Building the house at Timberhill

Although we had owned our Decatur County property since 1988 it was September 1993 before we could afford to build the house. The biggest obstacle was selling our house in Des Moines. It was located at the end of dead end street overlooking a private nature preserve. But the city wanted to connect our road to a dead end street to the south. This would provide access the the private nature preserve and adjacent woodland where new housing would provide added real estate taxes. They planned to take part of our driveway for the new road. Our privacy and natural surroundings would be lost. It wasn’t until 1993 that when the proposed road was dropped and we could sell the house.

Our architect standing in building site

When our architect visited Timberhill he suggested that we build at the highest point, in the meadow overlooking the pond. The design consisted of a one story wood framed residence with a two bedroom loft, a guest house and an attached 2 car garage. The many windows would provide indoor-out integration and lots of natural light. Kitchen-living-dining were integrated into one space with fireplaces. We began construction in 1993.


A concrete contractor from northern Missouri poured the foundations. In the foreground is the garage, the main house is in the middle and the guest house is in the background. I was certainly impressed with the quality of the work.

Tiimberhill house under construction

We were very fortunate to have found an excellent contrator to build the house. He even understood the prefabricated wood truss joists/rafters set at right angles to roof above the main floor. They framed the high ceiling over the kitchen on the left and bedroom on the right. In the center above the living-dining was the two bedroom loft.

Finished house

In March, 1994 we moved in. When we left Des Moines I wondered whether we would regret moving from the Des Moines to the least populated county in Iowa. We have never regretted that decision.

Finding the Boundaries

Timberhill Aerial Photo

When our lawyer did a title search prior to closing on our first purchase of seventy five acres of Decatur County land he warned,  “Be careful they don’t slip an extra forty acres in on you.”

Our lawyer believed that land was only worth buying if it could produce an income.  But the overstocked woodlands we had purchased had no value except for hunting wild game and  harvesting firewood.  To Bill and me the land was beautiful,  I’ll never forget walking the East Savanna trail the day after we closed and the property became ours.  I couldn’t believe this mosaic of woodlands and prairie openings was really ours.

Bill and I purchased our Decatur County property in pieces.  From Doyle Butcher we bought the original 75 acres, the East Savanna.  In 2001 we purchased an additional forty acres the we call the West 40.  While we were negotiating the purchase of the West 40 we sought advice from an appraiser regarding price.  Looking across the fence at the hickory woodland overgrown with eastern red cedar and honey locust he shook his head in disgust.  Why would we even consider buying such worthless land? But the West 40 had not only wildflowers such as purple prairie clover and bottle gentian not found on our East Savanna,  it also contained a remnant white oak and bur oak savanna. And we were certain it had never been plowed.  

Original survey notes

Since the land was considered so worthless no one had ever located the exact boundaries.  The only permanent  survey marker was a steel post designating an abandoned right of way that used to run through the middle of the east savanna,  Whatever the original Government Land Office surveyor had available when he surveyed the property in 1847 marked the rest of the survey points.  For example, a harrow bar marked the southwest corner between the West 40 and West Creek units.  The northwest corner was marked by a buggy axle buried in the creek, the southeast corner a buggy pole brace. A wringer spindle (iron spindle of a wringer washer), chips of crockery or a peg fashioned from the wood of a nearby tree and placed under a large stone marked other survey points. To quote the survey map, “a stone under E  W fence about 2 feet west of fence line south”, and “stone & jig under gray boulder”.Re

Revised survey notes locating some of the 1847 markers

There were fence lines but they were confusing.  At the corner between the east property and the West 40 the east fence line ended twenty feet south of  its continuation to the west.  A road that used to run along this line had been abandoned in 1938 and the land divided between adjoining landowners.  But the owners kept the fence lines where they were, one that ran on the south side of the road and another on the north.  After we purchased the West 40 we asked the county surveyor to mark the corners with permanent survey marker.  With a copy of the revised survey notes which located some of the original makers he stood near where he thought the buggy pole brace might be and swung a metal detector back and forth until it indicated buried metal.  With a shovel he dug up the buggy pole brace and replaced it with a permanent survey marker.  To find the northwest corner he had to wade into the creek.  This time he set the permanent survey marker south of the actual survey point and drove nails into a nearby post  and box elder from which another surveyor could shoot the actual survey point.  

