“SO FAR AS I know about History, there never was a time in which I would rather live than right now, and who knows what great change the next ten years may bring.” —Rachel Elizabeth Divelbiss Johnson, 1928
EVERYWHERE WE WALK has layers. Whether we know it or not, our footsteps fall in the present, trace the past and create the future simultaneously. But some places combine these layers seamlessly, revealing a hidden past, breathtaking present-day beauty and a future of conservation. Most of us can see the modern progress of construction cranes and skyscrapers, but that’s only the top layer. These special spots make their past, present and future use evident by the presence of graves, restored buildings or old ruins in the woods next to educational signage. One such place is the Historic Johnson Farm, 5 miles south of Fayetteville off Cato Springs Road, close enough to downtown to walk if you were a pioneer with a couple of hours to spare.
Walking here was a form of transportation for those pioneers, but a form of meditation for me. A collective amnesia descended upon society, obliterating the story of this single farm that was once an entire pioneer community. On a walk around the farm not so long ago, I realized that I was possibly the only living person who could stroll among secrets in this place. Hundred-year-old diaries and trees alike were once saved because they were forgotten, untouched by human hands; now, the longevity of their memories depends on preservation. I live here in an off-grid tiny house with all the ghosts of pioneers past and a spirit of the future, full of hope for preservation.
It gets a little crowded, but we like it.
MY HUSBAND, RYAN, and I moved to the Historic Johnson Farm in 2015 at the invitation of our friend Anne Prichard, nee Johnson, whose family has been synonymous with this land for four generations. An archivist and nature lover, Anne placed a conservation easement on the farm through the Northwest Arkansas Land Trust, then empowered me to research the hidden history in the archives of her family home and to conserve the farm’s native ecosystems. I divide my time between wild spaces and dusty stacks of documents.
That conservation goal is part of a project called Ripples that Ryan and I created in 2011 to challenge ourselves to make a difference through our lifestyle. Rather than volunteer an hour on a Saturday, we like to think that every day can make a positive impact (or ripples). At least we can try. Like Anne says, “If we don’t do it, who will?”
In many ways, Anne echoes her grandmother Rachel Johnson. All my days spent reading Rachel’s letters have forged an unexpected bond with her. She was a school teacher and mother, and even though I was never her pupil or relation, she teaches and nurtures me through her written voice. Through her hundreds of letters, she illustrates global changes at a personal level, as well as recording the neighborhood events, which is extremely useful when you’re researching a forgotten pioneer community. It’s also striking that this nonfamous white woman born in 1860 would write about the need for racial equality, world peace, education, religious tolerance, female equality, appreciation for nature, world travel and more. Nobody ever named a mountain after her or erected a monument like they did for so many male pioneers from the community, but perhaps she’s more deserving—a hidden gem of Arkansas, like the Johnson Farm, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in May 2019.
I write this while sitting in the Johnson farmhouse at a round dining-room table directly below a hand-painted oil lamp converted into an electric chandelier, surrounded by stacks of old letters written in cursive, with my naturalist gear shoved into a Patagonia backpack on the chair next to me. A cozy, old-book smell permeates the air. I’ve just removed a lasagna dinner from a microwave stacked between two wooden crates that once belonged to Rachel’s husband, owner of the B.F. Johnson general store (the family swapped the Everton, Missouri, store for this farm, even-steven, on Thanksgiving 1908). Now here I am, with my earbuds in, listening to Enya’s “Only Time” and wondering what Rachel would want me to tell you.
We’re right in the middle of things that happened and things that are about to happen.
RACHEL’S WORDS ARE are haunting, not like a ghost but like the memory of a beloved book written long ago with a message for the modern era. She narrates my daily walk so that mundane tasks like checking the mail become extraordinary trips through layers of time.
The gravel road to the mailbox was once a trail forged by mammoths and mastodons, followed by buffalo and native hunters from many tribes, a path morphed into a road traveled by European settlers in wagons headed for the one-room schoolhouse that doubled as Rieff’s Chapel. Over decades, that community dried up and became the Historic Johnson Farm. Now that the traffic of human progress has quieted down in this protected place, the road is used by rough green snakes posing as new twigs, box turtles creating the next generation and countless other pawed, winged and scaled creatures. All our paths are layered.
While tracing the past on one of these walks to the mailbox, I discovered I was also following in the footsteps of a bobcat. Encountering a bobcat with nothing but air between you makes a person reflect on our fragile mortality and the rarity of such a sighting. The bobcat’s life, like Rachel’s voice, is worth protecting. Future generations will need roots and wings, just as we do today. Rachel tried to peer ahead into this future, and I look behind to her time. The result is something like making eye contact in a time-traveling conversation.
