Knee-high on the Fourth of July

John and Matt Snyder in 1991. 


I was waiting for a phone call that never came last week.

“Hey, when you coming out?”

Big John Snyder was on the other end. Matt wants to meet for The Picture at 7 p.m. Sunday, then he has to go play football in Manson.


I would show up on Sunday. You see no one but maybe an old dog. You go down to The Shed. There they are, shearing each other for fresh butch haircuts and tee-shirts with no sleeves.

John would lean against Old Blue and talk about the kids, and later the grandkids, and the corn and the cherry trees and the rain and the drought and, when he had them, hogs and Matt and baseball and broken windows.

He would reach into Old Blue and pull out The Book, which recorded all things of import. Such as:

How tall is the corn against the boy?

For 25 years he recorded how tall the corn was and how tall Matt was.

It started way before that, actually, when my wife’s family, the Gales from St. Joe, would pose next to a corn field on the Fourth of July. They never got in the paper.

John and Matt did.

The headline was “Knee-High by the Fourth of July.”

To an elephant’s eye.

Or a Snyder’s.

We started when Matt was a fireplug taking naps in the shade of the corn end rows. We’re sorry to Kayla, Allison and Patti but the picture was these two big boars who look alike wearing matching butch haircuts, matching tees and a pliers in the belt. None of us meant to be sexist.

John and I go way back. John had a birthday party when I was in first or second grade at the ancestral Urban and Dolores Snyder estate just south of tony Sulphur Springs. For whatever reason I was inside a pen full of pigs when a sow came straight at me. As I approached the fence Carl Lewis had nothing on me.

John laughs about it to this day.

That’s how it was back then. You could ride your bikes out to the Snyder farm on gravel from Storm Lake and waste the day chasing pigs or chickens around.

It was probably Tim Gallagher who came up with the idea. He had seen the St. Joe photos and suggested we should publish something like that.

Either Gallagher, John Cullen, Tom Wallace or me — usually me — would stand in the back of Old Blue and shoot a photo as the sun set over Sulphur.

Green fields rolled down from the family home on a knoll just a half-mile or so east of Urban’s. Big clouds billowed overhead. A pickup would leave a cloud of dust down the gravel in the still air. The only thing you would hear as a pig feeder clank, back when John tended hogs.

And you could think for just a while that the world was good.

Every year our readers could watch the boy grow, and get an annual glimpse at a family farm maintaining amid a swirl of change.

We chronicled floods and price falls and yields. We explained the anguishing decision John had to make in swine: Get big with contracted production or get out. He got out, and took a job in town plumbing with his old buddy Jerry Seiler. John farms with his brother, Tom, who lives near Schaller. Tom’s “hogs” are now expert auto body work.

After John and Tom retire their planter, who knows what will happen?

It is a story written across Iowa.

Consolidation. Scale. The family farm is now often a family corporation spanning thousands of acres.

The Snyders offered one fleeting look at the family farm we all once knew.

Sure, there were challenges. But there was a sense of balance. That you really did have everything you needed out here. That somehow you could roll with the punches when your family is all around you.

But then they all grow up and things change.

You just never know, John says.

The girls are married to farmers, and John feels blessed to have these grandkids just down the road experiencing the same sort of life he had growing up. They should know how lucky they are.

And then Matt up and moved to Minnesota, where he is a diesel mechanic. He and Rachel have a baby, and, well, you know, it’s tough to arrange things to get the picture and ... And all good things come to an end.

John and I took a ride on The Times float last year. It was “Knee-High by the Fourth of July.” Jon Robinson found us some fine stalks of corn through which we could emerge a la Field of Dreams, taken from a stand that shall remain nameless for fear of angering his father.

It was clear that John Snyder has higher popularity ratings in Storm Lake than any politician or newspaper editor. Which isn’t saying much, I guess. But it is evidence of a life well-lived, and I am grateful to have been allowed to look into it.

And the corn is looking good.

We await John’s official measurement from the Fourth.

John Snyder walked this letter into the office Wednesday:

Twenty-five years of father and son in the cornfield on the Fourth of July. We will always remember and never forget all the well wishes and how so many people loved the corn picture in the paper!

The Cullen family and everyone at The Times is like family to Matt and me! Big John is still the same but Matt is bigger than me and has established his family up in Montgomery, Minn. All good things come to a close, but I especially want to thank Art (Jerry) and Dolores for approaching me with this idea they had 25 years ago. You are very special friends to Matt and me. We will never forget this good ride!

Thanks everyone from …

Big John and even Bigger Matt Snyder

From Sulphur Springs, Iowa!