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Old Dog, New Tricks

Using Ice Cube Trays

Mary Conley 

Dear friends,

I hope you haven't thrown away those old ice cube trays. You may have used them to freeze coffee for iced coffee, or cubes of juice for punch. My favorite is to use the trays for vegetables. For example, I like to run zucchini through the blender and then fill a tray. After the cubes are frozen, I pop them into a bag and they are ready to add to soups for extra nutrition.

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I also blanched kale and Swiss chard this summer and have cubes to add to potato or vegetable soup.  

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In the above photo, chopped green and red peppers are covered with water before freezing. It is so handy to reach in a bag and grab a cube or two for chili and other recipes.  

Don't you just love to reuse and recycle?!

Overlooked Local Sites

Mary Conley 

Dear friends, 

Have you noticed when on vacation, we are interested in everything, including listening to the tour guide's stories, and reading all the signs, plaques, memorials, and historical markers? But, do we have the same interest locally? How many times have we driven past a historical marker and never once stopped to read it, or taken the time to visit a site that others come from a distance to see?

We live in Nebraska and this week we did something fairly local that was on my bucket list. Our son and his wife, Perry and Kim, came to the farm to help us celebrate Larry's birthday and our anniversary. On Sunday we drove to Red Cloud to visit the Willa Cather Foundation and Memorial Prairie. If you live in Nebraska, I'm sure you've read Cather's "O Pioneer," and possibly "My Antonia" and "The Song of the Lark." But, have you visited her childhood home?

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Memorial Prairie marker

Our favorite part of the trip: The first thing we did was drive five miles south of Red Cloud to the Willa Cather Memorial Prairie, which consists of 612 acres of never-been-plowed native prairie. What could be more country? We only read the historical marker and looked at the beautiful, treeless rolling hills of prairie and unbroken horizon, but there are 2 miles of walking and hiking trails. It is also a Nebraska birding site. Knowing this area has been preserved did our hearts good, and I believe you would enjoy reading about how the foundation has removed thousands of non-native and invasive trees in order to preserve native species of plants. After returning home and reading the brochures we were given, we realize that this effort to restore the prairie to its pre-1900 condition and save some species of plants and animals is the part of the trip we are the most excited about. 

Next: It was noon, so we went into Red Cloud and ate at The Palace Restaurant. It was a very nice updated restaurant with good food and good service. 

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We started and ended our three-building tour at the Cather Bookstore. The tour included Willa Cather’s childhood home, The Farmers’ and Merchants’ Bank, and the Red Cloud Opera House. There is also a seven-building tour and a country tour. Virtual tours are available online at www.VirtualCather.org.

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This photo of Willa Cather was used for the media during her writing career.  Her book "One of Ours" received the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1923.

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Willa Cather’s childhood home. The Cather family lived here from 1884-1904, but Willa only lived in Nebraska for a little over 10 years.

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Hollyhocks and a pump beside the house.

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We always enjoy touring the inside of old homes. This one has many original family possessions. 

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The Farmers’ and Merchants’ Bank was erected in 1889 and has since been restored. It displays the original Colorado sandstone frontage and native Red Cloud brick. The tiles framing the door are original. 

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I took this photo of a photo of the bank! Compare to the previous photo. Yes, the old and new match.

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This is an old photo of Red Cloud’s Main street. It reminds me to tell you the Cather Foundation and Nebraska Historical Foundation have restored and continue to restore many of Red Cloud’s buildings. I love it when a small town does that.

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The Red Cloud Opera House was built in 1885 and restored in 2003. It has the original floors, support columns, and wood on the front of the stage. William Jennings Bryan spoke here, Blind Boone performed, and Willa Cather gave her graduation oration in 1890.

We ended the tour back at the bookstore/museum.

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We were on our way home after a pleasant and informative afternoon. Oh! There beside the road just east of Beaver City was another historical marker.  We turned the car around and went back and read it. It was about Nebraska’s first flying doctor and was very interesting. Yes, one should always take the time to read those historical markers!

