Still in search of the perfect holiday surprise for the lover of all things Iowan or farm life in your family?
This last-minute gift idea may be the ultimate Iowa stocking stuffer. Sure, it’s a tad grandiose. But it also qualifies as a relative bargain:
A free farmhouse. On Craigslist.
No, this two-and-a-half-floor, four-bedroom specimen of rural majesty may not fit under the average Christmas tree, let alone in a stocking. And I wouldn't expect Santa and his reindeer to tow it to your vacant lot.
But it’s yours if you’re willing somehow to remove it from Roger and Linda Dolecheck’s farmstead in rural Ellston.
The Dolechecks, who farm thousands of acres in and around Ringgold County and feed hundreds of head of cattle, have been trying for years to find a new family to adopt a house that they still dearly love. So Roger posted yet another plea on Craigslist that in the last week alone has generated some 25 curious phone calls.
“This house is free if you move it,” he wrote. “Beautiful house with new windows and repairs. Will be torn down this winter. Would like to save it.”
To translate for the rest of you who don't know stoic Iowa farmers as well as I do, Roger typing a low-key "Would like to save it" on Craigslist carries all the emotional weight of Marlon Brando screaming "Stella!" in "A Streetcar Named Desire."
Roger grew up just a few miles down the road. He and his wife, Linda, purchased the house in 1984 and raised a family there. About seven years ago they built a new house on the same property.
The couple today can glance out their kitchen window and still see the top of their former home about 100 yards away as it pokes above the roof line of a machine shed.
“We just want it moved,” Roger said. “We raised four children in it, and it was kind of fun. We had a blast in it.”
The Dolechecks are sentimental about the old farmhouse — currently assessed at $52,700 — for a couple more reasons.
First, the farmhouse has historical value as a home to landmark Iowa agricultural innovation.
The Baker family, Roger said, hammered the house together in the early 1900s. Raymond F. Baker, who grew up on the farm, was an agronomy student at Iowa State University in the 1920s when he met Henry A. Wallace, the editor of Wallace’s Farmer and eventual secretary of agriculture and vice president under FDR.
Wallace gave the ISU student some of his new experimental corn samples.
The fledgling crop scientist's father thought hybrid corn was “a lot of foolishness,” Raymond told The Register in 1976, “but Mom knew how important it was to me, so she took Dad out into the field, and they planted it as I had instructed.”
Wallace and Baker won awards for their hybrid corn's fantastic high yields. Baker in 1928 was hired as the second employee at Wallace's two-year-old company, what became Pioneer Hi-Bred and today is DuPont Pioneer. Baker died at age 92 in 1999, and that same year his estate donated $80 million to ISU.
“(Raymond) and Henry Wallace … started to develop the first seeds right here," Roger said, "right north of this old house we’re trying to get moved.”
Beyond the house being considered a monument to agricultural royalty and both the literal and symbolic seeds of an international agribiz empire, there's a more personal reason that Roger finds it hard to contemplate letting the wrecking ball swing.
He invested thousands of hours of sweat equity and craftsmanship in the house, not to mention about $150,000 in repairs and upgrades.
He stripped, sanded and stained the woodwork, revealing the beautiful grain beneath the cream and pink paint that was all the rage in the 1970s. Remodeled the kitchen. Installed new drywall. Converted the attic into a massive family room.
For about a dozen years, from 1984 to 1996, Roger’s routine was to tend to his fields throughout the warm months and then toil indoors in winter.
Shortly after moving out, Roger thought he had found a solution: The house was scheduled to be moved to Ramsey Farm, a historical farmstead and event center east of Mount Ayr. But the temporary removal of a single key power line that stretched across the road near a substation would have cost nearly $20,000, essentially doubling the price of the 20-mile move. So it was scrapped.
“I would still love to have somebody move it and live in it,” Roger said. “I’ve even offered here lately to move it to some of my land or help find some land."
One of Iowa’s tiniest towns, Beaconsfield (hometown of astronaut Peggy Whitson), is barely a mile away, with space aplenty and only about 15 residents. It’s also home to the building that housed the first Hy-Vee store. Roger likes the idea that two structures representing some of the Depression-era roots of modern agriculture, from both the production and consumer ends of the chain, might keep each other company.
Or Sun Valley Lake also is nearby, if some Iowan would like a classic farm twist on southern Iowa lake life.
The tab for the farmhouse's 20-mile move that never materialized cost at least $22,000, Roger said. So trying to haul the thing to Des Moines could be as pricey as building a new copy.
I doubt that dismantling and moving it piece by piece would be cheaper. But I would love to see somebody try so I could write about it.
“I just need somebody that would like to live in an old house with a lot of character,” Roger said.
More to the point, Roger needs an eccentric character who also happens to be a millionaire and has a vintage Iowa farmhouse at the top of his or her wish list to step in and deliver his Christmas miracle.
(If you're interested in the farmhouse, Roger's number in the Craigslist ad is 641-344-2537.)