Since then Decatur land such as our has increased in value.  However, the increased value is not into its beauty or restoration potential but its ability to produce deer.  We are now surrounded by hunters who have paid up to $3000 per acre for private hunting grounds.  They know exactly where the boundaries are and monitor them constantly with trail cameras to deter poachers. 


(This post is the first installment in a series about Timberhill history)

Brush Creek

The biggest obstacle to building a house on our Decatur County property was building a 72-foot bridge  across Brush Creek. The bridge designed by our engineer called for 44,094 lbs. structural steel including 36” and 21” I-beams, 6” channel hand rail and a 10” x 10” H-beam. The estimate for new steel parts was $19,700.00.  That plus the cost to build the bridge were way more than we could afford.  Then we found out that one of our Des Moines friends sold used bridge parts.  Not only did he find the parts we needed but they were were located in Chariton, Iowa only 42 miles away.  And they cost was less than one fifth the cost of new steel. 

Ready to build the bridge

Presettlement Brush Creek which is just south of Pony Farm Road was little more than a trickle that could easily be crossed on foot or in a horse and buggy.   But as the land became more settled and the US Army Corps of Engineers straightened and dredged the waterways the creek cut deeper and deeper.  When we purchased our land in 1988 the only place to cross it was a low water crossing. And that was only possible when the water level was low.  We soon learned that we would have to build a substantial bridge in order to reach our building site in the prairie above Pony Farm Rd.  

Low Water Crossing

On the south side of the creek the bridge had to be built into the side of a steep hill. So we ended up with a deep gap between the top of the bridge and the ground.

Completed bridge

A local contractor filled the gap was filled with red clay soil from another site on our property. He packed the soil with heavy equipment, then completed the driveway up hill.

Driveway before it was topped with gravel

In April, 1993, we had a bridge across Brush Creek. Now we could drive to our building site.


(I had computer problems since my last post. Whenever I tried to use an application I got the spinning ball instead of the app. When I finally called Apple Care for support I learned that I hadn’t downloaded macOS Catalina 10.15.7, the latest software update. That fixed the spinning ball problem but this also updated my applications and I had to learn to use them all over again. In any case, this post is somewhat late.)

The red line in the above aerial photo marks the Timberhill boundaries. Our 200-acre property is bounded by Pony Farm Road to the north and Brush Creek to the east. It is comprised primarily of oak and hickory woodland with small prairie openings. Since most of this land had never been tilled it was highly restorable. When we purchased the property the plant list contained one hundred species. It now lists almost five hundred species without us having done any seeding. All we did was thin the overstocked woodland and implement annual prescribed burns.

East Savanna

In the East Savanna several very conservative plants bloom each fall. Most notable is a small pink flowering plant with stalks so slender that the plants appear as a pink cloud under the scattered white oaks.

Agalinis Gattingeri, Round-stemmed false foxglove

Having only rudimentary taxonomic skills it was sometime before I identified it as a member of the genus Agalinis formerly knows as Gerardia. Slowly working my way through the keys I narrowed it down either to A. Gattingeri, Round-stemmed false foxglove or A. tenuifolia, Slender false foxglove. Since A. Gattingeri is very conservative (COC=10, plants restricted to presettlement remnants) I decided that it must be the latter.

In June, 2003 friends brought Dr. Gerould Wilhelm, the foremost Midwest botanist to Timberhill. “Can’t be Agalinis tenuifolia,” he told me. It’s the wrong habitat. That’s Agalinis Gattingeri.” To say the least I was stunned to find such a conservative plant proliferating in the dry acidic soil on the East Savanna ridge top. What a thrill that was!

Although I see Agalinis tenuifolia throughout our restoration it is most abundant in the West Creek spring-fed meadow. The plants here are so numerous that it is hard not to step on them. Both plants are annual and germination is stimulated by fire.

West of the creek that borders the West Creek unit is a field that was cropped continuously from 1938 until we purchased it in 2004. I assumed that there would be little native plant diversity on land that had been so heavily farmed. I was wrong.

