Pioneer's dream fades into past

Vines grow on the roof of a collapsing outbuilding at an abandoned homestead near Rushford, Minnesota.

When I was 10 or 11 years old, I took over a tiny house across the fence from our place in Chamberlain and for a brief time had what today might be called a man cave.

Terry Woster

Terry Woster

A kid cave would be more like it. I can’t remember how it came to be, but it seems to me that at some point after we moved to town, we owned this tiny house just north of our own. Maybe we rented it out for a time, or maybe it came with the purchase of our real house. For all I know, maybe we never owned it at all but just had a key to the place after the tenants moved out. Whatever the reason, the place next door was empty, I had access to the key, and I made it a place where I could escape from the world.

The place had no furniture, but that was fine with me. I moved my sound system in, along with my record collection, and I was set. When I had the urge to get away, I’d take whatever book I was reading at the time, a couple of cookies and a glass of Kool-Aid, and I’d hop the fence, open the back door and relax on the tile floor in a corner of the living room, reading and listening to music.

Now, when I say I moved my sound system into the place, I’m being a bit pretentious. The sound system I had in those days consisted of a case of heavy cardboard, maybe a foot square by five or six inches deep. Inside was a turntable and an amplifier or tuner or whatever they’re called. A small speaker was embedded in the lid, connected by a thin wire to the amp in the body of the case. The volume knob went from 1 to 10, but cranked to the limit, the music played only a bit louder than a normal conversation.

I had only a few records back then. They were the kind that didn’t have to be blasted all over the neighborhood to be enjoyed. I had Johnny Ray singing “Cry,’’ with “The Little White Cloud That Cried’’ on the flip side. I had Glenn Miller’s Orchestra doing “In the Mood.’’ And I had “This Old House,’’ the Stuart Hamblen version. I’m pretty sure Rosemary Clooney had the popular version of that song back in those days, but I had what I had. I played that song over and over and over while the wind rattled the kitchen window panes and tree branches brushed against the shingles on the roof.

Most kids my age would have preferred more popular tunes, I suppose. If I’d had untold wealth, I might have, too. But my wants were few in those days, and I settled for the music that was readily available. So I’d lean in the corner there, reading my book and listening to the groaning and creaking of the little house. All the while the record player was spinning out these lyrics:

“Ain’t gonna need this house no longer, ain’t gonna need this house no more. Ain’t got time to fix the shingles, ain’t got time to fix the floor. Ain’t got time to oil the hinges nor to mend no window pane. Ain’t a-gonna need this house no longer, she’s a-getting ready to meet the saints.’’

The words and music stuck with me – so firmly, in fact, that years and years later, when I traveled the back roads of South Dakota in search of news stories, “This Old House’’ would come to mind unbidden whenever I passed a sagging barn or a falling-into-the-mud hog shed or an abandoned farm house slowly losing its identity and slipping into the prairie soil.

Even as a young reporter, I felt sad when I drove past those ancient, deteriorating farm buildings. As I grew older and more familiar with the back country and the long-empty farms, the sadness increased each time I passed an obviously fine old house and witnessed how the passing years had broken its spirit. I figured each decaying home represented some family’s hopes and dreams. I used to make up stories about what family had lived in which house, where they came from, where they went.

Sometimes, looking at an empty, run-down farm house, I’d wonder if, really, the owner “ain’t gonna need this house no more,’’ and I’d remember a time when I thought those words were only a song.

Terry is a well-known regional columnist who lives in Fort Pierre, S.D.