The abandoned farmsteads shown here are not far from where I live. Such sad scenes are easy enough to find. They have been a part of the landscape of my life, grave markers of the agrarian culture that I love.  Each crumbling set of buildings has its own story to tell, but in general, they were built around 1900 or a little earlier, went through a generation or two of gradually diminishing prosperity, and then succumbed to the money-changers and the seeming necessity to expand farm size. These “losers” had no taste for competing with wealthier, sharper, or more aggressive farmers, and died without an heir interested in, or financially capable of, farming in the modern era. The sharper farmer who with his friendly banker bought the farm, chose not to fix the house up and rent it, but couldn’t bring himself to tear it down either.  Or in other cases, the new owner did sell the house and barn buildings to someone who, remembering a happy childhood on a farm, wanted to live in the country. The house was saved, but inevitably the grand old barn blew down or was pulled down. Four of the barns that I played and worked in during my youth exist now only in memory.

I think abandonment is the greatest of our sorrows and fears. Death is the final abandonment. I like to linger at derelict farmsteads and imagine the happy family that once lived there, or at least the family that built the place in high hope of happiness. It is easy for me to imagine their lives because I can place my grandparents, parents, and siblings within the confines of such a farmstead and watch them, in my mind’s eye, at work and play.

These homes were marvels of self-sufficiency. No one feared a power outage because the power, at least in the early days, was all homegrown. When “the electric” did come, I remember farmers who resisted it— sensed that it would be a sort of umbilical cord in reverse, drawing away their independent vitality. They grew hay to fuel the motive power of buggy horse and draft animal, cut wood to warm the house, erected a windmill to pump water into a insulated cypress water tank that stood partly above ground or on a high elevation so that water could flow by gravity to the barns and house. They built underground cisterns next to the house to fill with soft rainwater off the house roof for washing, and erected posts in the lawn for a clothesline to dry the laundry.  My grandfather even kept a catalpa grove for fence posts. Catalpa endures. Some of his posts, which he used first, and my uncle used again, serve a third life in my fences.

The amazing diversity of the old farmstead was the key to its resilience. The summer kitchen for cooking during the hot months was built close by, but apart from, the house. (One of the photos shows a summer kitchen if you look closely behind the trees. Note how the trees have grown up in what was once the lawn and barnyard. How quickly nature takes back the land when humans disappear.)  There were separate buildings for the privy, the smokehouse— I remember one made from a huge, hollow tree trunk with a little peaked roof over the open top and a door cut in the side of it—, the woodshed, the granary, the corncrib, the chicken coop, the pigsty, the carriage house that became a garage.  The big hay barn dominated all. Below its mows were the sheep shed, horse stalls and cow stable. If one source of food or income failed, there were others to fill the gap. The only way to starve out such a self-sufficient homestead was by way of paper money and usury which in one guise or another is often what happened.

Always there was a kitchen garden, a larger garden or truck patch farther away, and an orchard. Sometimes on abandoned farmsteads you can find tasty old apple varieties still growing. Frequently, you will still find rhubarb plants, lilac bushes, old fashioned roses, asparagus and lilies of the valley hugging the north wall of the house. All these plants tell in their quiet, enduring way, of farm families making a good life that could still be there if nature’s ways had been followed.

In case I sound overly-romantic or sentimental, what I remember best about our farmstead was that even when my mother was heavy with child and carrying a heavy bucket of water from the windmill pump to the chicken coop, she was singing. I see Dad hurry to her and, scolding gently, take the bucket from her. She had a hard life in some ways, so, I ask, why was she always singing?

And if you think it is easy to sing and carry a bucket of water at the same time, try it.


Randy, I think you are referring to an essay, “Home For Christmas” which appeared first in Ohio magazine in about 1996 or 1997 and then again as Chapter 13 in my book “You Can Go Home Again” published by Indiana University Press in 1998 in hardback and again in paperback by the Wooster Book Co., Wooster, Ohio in 2002. Thank you for your beautiful comment. Gene

    Gene, thank you so much for your reply. It really made my day to hear from you. In addition to renewing my annual enjoyment of the essay in Chapter 13, I look forward to savoring the other contents of “You Can Go Home Again.”

    Warmest wishes to you and your family — and from one of your many fans to all of the others — for this holiday season.


Gene, thanks so much for focusing upon a topic that many of us are prompted to ponder regularly as passersby encountering these (still) beautiful homesteads. I think that the sadness we feel stems from the unnaturalness of the abandonment — unlike the death of individuals within a generation, as to which some comfort can be taken in the form of looking to the next generations, as a natural cycle — viewing an abandoned homestead is more like witnessing an element of an extinction.