We began managing this site in 2004 by removing the invasive shingle oak trees and implementing annual prescribed fire. The results have been far beyond what I had hoped. Most impressive has been the restoration of Gentiana Andrewsii, Bottle gentian. This striking plant has rich blue flowers clustered at the top of the main plant stem. Considered a threatened species in several eastern states it is declining because of wetland destruction. However, it is abundant in this old crop field.

Bottle gentian is difficult for most insects to pollinate because the closed flowers never open. It is pollinated primarily by bumble bees which are strong enough to force their way into the closed corolla.

Gentiana Andrewsii, Bottle Gentian

Also blooming throughout Timberhill this fall are Showy goldenrod and various blue asters. Sky-blue aster, Smooth blue aster and New England aster add a colorful contrast to the abundant showy goldenrods.

Showy goldenrod and Sky-blue aster
New England Aster


Yellow false foxglove, Aureolaria grandiflora, is one of my favorite flowering plants.  In late summer the showy yellow blossoms bloom throughout the open woodlands of the East Savanna. A hemiparasite on the roots of white oaks it produces its own chlorophyll but obtains water and nutrients from oak roots.  Bumblebees are particularly attracted to the profuse tubular yellow blossoms which come into bloom in late July and August. They crawl into the tubular shaped corolla to gleen nectar.  According to  Wilhelm and Rericha’s  Flora of the Chicago Region Bombus affinis, B. griseocollis, B. impatiens and B. vagans visit these large yellow  flowers.  (Only B. griseocollis and B. impatiens have been observed at Timberhill.)

Bumblebee gleaning nectar in Yellow false foxglove

Silver spotted skippers are the most abundant skipper species at
Timberhill.  That’s not surprising since the larvae feed on legumes such as false indigo, bush clover and tick-trefoils, all particularly abundant here.  The caterpillars live in shelters constructed  by folding over a carefully cut leaf section tied down with white silk.  In the photo below you can see the caterpillar on the upper leaf and a folded over shelter on the lower leaf.

When the cup plant,  Silphium perfoliatum, came into bloom in August I was surprised to see butterflies nectaring on it.  It is not considered a popular nectar source for butterflies.  But I observed tiger, black and giant swallowtails and American ladies on the blossoms.  

Giant swallowtail on Cup plant


Shortly after Bill and I moved into the house we built on our 200-acre Decatur County, Iowa property we planted three serviceberry trees west of the house.   Since then we have lost one of the trees but the other two are thriving.  We particularly like these trees not only because of the showy white flowers but the many birds attracted to the fruit.  However, the flowers bloom so early in the season that they are very susceptible to frost damage which negatively impacts fruit abundance.  This year, for example, the serviceberries began blooming on April 12.  On April 17 we had 10.5 inches of snow.   Luckily damage was minimal and each tree was packed with ripening fruit in June.  That’s when the cedar waxwings appeared.  They devoured the berries even before they were fully ripened.  

Cedar Waxwings preparing eat serviceberry fruit

In late June I was surprised to find the Hidden Prairie full of blooming New Jersey tea.  It was much more abundant than I have ever seen. (The Hidden Prairie is a high quality remnant  completely surrounded by oak and hickory woodland.) Numerous hairstreak butterflies were nectaring on the blossoms.  Here at Timberhill we have observed five hairstreak species:  Banded hairstreak, Hickory hairstreak, Edwards hairstreak. Coral hairstreak and White M hairstreak.  The Coral hairstreak is easily distinguished by the lack of tails, row of red-orange spots along the hind wing and no blue tail spot.  I can also ID the White M and Edwards hairstreaks,  but I find distinguishing between the Banded and Hickory specimens difficult at best.  Identification can only be based on multiple traits since both species show individual variation.  Even then I am never sure.  I submitted this hairstreak photo to the Iowa Insects list serve for ID help.  Of the five replies I received, two identified it as Hickory hairstreak, and three as Banded.  Even the experts don’t agree.  

Hairstreak butterfly

So far this summer the abundance of mushrooms has compensated for the poor morel mushroom season.  The prized edible, golden chanterelles,  began fruiting on June 6.  These fungi lack true gills on the underside of their caps.  There are gill-like wrinkles and ridges instead. They are still fruiting and each week have at least one breakfast of scrambled eggs with chanterelles. I heat a film of olive oil in my egg skillet, add a garlic clove and bay leaf which I remove when the garlic just starts to brown.  The I throw in the chanterelles , tossing and turning until they are just tender and have released their juices. Then the butter.  When it begins to sizzle I add 4 eggs whisked lightly with a tablespoon of cream. When the eggs are runnily set I season them with salt and pepper and serve with buttered toast.  Delicious!  

