The area seemed like a magical place to me, and I learned all I could about it. I'd discovered that General Ulysses S. Grant had cut logs on this land for his house, which still stands at Grant's Farm.
I learned that the same forest helped families survive the Depression, and that the area had long been used for nature study. The Missouri Department of Conservation bought the property in 1990 and named it Forest 44 Conservation Area. I was happy it had become public land because it meant that, in a way, I own it.
On a warm fall day, my dad took me to the forest and started talking about the past. He showed me the driveway to the house. I imagined my great-grandpa William riding his horse up to the house past the scattering chickens while his lovely wife, Anna, cooked dinner in the summer kitchen.
I wondered what it had been like as a child growing up in the 1920s. They had no running water, no electricity and no indoor plumbing. Their kids had to get up early to feed the chickens, cows and pigs and to milk the dairy cows. Then, they followed paths over the hills and valleys to Rankin School.
In the evenings, they sat in the flickering light of kerosene lanterns. They might have listened to the few programs that the battery-operated radio could receive. Soda, ice cream and other treats were rare.
Great-grandma Anna stood less than five feet tall and was stocky. She wore glasses and kept her hair in a shingle, a style of the time. She was mother to 11 children-eight boys and three girls. Only one of the girls lived past the age of one.
Anna rose before dawn every day to make eggs and pancakes for her family. On Saturdays, she baked bread and rolls. After breakfast, she worked in her flower and vegetable gardens until it was time to cook again.
They picked up their perishables on a weekly trip to Valley Park and went shopping once a month for bigger stuff. Anna's grocery list included things like 50 pounds of flour, 25 pounds of sugar and a "mess of coffee." They used 50-pound blocks of ice for refrigeration.
To wash their clothes, they brought water in from the cistern and heated it on a stove in a wash boiler. They hung the laundry outside to dry. It didn't matter if it was hot, cold or snowy. In winter, the clothes would freeze dry.
Great-grandpa William was 6 feet 2 inches tall and weighed more than 200 pounds. He was a farmer. He planted wheat, corn and, sometimes, oats and soybeans. All the planting was done by horse-drawn machines. He harvested the corn by hand and cut the wheat with a binder. He threshed the wheat with a steam traction engine and separator. In autumn, he butchered hogs and made sausage.
William and the boys hunted and trapped. Rabbits, turkey and deer weren't as plentiful as they are today, but foxes, raccoons and opossums were abundant and easily trapped. A pelt buyer would come to town to buy fur.
By most accounts, their life was a struggle. Their daughter, Doris, once told me she only had one dress that was good enough for church.
"We were poor, but we didn't know it," she said.
As we walked, my dad pointed out Bone Hollow. In the early 1930s, he said, mule or horse teams transported dead animals from miles around to this little valley, which became a popular hangout for coyotes and vultures.
Dad told me that cattle grazed throughout the forest, and we found the spring where they drank. Just as it did back then, the spring flowed for a bit then disappeared into the ground. It was a sinking creek.
When we left Forest 44 Conservation Area, a pair of hikers gave us their map of the area. When I opened the folded page. I found a drawing of myself in the brochure. It had been based on an old Conservation Department photo in which I had appeared.
"How eerie!" I thought at first, but the coincidence helped me understand that I have deeper roots in this place than I ever had imagined. I was already looking forward to my next visit.
Forest 44 Conservation Area is your forest, too. Even if your roots are elsewhere, you can start a history by coming here with friends or family.
As you hike through the forested hills and pass refreshing springs and streams, you can't help but feel renewed and connected
Forest 44 Conservation Area is the first big chunk of greenery one sees when leaving St. Louis on Interstate 44. Relicts remain in the hardwood forest to remind us of a time when people scraped a living from this land
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