When reading this post, I was reminded of the wonderful essay that you wrote about Christmas (published, perhaps, in Country Journal?) in which you described the pleasures of visiting neighbors to view various Christmas trees. Each abandoned homestead once hosted these types of fundamental gatherings,and of course the entire neighborhood is poorer in so many ways from the loss of a neighbor when farms are consolidated.

P.S. — I would be greatly obliged if you would favor me with a reply to this note to point out where I and others can find a re-print or another source of your Christmas essay. I cut that essay out of the magazine in which it appeared and kept it in my nightstand for over 10 years specifically for the purpose of reading it each year at this time. Inexplicably, I have lost my copy, and locating another copy would restore an important tradition and renew my inspiration to “keep playing goalie” (a reference that will of course have meaning to those that have already read the essay). For those who have not read the piece, I heartily recommend it.

Fallen down farms are easy to see as they leave an imprint behind. Using Google maps, I looked at a satellite view of the home I grew up in. We had a garden that gave us most of our vegetables. We had about 5 apple trees give or take a couple. And a peach tree until Hurricane Donna took it. Oh, and the Concord grape arbor. Our neighbors had a pear tree. Most everyone had a garden.

These have all disappeared. Even the memories have disappeared. Even the memories of how to grow food have disappeared.

I live in a city. Always have. Sorry about that. But we have memories, too. Unfortunately, even the falling down physical remnants are not there anymore.

But, in today’s society it’s often possible to go outside the norm and recreate those memories at a small price. This year, I planted an apple tree in my yard. It’s a variety that takes 12 years to mature, but one day, someone will enjoy the apples if I don’t last that long. (I expect to, but you never know.)

I also recreated the garden of my youth. Different vegetables, but the same concept. I’ve also recreated the fun of going out to the garden to see what’s for dinner tonight. When the corn was ready, we put a pot of water on the stove to boil before picking it. Sometimes we have a mixture of things in the crock pot. Or make a Calzone with whatever is ripe.

We can bemoan the loss of small farms, or we can do what’s possible today. For those that can buy a small farm and make it viable I applaud you. I’m not in that situation. But I can recreate what is lost, even to most memories, and I’ve done so to some extent. I still don’t have neighbors I can talk to and exchange vegetables over the fence.

This summer, we made a table from fence pickets in our backyard. We spent a lot of time reading aloud there. While there, we noticed spiders. How they float a test strand during the day, and build their web in the hour before sunset. All of them seem to weave clockwise. Instead of TV, we’d spend an hour or two watching a spider.

We discovered the many varieties of bees, moths, spiders, ants, ladybugs, grasshoppers, birds, rabbits, cats, snakes, mice, butterflies, etc. that frequented the garden. We noticed how they always work hard even without a union contract.

It’s easier for city people to recreate what was lost. All it takes is a little effort and knowledge. Sadly, few are interested.

For those that want to see pictures, you can see them here: http://www.meetup.com/Pueblo-Healthy-Eating-and-Gardening/photos/938896/#15408436

It’s nothing special as it’s not possible to take pictures of feelings. But it’s special to us.

What is even sadder, my friends, is the Livable Communities Act (SB 1619-Dodd) which would supply large amounts of federal money to”encourage” people to move to the cities. The mere fact that something like this could gain traction is really scary. If you are not familiar with it, or with the UN Agenda 21, I strongly recommend you get educated, because both are likely to increased the number of abandoned farms. Here’s the link for Dodd’s bill, which he is determined to get passed before he leaves the Senate this year: http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/bdquery/z?d111:s1619:

There are still many of us who know the value of a small, neat, productive homestead. Such an organism takes constant care, though; daily hard work, seasonal upkeep, and a trove of resourcefulness and skills that have long gone out of fashion.

Your post brings to mind the little towns throughout central Kansas, sprinkled like forgotten bread crumbs along the rail routes, grain elevators now unused, churches closed, more empty houses on the quaint country town streets than homes filled with families. Somehow the little towns persist, though they no longer thrive. It is heartbreaking to walk the streets and see the abandoned homes on lots big enough to support a small farmstead, which they once did, and know that thousands of folks would jump at the chance to re-inhabit such a place.

My wife and I bought a very few acres here in central Wisconsin a 10 years ago. We frequently drive north about 30 miles to a largish town (50,000 (?) pop’n). Early on we spotted a barn that appeared to be sagging, Over the years we watched the roof sag lower and lower and the building tilt farther and farther. Finally, a couple of years ago it seemed to sag and tilt about as far as it could go, pretty much now resting on the ground. Sort of like an old cow that finally sinks to the ground to give up the ghost. Curious to watch it, but sad too.

