Living and working in Iowa brought life to some of the history that I had been taught as a child. My textbooks depicted farms that had red barns with gambrel roofs, a silo beside it, a corn crib and dairy cows in the pasture. Montana farms had a faint resemblance to this idyllic picture. Our farms were more rough and tumble—there might be a traditional looking gambrel barn, but more likely it would be what Goggle refers to as a Bonnet roof style or Western horse barn. I had never seen a block silo, and only a few Harvestore silos. Our horses were nimble cattle horses, not lumbering Belgiums.
One Christmas I spent with a boyfriend’s family. It was the only Christmas I ever spent away from my family.His family’s tradition was to go to his Grandmother’s farm in northeastern Iowa and all us kids would all sleep on the floor in the living room. It was snowy and cold, but cozy warm inside with kids, grand kids, and great grands, crowded in the big, rambling, white clapboard farmhouse. The farm had the red barn, the sheds for equipment, the silo. That Christmas there was afoot of snow on the ground. The quiet softness that comes with sound dampening snow muffled the noises around the farmyard and country roads that I was all too familiar with.
I pictured the boyfriend as a little boy visiting his Gramma in the summer, bouncing astride the big draft horse, wearing worn out Red Wing style work boots, frayed straw hat, and bib overalls, heading out over the cornfield to a grove of trees. A picture created by a mental mixture of Mark Twain, Norman Rockwell, Sinclair Lewis, Grandma Moses and Grant Wood.
One of the stories I heard while at Gramma’s farmhouse was about the barnstormers. Popular in the mid-1920’s,barnstormers were pilots who put on airshows, advertising their presence by buzzing small towns until the shopkeepers and customers flocked out into the streets,and then dropping leaflets that fluttered down on the mesmerized audience below. They would contract with a local farmer to use their field as a landing strip and venue. The planes used for these shows were mostly WWI bi-planes either de-commissioned or overstocked after the war ended. The show included wing walking in addition to performing loop-the-loops, dives, spins and the like. I could imagine how thrilling the barnstormer’s shows must have been to the local folks, so unlike their day to day hum drum, plow the ground existence. Entire towns would shutdown when the barnstormers buzzed by, a welcomed reprieve from the daily grind.The shows would captivate the viewers with their death defying spins that were pulled up just before the crash, or the gymnastics performed by wing walkers on a plane flying so low the treetops were brushed.
They used the field behind Gramma’s barn as their airstrip. The townspeople and neighboring farmers and families flocked to the field to see the show, pulling up to park alongside the makeshift airstrip in the field,an eclectic mix of bicycles, motorcars, horses, buggies and people afoot.
At the end of the show, after having watched the pilots dip and dive and tempt the fates, a 15 minute ride was available for purchase for $5 by young and old alike. In today’s dollars, that would be around $75 for a once in a lifetime ride. Those with the money would line up to take a spin. Those who didn’t have the cash would watch enviously as their luckier neighbors and friends took their turns in the air.
Like the extremes ports of today, crashes and fatalities occurred as the barnstormers became more and more daring. As a result, the government created the first of many aviation safety regulations, the strictness of which eventually caused the demise of the barnstormers.
Gramma’s brother was one of the lucky ones who bought a ticket to ride. He waited his turn to go up in the airplane, waited in anticipation for that once in a lifetime thrill. And the pilot tried to deliver, pushing the acrobatics of the plane. And thus the uncle became one of the unlucky casualties of the Barnstorming era, dying in a fiery crash in the grove behind Gramma’s big white house.