out, I guess. If one is wondering if it’s too windy to sit outside, and cannot tell for sure by, say, the sound of the wind slamming against the house or the erratic movement of the trees, the chairs being in this position can pretty much answer the question for you.

Stuck!

As everyone who lives in the mid-upper Midwest is well aware, we’ve had our first real snowfalls of the season over the past couple of weeks. Mostly I delight in the snow, but it has presented its challenges over the past few days.

Mostly those challenges have to do with our driveway.

When I was a kid, growing up out here in the country, we lived in a house up close to the road, with a short circular gravel drive. And this was the most common presentation - not the circular part, but the house situated near the roadway, with a short drive up to some type of garage (or structure serving such a purpose, anyway).

But while that was the common driveway solution, it wasn’t the only one. One of the virtues of riding the bus to school every day was that one got a pretty good look at the surrounding countryside. Most houses were like mine, but occasionally the bus would pull up to a driveway that was different. In these cases, you would see a gravel entryway that was distinguishable from a side road only due to the presence of a mailbox rather than a road sign. And if you looked up from that mailbox and followed the trail you would sometimes see, if not occluded by trees, the house that it led to in the distance.

Sometimes these were straight, direct affairs, and sometimes they wound a bit on their way to their destination. In some cases the property surrounding the drive was pastureland, sometimes plowed field. On rare occasion it was manicured lawn, but this was not typical. For the most part these all would have been 19th century farm houses, and so the location was likely not selected to provide a grand presentation. One suspects that it was a case more of practicality - perhaps they were simply located on the site elevated enough to keep the house from being flooded out when the vernal ponds emerged.

Still, the me that was a kid on that bus didn’t have thoughts of practicality. Rather, to my mind those long, sinuous driveways were cool - this in a romantic, isolative sense. The distance away from the road made the destination remote, protected from prying eyes; and that distance bred fascination.

Long Drive

Long with Trees

Yup - Long

Let me tell you that you only have to get stuck in your driveway once or twice before losing any desire for a long, remote driveway, serpentine or otherwise.

We’ve already reached our quota for that this season.

Our driveway is not particularly long, in relative terms. We don’t have a winding path leading to a secluded spot. According to the measure feature in Google Maps, our driveway is about 180’ from the garage to the road. This is certainly a greater distance, than, say, the average suburban household contends with, but it’s not the extended pathway that you see in some of the pictures above. It is, most certainly, more than one wants to have to shovel by hand.

Mostly this isn’t an issue. For a while we had contracted with folks to come out and clear the driveway. When they stopped showing up (yes, literally just stopped showing up - isn’t that delightful?) my cousin from down the road began to clear it for us (now he is delightful). But in either case, you are victim to the snow remover’s schedule.

What this means, for the most part, is that people stay home until the snow is cleared. Well, at least, people who are not me.

I seem to have inhereted a genetic condition that works in the following fashion:

Weatherman: Conditions are hazardous, so we recommend that people stay at home. Folks, if you don’t have to go anywhere, don’t.

Me: Well, that’s it. I need some chewing gum. From Peoria.

Well, it’s not just that (really!). My work schedule is such that I often have to leave earlier than plowing occurs. And besides, someone has to get the gum, right?

(For the record: I do not chew gum...)

We deal with this mostly with a combination of snow tires, a bit of experience driving in the winter, accented with a touch of dumb luck. Essentially, when Old Man Winter conspires to make our driveway disappear I will venture out with an application of judicious speed and careful feathering of the throttle. Usually this works.

Occasionally it doesn’t:

yup - it’s stuck

snow, snow, and more snow

So. Twice over the past week I’ve had to dig our cars out of the snow in our own driveway. This would probably seem a universally bad and frustrating thing, and it does come close, except it offers a couple of different upsides:

  • I get to play in the snow; and
  • I get to play with cars; and
  • I get to solve a puzzle.

All assuming, as was the case both times this week, that I don’t have any place that I need to be, it is actually possible to look at this as a bit of fun.

Part of the challenge is that, as one can see in the pictures, we are working with cars that don’t have a great deal of ground clearance. The net effect of this is that, when one doesn’t hit the drifted snow at a sufficient speed, or maintain momentum, one rides up on the snow and ends up astride the snow, with it gathered underneath the chassis. This is, peradventure, an impediment to forward motion.

When this occurs the situation calls for multiple steps. If the car isn’t sufficiently crowned up on packed snow, it may be possible to use the old-fashioned rocking technique (do they still teach that in driver’s ed?) to gain traction and free the vehicle.

This was not successful in these situations.

Failing that, one has to go for the Full Monty and break out the shovels and rakes and implements of destruction.

Well, the shovels anyway. And, ideally, something to aid in what is known in these parts as gription. That could be sand, cat litter, or anything else you have handy that provides a similar composition. This week’s candidate was an old bag of charcoal briquettes that we happened to have sitting in the garage.

The key is to shovel around and under the car. Around in order to give clear space for it to move both forward and backward without hanging up on more snow. And by under I really do mean under - pulling material out from underneath the front, back, and both sides as much as possible; and breaking up what cannot be removed.

Then your gription material has to go around each of the drive wheels - both in front of and back of the drive wheels to catch in each direction.

Once all of that is accomplished, you get back in the car and repeat the rocking exercise. If you are smart, you have left the car running while doing all of that so it’s nice and warm inside (though, honestly, the work you are doing may take care of the staying warm part by itself). And if you have done your work well the car should concede to the idea of moving one direction or the other.

If it will only go backwards, it may be necessary to get out and remove the remaining pile of snow that had been underneath, but is now in front, as well as whatever else is still underneath (yes, believe me, there will be more than you thought) in order to get the vehicle to comply with a request for forward motion.

And although it may have been frustrating to have had the thing happen in the first place, there is something particularly satisfying when the car does break free and start to move forward of its own accord.

It’s an achievement; You’ve beaten Old Man Winter one more time. I mean really - screw that guy.

Impending Weather

Although the calendar has not yet rolled around to actual winter - and will not, in fact, for nearly an entire month - the weather has taken to trying to prove otherwise. As such, we are sitting on the cusp of a weather alert promising (some would say threatening) 5-10 inches of snow.

Snow’s-a-comin’

Inevitably what comes from such proclamations is the reports that one should, under virtually all circumstances, remain at home. The roads will be dangerous and impassable, emergency crews will be busy, and the weather will make for treacherous conditions.

It is usually under these conditions that I experience the felt need to drive to, oh, Albuquerque to get a pack of gum. And maybe a Slim Jim.

This is a part of country life, the realization that, at times, the weather will dictate your activities, your mobility. The healthy and safe thing to do is to follow those dictates and remain safe and secure in your home, riding out the storm in relative warmth and security. These days, due to the benefit of a few years of wisdom, this is something I’ve come to do. When I was younger I would have engaged in that felt need, and made a run for something, anything, as long as it got me out of the house.

