Front Porch Indiana

No Greater Love

Christine Byrne head shotI started working at Conner Prairie Interactive History Park this spring. Having been born and raised on a farm, knowledgeable about spinning and weaving, and being passionate about living history it seemed the perfect fit for me. I thought it might allow me an opportunity to fulfill my desire to preserve a little of our farming heritage that is rapidly disappearing from today’s society by teaching others.

I also thought it would be a good learning experience for me; Conner Prairie is home to many rare breeds that I would not otherwise have the opportunity to work with, as I can’t exactly just walk out and pick up a pair of oxen or working steers at my local farm auction. Even if I could, I wouldn’t know how to work them. I used that excuse to easily justify my one hour commute to and from work.

The Animal Encounters barn is set up as a nursery of sorts where guests can interact with baby animals and their mothers up close and personal. It is our job as animal specialists to help facilitate that encounter and provide the guests with knowledge about the animals and their different breeds. Our goal is always to make a meaningful connection with our guests, that’s why most of us work there, we love to watch what we call the “ah-ha” moments. However, on the really busy school field-trip days, it is sometimes difficult as the human kids are in and out of the building so quickly it is hard to have much of a conversation. We figure if we get a few sentences out while they are petting and walking at the same time, they are at least learning something. We estimate we talk to about eight kids a minute.

It was on one of those days last week that I was standing next to our Shorthorn heifer calf when a developmentally disabled young man calmly approached me. He knelt with me next to her as I explained that she was a calf. While all the chaos continued to swirl around us, he slowly outstretched the most gentle hands I’ve ever witnessed. He cupped her face, drawing his cheek to her forehead, as he did so he softly whispered, “I love you calf.”

I wept.

I wept, because I immediately realized that I had just witnessed the purest form of love known to man.

He couldn’t have touched my heart any more if he had reached his hand right inside my chest. It was beautiful. It was powerful. It was beyond words.


As you can imagine, since Conner Prairie is a non-profit organization, the salary for this position isn’t exactly stellar. I joke that with the price of gasoline this summer, I’m hovering somewhere above breaking even. After an experience like that though, it became clear that I’ll have to work there until a ripe old age to repay them for allowing me the opportunity to do this job.

Greener Pastures

The weather this year has been incredible. No sooner than I spread the seed in the east pasture it started to sprout.


And every spring bulb and shrub is blooming a full month or so ahead of schedule. I am normally still in the planning phase of gardening, but instead we spent part of the weekend pulling weeds in the raised beds and spreading compost. In March. In Indiana. The frost date around here is, like what, May?

I feel like we’ve been sprinting to catch up with spring. The rest of the weekend we spent cleaning out the barn and coop, both major operations. Now if visitors stop by I feel I should take them there since both places are far cleaner than the inside of the house.

Next on the ever exapanding to-do list is shearing. I always aim to shear between the last frost and the first fly. This year that came and went with a blink of an eye and I probably missed it. My Shetland ewes have started to shed. Looks like it will be a good year to roo them, a primitive method of pulling their fleece off instead of using shears.


Since the flies are already out and about, I have to get the vet scheduled to visit as soon as possible to give the boys their little procedures. I thought I would have more time.


“Gulp. Um, what exactly is a procedure?” asks Frankie.

“Trust me little buddy, you don’t want to know any sooner than you have to,” I replied.

It is Always Tough to be the Little Guy

Christine Byrne head shotOur alpaca herd, all boys named after the Rat Pack, seems to have particular issues in establishing a pecking order this time of year. I can tell by the amount of accumulated alpaca spit below his ear, that poor little Joey here is getting more than his fair share of pecking. So much so, that he is also a little underweight. Joey is our youngest member of the herd and is deaf. Having been rather low on the totem pole myself when I was younger, I tend to take any excessive pecking order establishment personally. Picking on a special needs kid brings out yet another kind of wrath in me.



I am pulling Joey aside and giving him a special meal, which is resulting in snarles and glares from Dino and the rest of the gang. I chose to explain that if they would have just left the poor boy alone, they wouldn’t have this problem.


Sammy pleads his innocence and probably rightfully so. He tends to be the more laid-back member of the group, or maybe he’s just sneakier.  It's hard to say.


Frankie and Peter on the other hand, had they not been such jerks, maybe could have kept certain parts of their anatomy. But, if I have anything to do with it, Frankie will be singing a slightly higher version of My Way by the end of the month. I’ve already scheduled his little procedure with the vet for an attitude adjustment (he's getting gelded).


