Quincy and I feel as though we have stepped into a new culture – a part of our country that we have only read about. It’s a culture molded by explorers, who paddled up the Mississippi and dug their hands and plows into the rich soil and made it their own. The muddy river continuously spills over its banks and floods the farmland. Folks here don’t move away. They dig their hands and plows back into the dirt. It is both the source and destination of lives. The soil is what connects people in Missouri. Think Lewis and Clark. Think Mark Twain. Think Harry Truman. Think the Wehde family.
Missouri has always been know for it’s friendly folks. Along with the deep roots of the farming culture comes a solid sense of family and community that I have never experienced.Yesterday we were pedaling through soaking rain, alone, not knowing anyone in the entire state. Tonight we are the honored guests of the Wehde family. The warmth and kindness here are so evident that we feel as though we would be welcome to move in for a month.
Around an outdoor dinner table, the kids watch us, listening to our bicycle stories as we cut into a dinner of the best ribs we’ve ever tasted. Tom’s wife, Sarah touches my shoulder, “Can I get you some more ribs?” An orange sun rakes over endless fields of green corn, then slowly sinks. Fireflies begin to twinkle over a perfect lawn. A neighbor turns off his riding lawn mower and walks over for a beer. Grandpa tells stories of playing baseball in the 1950’s. “Pitching back then was simple. All my catcher had to do was point his one finger down the middle.”
Grandma, famous for her Cherry pie, is proud of her 30 grandkids and 30 great grandkids. Her Christmas dinners often have 100 family members around the table. A lot of the extended family live close-by. Some live next door.
The dinner conversation bounces around to the need for more rain – to the price of various corps – to hunting and fishing. “If I could order up the rain, I’d ask for an inch every Sunday. Then I wouldn’t have to work the fields Monday. I farm because I love it.” Tom says. “When the planting season starts, I can do it all day long. When hunting season starts, I’ll hunt every day.”
The neighbor, Jesse, sipping on his beer, mixes in his thoughts about what farming means to him. “When I was 14, my father taught me how to plant. He was proud of his straight rows. So after a couple of hours he came to check on my progress only to find that my rows were crooked. Instead of getting mad, he just told me to make every row in the field straighter than the round before. Little did I know that was a life lessen I was always going to try to live by. Try to make every day better than the day before, keep your rows straight.”
The conversation often circles back to Great Great Grandpa, Captain Wehde who sailed from Germany then came up the Mississippi in 1840. This family has been farming here ever since.
If someone brings out their cell phone, they will likely show you photos of a huge catfish they hooked. The living room walls proudly show mounted trophies of past hunts: ducks, turkeys, deer. Family photos and paintings chronicle generations of family.
I ask about the gun culture here. Until now I didn’t understand why there were so many gun clubs, gun shops and shooting ranges. Fourteen year-old, Charlie turns to me and says, “When you talk about guns in Missouri, people’s first reaction is ‘hunting.'” Charlie’s younger sisters learned to hunt and shoot by the time they turned 8. It’s a skill that’s been handed down over the generations. The girls love being members of the local 4-H club. Every year they raise chickens and hogs to sell at auction. $1500 is a good price for a hog. The profit goes straight into their college fund. They are also skilled S’mores roasters. Natalie, the 4th Grader, stokes the small bonfire, and says, “Golden brown, golden brown, that’s how I like my marshmallows. Can I get you another one?”