There’s an old farmhouse on Road 4, Davenport, Nebraska. Like so many other old homesteads in Nebraska, it is worn out and inhabits a quiet air of the forgotten, days gone by. Not quite dilapidated and falling down, you can see it’s getting close. You probably wouldn’t give the place a second glance as you drive by on the gravel road. And yet, it’s the single most important house in my memory.
We Were Farmers
My momma’s dad, Quintin Rothrock, was a farmer in Davenport, and his dad before him and so on, back for more than a hundred years. The Rothrocks were farmers and pioneers long before they settled in Davenport. Philip Rothrock came to America from Germany in 1733. My direct ancestor, Eli Rothrock, and his family traveled to the fertile, undeveloped plains of Nebraska in a covered wagon in 1876. He bought 160 acres for $350 and built a home. The old farmhouse on Road 4 is the original Rothrock homestead, the house my mom and her siblings grew up in and my grandparents, and generations of Rothrocks, lived in.
Almost every year of my life, I’ve come to this farmhouse and to Davenport, Nebraska. I’ve been to Davenport more than any other place on this planet. Driving down those old familiar Nebraska roads always takes me back in time. My own memories are superimposed on visions of generations of Rothrocks throughout the years, driving horses, plows, and wagons, and then modern farm equipment and automobiles, on the very same roads.
A Nebraska Farm Village
In 2017, I traveled to Davenport for my grandma, Leah Rothrock’s, 99th birthday. Parking my car in the little downtown area, I got out and stood in the middle of the street. And could not hear a single thing. A few minutes later, a train rolled through town and broke the silence, then the quiet settled back in.
513 people lived in Davenport in 1890, its highest population ever. Now there are 293. At one point, the 0.65 square miles of Davenport had more…..a theater, a drug store, a couple of grocery stores, restaurants. The last grocery store closed a couple of years ago, the last restaurant around the same time. Folks travel to nearby towns to get groceries. Looking at the empty storefronts, I wondered what Davenport was like in its heyday, when it was really hopping (for a Nebraska farm town).
I was so happy to see that the local tavern had reopened under the name RW’s Dining & Drinks. RW’s is the happening place on a Friday night. There’s a beer garden and live music. Open mic, anyone? Davenport is so very clean and well-groomed. New murals adorn the brick buildings. This town is still loved. A strong sense of community endures.
Happy 99th, Grandma Rocky
Grandma Rothrock is an extraordinary woman, with a poetic, creative soul and a positive, upbeat outlook. She still lives in the Davenport house she and Grandpa Rothrock moved to around 1982, when Grandpa sold the farm due to poor health. Grandma Rocky’s memory is sharp as a tack, her wit makes you laugh out loud. Every time I visit her, we have the best conversations. I worry about her living by herself and am so glad my aunt and cousins live nearby. She has outlived Grandpa Rothrock by 28 years, outlived a son and a grandson. I’ve always had the feeling that this loving, beautiful woman does not easily share the pain of her losses.
Every year, my family has a big birthday party for grandma. This year, her party was the weekend before her birthday. I chose to come the day of her birthday, to quietly spend the day in close, intimate conversation with her, my aunt, Connie, and cousin, Madison. Two of Madison’s children were with us. Her little girl’s name is Leah, after Grandma Rocky. Five generations of Rothrocks were hanging out that day. At the suggestion of a dear friend, I got out my guitar and sang a song for grandma. It’s the first time I’ve ever played for her or anyone in my extended family. I sat right next to her and she watched me so closely while I played, looking right at me the entire time. When I finished and looked up, there were tears in her eyes. And she said, “I’ll never forget that you sang for me.”
Goodbyes are always poignant and bittersweet when I leave Grandma Rocky’s house, every single time. I drove out of the little village, intent on visiting the old places.
Pews of Memories
About 15 minutes away from Davenport, I pulled up to Bethel Church of the Brethren, literally out in the middle of a corn field in Carleton, Nebraska. Rothrocks helped build and were elders in this pretty country church. Generations of Rothrocks were married, baptized, and buried there. My parents were married there. My cousin, Kelly, and I were baptized there together. My dad’s tombstone is there.
