Folks driving north out of Stratford have two paved options.
Driving on a county road leaving town on the east side will take you over the Boone River toward the tiny hamlet of Homer. Leaving town on the west county road you’ll travel basically northwest and eventually reach a point just north of Dayton.
The road to Dayton first crosses the Des Moines River only a mile or so northwest of Stratford. After crossing the river, the highway suddenly makes a sharp turn to the right. At that corner, a gravel road adjoins the pavement and leads drivers in a winding, westerly direction.
About two miles down that gravel road, an old farmhouse sits on the north side. On a recent weekend drive, I found myself on that road, stopping near the farm’s driveway. My wife asked the reason I’d stopped and I told her of the many Sunday afternoons spent in the house and the many excursions into the wooded hills around the house and the various farm out-buildings.
It was there that my great uncle Fred Fry lived with his wife, Elsie, Elsie’s twin sister, Elva Bilyard and two more Bilyard “girls,” Hattie and Clara, the latter confined to a wheelchair, the result of a childhood accident. My grandmother Haglund was another of the Bilyard sisters, Stella, who’d met and married my grandfather not long after he’d arrived from Sweden in 1901. Those of us in the family always, upon visiting the Fry residence, said we were visiting “Fred and the girls.”
A cousin, about my age, and I explored the woods and hills around the farm on many occasions, finding areas we imagined had been camping grounds for native Americans who’d lived in and hunted in those same woods more than 100 years earlier, about the same time Iowa gained statehood. We never did find any relics, although many were found in the area around the Des Moines River.
On one Sunday afternoon hike into the woods, up a hill perhaps 75 yards from the farmhouse we made a discovery that brought many questions for our parents. By the time we found the site, it was obvious what was there had been there for a long, long time, perhaps before America had entered World War I in 1917.
A rusty old tractor, its engine long since idled and obviously “frozen,” sat in a clearing next to what had once obviously been a sawmill. A big circular saw blade still protruded from a walnut log. It was obvious the saw had simply stopped turning after only about four feet of cutting lengthwise into the log. The leather belt that had once been attached to the tractor’s flywheel and a wheel on the saw blade lay broken on the ground.
It was pretty obvious that leather belt lay on the ground just as it had on the day it came apart and the saw blade stopped in the middle of a cut.
My mother said that my great uncle Fred and my grandpa Haglund had operated the sawmill, but that it had been years and years since it had actually been used.
That was very obvious. Not only was the leather belt partially covered by soil, but the huge tractor wheels with steel lugs were also partially buried in the soil. Rust covered the saw blade and the big old tractor, perhaps a 1915 Avery gasoline powered machine.
My 13-year-old mind could only imagine my grandfather and great uncle dragging cut trees through the woods behind horses, then somehow hoisting the large trunks onto the moveable sawmill bed and cutting lengths of rough-sawn lumber. I imagined the two loading the cut lumber onto old wagons, hitching up horses and delivering the lumber for sale to nearby Stratford or Dayton or Lehigh.
Sixty years have not diminished my mind’s image of the rusty monstrosity lying unused in a clearing on a wooded hillside near Stratford.
On the recent Sunday drive with my wife, I paused at the driveway. I thought about driving in and asking the folks who lived there if the old tractor and sawmill were still there. I imagined it was. I don’t know who might bring in the heavy equipment to move it and it was certainly not in the way of any current operations on the farm.
No, I imagined it was still there and I thought about asking if I could walk up there just one more time and take a look. But, I thought it was a bad idea. There was no way of knowing if it was still there and what shape the wreckage might be in after another 60 years of winter, 60 years of rain and wind and hot summers.
If it had been removed, I didn’t want to know. If it was still there, I wanted to remember it just the way it was when I was 13 back in the 1950s.
Memories, I think, are sometimes more real than reality.