I’m not alone in this. I know there are other members of the family that experience it as well. This makes one wonder about the nature or nurture of such a thing. Is this a remnant of the nature that made our ancestors feel the need to move west? Was this the spark that made John and Martha Foulk and Prairie and Ziba Johnson look at the forbidding, windswept lands outside the shelter of the groves and say "that’s the life for us"?

This would have been a valuable thing, back then. It would have been the sort of thing that would have prompted them to break out of the house and lay out hay for the animals despite the blowing snow; to split the wood needed for the stoves that heated the house. Heck - I suppose a bit of this spirit is what one needs to brave the trek across the back yard to get to the outhouse...

But in all of this, with the animals fed, the wood stocked up, and necessaries taken care of for the moment, would John and Martha still have looked out the window longingly at the snow?

I can see Martha saying to John "you know what would be good on a day like today? Cornbread."

John: "Why, that would be a fine idea. Cornbread indeed!"

Martha: "But John, we have no buttermilk."

And they both look out that window, consider the blowing and drifting snow, before turning to look at each other. Then John says "I’ll hook up the sleigh Martha - let’s ride out to the general store and pick up a pint."

——

So... probably not. But I do suspect that they got antsy when the weather came to call, keeping them bundled up and indoors. That spark, if it really is a thing that is passed down from one generation to the next, may be a little less useful a thing when one doesn’t have to tend to the animals and the firewood, burning off that bit of drive.

New Windmills

Back in the spring of 2016 Leeward Renewable Energy began seeking permission for de-commissioning the Mendota Hills Wind Farm. Mendota Hills has the distinction of being the first of the wind farms in the region.

Growing up out here we always knew it was windy, but that was just a hassle that one dealt with. Our ancestors used wind turbines for a variety of purposes, including pumping water and local electricity generation. This very old picture of the house shows a wind turbine in place as a water pump, standing next to the house atop the original well.

wind pump

People nowadays sometimes complain that the turbines make noise. They are all at least a quarter mile away from any building. Imagine what it would have been like to have this thing spinning right next to the house. But I digress...

That was a thing of the past though, and although one could sometimes see an old wind turbine, or perhaps just its tower, standing at a farmstead, they were only remnants and memories in my childhood.

Between the time I moved away and came back, however, the wind farms sprouted. Mendota Hills was the first, most visible example. It existed alongside route 39 and, despite the name, was a good 12-15 miles north of Mendota, IL. It was visually distinctive because, from the distance of the highway, it gave the impression of what one might classically think of as a wind farm - many turbines sitting in “close” proximity to one another, seeming to turn in sychronicity. Of course, when one got up close to them, it was clear they weren’t nearly as proximate to one another as the distance made it seem. But they were much closer to one another than was the case for the later facilities. The turbines were also smaller and closer to the ground, relatively speaking.

It is that relative age that appears to have precipitated the change, and it was somewhat of a surprise to read that the company was going to be taking down the Mendota Hills turbines. It appears that the turbine technology has advanced sufficiently to make it more cost effective to remove the old giants and replace them with a smaller number of newer, more efficient and, well, giant-er turbines.

What this means for the area is that, for the second time since we’ve moved here, we have new turbines going up. It also means that, for the first time, we’ve been in the broad vicinity of old turbines coming down.

One of the arguments against the wind farms, classically, has been the question of what happens to the structures when the wind company no longer wants them. This spurs on concerns that they will be simply left to rot, huge hulking behemoths on the horizon undergoing the slow, inevitable effect of entropy. Given that this absolutely happens to other unwanted structures in the area - we have old barns, corn cribs, and other derilects aplenty across the countryside, unused, unwanted, but too expensive and time-consuming to take down - one can see the concern. And what is happening to the area around such a structure as it slowly falls apart? Does it one day, finally, unexpectedly topple to the ground? What does the landowner do with it when that happens?

This makes the sequence of events in this example especially interesting. Here, not only are they not being left to rot, but they are being actively removed and replaced. Also interesting and instructive is that this process offers some real-world impression of what would happen if these structures were allowed to topple - because that is exactly how they were taken down.

I regret that I did not have an opportunity to see any of them actually come down - one of the downsides to gainful employment, I suppose - but the evidence was there at each and every site this past summer, many of which could be seen from the road.

Turbine Down If you didn’t know what you were looking at it would be easy to mistake it for a downed aircraft.

As I mentioned above, this is the second round of turbine construction we’ve seen since moving back out to the homestead. It’s an interesting sequence of events, as it has an impact on not just the prairie skyline, but also on the landscape. This is true in multiple ways, as you watch new roadways getting cut into the fields in the area - access drives for the turbines - but also see the modifications made to the public roadways to accommodate the extra-large and unwieldy cargo that the trucks must haul. Each section of the tower, and the turbine blades themselves, come in individually, carried on specialized trailer setups. In many cases, there are special cut-roads that remove the 90° turns that these beasts would be unable to navigate. Signs pop up making drivers aware of overhead powerlines as well, hopefully preventing them from unintentionally clipping them with their outsized cargo.

Of course, anything so very large in its components must also require comparably large equipment to assemble it. And so, as the turbines are assembled, we see the arrival of machines like this crane:

Big Crane

And it’s hard to fully appreciate the size of this thing against the big sky backdrop. But if you look closely at the picture you can suss out the full-size pickup truck by the tread to give a sense of just what a monster that thing is.

Really Big Crane

Opinions on the wind farms vary. THere are absolutely people who hate them, feel they destroy the view, and a few who have some very strange ideas of how they might be harmful. At the Homestead we look at it differently. If the country is going to move away from fossil fuels and nuclear power, there has to be an embrace of alternative technologies. We aren’t helping anyone if we give it lip service but refuse to allow it in our proximity.

And besides - the presence of windfarms around the Homestead virtually guarantees that the land around us will remain open prairie and farmland. Staving off housing developments and otherwise inevitable ultimate suburban sprawl is a benefit from the perspective of this homesteader.

Not that all of that is what goes through my head when I see all of this going on. Rather, during these moments, mostly what is happening is the ascendance of the 12-year old boy inside who loves to watch things get built and knocked down...

Powerless

On Saturday afternoon, October 20, we were enjoying a particularly brisk and breezy autumn day. It was a partly cloudy day, with blue sky peeking out between bits of fluffy clouds. The weather report tells us that the wind is out of the northwest at 29 mph...

Its breezy...