Uses for Cotton Bowl Cozies

Mary ConleyDear Friends,

I'm excited to tell you about some fun I had over the holiday season with a new sewing craft I discovered. In the late fall, my husband, Larry, and I went to a huge craft show to see our friend's photography booth. While there, we scouted the whole place to see what was and wasn't selling. We had the most fun buying doll clothes for our granddaughter for Christmas! We also saw a lot of cloth, bowl, heat protectors, which are sometimes called bowl cozies. I looked up how to make them on the internet, purchased my supplies, and made two small ones for my kitchen. Because the material, padding, and thread are all 100-percent cotton, the cozies can be put into the microwave while heating food and then taken to the table without burning your hands.

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Larry — who loves canned soup for lunch — latched on to them right off. I have used them for oatmeal.

I'm not going to show you how to make the cozies, but here is the link to the site I liked best: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LZgv3vwvlsY. This seamstress makes it so simple. 

Below are two cozies I made with one side of a pair of old blue jeans:

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So, why am I writing this post if I’m not going to explain how to make the cozies? Well, I want to tell you two ways I used them over the holidays.

For gifts: I gave them to my friends for Christmas, and I especially had fun when I entertained four friends from our old neighborhood for our annual holiday lunch. I first passed a stack of several cozies around the table so each friend could choose one to keep, and then I served their soup in them! One of my soup choices was potato, so I only kept it warm on the stove so as not to scorch it and then finished heating it in the microwave using one of the cozies. I'm sorry to say that I was so busy with the luncheon that I forgot to take photos, but the ladies were all excited to receive their gift. 

For my china: I made medium size cozies that fit my serving dishes.

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When I served Christmas Eve dinner with linens and china, I put the hot serving dishes right in the cloth cozies, which made passing easier and hot pads unnecessary when setting the bowls on our mirrored table. 

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I adjusted the pattern to fit my oblong serving bowl.

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I would never put my china in the microwave, but the cotton cozies can also be used with my everyday serving dishes. I'm sure they will get plenty of use.

Happy sewing and entertaining!

Simple, Homemade Pecan Pie

Mary ConleyDear friends,

The holidays are here, and I want to share my pecan pie recipe with you. It has become a favorite at our house, and sometimes it is even requested to replace a birthday cake. I originally found the recipe in a church cookbook, so I don't have a clue where it originated. It isn't a fancy pie, and is very easy to make. The big question is whether you can afford the pecans! I hope it becomes a favorite at your house, too.

Pecan Pie

Ingredients:

• 5 eggs
• 1 cup sugar
• 1-1/2 cups dark corn syrup
• 1/2 teaspoons salt
• 1-1/2 teaspoons vanilla
• 1-1/2 cups chopped pecans
• 6 tablespoons melted butter
• pecan halves for top (optional)

Instructions:

1. Beat eggs and sugar together.

2. Add syrup, salt, vanilla, chopped pecans, melted butter, and mix. Pour into unbaked pie shell.

3. Top with pecan halves around outer edge. Bake at 325 degrees F for 1 hour and 15 minutes.

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I forgot to take a photo of the whole pie, but here is one of the last piece!

Denim Rag Bedspreads and Pocket Pillow Shams

Mary ConleyDear Friends,

Once upon a time, many, many, many years ago, I decided to save all our worn-out denim jeans. I had some here and there in sacks in our attic, but eventually found a tall box, and continually added to it until the box was overflowing. I am now 74, and suddenly got in the mood to do something with those jeans. So, I ripped them apart, and started cutting 8x8 squares from the larger areas, 6x6 squares from the smaller parts, until I was accumulating several piles of each.

After first thinking I would sew two small denim rag throws to keep us warm while watching TV in the winter, I realized maybe I could make something bigger. I ended up deciding on two twin bedspreads. Quite a difference! About that time is when I read on the web that I shouldn't use stretchy jeans, and had to toss out my contributions to the box from the last several years. I continued to cut and cut, anyway, while realizing I wouldn't have quite enough without my stretchy jeans. The only thing I could do was become a beggar to my family, friends, and neighbors. I finally had all I needed for 140 large squares for one spread, and 221 small squares for the other. Yes, that is a lot of squares, but ... I needed to cut the same amount out of another material for the backing!

