Crab Orchard, Nebraska, today is a village of 38 people. A paved road branches off from Highway 50, passes through the village, and continues eventually to the Johnson County courthouse, churches, and stores in Tecumseh, Nebraska. A bridge crosses the north fork of the Little Nemaha River which drains into the Nemaha River and finally into the Missouri River. Along both sides of the road through Crab Orchard are tilted buildings with broken windows, weedy empty lots, a few bungalows, some house trailers, and the outlines of foundations bereft of once proud structures. The most substantial buildings today are the old Richardson gas station, the U.S. Post Office, and a two-story bungalow on a hill overlooking the post office.
At one time Crab Orchard had five churches, the first school in Johnson County, and a rail line. One of those churches was the Methodist Church where in the thirties my grandmother taught Sunday School, where my parents met as teenagers, and where many of my mother’s relatives were baptized and married. Demolished in 1987, the Methodist church was the last church to stand in Crab Orchard.
In the 1950’s this same road through Crab Orchard was gravel. I remember a general store, a hardware and farm supply store, an ice cream shop, a bank, two gas stations, the post office, two churches, a number of well kept bungalows, and an abandoned two-story brick high school.
“Do you know where you are going?” my husband asked last summer as I drove through Crab Orchard on my way past what was once my grandparents’ farm.
From San Francisco, cross the Oakland Bay Bridge, drive through Donner Pass in the Sierras — listen to Dad’s tales of the starving Donner party — skirt Reno and cross the dry desert to Winnemucca, Nevada — stay overnight at a motel with a swimming pool — cross the Salt Lake desert — question Dad about Mormons and polygamy — climb into the Rockies, stop at Steamboat Springs for hamburgers and cokes, wind through the Snowy Range near Medicine Bow — quiz Dad about the Oregon Trail — drop to the plains — read Burma Shave signs — cruise along rail lines through Rawlings, cross into Nebraska, veer southeast toward Beatrice along gravel roads with the setting sun at your back, cross the Nemaha River, poke along through four blocks of Crab Orchard, turn south at the rutted dirt road to Lewiston, pass three sections, and turn into the long lane to the white farm house with the screened-in front porch when you see the red barn, the mowed yard, the red tractor shed, the work shed, and the chicken house.
My mother, Helen Jeffery Collins, grew up near Crab Orchard on a farm with her one brother and three sisters. Mom always said she never wanted to live on a farm again –ever! We lived south of San Francisco with every convenience: a phone on a private line, running water from hot and cold spigots, showers, flush toilets, electricity, and forced air heat. We walked to a neighborhood school with a classroom for every elementary grade level, a library, an auditorium, and a cafeteria.
Despite my mother’s aversion to farm life, she waited eagerly for letters from her Nebraska family. Summer’s joy was complete when Mom and Dad would pack us into the car for a vacation at the farm. Singing and laughing with uncharacteristic liberty, my mother, a reflective and reticent woman, visibly glowed as we drew near Crab Orchard.
Today an oil painting of the farm hangs in my study, a reminder of many escapades and explorations. My brother Gary once lured my brother Burt and me to the top of the windmill where, frozen with fear, we yelled in vain to be rescued. Against all rules, we repeatedly chased sows into a cedar grove until Grandpa discovered us and herded us into the house for a lecture about irritated sows and vulnerable piglets. Hidden among cedar and oak trees lay abandoned, rusty farm equipment, where we invented wild adventures with happy endings.
Our arrival inspired Sunday family picnics on the front lawn and softball games. I learned to milk a cow, pluck chickens, and haul water. My brothers and I searched for litters of kittens in the hay loft and played hide and seek in fields of tall corn. If properly bribed, we would gather eggs from feisty hens. Once we even attended the nearby one room school house with our cousins.
Running water was primitive. A cistern stored water for cooking and bathing. In the kitchen on the counter, a dipper hung on the edge of an enamel bucket. Everyone drank from the common dipper. When the level in the bucket was low, my grandmother would send me to fetch more water from the well in the front yard.
Honeysuckle sweetened the air. Blue morning glories hung on the fence. The windmill’s rusty squeaks mixed with clucking chickens and bawling calves. I’d raise and lower the pump handle, feel its pressure, and listen for the rhythmic rush of rising water until — swoosh — cool water filled the bucket half-way, a proper child’s portion of a bucket’s burden.
Grandma’s kitchen smelled of fresh bread, cherry pies, fried chicken, and corn pudding. Grandpa’s pungent work shed smelled of hot coals, heated iron, grease, and horse manure. The night air buzzed with insects and tree frogs while we slept on cots on the screened front porch, a summer farm’s version of air conditioning.
It was a sweet and wondrous place for city kids and a terrible responsibility for the adults — this farm, homesteaded in the 1890’s and virtually abandoned to nature today, the barn still standing as sturdy as ever but all else dissolving slowly into dust.
Yes, I can drive to the farm, from anywhere, from San Francisco, from Omaha, or from Bowling Green where I live today in modern comfort. But I wouldn’t want to stop at the old Jeffery farm along the Lewiston to Crab road, not today — because the place vibrates in memory. It’s not possible to purchase back what once was.