It is due to this last fact that it wasn’t terribly surprising to discover that the power had gone out. I was, in fact, involved in taking the window A/C units out of the upstairs bedroom windows - today’s high of 46°, and a week ahead with highs primarily in the lower 50’s suggested it was probably safe to do so - when we noticed it. Specifically, I had removed the unit from the window in LB’s room, and LB went to turn on a light - this a decorative thing, since the bright sunny day, combined with our prodigious volume of windows, made artificial light unnecessary - only to find it unresponsive. We tested a couple of other items, again to no avail, and then heard the tell-tale beep from the battery backup units that make it clear: no power.

What a power outage means out in these rural parts is that virtually nothing works. The incoming electricity off of the grid is your energy source for all of your daily life. Folks who live in a town or city will not be as familiar with this phenomenon. For example, while the power being out means that you cannot watch TV, and that you’ll need flashlights or something similar to see around the house at night, other components - things like water supply - are likely working just fine.

But here, the water comes from a well, served by a pump run on... you guessed it: electricity. This means no glass of water from the tap, no shower, and the number of toilet flushes limited to what is already in the tank (that’s exactly one, for those who may be unaware). It means no water for cooking or coffee as well, but that point is moot, because the stove and coffee maker also require electricity.

It also means no heat. While our furnace uses LP for fuel, the blower that distributes the heat throughout the house requires electricity to spin. That this is October and not, say, January, means that we could certainly be in worse shape in that respect. We have heavy blankets enough for all to ward off the chill, and it won’t get cold enough yet to worry about the pipes.

Other things have changed, however. I am writing this on an iPad in the middle of said outage. The iPad operates on a battery, of course, which will operate e device for several hours before running down. To extend that, I have it and my iPhone both plugged in to one of the aforementioned battery backups. These devices are designed primarily to keep older computers from shutting down suddenly when the power vanishes. They do a remarkable job of this, but they also retain power after this task sufficient for several charges of mobile devices. This means that we’re in good shape for connectivity to emergency services and for personal entertainment.

It’s a bit of a contrast from my youth growing out here. Then as now, the power going out meant being cold and it being dark at night, and it meant having no water. But the landline phones back then operated on their own, independent of ComEd, and we sought our entertainment through more rustic means. Then I’d be reading a fantasy novel or comic book on paper to pass the time waiting for the TV to be available again.

And of course now, I’ll likely be reading... well, a fantasy novel or comic book on my iPad to pass the time...

So maybe things haven’t really changed that much.

John Foulk

![John and Martha Foulk](IMG_1587.jpg)

John Foulk and his wife, Martha Morrow, were the pioneers who broke ground on our little bit of Illinois prairie and ultimately built the house we think of as our Homestead. They were also my Great-Great-Great Grandparents. The entry that follows is meant to capture and reflect what is known about him and his life. In addition to being a blog entry, a more permanent entry will be available on the site here, and that will be updated and revised as information and providence allow.

John Foulk was born on June 14, 1822, in Bradford County, Pennsylvania, to Daniel Foulk and Susan Harsher.

He moved from Pennsylvania to Wayne County, Ohio with his parents. The age at which this occurred is unclear, but he appears to have been young at the time. Records indicate that he worked as a farmhand as a boy in Ohio because his father was "in limited financial circumstances and it was necessary that the son provide for his own support" (PPLC).

John Foulk appears to have learned a thing or two from this experience, because he "later" rented land in Ohio, cleared it, and "lived life in the pioneer style" (PPLC). Records suggest that he did well at this, and ultimately purchased 80 acres of "good land" to work before deciding to move to Illinois.

He met Martha Morrow in Ohio, and married her on November 2, 1843. He would have been 21 years of age, and she 20. They lived together in Ohio for a time, and had four or five children:

  • John Henry Foulk, born 10/3/1845
  • Mary Elizabeth Foulk, born 6/1/1849
  • Daniel Morrow Foulk, born 7/30/1853
  • Frank Albert Foulk, born 2/25/1856

![John Henry, Mary, and Frank Foulk](IMG_1588.jpg)

John Henry, Mary, and Frank Foulk - year unknown, but Frank looks to be about 2 years old.

There is also a reference to a son named “Henry Foulk" noted in one of John Foulk’s obituaries, but it’s unclear whether this is an additional child, or a reference to his son John by the middle name. A second obituary says that he only had three children. The Foulk Family Bible (FFB) lists the four children above, and given that it is just about as close as we will get to a first person account, seems to be likely to be the most reliable source. The reference to three children in one obituary may reflect the early passing of Daniel Morrow Foulk, who died in January 1854, just shy of 6 months of age.

John took his family from Ohio to Illinois. PPLC suggests he purchased property in Mendota in 1850, but other records suggest he did not come to Illinois until 1856 (his youngest son, Frank, was born in Ohio in 1856). He is said to have first purchased 200 acres in Mendota, and later another 500. The land that he bought was "wild and unimproved. There were no trees or fences or buildings upon the place and every evidence of pioneer life was here seen" (PPLC). Indeed, the settlers who moved to the area before him had mostly settled in the woodland groves along the waterways, preferring the shelter and abundance of the forested land to the windswept prairie.

He may have lived in Mendota for a period of time before moving his family out to the Homestead. In moving out to the Homestead he appears to have brought a large supply along with him, as he moved "bringing a carload of horses and another of cattle and goods, including farm wagons, harness, etc" (PPLC). The entry in PPLC that provides this says that he "made the journey over the Fort Wayne Railroad". There was indeed a railroad system that connected Ohio to Illinois existing in the era, and one suspects this is what is referred to here, meaning that it’s a reference to how he moved his stock, supply, and equipment from Ohio to Illinois. The line from Fort Wayne appears to end at the I&M Canal in 1850, which would suggest he’d have traveled over land from Kanakakee to Mendota. That’s a day’s travel at walking speed over modern roads. Perhaps a bit less if he’d loaded his stock on to barges to take the canal from Kankakee to LaSalle.

On this trip he and Martha would have been traveling with their three surviving children, the older two at eleven and seven years of age, and the youngest who was less than a year old. Martha may have had her sister along with her - Barbara Morrow, ten years Martha’s senior, is shown as living in the home in later census records, though it’s unclear if she was along at the beginning, or joined them later. This would have been quite an adventure for John and possibly for Mary, but anyone who has traveled with an infant in modern times can imagine what this would have been like for the multiple day trek it would have involved.

Regardless, it seems they would have arrived well stocked and supplied to begin their lives on the prairie. John and Martha would have been in their early 30’s as they began their lives with their family on the Illinois prairie. He first built a small house (or cabin) on the property, set at the northeast corner, to give them a home while the Homestead was constructed. If they arrived in 1856, as seems most feasible, they would have lived in their small home for about five years before the Homestead was complete.

Materials for the home were likely hauled in from Chicago (JJ), and it would have been taken time to build. And lest we forget and think that this was simply empty, unused land, the family stories talk about Native Americans coming to their little cabin, looking in, and asking for food. They were not alone.

