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April, 2003

Ranch Oaks, Creek Drive

by Valerie

Just before I started kindergarten, our parents moved us from an urban neighborhood in Joliet to a brand new housing development near Manhattan, Illinois. Since I was at an age where children are expected to learn important information, like their address and phone number, the words "Ranch Oaks, Creek Drive" were indelibly marked upon my young brain. There is something poetic about the simplicity and rhythm of that short phrase. The five years we spent at that address were rich in outdoor experiences centering around our small subdivision.

Best friends, Melissa and Valerie,
donating Easter baskets for the
Manhattan Brownie troop, 1967

Two of my uncles, Rich and Charlie, built our house. I spent a lot of time at the construction site because my parents were helping too. It was fun from the beginning. Our new home was on a 3/4 acre lot surrounded by farmland. The entire subdivision consisted of a single road leading into a couple of black-topped loops. Anywhere on the edge of our territory, the view was of vast open fields, broken by trees and a few barns and farm houses. A small stream ran nearby, as did the main highway which led to town.

This quiet, safe neighborhood was our playground. My sister, Vicky, and I had free run of the entire place, since there was only so far we could go in any direction. The sewage treatment plant was off-limits, which we discovered the hard way after somebody told our parents upon seeing us climbing over the fence to get a better look. We got a severe spanking for that escapade.

The fields on several sides of the roads, where there were no houses yet, grew lush with grass, flowers, asparagus, and alfalfa. In the late summer, after the grass had gotten as tall as we were, we would create pathways through the field across the street from our house. By trampling down the grass, we could make a series of hidden "rooms" where we'd play for hours. The field nearer to the highway had asparagus that would grow taller than us and looked like lacey Christmas trees when it flowered and went to seed.

During the period we lived there, I got my first bicycle, initially with training wheels. The freedom to ride all over Ranch Oaks was exhilarating. I eventually had friends that lived at the far side of the neighborhood and often spent time at the opposite end from our own house. We used old lumber to build forts, made mud bombs, and basically played the usual kid games.

From our back yard, we could see across the creek and fields to a ridge of trees and the farm on the far hill. One thing that fascinated me was the row of bright white bee hives visible in the distance. They looked like little huts all lined up on the edge of the trees. The people who lived there sold honey. One day, while playing out in the road in front of our house, I heard an unusual humming and witnessed a huge swarm of honeybees flying not far above. That sight really made an impression. The hives would sometimes be vandalized and cause the bees to swarm like that.

Vicky and Valerie by the garden ponds, 1963

Our yard ended at the barbed wire fence that (usually) kept the cattle in when they were grazing on the stubble left after the corn had been harvested. One year, instead of just the usual brown and white beef cattle, there was a single black cow. This one was friendlier than the others, and we were able to coax it over to the fence with salty treats like Fritos. I loved the way its tongue felt like sandpaper as it licked the last of the salt off my palms. We really enjoyed that one unique cow and missed it when it was sent off to slaughter.

The only thing of interest on the other side of the highway, which we could also see from our yard, was a farm with a big round barn. We knew the people who lived there and sometimes went over to play, but only when accompanied by adults. They not only had several huge silos, the unusual barn, and lots of acreage, but they also had a gorgeous buckskin horse.

Although our yard started off as just a grassy lawn, we had soon created gardens and planted fruit trees. Unfortunately, we wouldn't stay there long enough to reap the results when the orchard matured, but we did enjoy the yearly harvest from our vegetable garden. Our property sloped downwards from the front to the back. The vegetables were planted in a large area out by the back fence, while we created more ornamental gardens close to the house. In the front was a trellis with a beautiful clematis vine. This would produce hundreds of purple blossoms during the summer. Another trellis in the back yard supported a climbing rose, equally productive with its brilliant scarlet blooms. The best part of the yard, though, was the extensive rock garden we created right behind the house. This included a three-tiered set of ponds that fit nicely into the sloping yard. We had paths through the flower beds, a bird feeder, a wishing well, and even an above ground swimming pool that we enjoyed in the summer. The bird feeder was of a unique design. It swiveled on top a pole, like a weather vane. Triangular shaped, two sides were glassed in, and it had a roof. Even the most ferocious storm did not affect the contents because of the solid construction. This high quality was noticed by a family of robins, which built their nest inside the feeder one year. With a boost up, we were able to observe the bright blue eggs close up, then see the tiny babies whenever the parents were gone. We fed them too. Those hungry little mouths would swallow up any worms or bugs we could find. It was very funny to see the parents come back and act confused when the young birds didn't want to eat any more because they were already stuffed full. Due to the good view from the house, we even saw when the young robins fledged.

Our backyard in winter, 1967
During the winter, there was ample snowfall and the winds would sometimes push the snow into huge drifts. One year, a drift formed right behind our house. It was almost as high as the eave. Helped by the slope of the yard, this made a perfect sliding hill and we used a pizza pan to toboggan down our miniature mountain. We also made a tunnel into the snow bank, but it was not dark inside. The snow was very translucent and allowed plenty of light to get in. When we had bad blizzards, the roads would be closed until the snow plows could get in and clean off the pavement. I remember making the long trek to town (actually only a mile or two) with my parents, ostensibly to buy supplies, but it was probably also a nice adventure to relieve the cabin fever. We met the snow plow as it was slowly working on clearing the highway.

Our rural adventure came to an end when, halfway through my fourth grade year, we moved to Lemont. My dad had changed jobs and we needed to move closer for commuting purposes. Our new home was smack in the middle of town, right on the main road. After living in a brand new house, this one was nearly 100 years old. Things were different and it was a new adventure.

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