Golden Chanterelles

For the first time in several years I found a cluster of black trumpet mushrooms, Craterellus cornucopoides, also fruiting in the East Savanna.  The deeply depressed trumpet shaped cap is brown to ashy gray is quite unattractive.   This species has several common names including horn of plenty, trumpet of death and fairy’s loving cup.  It is usually found associated with oak and hickory.  

That same week I also collected several specimens of this lovely red bolete, Boletus rubroflammeus.   It is identified by the unpolished deep vinaceous-red cap, thick, soft bright yellow flesh, red pore surface and coarse red reticulations on the yellow stipe.  All parts of this species turn blue when bruised.  It is apparently uncommon.  The only observations recorded on Mushroom Observer ( are in Connecticut and Iowa.  

Boletus rubroflammeus
B. rubroflammeus showing blue stain on pore surface

Important note: Do not eat any mushroom found in the wild unless it has been identified by a mushroom expert as 100% safe.

May Field Journal

When Bill and I purchased the West 40 unit in 2001 I found a small patch of dwarf larkspur, Delphinium tricorne, under the shagbark hickory and oak tree canopy.  According to Wilhlem and Rericha’s Flora of the Chicago Region this is a rare species highly intolerant of disturbance and found only in a high quality natural communities. The sparsely-leaved flowering stalk is topped by a terminal spire containing 6-14 blue-violet spurred flowers.  In 2001 we began restoration of this unit with prescribed burns.  After three burns we thinned the overstocked woodland.  Since then we have continued annual prescribed burns.  Now this lovely plant has spread throughout the
West 40.

The 2020 morel season was disappointing.  I expected an excellent season because we had snow in both March and April.  (A bountiful morel harvest usually follows March and April snow events.)  But after harvesting thirty specimens between April 8-28 I found only one more on May 7.  It was an older specimen, probably one we missed in April. I had anticipated collecting at least one hundred specimens this year.  But the cold, dry weather that followed our April harvest put an end to morel fruiting. Our last morel foray was to the West Creek unit where we searched all the mayapple stands, dead elms and oak sprouts. We were skunked! All we found was a wild turkey nest with five eggs. 

Mushrooms aren’t the wild food we collect at Timberhill.  Stinging nettle shoots which are abundant  along in the Brush Creek bottom are a delicious cooked green.   Wearing gloves I harvest the young shoots when they are about one foot tall.  In the kitchen (still wearing gloves) I strip the leaves from the tough stalks and boil them for 8 minutes.  Cooking removes the sting. I prefer nettles sautéed in garlic and olive oil or tossed with butter.  Or you can cut up raw nettle leaves into soups and stews.  Boiling  the young shoots or leaves also makes a nourishing tea which contains vitamins A and C as well as iron and protein.  


At Timberhill ramps, also known as wild leeks (Allium tricoccum), are a rite of spring. One of the first wild plants to appear after the spring thaw this pungent member of the onion family is a delicious wild edible.   Ramps smell like garlic, cook like onion and taste like leeks. The plant is easily identified by its smooth green leaves and red lower stalks. All parts of this bulb forming perennial are edible.  We find it in the mixed hardwood woodland along Brush Creek.  

Digging ramps

Ramps can be cooked whole or the greens and stems separately.  Bill and I like them with scrambled eggs.  For this recipe I cook the ramp stems and a minced shallot in bacon grease until tender. After pushing the stems and shallot to the side  I cook the chopped greens until slightly wilted. To complete the recipe I add four beaten eggs, salt and pepper to the stems and shallot in the pan.  The eggs are cooked until softly set and somewhat moist and topped with chopped ramp greens.   Delicious!

Ramps (Wild Leek)

Here in Decatur County, Iowa the greatest weather changes occur in April.  This year it was more pronounced than usual.  The daytime high reached seventy-eight degrees on April 8.  Two days later 52” was the daytime high.   Cold weather continued into the next week culminating with a ten and one-half inches snowfall on April 14-17. The following week daytime high temperatures again reached 78.  After the snow melted spring ephemerals again covered the woodland floor.  By May 6 spring larkspur and hoary puccoon were coming into bloom.  I even found a frog orchid blooming in the West 40.