John Foulk made his money primarily in the raising of livestock. He had success at this, as reflected in PPLC and his obituary:

He was very successful as an agriculturist and stockman and at one time brought the best drives of hogs ever taken to Mendota being in number 111, averaging 500 pounds and brought 8¢ per pound. At another time he had on his farm 2200 sheep and in this city sold two loads of wood for $4526.00.

We don’t have the exact year that this sale occurred in, but if we assume 1865 for purposes of comparison, an online inflation calculator suggests that John’s load of sheep would have brought him over $70,000.00 in 2017 dollars. So he was doing well (and what ever happened to the days of putting this sort of information into an obituary?). Google Books allows us to know that, with respect to those sheep, he raised Spanish Merino’s (perhaps among other breeds), and that he was competitive about it. He is listed as taking "second premium" for a "pen of three ewes under two years old" at the Illinois State Fair of 1864 (this as reported in the riveting Transactions of the Illinois State Agricultural Society, with Reports from county and district agricultural societies and kindred associations, Volume V, 1861-64 - all kidding aside, Google can turn up some obscure things with a search).

In addition to these types of livestock, John Foulk was also a fancier of draft horses. PPLC credits him as having probably done "more to improve the grade of draft horses raised than any other man in the county". He is listed as an Illinois member of the American Clydesdale Association in their Clydesdale Stud Book: Volume V, published in 1890. A search today, in October 2018, finds he also shows up in later volumes, and that his name is associated with multiple hits in these books, including records of purchases and sales. One such purchase, in Volume 7, bought from Jas. I. Davidson in March of 1880, was for a horse named President 44. For fun, let me note some of the other horse names associated with him in this Volume include Jock, Daisy, Maud, Button, Lady Flora (all apparently names given by him and/or his family) and Lady of Burnside (which he purchased).

His agricultural interests ran deep, and he appears to have presented as a leader of sorts in the community. One obituary states "For years he was president of the Mendota Union Fair Association and later a director in the Mendota Fair and Agricultural Society".

He did not do this alone - he was busy and successful enough that he had hired workers assisting him, some of whom lived in our Homestead, likely in the worker’s area to the back of the house. One census record indicates that John Semens, a 22 year old Farm Laborer, and Lavina Fortney, a 21-year old woman working under the census title of "servant", lived in the home with them.

All of this suggests a man who is diligent, hard working, self-sufficient, and successful, and all of that is true. But we know he was not a perfect man. PPLC artfully states that John Foulk remarried to Jennie M. Johnson after Martha passed. This could technically be true - at this time I don’t have information to indicate when the second marriage actually occurred, if it ever did. What we do know, however, is that John Foulk took up with Jennie well before Martha passed - PPLC appears to be attempting to be artful here in how they present what must certainly have been scandalous information for its time.

Family lore (JJ) indicates that Jennie Johnson was traveling with gypsies - this not being the generic term for people who tend to move from place to place, but actual Romani peoples in the US - as an indentured servant. He is said to have traded a team of horses and a wagon for her. Charitably one could say that he was buying her freedom. It’s not clear how their intitial encounter occurred, or what his intentions were when he did this. It does appear, however, that he took her into his home with his wife and family, which would have included at least his youngest son in the home at the time. It’s also clear that he moved out some time after this, taking Jennie with him and leaving the Homestead to Frank, and that Martha also stayed behind.

This latter event is suggested to have occurred in 1880 by one of his obituaries. Martha passed away some thirteen years after that, bringing the veracity of "remarrying after her passing" into clear question. He and Jennie are said to have had two children, but that both died young. Thus far no other information about them appears to be available.

When he moved out, he moved to the "Blackstone Farm", an area of Mendota which would now likely be the southwestern end of the town (there is an elementary school by the name of Blackstone in the area). Little information seems to be available about this time in his life, though the livestock records suggest he was still active. It’s unclear whether that was at the farm out by the Homestead, at the Blackstone farm, or perhaps both.

One of his obituaries states that "in 1902 he moved to a farm one mile east of Mendota where he remained until death". It’s not clear with current information where, exactly, this was, though an obituary indicates it was in “section 34, at the east edge of the city".

John Foulk would have lived in this location for about four years until he passed away on January 18, 1907. He was survived by his partner, Jennie, his son Arthur, and his daughter Mary. Martha passed before him in September of 1903. He is buried in a family plot at Restland cemetery at the northern edge of Mendota.

John Foulk’s Gravestone

References Mentioned:

  • Past and Present of LaSalle County (PPLC)
  • FFB - Foulk Family Bible (FFB)
  • Joel Johnson (JJ) - and it should be noted that multiple other bits and pieces of information herein also likely come from my Uncle Joel - he’s an avid family historian and a delightful storyteller when it comes to family history. Many of the photos are also courtesy of Joel.
  • Clydesdale Stud Book: Volume V, Published 1890
  • Transactions of the Illinois State Agricultural Society, with Reports from county and district agricultural societies and kindred associations, Volume V, 1861-64
  • Two Obituaries that were found as clippings online - unfortunately without any reference to the paper in which they appeared.

Milkweed

I’ll admit that the combination of a schedule with limited free time and a yard that is about two acres in size makes it difficult to keep up with more than only the most rudimentary tending. This means that I am often fighting a less than decisive battle against enemies such as burdock, lambs quarter, and the hated Chinese mulberry. Depending upon which point in the summer one views the yard, the state of my struggle can be more or less evident.

But though there are many weeds against which I battle, the one which gets a complete pass from me is milkweed.

milkweed in the yard

milkweed in the flower bed

This is not because they are a thing of great visual appeal in and of themselves. While not unattractive in the way that a burdock or lambs quarter is, (and they do flower, though not in a particularly showy fashion), they have things going for them that the others simply do not.

The flowers are a food source for bees and similar pollinators and, given that we are in an era of decline for honeybees, it seems reasonable to lean towards maintaining things that support them (we grow other flowers as well, and don’t treat for things like dandelions). But the chief benefit is, of course, that these plants are a food source for Monarch Butterfly caterpillars.

When we first moved back here one of the things that surprised me were the sheer volume of butterflies, monarch and otherwise, that we had in the summer. These range from your basic butter-pats to a variety of multi-colored visitors.

They are painfully difficult to get good pictures of, but very occasionally I get lucky.

Painted Lady

This one, a type which I see often, appears to be a painted lady according to this Insect Identification website. The site indicates that painted lady caterpillars preferred foods are thistles, and that they "also eat the leaves of mallows, hollyhock and burdock plants". We don’t see much by way of hollyhocks, but thistles, mallows, and the hateful burdock are certainly plentiful in the area.