Peter, out of all of them, should have been the nice guy considering it hasn't been all that long ago that he was the youngest, but I guess he's taking his turn at bat. He'll also be getting some hormone replacement therapy, so to speak.


He may be the little guy, but Joey seems to take it in stride. “Don’t worry about me; someday they’ll be old and feeble. What comes around goes around. Then I’ll have it My way.”


Rediscovering the Traditional Skill of Weaving

Christine Byrne head shotFebruary around here is more or less the calm before and after the storm; the hubbub of the holidays is over, the animals require minimal care, and the garden quietly sits while I tick off the days on the calendar. It is the perfect time of year for indoor pursuits.

I am a habitual learner; I really cannot just sit around. I need to constantly be learning something new. I am most drawn to rediscovering traditional skills. I still have my father’s dog-eared 1970’s copies of the Firefox series, which I like to thumb through occasionally to find something I’ve never tried before. Some are fairly easy to learn, but others take a major commitment. This month I have been working on learning the art of weaving.

Making cloth is a very complicated process. There was a reason it would take an apprentice years to master the craft. They must learn to design a draft or, in other words, decide what pattern the fabric will have and how to do it. Then they must calculate how much material the project will require, down to the exact number of threads. They also must measure out each warp thread to the exact length before they move the threads to the loom.  Once at the loom, they have to sley each thread through the reed and through the heddles. And if that weren’t enough, they also need to understand how to tie up the treadles in a way to get the shafts to lift at the appropriate time to create the pattern. All of that must be done before you even begin. Then, of course, there is the actual act of weaving, and learning to keep even tension and an even beat.

Learning traditional skills gives me a whole new appreciation for the everyday things in my life. When you consider that it was only fairly recently, in the grand scheme of things, that producing fabric became automated, it makes you look at your blue jeans in a new light. And really, when you think about it, it is a wonder they ever developed such a process. Frankly, I would have thought it would have been easier to move somewhere near the equator and then sit around wearing fig leaves.


Fortunately though, someone did figure out how to do it and they taught someone else and that person taught another. Now, thousands of years later, I am doing my part to keep the tradition alive. I am a long way from becoming a master, but I’m making one of the most beautiful alpaca shawls you have ever seen and I couldn’t be more pleased with myself.

Alpaca and Llama Tales From the Barnyard

 “Awe, man, somebody ate all the good stuff,” said Frankie.


“I’ll bet it was that new girl, Minnie. She’s a pig. Have you ever seen a woman eat like that? I mean, come on.”


(the room grows silent)

“She’s right behind me isn’t she?”


“Oh! Hello, Minnie. I didn’t see you there.”  


“Yeah, I got that,” she said, "you'd best run, boy."

 run boy

Reclaiming the Land: Making the Most of Seven Acres

Christine Byrne head shotThere’s more than corn in Indiana, you just have to look for it. The fertile soil lends itself to growing crops so most level ground has been cultivated and is planted with corn, soybeans and the occasional wheat field. Sometimes you’ll see something else growing but not often. Rarely do you see wide open pastures for grazing. In Indiana, pastures are generally relegated to land that is too steep and rocky for row crops.

This old house was once part of a large farm including hundreds of tillable acres, now though it lays claim to a mere seven, half of which are a wooded ravine with a winding creek and a small spring-fed pond. A century and a half ago when the original house was built it must have appeared to be the ideal location for a homestead with its water source and ample supply of wood for heating.

The pasture behind the house and just outside the barn had sat unused for generations allowing the undergrowth to take over. Last year’s drought made it abundantly clear that we need to have more space for forage. In order to renovate the pasture for grazing the first order of business is to remove some of the trees since not much can grown in dense shade.

Just like the pioneers, the stockpile of firewood will not go to waste. It will be used in the new woodstove the guys installed in the workshop over the holidays. No more excuses that it is too cold to get any work done.


Obviously we cannot bring in heavy equipment to till the ground back there so the only option for planting is overseeding. When rejuvenating a pasture by overseeding it is easiest to let the animals overgraze the area first to clear it. Over the past year the goats cleared the bigger stuff and the alpacas came in and did a fantastic job as the finishing crew. I can assure you they’ve eaten every living thing out there and asked for more. 

cleared pasture 
Soil testing is the next step to determine our fertilizer and lime needs. The local county extension service should be able to help with that in addition to providing information on which type of forage grows best in this area.  Once we determine the results we will make the necessary amendments.