My new mailbox is mounted next to the farmhouse’s old one that once contained Rachel’s fresh letters we now call historic. I ponder her words with a smile as I recall how she mailed entire cakes to her daughters on their birthdays (and a whole roast chicken, too, which molded, much to her disappointment). Time is layered like a cake with secret ingredients. Often, Rachel reveals these ingredients to us in her letters. She wrote about Fayetteville becoming filled with “autos” parked on the square and saw the city grow up while standing at her mailbox, just as we can today.
If you stand near the mailboxes and look north through the valleys, Fayetteville fills the horizon. Construction cranes made high-rises appear where once there was mountainside. A photo from Rachel’s time shows only trees in that direction. “You could stand here and think of the sweep of history,” Anne said in a 2018 video created by the land trust. “So many places are paved over; you can’t pave everything. The animals that live here, who knows how long they’ve been here, and as the city is built up—and it will be built up—the animals need a place to go.”
Past the mailbox, the road curves right and becomes Rieff’s Chapel Road. Stone walls fragmented into sections on both sides of this road hold many mysteries that were everyday facts to Rachel. The wall is a wildlife apartment building. On warm days, chipmunks chatter their warning calls, and rainbow five-lined skinks bask in the sun on mossy rocks. It’s an ecosystem inside an antique.
The road becomes two parallel paths where car tires hug the strip of grass in the middle. Gravel crunches underfoot where once there was only mud for the wagons that hauled barrels of pears from the farm. Rachel and her family wrote about how the mud was so bad in rainy weather that they were homebound, as though in deep snow. In the forest along the road, a tree grows right up through the center of a wagon-wheel rim. Another mystery.
At a break in the rock wall above the farmhouse, there was once a wooden gate. Surely Rachel walked through this gate and directly down to the front porch, but today, it’s just a gap with a missing tooth. Beyond it, the road splits into three, leading to a cemetery, a chapel foundation and the farmhouse. This trinity of roads encompassed Rachel’s whole world, her family life and her faith.
If we were to climb the hill to the 1840s Rieff’s Chapel Cemetery, we would not find Rachel’s grave. She and her husband, Benjamin Franklin Johnson II, chose to be buried in Fayetteville’s Evergreen Cemetery, despite living so close to Rieff’s. Their reason? It looked too overgrown during their time, and they were skeptical about whether the future would care about the past. If she could see it today, she might change her mind. The rock wall border is rebuilt periodically, the grass is regularly mowed, and the cemetery now has attractive informational signage for visitors.
In a cozy corner of graves, there’s a nest box from Anne. One of my favorite responsibilities as a volunteer naturalist is to count the eggs and birds and make sure all the nest boxes at the farm are maintained. In summer, bluebirds flit in and out of the hole, busily feeding the next generation—new life in a place of death. After the death of her husband in 1932, Rachel wrote to her grieving daughter, Lenora: “There are many good things in this world if we will only take time to admire and enjoy them. Let us not be afraid of the dark, but be thankful for the light.”
Turning left at the bottom of the cemetery hill leads to the stone ruins of Rieff’s Chapel. At first, the private road may seem like a jungle of invasive bush honeysuckle, impenetrable, unwelcoming. But walk farther in, and the road opens up and slopes gently downhill. The rock wall follows along, the ground a carpet of leaves. Rachel attended services at Rieff’s Chapel and had much to say on religion. On June 13, 1914, she wrote, “It is really a pity that the best things from the different beliefs could not be molded into a perfect faith and that all could be so instructed as to bring out the best that is in them.”
In her letters, she describes each school and church event over the years. You can almost smell the scent of pine filling the tiny schoolroom from a Christmas tree covered in presents and sacks of candy. Coming from a family of orchardists, Rachel would say the Christmas tree “bore its annual crop of fruit.” She described pie suppers, picnics and graduations, such as this one in 1923: “Nearly the whole neighborhood was there. They had quite a nice dinner, which all enjoyed. The room was decorated in purple and orange crepe paper and looked quite pretty. The pupils gave a short program of recitations, songs and drills, which they carried out quite well for such a few. The Swartz family was there and rendered some string music.”
Today, though, the building is gone and replaced by a roomful of trees.