As for the Monarch’s themselves and their relationship with the milkweed, I was lucky enough to catch a couple of shots of (what I believe are) Monarch caterpillars in action the other day:

Monarch Caterpillar

Monarch Caterpillar under leaf

The milkweeds are also home to a variety of other critters. I can frequently spot Milkweed Beetles, a critter that looks a little like a giant, misshapen ladybug, and which I’d neither seen nor heard of before till moving back out here.

Milkweed Beetle

Milkweed Beetles Mating

(Of course, I assume that what is going on in the second picture is that the beetle on bottom is sick, and the one on top is trying to help her get to the hospital...)

I’ve seen spiders hiding in between the closely gathered top leaves and, unfortunately, have also found batches of earwigs. On at least one occasion the spider and the earwigs were in the same general area, which gives me a tiny bit of hope (there are few animals or insects that I truly dislike, but earwigs are definitely on that list).

This process of exploration and discovery often helps to soothe, at least for a little while, the frustration of trying (and failing) to keep up with the tending of the big yard. There are amazing and interesting things to see around each corner, and under every leaf.

Northern Illinois History - Richer Still

As I’ve spent time following the links to historical references from and about people in our region in the era of my great-great-great grandparents I’m finding that I’m also discovering and re-discovering things about the region and it’s history. This has led me, in part, into a Wikipedia rabbit hole that has been surprisingly (and pleasantly) informative.

For some reason, the early history of the Midwest United States isn’t really a topic touched on in detail in high school or the survey courses in college. I suppose the reality is that, just as we midwesterners are considered to live in fly-over country ("Oh - you live in [fill-in-the-small-town-name-here] in Illinois? So, that’s basically Chicago, right?"), from an historical perspective we get passed over as well. In some ways this is odd, given our love of westerns, since the Midwest was "the west" in the early and mid-1800’s. I suppose the lack of picturesque buttes and dramatic, multi-colored stone columns make our prairie less enticing for movie makers, though the fertility of the region probably makes it better suited to be considered a garden of the gods...

Still, the region has a history rich in stories of pioneers, settlers, outlaws, Native Americans, and the inevitable conflicts they encounter. And as one digs, one begins to realize specifics about the surrounding land of which one was unaware. For example, I’ve long been aware that many of the place names in the region have Native American roots. But the degree of this, and the specificity of it, or to be more accurate, my ignorance of that specificity, is surprising to me.

For example, down the road a piece is a small town next to a state park, both of which are named Shabbona. I’ve always assumed, based on the spelling and the pronunciation, that this has a Native American derivation. However, beyond that, the name has only otherwise been of interest as a thing that I periodically try to convince my wife and child is pronounced "Sha-Bone-Uh". (You know, for my own general amusement; And, based upon their responses to my efforts, it is only for my amusement...).

But as I’ve been working through some of the accounts in these old books, I came across references to Chief Shabbona. The accounts are written from a white settler perspective, of course, and they often appear to have been written by people who were children during the era, or are the immediate children of those early settlers, but they reference Chief Shabbona stopping by their family homes or in their villages in a somewhat causal way that suggests they knew he had been important, but that he was clearly very much a real person in their memory. For example, in Recollections of Pioneers from Lee County, Illinois, 1893, Mrs. Ezra Berry writes the following in her account of A.V. Christiance, the second settler and first tavern owner in Melugin Grove:

The old Indian, Shabbona, used to stop there quite frequently and talk, and tell stories of the Black Hawk war and how he helped warn the settlers and they escaped the cruel scalping knife. (pg. 188)

The tavern, such as it was, would have been situated along the stage route between Galena and Chicago, and Chief Shabbona lived until 1859, so the account seems feasible. Certainly the description of the stories attributed to Shabbona would fit the things about which he might speak. Well, perhaps a small portion of the things about which he might speak. As the Wikipedia entry for him makes clear, this man was extremely experienced and accomplished for his day, having prominent roles in the War of 1812, in multiple Native American negotiations, in the Black Hawk war, and in general as a leader for his people. During the Black Hawk War it appears that he did, indeed as the old book recounts, warn the white settlers of Black Hawk’s approach as well as counseling Black Hawk against the conflict (which would turn out to be good advice not taken). It’s unsurprising, given all of that, that he’d turn out to have multiple places named for him. And I literally knew nothing about any of this, all of which makes me think my attempts at familial pronunciation humor may have received the appropriate reaction after all...

There are multiple other examples. In terms of the Wikipedia deep dive the curiosity about Shabbona leads to pages about Black Hawk) himself, the Blank Hawk War, and so on. I did realize that Abraham Lincoln served in the Black Hawk War, but I had no idea how many other recognizable major and minor names from our history were also associated. Andrew Jackson was president during this period (which fits with his larger, more generally problematic historical profile on the subject of treatment of Native Americans). William Henry Harrison, who would go on to be the shortest serving president of the United States, was the Territorial Governor. Zachary Taylor, also later a US president who’s primary distinction as such was that of having lived longer in office than Harrison (16 months for Taylor vs 31 days for Harrison), was a colonel in The Black Hawk War. Then 2nd Lieutenant and later Confederate President Jefferson Davis was assigned by Colonel Taylor to escort Black Hawk to prison. In fact, despite it being a brief conflict, The Black Hawk War was apparently quite the political stepping stone, as the Wikipedia entry also notes "At least seven future U.S. Senators took part, as did four future Illinois governors; future governors of Michigan, Nebraska, and the Wisconsin Territory...". Again - I had no idea.

And there is more still, which I will leave for another day. Succinctly put, it’s clear there is a rich and vibrant history to our little patch of prairie here in the Midwest that has been left off of our broader history teachings. Perhaps this is not vital for an understanding of the greater history of our nation, but it certainly makes for a much more colorful picture of this region.

Historical References

I return periodically to conducting family research, and one of the more interesting parts of that is combing through historical documents trying to find some mention of an ancestor. Sometimes searches come up with nothing, and sometimes you find something good.

Today was an example of the latter.

Some time ago, on ancestry.com, I came across a piece of posted media about John Foulk. It was a short biography discussion his life before coming to Illinois as well as his time on the prairie. The title line at the top of the page indicates the book is called Past and Present of LaSalle County. This shows up in searches - in Google books, among other locations - but the version that shows up was published in 1877. A text search of that version does not find John Foulk, however. This is not surprising, given that the text refers to his "having continued farming operations until 1902" and notes that he has "now retired... having reached the age of eighty-four years". John Foulk was born in 1822, so this would put the manuscript right around 1906 - nearly 30 years after the version available online.

Still, while I could not find the book I was looking for (I suspect this may actually require a trip to the library - you know, that physical location where they keep the dead tree versions of books), I did come across an interesting resource:

Digital Research Library of Illinois History provides a list of history references for each county in the state. And for fun, it also lists counties, like Marquette, which have since been abolished. There are four references for LaSalle County, and six for Lee. These are all vintage references - the newest in this list is from 1918. But this is the very sort of perspective one is looking for when it comes to this sort of research.

