A photo of the “Bluffs” taken January, 1937. The hills are visible and without trees. (From the Ohrt family photo album)

By Beverly Clinkingbeard, Westboro, Mo.

It all began with Paul Ohrt remarking, “When I was a kid the bluffs weren’t covered in trees as they are now, but it was grass, tall grass. A few trees, but cattle grazed the hills and I used to ride a horse across those grassy hills. Couldn’t do that today. The trees are too thick.” (Officially the Bluffs are known as Loess Hills, a sediment of dirt mounds along the Missouri River and found nowhere else in the USA, but like hills are in China.)
So when was Paul a kid? He was a home birth in 1934 at the bottom of a bluff with a Watson, Missouri, address, to J.W. and Anna Ohrt. He had a brother, John Henry, and a sister, Alma. He graduated from Rock Port High School, served in the U.S. Air Force, married Mary Ann Nelson, and is the father of Larry, Paula, and Jeannie (deceased). Paul has done what he wanted to do as a lad – farm. Together, Paul and Mary Ann have survived the good and ill winds of life and fortune, and Paul shakes his head at the demise of the small farmer and changes of landscape in our nation and Atchison County.
As we rode along, Paul pointed out farm sites where folks once lived. There may be a lasting vestige of a foundation of a home or a well casing in the tall corn or beans, but for the most part, they remain hidden. At the former home sites Paul remembered their families and a bit about them.
“Those folks had a little dairy.”
“Over there was a big old tree.”
“A blind lady lived in a little house there. They’d strung a rope from the back door to the outhouse for her.”
“Many a winter I helped push our car up that steep hill ’cause it was slick. Couldn’t get a run for the hill because of the corner.”
And at the Ohrt home place, “We had a spring that supplied us with water. It came from up there on the bluff. Dad had it fixed to flow into a tank and from there to another tank to water the hogs, and onto the chicken house. We’d take big chunks of ice out of the tank and put it in the ice house. We had ice all summer to use for making ice cream. Had a lot [corral] there. That was where John Stock stayed.” (John Stock was a bull, who must have been held in high regard…his photo is in the family album too.)
We stopped at High Creek Baptist Church, another reminder of how a community lived and worshiped together. It is well maintained as is the cemetery that climbs the bluff behind it. The High Creek Baptist Church has retained its original pews and simplicity. One can imagine the ladies wearing hats and their long skirts rustling as they moved down the aisle. A sign indicates the church stopped having services in 1967, and a bit short of 50 years since closing, there is every indication that the church is still lovingly cared for.
“Our school, High Creek,” Paul continued, “was to the south of the church. A one-room country school. The parsonage was near that oak tree, south of the church, where the cattle are now. Electricity came through in 1941 and I’d tie my horse, Dick, to the light pole. He wasn’t anything fancy, just a good natured work horse. Our school house was small so all our programs were held in the church. They’d have big picnics and set up the tables for the food out here on the north side under the tree. We went to things at High Creek Church even though we were Lutheran and drove to Rock Port for church. We were all neighbors and we worked together.”
Paul drove into a corn field on a grassy right-of-way. “This used to be where the Nishnabotna [River] was,” he said. The levee over there protects this [crops].” The Nishnabotna River was shortened by 23 miles, meaning a new waterway was made for the river to empty into the Missouri River. This opened up many acres of farm land, and was thought to put an end to the flooding of the river. The downside was the river still flooded on high water occasions and the shortened route increased the speed of the river’s flow, causing the erosion of big chunks of farm land. Iowa DNR, at the urging of those who were losing land to a hungry river, approved a ‘fix’, such as what Porter’s Lake – the roller skating rink north of Shenandoah – has made in an effort to protect their levee and building.
I-29 made lasting changes to the Loess Hills, too. Paul continued, “The highway builders needed dirt and wanted to take the dirt out of that hill for the interstate highway, but Dad told them of three little children buried in unmarked graves, so they took down that other bluff. It was the tallest of all the bluffs and of course, it’s nothing now.”
“Do you know anything about the little children buried up there?” Paul shook his head, “No. We just always knew they were there and had to respect that area.” It is now covered in trees.
Indeed, Paul inadvertently addressed the changing forces to the Loess Hills. Many of the hills have been trimmed and terraced to safely accommodate farm equipment, or methodically sectioned and removed to supply dirt for other areas and reasons, such as, building I-29, or, the building of a home, or… “You drive to Omaha,” Paul said, “and it’s trees all the way, and it didn’t used to be that way. “
Are the changes a result of different farming methods? There are fewer cattle grazing, more land has submitted to the plow, there is a lack of manual labor (spraying versus cutting weeds and small trees), drainage of the land by deepening ditches, terracing, etc., and also left to question is, did the Civilian Conservation Corp [CCC] contribute to the changes, and if so, how? More later…