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Sometimes I get the urge to just get in the car and take a slow, casual ride through farm country. No destination in mind, no set time schedule and traveling only on quiet country roads.  

Sunday seemed like the perfect day for a rural ride, so I headed toward the Cambridge area for a quick look at the tobacco crop a’growing in the few remaining fields of the once popular crop. Why a look at the tobacco fields? Because I was raised in tobacco at our farm near Stoughton — in those days most farms had at least a few acres to supplement their milk income — and I still remember those days so well.

The few tobacco fields I saw looked good with harvest still a few weeks away. Certainly the tobacco sheds were ready, having been empty since last December when the 2017 crop was stripped and hauled off to a warehouse.

Everything is deep green in color in this part of the state and I’ll admit I’d never noticed the many trees that remain on the fence lines, around farmsteads and in woods areas. Picturesque and calming even though it’s a very intensively farmed area. 

Beans and corn

I don’t know the crop figures for this part of the state but we passed field after field of soybeans — tall and lush soybeans — and what seemed to be many fewer acres of corn than usual. The corn also looked tall, very tall, as it should given that this is one of the richest soil areas in the state. 

Empty barns

The majority of the barns on the rural roads in southern Dane county (and across the state) are long empty of cows. I sometimes try  to get a close-up look at the farmstead and imagine where the children grew up milking cows by hand 50, maybe 100 years ago and their children with the new milking machine and finally the auction when milking and much of the farming ceased and the land was sold to a neighbor.  

Some of the vacant barns are well maintained with new metal roofs and fresh paint, I suspect longtime owners still live there and cannot bear seeing their buildings deteriorate.  Meanwhile many of the empty barns are showing the effects of weather, neglect and age and are struggling to stay upright. 

Sort of sad, but... 

No paint but long life

I passed a good many tobacco sheds (this was the heart of tobacco country), some standing alone and lonesome on former farmsteads waiting for someone to rent them this coming season. That’s something that has become common with  bigger tobacco acreage on fewer farms making for a demand for shed room.  It’s easy to identify a tobacco shed — that’s the  building that never saw a coat of paint and is built of boards running up and down the high sidewalls and showing big cracks between the boards.  

For some reason, the old tobacco sheds seem to outlast many other buildings and I’ve always wondered why.  Most were built in a flimsy manner without foundations and are supported by old, long and tall tree trunks balanced on a rock. I remember we straightened the tobacco shed ever year or two at home by adding more rocks to the base of the uprights. Crude, but it worked.

A big herd of Angus (black and red) in a field close to the road was worth a stop and a few photos. The big red cow licking her black calf was a worthwhile sight. Beef herds of this size are not common in this area — I’ll have to return one day and get the story.

Four tractors

The four red tractors lined up along side of a shed east of Utica caused me to slow down, back up and take a closer look. Such a lineup of tractors must be there for a special reason — probably an interesting one, I reasoned.

So I pulled into the driveway and rang the doorbell.  No response until I was about to drive away when the door opened and a women looked out with obvious wonder on her face.  After introducing myself and explaining my interest in the tractors she smiled and said, “I’ll show them to you.”

“My name is Lucy Nottestad, I’m 95 years old and my son Ron owns them,” she began. “They are stored in the garage/workshop and he takes then out once a year for the tractor pull at the Utica Festival and that was yesterday.  The Festival is also running today but they are running the truck pulling now. You ought to go over and watch.”

After taking a few photos and telling Lucy about this column in the State Farmer, she asked how she could see the photos as she wasn’t a subscriber any more. I asked if she had a computer, guessing that a 95 year old most likely didn’t.

“Yes I have a computer and I’m on it all the time,” Lucy responded with enthusiasm, “give me the web site and I’ll look for it.”

As we were walking back to the house, Lucy said how happy she was that I stopped and hoped I would come and visit again. “Now, you must go to the Utica Festival,” she said. “Go west a mile or so just under the interstate and turn left. The road is closed but we nudged the barricades a little and you can get through.”

I followed her directions and stopped at Utica — crossroad marked by an auto repair shop, a tavern and the long empty and now decaying Utica General Store and that’s all.

A crowd of thousands

But the highway leading past the Utica ballpark/festival grounds a half mile down the road was jammed with parked cars. I’d never attended the Utica Festival before and was surprised to see the crowds of people and cars parked on a mile stretch of road and in all the farm fields. What a crowd!

After finding a temporary parking spot I walked around a bit: considered a cream puff from the Stoughton FFA Alumni trailer (but passed) and watched the truck pull for a bit.

Eardrum shattering noise emanated from the pulling track as pickups took their turn pulling the truck mounted “Eliminator,” but I’d guess noise and roaring engines are what the sport is all about.  

Albion and history

On leaving the festival I headed toward Albion another no-businesses, but historically famed village. Once known for its former Albion Academy (now a museum)  which in the mid-1800s was the largest and most influential college in Wisconsin and the first coeducational academy in the state.

Leaving Albion heading toward Edgerton you pass a long vacant building that was formerly a milk processing plant. I found some milk receipts in a box of my dads records that shows we (the Onckens) once sold our milk to that plant, probably in the 1940s.  I couldn’t find any history of the plant on the internet.

I’d guess many golfers wonder why there is a concrete silo next to a green at the Coachman golf course at the junction of I-39 and Highway 51. The silo is the last remnant of the Louie Stokstad dairy farm, once famed because he would have the barn lights on as he milked at 10 or 11 p.m. We all laughed, but he was just 50 years ahead of the times.

A casual ride through the country is refreshing and most interesting if you go slow, look closely and ask questions of strangers. Try it!

John Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications. He can be reached at 608-572-0747, or email him at jfodairy2@gmail.com.

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