Frog orchid (Coeloglossum viride)

With its finely cut foliage lousewort is often mistaken for a fern.  In late April a dense cluster of small yellow snapdragon-like flowers bloom on top of the stem.  Lousewort is a root hemiparasite.  It is able to produce its own food through the use of solar energy but obtains water and nutrients from a host plant.  Roots of hemiparasites attach below ground  atop the roots of their host, robbing the host of water and nutrients.  A soil fungus acts as a bridge between the parasite and the host. Lousewort alters the plant community structure by robbing plants such as woodland  sunflower of nutrients and opening the site for more conservative plants. Once established, these plants spread like a fairy ring in an ever-widening circle.  Woodland sunflowers parasitized by lousewort become less vigorous.  As the sunflowers decline space is opened for more conservative forbs such as slender bush clover and blazing star.  

Lousewort (Pedicularis canadensis)

At Timberhill the two to four-week morel mushroom season usually begins in April. Although I have found morels as early as March 27 and as late as June 1 the season usually ends in early May.  It takes quite a bit of rainfall in order for morels to fruit.  Also, they have been particularly abundant in years that we had both March and April snowfall.  Since that was the case this year I expected a bountiful harvest.  On April 8 Bill and I found the first specimens in our West Creek and West 40 units after daytime high temperatures of 79” on April 7 and 78” on April 8.  That’s just what morels require to begin fruiting.  Temperatures dropped the next day and continued to fall throughout the next week.  Between April 14 and 17 ten and one-half inches snow fell.  However, morels began fruiting again after the snow melted. We collected thirty specimens on April 25, more than enough to prepare our favorite recipe: chicken with morels and cream

Chicken with morels and cream

During morel season it seems that I am either praying for rain or praying for rain to stop.  By April 22 I was praying for rain.  Thankfully we got 1.05 inches on April 24.  On April 25 we collected thirty specimens. Through the first week of May daytime highs dropped into the fifties – not warm enough for morel fruiting. Hot, dry weather always ends morel fruiting.  Now I’ll find out if they also shut down after cold, dry weather.  

Surprising Morels

Morel mushrooms have been intertwined with Bill’s and my life at Timberhill ever since we first saw them here in 1985.  Our realtor was showing us land along the Weldon River that the owner, Mike, was anxious to sell because the interest rates had become so high.  Bill, the realtor, Mike and I were crammed into the front seat of the Mike’s pickup.  After viewing his property along the Weldon River he drove us uphill to a gate that opened into a ridge top meadow. From there the trail took us past a pond in the sunlit wildflower meadow.  Surrounding the meadow branches of mature oak trees reached out over the top of native grasses.  I knew that this was the land that Bill and I had been looking for.  

Careful not to reveal my excitement, I nudged Bill and casually asked the realtor, “So who owns this property?”

“Oh, this is Doyle’s.  He lives across the road,” she replied.

We thanked Mike and the realtor, then drove immediately to the Butcher house.  There was no answer to our knock on the kitchen door.  We looked around the outbuildings for Doyle.  Then we heard a “Hello?” from across the road.  We turned around and saw Doyle and his wife walking toward us.  They carried a paper grocery sack overflowing with morels.  I’d never seen so many specimens.  Three months later we purchased 75 acres across the road from Doyle.

The next spring I asked Doyle to show me where to find the morels on the land we’d purchased from him.  “Oh, those weren’t on my land.  They were on Mike’s property.” That was our next land purchase – the 45 acres with morels from Mike.  

Site of first 2020 morel

West of our original land purchase was a 40 acre piece with high quality prairie remnants.  Although much of it was heavily overgrown with eastern red cedar I saw some very conservative plants such as low nut rush, Scleria verticillata, there. Water bubbled from freshwater natural springs.  Between the prairie remnants and springs we couldn’t resist and purchased another 40 acres in 2004 to bring our total to 200 acres.  That same year we implemented prescribed burns and we cleared all the trees except elms from this unit which we named West Creek.  It was under a dead elm in one of the West Creek prairie remnants that we found the first morel of 2020.

