Roy Exum: A Story From Iowa

  • Sunday, November 21, 2021
  • Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

Tabor, Iowa, is a tiny town with a giant heart. Located in the southwest corner of the state, Fremont County is bordered on the west by Nebraska and there is Missouri directly south. All around there are big farms – it’s grain belt country – and just south of town (pop. 960) is the Vanatta family’s spread, 2,000 acres where corn and soy beans are king.

In early September, Cole Vanatta was trimming trees to make way for his heavy farm equipment when a large branch snagged and a tragedy struck. The freak accident landed him in the hospital and two days later “everybody’s best friend” died from the injuries. A third generation farmer, Cole was working with his dad, age 62, and his grandfather, age 93, and suddenly his wife and three children were snagged by equal demon in farming … over 1,000 acres ready to be harvested and no one to bring the crops in.

Dealing with Cole’s death devastated the family, of course, and shocked the close-knit community but – my goodness – 1,000 acres of ready crops is a monumental task. Or was until a close friend and neighbor put a short, inconspicuous note on Facebook. “Hey, we are going to get together and honor Cole one last time.”

Cole’s wife was darn near overcome. “They just came and said, ‘I got this’ and took over. I’ll never be able to repay this … but I am gonna try,” Shannon Cole told reporters. 

Long before dawn you could hear them coming. Grain is harvested by massive machines called combines. The corn and soybeans are transferred to large auger trailers that then deposit the produce into grain elevators. It’s hard work and 1,000 acres can take the better part of a month … unless …

… You have over 100 people show up before daybreak, the air deafening by more than 24 combines and tractors towing more than 30 auger trailers. Local restaurants served big breakfasts, total strangers were in the mix, and those not in the fields kept fuel barrels full, propane for the space heaters, and rode upon a wave of celebration that comes in exhilaration when “showing up” for a heart-breaking family in a bind.

“Wives, businesses … whole entire community showed up,” said Cole’s brother in law Dan Morse. “People we hardly knew, doing anything they could. There were church groups serving food, people helping and not just for a while. This was an all-out effort… all day long.

The combines started on the crops about 7 a.m. on Friday and worked past dark. Then they cranked up even earlier on Saturday and by 8:30 that night, the crops were in. That’s right, over 1,000 acres gleaned in just two days with a bill marked “Paid by friends.”

Morse, a fireman, said the lesson wasn’t about Thanksgiving as much as it taught everybody involved “there are things bigger than yourself in life.

“You know, a lot of times it goes unrecognized,” he groped for words. “Nobody’s asking for recognition but … it happens on a regular basis. Cole would give anybody the shirt off his back but it’s amazing to see small communities come together and help each other out in that way. This was a tremendous experience for our community.

Sort of a ‘triumph over tragedy.’

“I’m trying to think of the right words .. but that feeling that comes when you are doing something bigger than yourself – for no other reason that it feels like the right thing to do -- is something I think that we are need to take time and remember.” 

A lot of people will remember this on Thursday as a nation gives thanks and, in Iowa, there will be an empty chair at the table surrounded by grateful hearts. 

Sometimes life is “bigger than yourself.”

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