By: Esther Hastings Miller
Well, the living wasn’t that easy, since we were living off the land and that much gardening means lots of weeding then lots of canning. But we had plenty of time for our own pursuits and we’d always spent most of our time outdoors, so with all those acres to play in, we did have fun!
It’s hard to describe those acres now. The old house was torn down in the 80s and so much has been built since. I haven’t lived in Des Moines since I was a teenager, so I didn’t get to see the changes happen slowly. Let me try to place things now by looking at the satellite image of the maps of the area.
There is still a little bit of the driveway showing. Just before Swanson Blvd. crosses the railroad track, you can see a flat area that follows the same curve as the track. That was our driveway and it went up and around to the back of the house. NW 90th Street is probably about where the house sat. It was on a hill, the backyard (really just a big driveway and graveled area) and most of the barnyard were fairly level, then behind the barn the land went uphill again, toward the north. The spring/well was out in the middle of what was probably a 20-acre field/pasture that also went somewhat uphill to the east. I suspect that all of that was graded before the new houses were built.
The 20-acre pasture had fences on both the east and west sides and a fence on the north separating it from other fields we never explored. Those fields extended all the way to Hickman. To the west was another 20-acre parcel (I’m guessing here) and it extended down to the railroad track. About the only time we went into the east parcel was to check on the well, but we played a lot in the west parcel.
I’d fly out the door as soon as breakfast was over and never opened the barnyard gate. It was too big and too heavy, and it was much easier to climb over than go through. My hair was in long braids and I had to wear dresses…shorts were immoral, and pants were for boys. Climbing over gates and up into the hayloft of the barn in a dress or skirt was not particularly modest, but oh well…
Most often I would go out along the west side of the barn and turn left into the Green Grassy Path which led into the west pasture. It was usually wet there and the grass was always green. I realize now it was probably one of the many springs or seeps to be found on those hills. Had it rained recently? If so, there was probably water in the pond. How the “pond” got there I do not know. There were mounds of dirt around it so I suspect someone had, years before, tried to create a pond in the really heavy clay in that portion of the pasture. It held water after a rain and it even got deep enough to float an old piece of plywood on, but playing out there didn’t make our mom too happy. The water was full of clay which dried on our legs and our clothes and left us looking really orange. It was pretty good for ice skating in the winter, however.
Up the hill from the pond were two apple trees which thrived on neglect. The moths which laid their eggs in the blossoms thrived as well, making the apples quite wormy. A little farther up the hill were the pear trees, two groups of them. One group had maybe a half dozen trees in a rough circle and the other, a few yards away, had eight or nine trees in two rows. The pear trees provided the most shade on that hillside and became our camps…my brother had the rectangular camp and I had the circle. We pulled armfuls of the long grasses that grew all around and laid them on the ground under the trees, providing us a clean, dry place to sit in the shade. They also undoubtedly contributed significantly to the number of chigger bites we were plagued with all summer. From our camps we rode our make-believe horses through the tall grass, rounding up our herds of equally imaginary cattle. Our horses leaped over the tallest grasses, raced down the hill to the fence, struggled through the thick growth of who-knows-what, and cooled off in the orange clay pond. How much better can it get?
But oh, it did! When even the shade of the pear trees was not enough to cool us on hot days, I would head down the Green Grassy Path again but instead of going out to the pasture, I headed down into a grove of trees which now I would be in a hurry to identify but then I knew only that they provided deep shade. One even provided a good-sized hollow area for my cat. He’d go with me, find the tree, climb up to about eye-level with me, and settle himself into that hollowed-out area for a nap. Birds would dive-bomb him and he would mostly ignore them. Just to keep them in line, once in a while he’d open his eyes, swat at the birds with his claws out, and go back to his nap.
Why did I head to that grove of trees? It was terribly overgrown with stinging nettles and catnip but it was cooler down there. I fell into a clump of nettles one time and have been outrageously sensitive to them ever since. My cat totally ignored the catnip. But it was more than just shade that drew me there.
One day I was down there with a walking stick. I sure didn’t want to slip on another rotten log and fall into the nettles again. I steadied myself with the walking stick and when I pulled it out of the soft damp ground, I saw water running in the hole it made. What?? Water was running a few inches below the surface! So, I saw which way it was running and poked another hole and sure enough, there was running water in that hole too. Many holes later, I’d found twenty feet or so of a clear running spring a few inches below the surface. I’d clear the dirt between one hole and the next and then clear more dirt. Over a few weeks, I pulled gobs of weeds and got all the “creek” exposed and kept it flowing till it fell under the barbed wire fence and into the ditch beside the railroad track.
For a long time, whenever I needed to calm myself or think, even long after I’d moved away, I’d head for my creek in my imagination to cool down and calm down. It has been my “happy place” for a long, long time.
Much of the day was taken up helping with the horses…the real ones. I never tired of brushing them and talking to my friends and listening to the transistor radio. One day I got to ride the Reames’ pony which they kept in a pasture next to our front yard. That pony wasn’t in the mood for riding but didn’t object to me getting on bareback. He simply walked under a low hanging branch and went on his way without me.
Once in a while we’d ride our bikes down the road past the steel plant to a little road that crossed the track and went into the woods, probably about where the bike path enters Greenbelt Park now. We’d leave our bikes near the tracks and wander into the woods to a place where we knew there was a sandy bank and a nice place to cool off in the creek. We explored quite a bit of the woods but not often enough for me to remember many details.
Most people had TVs by then and many moms had learned to drive but we had no TV and Mom never learned to drive, so we were stuck at home all summer long. We didn’t consider ourselves stuck, though, because there was so much to do. The only limit was our imagination.
Note: This is the last of 11 stories written by Esther Hastings Miller. Please refer to the right side bar for additional stories capturing Esther’s precious memories of growing up in Clive, Iowa.
About Esther Miller:
My parents, younger brother David, and I moved to the old house at the end of what is now Swanson Blvd just before Christmas in 1957. The address was University Avenue and the house may have been the “Kurtz Hill” mentioned in Mildred Swanson’s story about sledding. That yard was outstanding for sledding!
I was in fifth grade at Clive School and David was in third. We lived in that house until June of 1960 when the property was sold and we had to move. We moved to the Johnston area where we went to school for a year. In September of that year, my father was severely injured at work and was never able to work again. We moved to Des Moines, since Mother didn’t drive and Dad couldn’t anymore. And then, in December of 1961 we moved to California. Mother had gone to school in a small town in Southern California in the 40s, so she had friends there and she knew the climate would be a lot easier on all of us.
Both David and I finished high school in California, then I attended two small colleges nearby and graduated, first in my family, in 1970. I worked as an occupational therapist with severely handicapped children, then took several years off to raise my own two children. I eventually returned to work until my husband took early retirement. We traveled around the country in an RV, a long-time dream of ours, until we found some place we wanted to move to.
We sold our home in California and settled into an old farmhouse in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia where we lived for several more years. I returned to California a few years ago and now live way out in the country. Do you see a trend? I love living in the country and over the years I’ve built on the skills I first learned in that old house in Clive.