Young Maypples

We never know where the first morels will fruit since we have found morels in each of the Timberhill units.  Will they be under silver maple and elms trees east of the house along Brush Creek?  Or under the cottonwoods along the West 40 bottom trail?  Last year they were most abundant in the Hickory Grove and prairie border west of the house.   We have learned to begin looking seriously when the first asparagus spears sprout in the vegetable garden.  That was on April 8 this year and sure enough we found our first morel of the season sprouting from a clump of goldenrod leaves under a dead elm in West Creek the same day.  The next day we found four more. To my surprise all the specimens were fruiting from clumps of goldenrod leaves.  I’d never seen that before.  

First Morels

They will become more plentiful after the mayapple leaves are fully open.  That’s when we drop everything and devote each day to the two-to -three week morel harvest.

The Timberhill Year

April 6, 2020

In this difficult time Bill and I are also staying in place.  But we are fortunate to be living in the middle of a 200-acre private nature preserve.  Our place is surrounded by woodland and prairie bordered by a county road and two creeks.  We’re the only human residents.  Here’s what’s happening this week.  

Description: Macintosh HD:Users:sibyllabrown:Pictures:Photos Library.photoslibrary:resources:proxies:derivatives:10:00:10bc:UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_10bc.jpg

                                    Sarcosypha dudleyi,  Crimson Cup

Sarcosypha dudleyi,  Crimson Cup mushroom is now fruiting abundantly on downed basswood along Brush Creek east of the house. A harbinger of spring I have occasionally seen it fruiting on warm January days.  The deeply incurved cup flattens as the mushroom matures. The bright red inner surface is smooth while the white outer surface is composed of loose cottony material. The length of the short, wide stalk varies according to the depth at which the sticks are buried.  

In Iowa this species used to be recognized as S. coccinea.  But S. coccinea is found only in the Pacific Northwest whereas S. dudleyi is found in eastern North America. The two species can only be separated by their microscopic features. 

Crimson cup was used as medicinal plant by Oneida Indians.  They applied the dried and ground up fungus as a styptic to the navels of newborn children who were not healing properly after their umbilical cord was cut. Ground up fruit bodies were also used under soft-tanned deerskin bandages. 

Description: Macintosh HD:Users:sibyllabrown:Pictures:Photos Library.photoslibrary:resources:proxies:derivatives:14:00:14e9:YerecFNyREGVzSOgE4ASqg_thumb_14e9.jpg

                                    Dumontinia tuberosa, Anemone cup

One expects to find Crimson Cup mushrooms early in the season but finding another cup fungus so early in the season is always gratifying.  Anemone cups, Dumontinia tuberosa,  are also fruiting in our open woodlands.  Widely distributed but not commonly collected in eastern North America from New York to North Dakota and south to Tennessee this fungus fruits in early spring, March through May.  Ada Hayden Herbarium at Iowa State University lists collections from Winneshiek, Marshall, Boone, Johnson, Iowa, Decatur and Story counties. D. tuberosa is the only member of the genus.  The underground portion consists of a long, slender stalk attached to a long, irregularly-shaped sclerotium, a compact mass of hardened mushroom tissue.  Above ground, the stalk expands into a pale umber-brown cup, 1-3 cm. wide. 

Historically Dumontinia tuberosa has been regarded as a parasite of Anemone “but a more complex relationship may exist between the two organisms.” (Elliott et al)I have dug up several specimens.  None were associated with the roots of another plant although Rue Anemone, Anemone thalictroides, is blooming nearby.

In Europe it is known to parasitize the rhizomes of Anemone nemerosa.  Since it is “parasitic on European species of anemone it has always been assumed that must also be the case in North America.  But it is uncertain whether it is associated with any American species of Anemone. Mycologist Fred Seaver collected hundreds of specimens and “in no case has the fungus been associated with the rhizomes of any host. While there might be a mycelial connection, none was apparent.” (Seaver)  It may also be that the American form of this species differs from the European.  


Fred J. Seaver.  The North American Cup-fungi (Inoperculates). Lancaster: Lancaster Press, 1951:p. 76 Beug, Bessette & Bessetrte.  Ascomete Fungi of North America. University of Texas