But farming is being reborn, Gene, in intersting ways. Here is a an interview I just read with Dr. Jason Bradford who runs an investment fund that “buys conventional farmland and converts it to certified organic, sustainably managed farmland. Historically, farmland has been an excellent, inflation-hedged investment. Our firm, Farmland LP, adds value to farmland by converting it to organic farmland and managing it ongoing. Our goal is to play a role in the transformation of the food system while benefiting the environment, people, and our investors.”


He is trained in ecology and has also studied economics. I found it quite fascinating how he is working with farmers to manage the land and how they are learning to work with and support each other. It is an example of a real and useful innovation in modern sustainable farming.

It really saddens me to see all the small farms that were thriving in the NW Pa hills when I grew up now being taken over by brushy woods. So many immigrant families, most Poles and Germans here, kept neat, productive farms. No one got rich, but we all lived a good life with a lot of hard work and plenty of good times too. The soil here does not compare with some of what you have in the Midwest, but I truly wish more of our food was produced here. I remember orchards of plums, pears and apples on most every farm. Currants, gooseberries (a long forgotten fruit that I have managed to re-establish in my garden)and raspberries were tucked behind most every garden plot. The diversity was amazing.

As I get older, my heart aches for the chance to have my grandkids understand what life was like then. When I visit with my 85 year old father, we often discuss how things were done back then. I hope I can recall enough to explain things to my grandkids. Hopefully, at least one of them will feel the love of the land that has marked my life and the lives of my immigrant ancestors and decide to seek out a spot in the hills here to call their own.

Thank you for the beautiful post Gene. The thoughts you express brought great memories, and also a few tears of sadness for a time quickly passing.

A very meaninful piece. I heard an interview with the new editor of Newsweek on NPR this morning. Among other things she said that much of our media provides almost limiless information but very little meaning. Information seems to be the high fructose corn syrup of the brain when the needed nourishment is more complex and restorative. Melancholy and humor and books with names that can’t be spoken – now that is complex.

Paula’s suggestion of a ReHomestead Act has been intriguing me ever since I read it. I would be shocked if our contentious congress could ever agree on something so sensible. But somewhere there has to be a community with enough vision or desperation to do something constructive to rebuild their community and promote local food sources by aiding in the establishment of small garden farms.

To all of you who took the time to comment: what marvelous thoughts and insights. I had no idea so many other people were as affected by abandoned homesteads as I am. Paula: yes a ReHomestead Act. Great idea. Dave, we too use recycled material from abandoned farmsteads. My barn has beams and doors in it from long ago barns. My son’s barn is almost entirely built of stuff we recycled from older barns.Yes, Austin, these old farmsteads need to be studied for the way they conserved and preserved energy. A way to do that is study Amish barns. Thank you all for your encouragement. It is really fun writing for you. Gene

We are making our own history. A mile away from me someone bought a bait store ten years ago, and over the years, “grew” the business into a six pump gas station and carry -out. They also bought the forty acre field next to the bait store, and built one of those McMansions we all read about, complete with indoor swimming pool, machinery shed, and the ubiquitous pond. The business was always busy, but about a year ago rumors started circulating about a foreclosure, and, indeed, over New Years, the business was closed (even the gas pumps were removed). Month and a half ago, there was finally a “for sale” sign on the business, but apparently all the land, the house, and the business are under one mortgage, and no one locally can afford the whole enchilada. The house probably cost $400,000.00, and there’s a rumor now that the humidity from the pool has done serious damage to the house. It might not take forty years for it to fall down. What a tragedy!

I think that it is not the old, decrepit buildings themselves that stir up the emotions in me, but rather the loss of the way of life that they symbolize. After all, even old barns rot away and need to be replaced. It is the emptiness they engender, the loss of an agrarian way of life that I mourn.

My parents’ home sat empty for over a year and my brother and I fretted about what to do with it. I felt AWFUL not getting the grass mowed and keeping the weeds cleaned up and cleaning the gutters and so many other things. Mom and Dad took such good care of it and we just didn’t know whether to sell it or what!? We wanted to keep the farmground for cash renting with the same people who have farmed it my whole life, but what to do with the homestead? We finally let my brother’s son live in it rent-free to take care of things … though it never looked as good as when my parents were there. Finally he decided he wanted to buy it and we are doing a land contract with him. Things are still falling apart on the barn and out-buildings for lack of time and interest, but I have tried to let it go. I don’t even drive back that long lane to check things out any more… Sad events. I agree with Paula … a ReHomstead Act. I see so many beautiful old homes, standing straight and tall, but I know the broken windows and aging roofs will succumb. What a shame…. no easy answer….