Eventually, all of Rachel’s children traveled the country and the world extensively, despite their humble beginnings, and they all worked in one way or another to maintain the farm, regardless of their successes and travels. Rachel mused upon her daughters’ 1928 round-the-world trip when she wrote this on May 23, 1929: “Do you suppose the old mother bird has any idea of the places her young ones will go when they become fully fledged and able to fend for themselves? Well in this day of rapid and easy travel, it is no wonder people go to far places. If it was by the slow and tiresome ways of the pioneers, it would be more of an adventure to go a hundred miles than it now is to cross the continent.”
It’s hard to imagine, with the forest so grown up, that Rachel could stand at the farmhouse looking north and actually see the schoolhouse as her children walked home. The first pioneers cleared the trees; today’s pioneers protect them.
TOWARD THE END of her life, Rachel was photographed in my favorite spot at the farm: the pergola, a grass walkway bordered by square stone pillars crisscrossed at the top by a canopy of wooden branches and wisteria vines covered in lavender blossoms. Grandfather Walnut, an almost-champion tree, looms like a giant overhead. His branches twist down almost to the ground at the end of the pergola near two stone benches. Rachel sits upon the left stone bench, knees together and face drawn, like there’s a lot on her mind and she’s not exactly happy.
East of the pergola, the path dips into a holler where a springhouse is tucked away, nearly hidden. It’s an enchanted, mossy place enjoyed by cottonmouth snakes and maybe fairies. Across a stream full of Blanchard’s cricket frogs that jump everywhere one steps, there’s a hill along a row of black locusts that droop with white wisterialike blooms every spring. Their candy fragrance is overwhelming.
The hillside is the location of the first known pioneer structure built by Europeans on this farm, but I can’t be certain of the exact spot. Locals claim you can only see the outline of the foundation in melting snow. Snow is a rare phenomenon 100 years after winters brought snow heavy enough to inspire homebound teenagers to throw quilting parties to disguise their dating life. If only Rachel could tell me where the chimney used to stand erect in this field, but she remains silent.
Farther up the hill, just a few hundred feet from the original cabin site, is the modern cabin I call home.
Like the pioneer cabins, ours is rectangular, off-grid and made of wood. That’s about where the similarities end. Our 336-square-foot tiny house sits on a trailer, the wheels off the ground and covered in white protective bags. It looks like the cabin is floating on puffy marshmallows.
A birder friend calls me a pioneer woman because we are pioneering a more sustainable way of life. He often cheers us on through setbacks by reminding us that the pioneers endured many hardships. I guess we are a bit like modern pioneers. But instead of conquering the wilderness, we’re trying to save it.
We harness our daily lifestyle to that environmental goal. Our electricity comes from solar energy. Our house gets water from the rain that fills a 550-gallon cistern. Because we live in a rainy climate, we rarely worry about running out of water. The indoor water pump, however, is such a character that we’ve nicknamed it Bowser after the villain from the world of Super Mario Brothers, himself named after the inventor of the first fuel pump. Whenever we run the tap, the pump makes a type of Bowser roar that is loud enough to wake sleepers and interrupt conversations. Bowser is also the name of Rachel’s family’s pet dog, coincidentally.
The aroma of pine welcomes anyone who enters our cabin. There’s a bright, spacious kitchen along one wall, and a wooden table in one corner where I draw plants and animals. Two benches conceal the solar power system’s batteries and provide seating room at the table. A padded window seat is across from bookshelves and a screen where we watch movies. Rachel enjoyed silent films like Ben-Hur (1925) and was impressed by how realistic it looked; can you imagine her reaction to cinemas of today? Our bathroom features a Separett composting toilet that isn’t always a darling, but Rachel was accustomed to outhouses, so I’m grateful ours is indoors.
Wooden storage stairs rise up into our cozy bed loft. A tiny door next to the bed leads out onto our balcony. Sometimes it feels like I’m hovering over the world. Fields and hills nuzzle up to each other from one end of the horizon to the other. Dragonflies dash across a sea of sunset-colored grasses, followed by the dance of fireflies at twilight. Looking out from the balcony over Rachel’s stomping grounds where I often walk, it’s easy to see remnants of the past, but the future is more of a mystery. What will I tell the person who is next going to love this place enough to protect it? Will they walk with Rachel, too?
“Rachel would be pleased if she could see this, don’t you think?” Anne often says.
Yes, I think she would.
A writer, artist and naturalist, Amanda Bancroft lives with her husband at the Historic Johnson Farm in an off-grid tiny house. For more of her work, visit ripplesblog.org.