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Thursday, January 27, 2011

Some Idle Chit Chat About the Valley…

Qualco Energy

Uptown today I bumped into Rich Cabe, an old Valley neighbor before he decided to move to higher ground. Years ago Rich lived in the Steve Werkhoven home on the Lower Loop Road. The first words out his mouth were: “There’s more to the story.” The story? Rich means the Giving Tree tale (see post January 18). When I sat down to compose that post, I realized the years had fuzzed up around my memory about just who the recipients of the Giving Tree’s charity were. I seemed to recall Rich’s wife Judy was a beneficiary, so one evening I called him to corroborate the facts as I thought I knew them. In those days it happens that Rich and Judy used to take regular walks along the Lower Loop, and not only did Judy find the miniature Christmas tree I mentioned in the post, but apparently, as did Sandy Frohning, Judy gathered up a nice bouquet herself, thinking…and I quote Rich…”It’s a shame to leave such nice flowers just sitting here….” And when the story of the Giving Tree spread, Judy was indeed called a “grave robber,” teasingly, of course, by those who knew the tree’s strange history.

Chit chat is a funny thing. You start out talking, say, about runaway government spending, lamenting the National Debt, and end up in tsk tsking about your poor old Aunt Tildy’s goiter surgery. Not that two old Valley residents would discuss national fiscal responsibility…and I’m sure none of us has an Aunt Tildy (who in this day and age of iodized salt probably couldn’t sprout a goiter if she wanted to--even if she did exist).

Unraveling the threads of our morning’s chit chat, I realize that our conversation pretty much focused on Valley history past and present. As a matter of fact our discussion strayed from Valley material only once, but even that minor digression was prompted by some very current history: the Valley mailboxes recently victimized by miscreants. Rich told me that his neighborhood is regularly targeted by those who can’t seem to abide a healthy mailbox. He shared the information that the criminal mind has discovered that an ignited highway flare will reduce a sturdy plastic mailbox to polystyrene magma oozing down the post. When news of this pyrotechnical activity was shared with a County Sheriff, the lawman told Rich that unless the culprits were caught in the act, there wasn’t much the authorities could do about it. “You know what would stop that in a hurry, don’t you? Rich said. “Just slip a small can of gasoline in the box!” “Oh, don’t do that!” flared the sheriff,  echoing the Sheriff Department’s stand on anti-vigilante-ism (unless it is official vigilante-ism, that is). After trading a few more mailbox experiences, we returned to the Valley and its history.

Rich was a Valley resident years before we moved here. The Giving Tree and the Lower Loop Road prompted him to relate the history of that road and adjacent properties. Apparently the County wanted the road built east of where it now crosses Riley Slough, but the owner of the land, now home to Willie Green’s cabbage field, wouldn’t sell any of his land to the County. Instead they had to exercise their west right-of-way, taking fifteen feet or so along  Frohnings’ property. While we’re on the topic of County roads in the Valley, I ask Rich a question that has long been on my mind: “So, why the two sharp corners at Swiss Hall and east? Flat land all the way across the Valley and the County bends Tualco around those two big maples and twists it back left again? What kind of road design is that!” Rich has no idea either. Probably another issue with landownership and property acquisition, we decide.

Valley property? Rich tells me that when Elmer Frohning was clearing the trees from his land, he hired local Indians to cut the trees, pile them and burn them. Their payment? Firearms. (Yes, you read right: “firearms,” not “firewater.”) Elmer would give them a rifle for their labors. Strange wampum, don’t you think, for a paleface to give an Indian, considering the friction between the natives and their new neighbors those days. Tualco Road, Rich said, didn’t always bear that name. An old sea captain lived in the Valley and the road was named after him. “So, Tualco?” I asked. “It’s an Indian name,” Rich thought. More research for the Ripple on that one. Looks like a trip to Gramma Snow’s is in order.

From Indians and firearms to fertilizer…quite a leap there, but that’s how chit chat goes. I lamented the loss of my garden “organic,” which I used to haul from the separator at Werkhovens’ dairy but which now goes to the Qualco Energy digester. And suddenly we’re talking about the methane-powered generator at the site of the old Honor Farm. Dale Reiner gave Rich a tour of the facility a while back and he shares a few facts from the tour for me to digest. It’ll take thirteen years to pay off the facility. Each payment? 200 k annually, but a payment that Qualco makes easily. Not only does the electricity produced create revenue, but also the facility charges a dumping fee for those businesses who have organic materials to dispose of. All “dumpers” but one are charged a fee. Dale told Rich that the sole exemption is a fellow whose business is collecting all the “over the hill” wine (thought wine improves with age…) in the region which he brings to the digester, dumps, and then recycles the bottles. The alcohol, which aids the digestion process, is payment enough, I guess. I learn, too, that the facility can house a second generator, but the million dollar cost of a second unit prohibits expansion in the near future.

Reprising the fertilizer: I told Rich I hauled a load of the “digested” byproduct to my garden last spring but wasn’t sure if the anaerobic process removed all the benefits from the residue “Not the case,” according to Rich. Dale told him the nitrogen was not removed during the digesting and that what I put on my rhubarb and raspberries and tomato patch was rich in N. I also spread some byproduct  around a gooseberry bush that has shown no growth to speak of in four years. Last summer it suddenly sprang to life, doubled in size, rejuvenated apparently by the restorative power of that nitrogen-packed compost.

From fertilizer to gardens: Rich tells me he misses his garden and the rich soil of the Valley. “My ground,” he says, “is a thin veneer of soil and beneath that nothing but pure clay!” I tell him about my brother’s ten acres above Arlington, earth filled with rocks that will grind a tiller down in no time. Rich shakes his head. “You know,” he laughs, “when we moved, Judy asked if we could ‘dig up our garden’ and take the soil with us along with the household goods and furniture.” Now isn’t that just the sort of thing you’d expect a grave robber to say?

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