One does find that the editors of these tomes feels no compunction against reprinting material from earlier sources - there is word for word repetition in some, albeit with credit given to the original authors. Still, this is hardly surprising. When one is working with historical accounts this specific, there will only be a handful of potential sources to choose from. And one does find that later sources seem to have edited down longer accounts. For example, while I did not find the information I was looking for about John Foulk, I did find references to three ancestors from another part of the family - Smith H. "Prairie" Johnson, and his sons Benjamin Franklin and Truman Johnson. These included accounts of how Prairie got his nickname, as well as the fact that BF Johnson was the Commissioner of the Inlet Swamp Drainage District (undoubtedly quite an honor), and of the fact that Truman’s marriage to Mary Melugin was the third to occur in Viola Township.

This is not extensive information, but they are little details that help flesh out and humanize people from the past. I find, reading through them, that I begin to get a glimpse into the lives that they had.

The Digital Research Library provides more than a simple list. The links listed that I’ve followed thus far each have provided an apparently complete PDF of the book in question. Though the text is not searchable, opening these into a good PDF reader (I’d suggest something like PDF Expert) gives you a text you can visually search through fairly quickly and efficiently.

I’m looking forward to digging through more of the links on the page. And, I suppose, eventually working my way to the library to see if they have a slightly more updated copy of Past and Present of LaSalle County...

Winter Warm-Up

As we enter the last third of January 2018 here at the Homestead we are presented with temperatures sitting decidedly above 30°(F). As I write this we have a current temperature of 38°, with a forecast high of 41° for the day. Tomorrow is promising temps in the low- to mid-50’s, and the coming week has highs ranging from the low 30’s to the high 40’s.

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People are predictably very pleased about the warm-up, especially coming off of the cold snap of a couple of weeks ago. While, further north, sustained tempatures in the negative single digits are not unusual (and are frankly not all that unusual here), our modern amenities seem to ill-prepare us for the realities of winter at its harshest. As such, the warmer weather is greeted with joy by many.

I am not among them.

When the temperatures rise on the prairie in winter it is warmer, to be sure. But along with it comes several other, predictable effects that, to my mind, do not compare favorably to the features that accompany the sharp bite of the air on a true winter day.

It’s Ugly Out There

Warm winter days on the prairie are typically gloomy affairs. As can be seen on the weather report, above, along with the rise in temperatures comes fog and rain. And the fog, here, she ain’t just-a-kidding. Life in the country is one of isolation by choice, but the degree of that increases markedly as the white wall of cloud descends to ground level.

The view out my back stairwell window looks something like this most mornings:

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This is the tableau that greets from the same window today:

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Go back to the first picture and count the wind turbines you cannot see in the second picture. Some of them are more distant, of course, but one of them - the largest in the picture - is less than a half mile away. These things are huge, but the fog swallows them up as if they were never there.

As the temperatures rise the snow we were blessed with over the past couple of weeks retreats. It doesn’t go all at once, of course, but pulls back in patches. The braver, heartier, cleverer flakes which chose to fall on to shaded areas remain longer, holding out as best they can. This leaves them transformed, however - like Jeremiah Johnson walking out of the mountains at the end of the winter, they are hairier, more grizzled versions of their former selves.

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The melting snow is part of the reason for the fog, of course, and the two conspire to concoct the final, perhaps most objectionable component of this warm winter weather trifecta:

The mud.

A week ago everything was covered in a lovely blanket of white. As it pulls back it reveals patches of brown and black soup lying in wait for an errant foot. And while all mud can be unpleasant, mid-winter mud has the additional special property of sitting on top of the frozen layer below. Instead of simply sinking in, the mud acts as a viscous lubricant on the slip-and-slide that your yard has now become.

As a special bonus, you will find that your dogs will appear to have made a special effort to step in each and every errant mud-bog that the yard offers, just before trying to crawl into your lap.

While you are slipping and sliding, and regretting the attention of your beloved pets, you are also becoming soaked to the bone because the ambient humidity level is nearly 100%. Single digit temperatures are cold, to be sure, but they aren’t generally wet. 35° and damp has a way of cutting through the skin that is differentially unpleasant from a cold day on its own.

A true, cold winter day has a way of inviting one outside - the bright blue skies, the shimmering blanket of snow. It’s days like today that keep me in, away, isolated.

The Mantis Strikes!

A handful of times over the years I have encountered people who have found and caught Praying Mantis’s. For myself, however, despite an abundant amount of time spent in the out-of-doors I have never personally come across one.

Not until this summer - now I’ve seen three.

The very first was found by LB, who saw it along the north wall of the old barn, and pointed it out to me. I’m not sure I would have noticed it myself, but there it was. I considered myself lucky for this encounter.

Then, a few weeks later I came across another, in grass that was perhaps a little longer than it should have been around the garden. This one I came across on my own, and I spent a little time with it.

Mantis in the grass

At first it did not notice me, too busy trying to navigate its way through the long blades (did I mention the grass may have been too long?). But then it turned and saw me and my phone there, intruding on its personal space, and took offense...

Mantis Attack!

Mantis Attack! close up

This Mantis was here to say "I will beat your ass if I have to", and showing it’s martial arts cred for the world, and more specifically, for me, to be aware. We stayed in this position, the two of us, for a short while. If I moved in and out the Mantis would reassert, making certain that I would not forget the danger posed by its arcane knowledge.

Seriously Dude - I will beat your ass!

Finally, détente reached, the Mantis took its leave of me, satisfied that I would fear and respect it, and all of its kind for the remainder of my days (Dude had quite an opinion of itself).

I am outta here

The Praying Mantis, or Mantis Religiosa (yup) is apparently not native to North America but rather, like Columbus (and ourselves), is an invader. Wikipedia (which is never wrong) actually lists its page on these critters under the title European Mantis. I actually thought that it might be the case that the versions we were seeing in the yard were some different variety of Mantis, since the outer carapace was a light brown rather than green, but apparently they come in a variety of colors.

And that fancy pose, warding me off and striking fear in my heart? It has a fancy scientific name, of course. This is the deimatic display, and is intended to make it look big and frightening and show off that extra set of eye marks on its upper chest (and who wouldn't want to show those if they had them?).

My third encounter - the day following, as it turns out, which I did not realize until I saw the dates in Photos - was the one that I included in last week’s post. That fellow, of course, was happily munching on a bee when I encountered it.

Bees are what’s for dinner

That one did not attempt to ward me off. One might assume it was too taken with its meal to notice me, but I suspect it is because it was confident that it’s comrade had sufficiently cowed me the day prior such that I was no longer a concern. I was now beneath notice.