I already had a sewing machine, cutting board, and rotary cutter, and I wanted to keep my expenses down. It made the project even more fun. My only purchases were a template for the squares, five spools of thread, strong denim needles for my machine, and special snipping shears. Luckily, it was the end of winter, and I was able to purchase two sets of twin, navy blue, flannel sheets on sale, plus using coupons at Bed, Bath, and Beyond. What a bargain! What a giveaway! I started cutting flannel squares from them, and together with the denim squares I cut 280 large, and 442 small. I can't believe it either! It didn't seem like a job, but something to do here and there in snippets of spare time.

We go to our farm for the summer months, and although I'm busy gardening, processing the produce, painting, and regular household duties, there are times when I need something to do since we don't have TV or internet. I thought this project would be perfect, so I gathered up everything and took it with me. I have a large table there where I can lay everything out and not worry about the mess.

Soon it was time to sew, and I chose to work with the large squares first. I placed each denim square, right side up, on top of a flannel square and sewed diagonally from corner to corner, forming an "X." Now, some people could do it just that easily, but I pinned my squares together and marked the X lines before I sewed. I also strip-sewed, which means when you finish a line on one square, then you push in the next square and just keep going. After about six squares, I cut them apart and did the same thing for the other half of the X. This method worked especially well on the smaller squares.

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I had a spare bedroom at the farm that wasn’t furnished, and I laid all 140 squares out on the carpet and arranged and rearranged them until I got a pleasing pattern with the variety of colored denim. Then I pinned a number to the first square in each row which saved me from messing up my pattern later.

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Next, I stacked the squares of each row. The floor became bare again, and I had neat piles of each row on my table and ready to go.

At this point, there were three steps left: sewing the squares of each row together into long strips, sewing the strips together to make the spread, and snipping the seams so they would fray. I got bored easily with what I was doing, so I sewed a row together to make a strip, added it to the bedspread, and snipped the seams before going on to the next row. Varying the work also helped because a lot of snipping made my hand tired.

All my seams were 1/2 inch with a very short stitch. Remember, when putting the squares and strips together, the seams show on the front instead of hiding on the back as usual. After snipping and washing, this makes the ragged look.

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Sewing the squares into a long strip.

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Sewing the strips together.

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Snipping with special scissors.

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It was so fun watching the bedspread grow!

When all the strips were sewed on and the edges snipped, I sewed a half-inch seam all around the bedspread, snipped it, and was finished. My husband liked it just the way it was, but he didn't know how washing the bedspread would make the snipped edges fray and beautiful.

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A pile of strings and lint from just one bedspread!

Very important instructions: I stopped the washing machine before the spin cycle each time, and wiped the inside of the tub with my hand to gather handfuls of strings that came off. I also stopped the dryer every few minutes, cleaned out the lint trap, and wiped the inside of the dryer with my hands. Each bedspread was big and heavy, so I took them out of the dryer and turned them a few times so they would dry evenly. Then my husband helped me take them outside and shake them. Both bedspreads were made the same way, and I couldn't be more pleased with how they turned out.

Here is what really excited me! When I was in the middle of my first bedspread, I was at a place where I could search the web, and I came across something interesting: a throw pillow made out of jean pockets! I had jean pockets! I thought it was so cool that I stopped right in the middle of my project and made a pillow sham to go along with the bedspread. Later, I made another one for the second bedspread. I want to give you the instructions, because I was lucky enough to have two blue flannel pillow cases to use that came with those two sets of flannel sheets I used. The unique pillow shams didn't cost anything extra, and I love them! Below are the directions.

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Pillow case

I first opened the side seams of the pillow case and refolded it so that the end openings now overlapped in the middle of the back. I couldn't resew it at this point, or I wouldn't be able to sew on the pockets. I marked the two sides of what would be the front of the pillow with chalk so I would know the boundaries. An important thing to remember is to not get the pockets too close to the edges, or it will be difficult to sew the seams back together.