Even though the church is usually unlocked, I hesitated to go in. As I stood in front of the church on the gravel road, Jack, the church custodian, pulled up. He invited me to go inside the church and take my time reminiscing and taking pictures. It was strange sitting in the pews alone and admiring the sunlight filtering through the stained glass, thinking of all the Rothrocks who had been inside of those walls.
The Old Places
I made my way to the old Rockrock farmhouse. I know exactly how to get there, without consciously thinking about it. Turning on to Road 4, even though Aunt Connie had warned me, I still was not prepared to see nothing but a sea of corn. My great grandparents, Elbert and Ollie Rothrock, built a home adjoining the original Rothrock homestead in 1908. I remember my great grandmother living in that house, and Connie and her family living there for a time. Elbert’s place is completely gone, leveled. It was a shock to turn that old, familiar corner and see nothing but corn where a family home stood for 109 years. Just like that, gone.
A heartbeat further down the road, I stopped in front of the Rothrock homestead, letting the memories come. This is where my cousins and I played each summer. We used to dash through the sprinklers in the front yard and climb around in the old red barn. There were trees to climb and fields to run in and tons of places to hide. The land around the house was beautiful with a gorgeous rose garden and grove of evergreen trees. The entire family gathered at the farm, cousins running around everywhere, for many a July 4th to barbecue and set off fireworks. I remember Aunt Virginia warning me not to set my hair on fire. I rode with my cousin, Danny, in the tractor through our grandfather’s fields of corn, wheat, and milo. My cousin, Kelly, and I raced down the gravel roads on 3-wheelers.
There was once a historical landmark in front of the house, for being in the Rothrock family more than 100 years. When Grandpa Rothrock sold the farm, the house and land passed out of the family. My mom and her siblings were not farmers, and as things do, time and the family moved on to other pursuits.
Thank You, Rothrocks
After I pulled away from the farmhouse that day, leaving Davenport yet again, I knew I wanted to write about the old homestead, the village, and my family memories. It’s taken me a couple of weeks to write this post, because there’s so much to say and words really don’t cover it.
It hurts my heart to see the years pass, to see my people pass, to see the old places disappear into the soil. I’m so grateful to the Rothrocks, my family, for a pioneering spirit, strong work ethic, and sense of adventure. Thank you, Rothrocks, for coming to this country and building a life here. Thank you for farming the land and building a community. You inspire me and this post is in remembrance, in honor, of you.
We may no longer be farmers and no longer own the old Rothrock land, but someone owns it and is still producing crops there. I like to imagine that the people who are now farming the Rothrock land will someday pass it down to the next generation, as is the Nebraska tradition.
Still, I am haunted by gravel backroads and ghosts of all the times and people gone by.
Grandma Rocky Says It Best
I mentioned that my grandmother has a poetic soul. While working on this post, I found a book of poetry titled “Generations” that my grandmother published in 1980, with this poem.
Thoughts On An Old House
by Leah Young Rothrock
This house deserted? Oh, no!
Through sagging doors and empty windows
Flow the winds of all the seasons,
And on their tide,
Come ghosts of all of those who lived
Some portions of their lives
Inside of these aging walls.
I read some where
We leave an essence of our being
In every place we have called home;
If this is so,
Why not believe that some part of us,
Something beyond the reach of reason,
Returns again and yet again
To drift through loved familiar rooms,
Which, when bathed in moonlight,
Take on the dressings known
To the formless visitor?
Cobwebs become lace curtains,
A gleaming chandelier;
Shadows form the furniture,
Floor boards creak,
A rustle, as from a silken gown,
Sighs down the stairs; mementoes from
Another time appear.
Shrouded in shadows,
The old house rests and waits,
Filled with soundless echoes of the past;
And the winds of all the seasons
Usher through the broken gates
The wandering ghosts of all its yesterdays.
An old house never dies.