Given history as a prelude, I may never see a Mantis in the wild again, but this summer has certainly offered a rich array of experiences with them.

Late Summer Oasis

The Stand

At one corner of the property we have a stand of tall plants primarily dominated by goldenrod and false sunflowers. When I first started taking pictures of the stand, it was with the thought that I would research and write a piece about the plants themselves, in a vein similar to the one about Chicory a short while back.

I enjoy learning about the things around us, especially about the things that are ubiquitous in a way that we often take them for granted. In many respects we think of these as ditch weeds, things that grow in areas that we do not tend and likely don't care much about.

Goldenrod is everywhere in the Midwest in late summer, and sometimes blamed for allergy flare-ups. Still, according to Wikipedia (which is never wrong) this is an error of association - ragweed is in bloom at the same time, and can be readily and more appropriately assigned that blame (f&%king ragweed!).

I remember the Goldenrod from childhood. The false sunflowers I do not, though that could simply be due to fuzzy memory or a childhood lack of attentiveness. They are also everywhere now, blooming along the roadside. And I should note that I believe these are false sunflowers - a bit of research makes me question that a bit. Multiple sources indicate that these plants grow anywhere from 16" to 59" tall. I think we can all agree that a five foot tall plant is a respectable height, but here's the thing - I'm about 5'8" tall, and I was standing up straight when I took this picture:

too tall?

...and this picture:

these are very tall plants

As you can tell from the angle of the shot, I'm looking up at these plants as I take the pictures. They are easily six foot tall, if not a bit taller. So, either these are a different type of plant, or my internet sources, including Wikipedia, have inaccurate or incomplete information about the growth range for these guys.


Like I said, I started out approaching this with the intent of writing a piece about these plants. Then I got in close to the stand for more pictures...

Now, before we moved out to The Homestead I had grown a small garden of native wildflowers, so the fact that there were bees buzzing about didn't entirely surprise me, but the sheer volume of them did.

Bee on Goldenrod

This batch of late summer blooms is one of many across the countryside, but most, like ours, are little islands, oases in what must otherwise seem a floral desert to our bee friends. I know that the potential for getting stung can frighten some people when they come across something like this. Still, I, and I suspect many people with gardening experience, have typically found that the bees are content to tolerate your presence as long as you aren't disturbing them. As my Grandma Marie would often be heard to say "if you don't bother them, they won't bother you".

And speaking of bothering them, I also came across this fine specimen:

Mantis Lunch

I've always known that their name, while referencing an appearance that suggests penitence, also reflected a predatory nature. Still, I've rarely ever seen them in person, and certainly never seen them in action. Given the decline in bees that has been going on, I briefly considered trying to free the victim - he was still moving. But nature is as nature does, and the mantis would undoubtedly catch another.

Ultimately, what I love about areas like this is that they become their very own ecosystems. The bees and other small insects are there, of course, and the presence of the mantis shows that they, and likely other critters are also about, preying on the pollinators. There is something pleasant and peaceful about having something like this, right there, nearby.

Peaches

A couple of years back we made the first foray towards planting what we hope will become a small orchard. This first group of three included a pear, cherry, and cold-hardy peach tree.

I was, I will admit, somewhat skeptical at the prospect of planting the peach tree. I think of peaches as being a southern fruit - Georgia Peaches, anyone? - and so the idea of them working out here, weathering through a winter on the open prairie, seemed dubious. Still, it's been two years, and not only has the tree survived, its faring far better in the war against Japanese Beetles than my cherry tree.

I check the trees periodically for the beginnings of fruit throughout the spring. This year, for most of the spring I saw almost nothing. The cherry tree seemed uninterested in offering anything at all, and the pear tree made an early attempt at a couple of fruits, which then later simply vanished (though I'm sure our local wildlife had something to do with the vanishing...). And in all of this the peach tree, for the second year in a row, turned its woody nose up and refused to display even the beginnings of anything fruit-like, as near as I could tell.

As near as I could tell indeed, because I was walking towards the tree on my way to the shed last Sunday afternoon and I saw something... Honestly I wasn't sure what I was looking at from a distance, because I really had no expectation of finding that the tree was bearing anything.

But sure enough, it was:

Peach One

Peach Two

a pair of peaches

There are only just the two of them on the tree - it's still very young - but they are absolutely there and look very healthy. I can't imagine they were quite ripe yet, but I'll be checking them periodically. And I've gone from skeptical to cautiously optimistic. Given that it does look like the tree will yield fruit, even here on the periodically frozen northern prairie, it may be worth it to plant another of the same variety to allow for better pollination.

And - of course - the real bonus is that, in the near future, I'm gonna get to eat a peach!


Update: Somehow, when I was discovering the two peaches on our peach tree, I missed a third. It was apparently hiding, lower in the tree.

Hidden Peach

I've looked over the rest of the tree pretty closely, and I don't believe there are any others - three appears to be the limit. Of course, I thought I had looked over the entire tree before, and it's really not that big...

Simple Pleasures

The final day of a long weekend out here on the prairie, particularly when the weather cooperates as it has been, offers some opportunity to appreciate the simpler things.

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The sun and the wind of the open prairie present an option that we don't take advantage of often enough. It's a little more work to haul the clothes out to the line than it is to simply toss them in the dryer, I suppose, but it requires 100% less electricity as well. Besides, there is something nostalgic about seeing the clothes on the line, and something rather therapeutic about hanging them there. This is an activity I watched, and helped, both my mother and my grandmother with many times as a child. Something feels right about it.

Working around the yard yesterday I was greeted multiple times by the peonies in bloom:

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While all of this is happening, we also have sun tea brewing in a gallon jar on the sidewalk.

tea a-brewin'

This will provide many delightful glasses over the next week or so. I add a few orange tea bags to the mix for mine - just a hint of extra flavor. No sugar or sweetener here tho - those seeking "sweet tea" will have to take that up with the McDonalds in town.

New Approach

As mentioned briefly a day or two ago, it's time for wrapping the front door again. This because the wisdom of siting your house at the top of a hill and pointing your front doors in the direction of the prevailing wind on the open prairie is something perhaps better understood from the perspective of a settler making a statement in 1861 than from that of a homeowner in 2016 who must face an LP gas bill... but I digress.

In previous years I've put rigid foam insulation across the entirely of the inside of the front doors. Our approach this year is different. This year the plan is to sandwich the foam insulation in-between the storm doors and the front doors. This will, hopefully, give us something approaching the the insulating capacity of covering the entire doorway without the ugliness of it all.