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Laying out the pockets

The fun part was laying and overlapping pockets in all directions until I got the desired look. Then I added a few jean labels and buttons on the pockets for a little pizazz. After pinning the pockets down so I wouldn't lose my design, I started sewing them on with the machine. I can't believe I didn't break even one needle going through all those thicknesses of denim. It wasn't easy, it wasn't fun, and I wasn't looking forward to making the second sham. Putting some time in between the two helped.

Back to the process: All that was left to do was to fold the pillow case together inside out and sew the side seams. I was like a child turning it back and seeing my perfect pillow sham all covered with jean pockets! How cute! Needless to say, I immediately stuffed it with a pillow. The back overlapped so nicely; I didn't need to add buttons to keep it closed. Yes, I think it was worth it.

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Here is a photo of the second sham stuffed with a pillow!

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This bedspread is made of 8” squares.

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This bedspread is made of 6” squares.

I was very excited at the end of summer to take the bedspreads and pillow shams to my city home and put them on the twin beds. Both my husband and I liked the look, and now I'm ready to finish decorating the room. The bonus is that he said I'm amazing. Yes, at this age, I can still amaze him! Ha!

Now, you need to save those old jeans with the holes in the knees. You can always make a small throw like I planned in the beginning. Or, how about a decorator pillow? I've also used old jeans to make baby bibs and pot holders. There are so many ideas and examples on the web; I'm sure you'll find something you'll enjoy sewing.

It always makes me feel good to reuse and repurpose, and especially to make something beautiful that costs practically nothing. Happy sewing!

Harvest Festival: The Cornucopia of Fall

Mary ConleyDear friends,

When I was growing up, our small town of Washta, Iowa had fall harvest festivals to raise money for the Methodist church. I remember the first time I attended and the excitement of the evening. However, while the grownups were probably interested in all the donations and money being raised, I was completely in awe of the auctioneer. I knew this local young man, and I couldn’t believe my ears! How did he do that?!

After spending this summer at our hobby farm, I am experiencing some of the excitement I felt at those fall festivals. I know the energy in the town hall was from far more than listening to an auctioneer. For the farmers and gardeners, that festival was the sum of the end of long days of hard work, watching the skies for needed rain and fear of hail, and bringing in a good harvest. Most of all, it was thankfulness.

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Through the garden gate.

Now is the time we gardeners assess the growing season and plan for the next year. Since picking June bearing strawberries seems a long time ago, I like to make a list, somewhat in order of the harvest, so Larry and I fully remember what our hard work accomplished.

Cornucopia/A Horn of Plenty/The Bounty of the Harvest

• Asparagus
• Strawberries
• Rhubarb
• Gooseberries (Didn't make jelly this year. Still had some.)
• Lettuce (4 types) (Wonderful! We had salads about five days a week for two months!)
• Spinach
• Radishes
• Sugar snap peas
• Beets
• Swiss chard
• Kale
• Cucumbers
• Tomatoes
• Peppers
• Blackberries (Didn't produce this year.)
• Mullberries (Wonderful!)
• Peaches (First year for them, and then the raccoons ate them.)
• Carrots
• Zucchini
• Corn
• Green beans
• Cantaloupe
• Pears (305 and about 30 little ones. Dried pears are the best!)
• Cabbage
• Sweet potatoes
• Potatoes
• Acorn squash
• Butternut squash
• Sugar pie pumpkins
• Jack-o-lantern pumpkins (Time to decorate the front porch!)
• Basil
• Chives
• Sage
• Raspberries (Still producing)
• Apples (Almost ready)

Gardening is such a wholesome activity. Not to mention the wonderful, nutritious, organic food. No, pulling weeds isn’t fun, but watching the food mature, eating it fresh from the garden, and processing it for the winter is so rewarding.

Soon it will be time to light the fireplace and the spiced candles. Halloween and Thanksgiving will be fun, and slower and relaxing times are ahead. Life is good. 