Thanks for sharing this Gene.

I always feel a burst of intense sadness when I see an old abandoned farmstead- I get the feeling that we’ve lost something precious, something irreplaceable, something that was hard won and easily lost.

On the sunnier side, when I see these old farmsteads, I always try to look for ways that they organized their farm to work with nature. The old farmsteads always seemed to have a good windbreak and use the lay of the land its best advantage. In addition to being practical, the farmstead was also aesthetically appealing, as though it was meant to be part of the landscape. Not something you can say about the ‘modern’ subdivision.

I hope someday to have our own farm and I would love to reclaim (or at least reuse) an old homestead and make use of the wisdom and foresight of a past generation.

growing up in rural Pennsylvania, we often lamented such losses. My Great Grandfather’s place was one such tragedy, sold in the late 50s, and we continued to hike in (there are still no passable roads to it)for forty years as we watched nature gradually reclaim it. Occasionally we would discover some small memento, a scrap of iron, or a bit of broken crockery, and take it home with us but mostly just the memories remain.

In building the place, my Great Grandfather, as legend has it, tore down his father’s place up a hollow, and carried the salvaged materials up to the higher ground on his back because it was too steep for his only horse.

Taking our cue from him, as kids we helped to salvage old bricks and such, carrying them home for our own projects. The sidewalks at my parents place, now in place there for nearly 40 years, are from one such excursion, and their grape arbor is built from locust posts that were my Grandmother’s clothelines and originally came from my Great Grandmother’s home.

Though “The Old Farm” as we called it is now no longer distinguishable from the woods except by my minds eye, I continue to watch for cedar trees in the middle of old woods or other signs of those who have gone before. By salvaging a bit of their old materials for my cottage farm, I suppose I hope to salvage a bit of their wisdom.

Gosh- I’m wheezing just thinking about the combination!

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if they passed a ReHomestead Act, where folks as could do it and had a mind to could take over abandoned places and homestead them. I can think of a lot of things that would be in the way of that, but it’s kind of a nice way to find homes for everybody, and by that I mostly mean the farm itself.

Nice post. It was sentimental, but it was a nice slice.


Thank you for this article! I was indeed fortunate to grow up in a neighborhood of family dairy farms, where a large herd was 50 cows and the average was about 30, all on 80 acres. This era lasted here in NE WI until fairly recently, actually until about 1990. There are almost no local small dairies left now, save for a few organic producers, and the big dairy barns are rapidly beginning to show the decay of neglect.

It’s always the roof. Once those old T-lock shingles get brittle and start blowing off, it is only a matter of time until the barn dies. My barn is getting an ugly metal roof, as has the organic farmer’s barn down the road. Both barns should now be good for another 50 years, and the burden to keep them alive passed to the next generation.

But for every barn saved temporarily, there are a dozen on the extinction list. The face of WI will soon be like the prairie states, just corn and soybean deserts, broken up now and then by giant milk factories.

I love this. My grandmother’s farm lies abandoned, a victim of the times and “Indiana Land.” I drive by there often, trying to share the memories of that life with my little ones. Hopelessly trying to explain to them the rich life we lived there with no running water and wood stove heat. Hope you’ll pop over and read what I wrote about the farm and see my heartbreaking pictures. There’s a bit of hope to the story as well. 🙂
Thanks so much. I really enjoy reading your blog.

I like to stop and look at the empty farmsteads and imagine the work I could do to restore them. Then I go home to my own farm and fight to keep it from going the same way as those gray ghosts. I use to think that people woul wake up, reoccupy those old farms and bring life back to rural areas. Now I’m older and realise that people are too lazy, stupid or self-indulged to have the ambition and go-get-em to pursue an agrarian dream.

Oh, how I’m a sucker for any abandoned rural outpost. I grew up in North Dakota, where the prairie is littered with them and the sight never fails to bring up involuntary images of the former residents. And the vague desire to somehow bring it back to life…

Thanks for the post.

Wonderful post, Gene! I remember the same sights in Idaho and often dreamed of renovating one of those old places. Your words here call to my mind something from Lincoln: “It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work…” Those old places can come back–will come back–if we cherish them again; if we teach the younger generations about the value and wonder of living close to the land; if we write down what we know and have experienced so that even if what we teach goes unheeded right now, the lessons will be there when they are needed in the future. And I have no doubt they will be needed. I guess I’m in a quoting mode this morning, because the other one I remember is one of Churchill’s: “We shall never give up.”

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