September 5, 2017 at 3:32 p.m.
But Saturday, Jan. 17, while they did chores three miles away, Jeff and Melinda "Mindy" Walzes' house was ablaze, leaving nothing but a pile of rubble and ashes a few hours later.
Jeff, 26, and Mindy, 25, had left their farm at 5 a.m. to milk their mixed herd of 38 Holsteins, Ayrshires and Jerseys, in a barn they rent west of Eldorado.
When they returned at 7 a.m., flames were shooting out of the windows of the older, two-story, four-bedroom farmhouse that sat on a knoll at the end of a long, picturesque drive. When firefighters arrived, there was little they could to but watch the rest of the house burn and drop into the basement.
The Walzes, who rented the house from Mindy's father, Allen Mittelsted, West Union, had renter's insurance on their possessions. Still, they expect it may not cover all they lost, which included their wedding rings, cash and credit cards in their wallets and identification.
"We're not supposed to go through the debris," explains Mindy. But from a walk-out basement one-stall garage, there are steps leading to the basement that now holds ashes and twisted metal bed frames and what's left of the furnace. As the couple stood on the steps looking at what was left, Mindy said as she turned to go, she saw what looked like a charred box that typically holds a necklace or a ring. Looking inside, Mindy could still identify the charred, but intact, Black Hills Gold earrings her mother had chosen for her as a graduation gift.
Jane Mittelsted died when Mindy was just 10 years old. But before she succumbed to cancer, the young mother of six purchased confirmation and graduation gifts to be given to her youngest children on those occasions. She also wrote letters to each of her six kids.
Fire destroyed Mindy's letter from her mom even though it had been in a safe. A crystal bowl that was a wedding gift, was gone too - but not the earrings that had been on a shelf in a closet in a second-story bedroom.
Beyond the items of sentimental value that can't be replaced, there were 24 meters in the basement, related to Mindy's work as a tester for Fayette County DHIA. Possessing a degree in dairy science from Iowa State University, Mindy travels an approximate 40-mile wide area. She said the other two testers in the county are cooperating to cover what Mindy can't. The Walzes expect replacement equipment to arrive any day.
Each day, in between doing morning and evening chores, the couple has worked to list the items they lost and conducted business essential to getting their lives back to normal. Jeff had to see the eye doctor to get his glasses and contacts replaced. They needed duplicates of their driver's licenses, and Mindy had to rebuild the contact list she kept in her cell phone.
The couple returns to the site of the fire every day to look after seven calves in huts, a coop of laying chickens, a pair of horses and their pet dogs. At Mindy's brother's place two miles to the east, the couple has 30 heifers and several dry cows. They also rent 16 acres from the elder Mittelsted, on which they plant corn to feed their herd. Hay is usually purchased by the semi-load from South Dakota. The Walzes sell their milk to Swiss Valley.
Until they learn what settlement their insurance company will offer, the couple is making no plans for their future. They have temporary housing in a house on the farm where they are milking their herd, offered by the Vagts family.
It's unlikely a cause for the fire will ever be known, because so little was left after the blaze.
To Jeff and Mindy, the cause doesn't really matter- they've lost nearly everything they own, but their herd and one another.
As they begin to make a plan for a revised future, they try to find humor in some of the little things that they love above farm life.
"All of my registration papers are gone ... my herd health book is gone," bemoans Mindy.
"All my breedings from this month were in the house. There are only two I can remember who I bred them to," she says with a small smile.
Because most of the Walz herd is registered, she'll wait to see which ones give birth to heifer calves, and then she'll have their pedigrees determined by DNA tests.
It will be just one more reminder nine to 10 months from now, about the day Jeff and Mindy Walz faced a daunting challenge. It's one that threatens to delay their plans, but it won't keep them from their lifelong dream: growing a registered dairy herd and making a life in rural Northeast Iowa.
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