Every summer, as we have for twenty-something years, my friend Gay Kirkton and I take a little trip. Or a big trip. We’ve gone by plane, train, and automobile, and we fully expect special things to happen during each outing. Why? Because they always do. We might end up in Metropolitan Home, The San-Francisco Examiner, or Midwest Living (we have landed in all three). We might sit on top of a New Hampshire mountaintop next to TV stars (yes, this happened). We might help a famous author with her yard sale (happened).
And, we might drive down a gravel road on an Iowa farm where Gay renews an old friendship and where I find a new one.
Ride along with us…
During her time at the University of Illinois, Gay lived in 4-H House with a group of other young women who had enjoyed their 4-H years, and decided to live in a sorority-type setting where they room together. One of those women was Cathy Linker Lafrenz.
A vibrant home-ec major with a ready laugh and a lot of shoes, Cathy was memorable. But as happened with friendships in the 1970s, before social media kept us all a click away, college pals tended to go their separate ways.
Fast forward 40 years. Several months back, Gay caught up with another college friend and learned that Cathy now owns a flower farm in Iowa.
So over New Year’s Eve, when the Kirktons and Cronks got together as they always do, Gay suggested that a trip to Iowa might be in order for our summer fun. “Let’s do it,” I told her.
Quick as a wink I Facebook-friended Cathy’s you-pick flower farm, Miss Effie’s Country Flowers and Garden Stuff and the longing set in for a summer’s day when we would slip down a country road with corn growing oh-so-green on either side, and we would pull into Cathy’s lane.
As months passed, I learned that Cathy spends the winter knitting and embroidering and sewing sweet country gifts to sell in her gift shop on the property, The Summer Kitchen.
But she also spends her time teaching. Think freelance home-ec teacher. She offers classes at a local university on topics such as how to raise chickens. She teaches sewing and canning. Her trusted husband, whom she lovingly calls Honey (and so do her friends and customers) is her assistant at some of her gigs. Here are their chickens.
The big day for us came on Thursday as we left Galena, Illinois (I’ll post about that in my next blog) and off we went across the great Mississippi River to Donahue, Iowa, down some country roads, and there in the middle of some beautiful Iowa farms, we spotted Miss Effie’s sign.
Cathy was looking for us because as soon as we rounded the bend in her lane, she threw her arms in the air, almost as if to hug our car. I stopped and Gay jumped out. The two long-lost pals hugged and cried. I wasn’t ready with my camera as the tears welled in my eyes too. Cathy motioned for me to park and then I got a warm hug as well.
Even though her agri-tourism business was open and folks were busy picking buckets of flowers and strolling the grounds, Cathy still found the time to prepare us lunch. It was ready and waiting in the cornzebo!
This ingenious creation is an old-time corn crib that was found on a local farm and dis-assembled by Cathy to be relocated on her place. Inside is a long table, white chairs and a sitting area where you can watch the corn grow and if you are lucky enough to be the friend of her college friend Gay, you too might get the treat of being seated for a lunch of Cathy’s homemade quiche (made with her own brood’s eggs, no less), local lettuce and veggies, beautiful red raspberries, and Cathy’s own raspberry dressing. There was even a pot of hot water and our choice of teas.
Over a delicious meal, we chatted. We wanted to know so much. After Cathy got her home ec degree, she worked in various capacities including as an interior designer. Along the way, she met Honey. They went out at the suggestion of his daughter. While it wasn’t love at first sight, you could call it that at second.
The date was dinner at his place, which is now theirs.
“I walked in the door and I knew I was home,” Cathy recalls.
He suggested that Cathy plant flowers. Why? To take up some space where he wouldn’t have to mow. And it wasn’t long before, says Cathy, “I realized I loved growing flowers.”
She named the business Miss Effie’s Country Flowers and Garden Stuff and this is her sixteenth season. The catchy name – so unlike any other of its kind – is both fictional and a nod to Cathy’s grandmothers and another woman she once knew.
In fact, Cathy is a modern version of her great-grandmother who was able to save her family’s farm by using her farm-wife-type talents of cooking, gardening, baking and sewing. Back in the day, she sent her girls out on horseback to deliver products to neighbors. Think farmer’s market to go.
Today they call it entrepreneurship. She has a great relationship with tourism bureaus, and she is charming and helpful to her customers. She hosts events on the farm such as weddings, and encourages families visiting to spread out blankets and picnic on the grounds. And those grounds. Wow.
Sit under the tree on the hill and you’ll be able to see the lights of a ball field 17 miles away. Or if you come on the Fourth of July, not one but four fireworks shows from area towns will fill the sky before you as though you are watching them on the biggest screen you can imagine. Stretched out before her farm is a view to die for: endless rows of beautiful green corn with a massive blue sky above, strips of gravel roads and tidy farms scattered about the landscape.
But it's not just about making a living. It's about making a life. A good life. It's a place where Cathy longs to connect women to their rural heritage.
The scenery is a Midwest farmer's daughter's dream.
Gay was a bit nervous before we got to the property, but we always have the mantra that we’re in it for the experience and whatever happens, happens. We ended up spending hours with Cathy. It amazed me to find that she and I connected so well on a variety of topics ranging from finding our tribe in church settings to sharing our experiences with each of our businesses -- her farm and my books.
We also learned of Cathy’s passion for politics, eating fresh, local food, and serving the community in which she is placed. She talked about the political candidates as though she knew them personally. In Iowa, that’s how they roll. The politicians go door to door. We told her she should run for public office.
Eventually the time came to leave. But it was hours later than we anticipated, and after we all had a long, lovely visit. Gay’s timing was perfect when she told Cathy, “We have brought you a taste of Indiana.”
Out came a floral Vera Bradley tote bag. Inside were a matching wallet, some beautiful printed fabric for apron-making and my two novels. Cathy looked genuinely shocked! I have tears in my eyes just thinking about how stunned she was by the gifts. It was so much fun!
And, I have tears thinking about the most beautiful day I could ever imagine spent in the middle of a whole bunch of Iowa cornfields at Miss Effie’s Country Flowers and Garden Stuff.
Most of all, I can’t quit thinking about its founder, chief cook, bottle washer, CEO -- my new friend, Cathy.
Check out Cathy's website at: http://www.misseffiesflowerscom.
Hoosier Donna Cronk is author of two novels, Sweetland of Liberty Bed & Breakfast and That Sweet Place: At Home in the Heartland. Both are available on Amazon in print and Kindle editions.