We have to factor in the nutritional needs of our animals before selecting which grass or legumes to plant. Llamas and alpacas have different needs than more traditional livestock such as cattle. Availability of the seed is also a consideration. I have determined that an orchard grass/white clover blend would be idea for our needs and this area. Now I just need to figure out where to get it. As odd as it sounds February is the proper time to start planting. The frost/thaw cycle of late winter helps the seed make contact with the soil.With any luck we’ll start seeing some lush pasture by springtime, which reminds me that I should caution readers that if you try this at home, don’t forget that chickens are birds and birds eat seeds. If you’re not careful they will follow behind you snatching up your pasture seed as fast as it comes out of the seed spreader. Don’t ask me how I know this, just trust me.

Losing Touch with Our Farming Heritage: How do we Stop It?

Christine Byrne head shotI have a dream.

At the beginning of the back-to-the-land movement of the 1970s a group of residents in the rural community of Parke County, Indiana, home to the famous Covered Bridge Festival, decided to come up with a way to capitalize on the small community’s tourism. Blessed with picturesque countryside, beautiful lakes and a bevy of state parks the county successfully brought in dollars with the many campgrounds and recreational activities available. However, this small group of people noticed how day-to-day “rural America” itself seemed a novelty to most visitors and thought they could do even more.  They developed an interactive living history museum encompassing a turn-of-the-century village and farmstead called Billie Creek Village. While touring the historic buildings visitors could not only observe but participate in the day-to-day activities. The vision was for the visitor to feel as if they had stepped back in time.  School was in session inside the schoolhouse, the blacksmith was busy making horseshoes, and depending on the time of year a person could participate in anything from maple sugaring to rail splitting.

 rail splitting 

As with so many things in society today, that wonderful vision became distorted, watered-down along the way.  The Village has changed hands many times over the years and has and eventually started being used more as a public park hosting car shows and Halloween parties than teaching people about the way things used to be. It slowly became a victim of the changing economy; most families are now busy working two jobs so the pool of volunteers has been significantly reduced. This is where the vicious cycle began: if there is no revenue to pay employees to do the jobs then there is nothing for the visitor to see. If there is nothing for the visitor to see they won’t come back. If they don’t come back there is no revenue. The facility has fallen into disrepair and the current owners have decided not to reopen this season.

I had the pleasure of volunteering at Billie Creek Village for the past two years, first in the farmhouse as the quilting farm wife and secondly in the log cabin as the rug weaver. The joy of watching children learn to weave and seeing the seed of interest being planted made the long hours worthwhile. What struck me most though, was that despite the conditions of the facility and the current economy, people are still just as interested in rural American life now as they were back in the 1970s, only they are so far removed from that lifestyle they don’t even know where to begin to learn about it. I was disturbed by the number of children coming through the farmhouse who thought it was the rooster that was laying the eggs. This would have been common knowledge when I was a kid, if only because we heard our grandparents speak of it. Now though, it wasn’t only the children - some of their parents didn’t know either.

The one thing that I was asked most often was, “How do I learn how to do this?” It was asked in reference to everything from cast iron cooking to shearing sheep to spinning and weaving. People want more than a five minute demonstration. They want a class. They want someone to show them how to build a chicken coop for their backyard. They want someone to show them how to make their own soap. They want to learn how to spin yarn. And here is the kicker…they’re willing to pay for it! This is where we who live “out here” often miss the boat. We look at those visitors and shake our heads, wondering how a person could survive for 40 years without knowing where their food comes from. Then we walk away completely missing the opportunity to teach them. The opportunities for them to learn simply no longer exist.

“So what’s all this about a dream,” you ask? My dream is to teach them. To preserve the Billie Creek Village vision by converting the museum from a passive demonstration watching activity to a full-blown hands-on learning experience; a folk school akin to the John C. Campbell school of sorts, with weekend long immersion classes in everything from the lost crafts to sustainable farming practices. I think it is a brilliant idea. The only issue is that it would take a village to save the village and I’m just one person. It is a delightful, vivid dream but unless I hit the lottery soon I fear it, like so many other wonderful things about our past, will simply fade away. And as they do, a little part of us will fade with it.

Christine Byrne lives on a small farm in rural Indiana where she takes care of chickens, sheep, alpacas, llamas and whatever else meanders through. You can read more about her farming adventures at