We have been re-using the same foam panels over the past few years. I was able to modify one of the panels to fit in the door opening. This was a bit more challenging than one might think. While it was easy enough to cut a single panel to fit in the space - ideal because it decreases the number of seams or weak points for air to leak thru - getting it into the opening between the double-doors was another thing. The space they offer when open isn't quite as big as the space I needed to fill. This left me with three potential options:

  1. Cut the panel and make it from two separate pieces.
  2. Take one or both of the doors off the hinges; or
  3. Try to gently bend the panel and hope that it doesn't break.

I went with option #3. Two separate pieces offers an entire additional cut through which wind can blow, so that was a no go. As for the hinges, well... when anything 155 years old is continuing to operate as designed, trying to take it apart and put it back together seems... inadvisable.

Long story short, I was able to gently coax it into place. A little bit of trimming was needed to get it all to drop where it needed to be, but it's in there as a single panel. Add in a bit of Frog Tape (which is gentle on the ancient paint), and we were ready to go:

Front Door

I put the silver side to the inside, and the white, painted side to the outside. This should look more like a regular door from the outside, and perhaps the silver will reflect some light back into the hall. The windows are frosted, so you can't see much of the lettering through them.

Now it's just a waiting game. As the weather gets colder and the winds pick up we'll see how this measures up to the more complete wrapping of the past. I don't expect it to be quite as good, but if it's close I'll be content with the trade off of having the doors visible and the whole thing less claustrophobic than in the past.

November Wind

The curtains are drawn tonight against an angry western November wind. It's the first time this season, which has been oddly, pleasantly warm and calm.

The first time, but not the last, to be certain.

Blustery

It also starts this season's test of the slow, but semi-steady improvements we've made. Last season these were windows, this season insulated curtains are in place. And we'll be trying out a hopefully more visually appealing approach to our front door insulation approach this year. After all, things didn't always work so well last year.

Solar Roof?

This week Elon Musk, founder of Tesla and Space X, announced a new product developed in conjunction with SolarCity - a new type of solar shingles designed to visually replicate the appearance of traditional roofing materials.

At first blush it might seem odd to bring this up here, on this site dedicated to living in and (very slowly) restoring a family home built in 1861. Indeed, I went back and forth between whether to put this here, or on my more science and technology oriented site. But this seemed the right place.

While our goal is to maintain and restore this old family home, it has never been with the intention of living a 19th-century lifestyle. We've been working our way through the replacement of the original windows, and with the help of the fine folks at Triple Service, have installed air conditioning and, more recently, a modern iron filtering system for the water supply. And, given that the house was originally built without either electricity or indoor plumbing, I hold that these modifications are consistent with the approach prior generations have taken to the Homestead.

All of which makes this new product very interesting to me. The prospect of using alternative energy sources - either solar or wind - has been something I've wanted to incorporate in the long-term picture for our home from the beginning. This is true both from the standpoint of being a person who is interested in these technological solutions for their own sake, and for the benefit they stand to offer to the environment. It's also true from the perspective of a person who owns a large, 155-year old home who must contend with the utility bills that home generates.

In addition, owing to our rural location, we are low on the list for restoration during power outages. In the seven years that we've been living at the homestead we've encountered at least one outage each year, and several of those have been for multiple days at a time. Because we have forced air heat and get our water from a well with an electric pump, a power outage also means a heat and water outage. This is a reality of where we live, of course - on the open prairie, in an area with high enough winds to justify a wind farm - but that makes it a reality it's which one must contend. Being in the position of generating some or all of one's own power becomes a very attractive option under these circumstances. If one can do that in a fashion that also complements the appearance of our vintage home, as opposed to looking like a modern-era tack-on, so much the better.

Another, very relevant detail is the quality and durability of the roofing material itself. Because of our location in the wind farm the traditional asphalt shingles that are used here struggle to maintain their protective position in the face of the gust. The descriptions of this material suggests that it is considerably more durable than traditional roofing.

This is all early days, of course. The product is not yet available, and there's been no announcement of pricing, though the stated goal is to make the cost competitive to the cost of traditional roofing plus utilities. Still, I think our Homestead would look quite nice with the Slate Tile panels on it. If the folks at Tesla and SolarCity are looking for a location which would provide a real-world, four-season, high-wind test site for their product I'm certain arrangements could be made...

Out of the Woods

For a large portion of the past three weeks or so I've been home sick with one ailment or another. When cold and flu season rears its ugly head apparently it can take anyone down, even if he's had a flu shot...

I was finally feeling up to moving about at the end of this week, and fate put me in Rockford with an afternoon largely untethered, so I headed out to Rock Cut State Park. With temps in the 40's for the past couple of days the hiking trails offered an... interesting mix of surfaces for the hiking boot to address. It turns out that the combination of ice and snow plus dirt in temperatures above freezing may not be the ideal recipe for traction.

Fortunately, I only fell on my ass once, and that event did not appear to occur in front of people.

I've made reference to Rock Cut here a couple of times. For a person who spends time in Rockford IL, and is looking for a bit of woodsy nature to take the edge off, it's a reliable port. Taking the opportunity to work one's way back into the deeper part of the woods during a melt does not disappoint, even with the risk of an occasional slip and fall.

meltwater

I sent the picture above to MLW a few seconds after I took it. She asked if it was a picture from Walden, and I thought, more or less, yes. Rock Cut is not remote - there are few parts of the park in which one cannot hear traffic on nearby streets, even when one seems to be deep in the woods. But then neither was Thoreau's site at Walden Pond. He was within just a few miles of his own home and, if memory serves, living on land owned by a friend. It wasn't an exercise in harsh survivalism, just in retreat to nature.

It illustrates to me the differences that context can make. I've watched the snow and ice melt here at the homestead over the past few days, and mostly what it makes me think of is the mud with which we will be, and are, contending. At home it's a problem to be dealt with. Walking through through the trees at Rock Cut its an inconvenience to be tolerated, and this despite the fact that I'm much less likely to slip and fall at home.

Our homestead is a beautiful place most of the year - we have trees, and open space, and privacy. Still, one of the things the prairie offers very little of is anything that one might truly refer to as woods. There are stands of trees that one can see if one looks off in the distance. However, these are often narrow patches a couple of hundred yards wide, framing a stream of one sort or another - not the sort of thing that allows one to feel truly lost and removed from all else. Besides that, these are typically private property, most notably not mine and, oddly, not everyone is enamored with the idea of strangers marching around on their land.

There are actually similar options in the area. Just south of Mendota is a small, wooded park called Snyder's Grove. This was the site of many scout trips and picnics in my youth. The Little Vermillion River runs through it, and the park has hiking trails. The travel time to this location from my home is similar to the time that it used to take me to wind my way through the traffic and stop lights of greater Rockford to get to Rock Cut. And, of course, given all of that, how many times have I gone there in the nearly seven years that we've lived at the homestead?

That's right: zero