By Ron Page
In past years I have written about my childhood in the 1950’s on our farm in northern Illinois, very near the Wisconsin border. What I never mentioned was our spring thaw, an issue in places where the ground remains frozen solid during the winter months. In our county, soil freezes to a depth of 8” to 20” depending on the severity of the winter. In summer, our moist black loam soil was soft and a bit spongy; in winter it was as hard as concrete.
While freezing deeper and deeper, the ground gradually expands upward. When spring comes in the March/April timeframe, the ground is ready to settle back down. For a period of two-three months, county roads are “posted” with warning signs and weight limits. Asphalt roads are subject to abrupt “collapse” under the tires of a vehicle, gravel roads become a maze of deep ruts, and dirt roads are impassable. Our school bus did not run its route in the springtime, and we got to school the best way we could.
Parallel roads, east-west and north-south, created a checkerboard of “sections”. As most of you know, a section is 640 acres, or one square mile. We farmed a half section, one mile deep and one-half mile wide, big by 1950 standards, small by 2023 standards. The roads passing the back and side of our farm were dirt. Our house and outbuildings were situated on a gravel road and atop a slight rise in the otherwise “flat as a pool table” featureless terrain. From our lofty perch of possibly 30 feet, we had a good view of the “traffic”, which consisted of two or three neighbors on their way to a farm implement dealer, and, on occasion, a lost family trying to take a shortcut to one of the towns whose water towers were visible on the horizon. We waved to anyone who drove past. It was the kind of wave you don’t see anymore now that car windows are tinted and rolled up.
I mentioned the little rise our place sat on. In the springtime the approach to the little rise was a low-lying “lost city person trap”. They can be cruising along at a steady 30 miles per hour on smooth, dry gravel, when their car comes to an abrupt stop. Of course, there were no seat belts then, and the passengers were likely jostled about. No amount of tire spinning could move the car even an inch. In fact, the vehicle would be sitting flatly and firmly on its frame. I can imagine their anguish: “Where are we?”, “How can we get help?”, “How long will we be stranded?” (Remember – no cell phones then, and rural phone lines with big wooden wall-mounted crank telephones were unreliable and calling anywhere more than 10 miles away was “long-distance”, a tricky and time-consuming undertaking.)
Whatever anguish these lost city people might experience would be short-lived. They would soon see a farm tractor with big dual tires taller than their car on its way to their rescue. Just as my dad would do, I carefully explained the procedure – just leave your car in neutral, don’t try to steer etc. I then pointed out that I was not attaching a log chain to their car frame, but to a spring – a broken spring can be replaced; a bent frame cannot. After gently sliding the car out of what must have seemed quicksand to the city people, I unhooked the chain and helped plan a possible route to their destination.
The best part was, just like my dad, I refused to accept any type of compensation. There was no exchange of names and we knew we would never meet again, but it felt really, really good to take a break from my chores and put “Service Above Self”, just like my dad did when a neighbor – or a lost city person – needed help.