Cute Raccoons, Peaches, Sweet Corn, Mulberry Trees, and Reality

Mary ConleyDear Friends,

Maybe this post is only for farm people. Definitely not for those of you who are against the killing of animals. I was raised on a farm, but have lived most of my life in the city. I became soft. Actually, I never did like killing animals, although I once yanked plenty of heads off chickens before my mother and I dressed them. It doesn't mean I liked doing it. It means I liked eating Mom's fried chicken!

This is our eighth summer on our hobby farm, and I can tell you just how the softness changes to "I'll kill that stinking raccoon if I get a chance!" It began when our son, Todd, had a large field garden with a tall wire fence to keep out the deer, with added chicken wire around the bottom to keep out the rabbits, and added electric wire to keep out the raccoons. Even that wasn't fool proof. Raccoons may be cute, but they are also smart and destructive.

Raccoon trap 

After Todd moved, Larry made a special trip into Kearney and bought four live traps. Then he had to assemble them. They didn't work that well. Often the bait/food would be gone but the trap hadn't sprung. The raccoons wiped out our last planting of sweet corn that year.

Jumping ahead to this year. Last week, Larry was dusting our orchard with diatomaceous earth — an organic substance used to get rid of insects — when he noticed peaches on the ground. He looked up into the tree and right into the eyes of a raccoon. Startled, he glanced around in the tree and there was another one. He hurriedly drove the tractor to the house to get the gun. Then he made the mistake of driving the car back, which scared them off. Or maybe looking at him scared them off! Giggle! Larry thought they had come into the orchard over the fence, but then he saw four young raccoons high-tailing it out from where they had dug under the fence to get in. They were gone before he realized it.

Now, that was the raccoons' first offense, and it was a serious one. You see, the late frosts and freezes had always kept us from getting peaches, and finally, THIS year when they grew, the raccoons ruined them all. Every time I think about it, I get mad.

A couple of posts ago I wrote about our beautiful, young mulberry trees. Well, a raccoon (or raccoons), climbed the wooden corral fence next to it, swung over the wire fence into the tree, and broke two significant branches, plus some smaller ones. Then, not being able to get back out, it dug under the fence. Offense number two, and, boy, was I mad again. There are many, many wild mulberry trees not far away with mulberries all over the ground. Why did they need to wreck our tree?

Will there be a third offense? The pears are almost ripe. Then we have four short rows of sweet corn of two varieties in one of our fenced-in garden beds near the house. We have already started picking from it, and there should be enough for several meals and a few packages for the freezer. I'll be so upset if they ruin some of it. Especially since Larry has determined he will not plant any again if they do. But I have hope, because we learned something.

Raccoon trap

As I mentioned earlier, the four live traps rarely caught a raccoon. The food/bait would be gone, but the trap wasn't sprung. It wasn't the trap's fault, or how Larry set it, as we thought. The little buggers reached in from the side and pulled out all the food. (fish flavored dry cat food) Every last crumb. Larry called Animal Control and was told to cover the cage, except for the entrance. Then they would have to go in to get the food. Why didn't we think of that?! So far, in the last few days, Larry has shot eight.

Did you think he would take the raccoons to another place and release them? The humane thing to do? Some people use live traps with that in mind. I have read it isn't always humane, as animals often die in their new surroundings anyway. It just makes you feel good. In fact, I don't see anything humane about the live trap, since the raccoon goes berserk in there and claws the covering and ground to pieces until Larry gets up in the morning and puts him out of his misery. Sometimes they even ruin the trap. The neighbor boys also use the foot trap. When the animal reaches in to pick up the food, the trap grabs its paw and holds tight. I imagine they go berserk trying to get loose in that type, also.

No, I don't like it either, but I guess you would have to walk in my shoes. Rather, crawl in my knee and toe prints as I plant the sweet corn by hand, and pull the weeds on my hands and knees. It wasn't that easy for Larry to prepare the ground, either. It becomes all out war. We have no mercy.

The vultures get to eat.