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Columbia Missourian

One family's past is Columbia's future

By Vanja Petrovic
June 9, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT

The Crane family property, Lofty Cliff Farm, has been sold to the city of Columbia and will be used as a public park, retaining some of the beauty they’ve come to love over their long tenure on the land.

Sue Crane says she feels like she’s in a pop-up book as she walks around the farm that’s been in her family for 130 years. With every few steps, a vivid memory leaps out to command her attention.

She remembers spots on the farm that she and her sister, Robin, named as children. Places like “Mexico,” an area that dried up one year and where they would go to fight off imaginary enemies to protect their “magical” horses. She remembers the time a cow fell from a cliff while seeking a shortcut to its calf, which was craving its nightly feeding. She remembers good times with the children from Granny’s House, an after-school program for Columbia’s inner-city children, who still come to the farm for horse-riding lessons.

Six Generations on the Farm

Here’s a list of the generations of the Crane family who have lived at Lofty Cliff Farm. • Mary Jane and Allen Cruse Crane • Joseph and Mary Elizabeth Crane • Forest Renfro and Betty Crane • Vincent and Muriel Crane • Sue, Robin, Syd and Bill Crane • Taylor and Riki Crane (Sue’s children)

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Lofty Cliff Farm, established in 1877, holds an endless collection of stories and memories for all the Cranes. Six generations have lived there, and it seems every feature of the 320-acre farm — the springs, the cave, the creek, the pastures, the woods — has a special meaning.

That’s why it is so difficult for the Cranes to give up their land. The city of Columbia announced earlier this year that it had reached a deal to buy the Cranes’ property and turn it into a park. The Cranes will get a little more than $8 million for the property and must move by March 2008, but their hearts will be broken, they say.

“When they start moving the dirt around, I don’t want to be around,” Sue’s mother, 82-year-old Muriel Crane, says.

Sue agrees. “They’re going to take out trees I’ve known all my life.”

Sixty years at home

Muriel’s red-brick, split-level ranch house at the front of the Crane farm would look appropriate in any suburban neighborhood — if it weren’t for the 10-foot hay bales in the yard or the quarter-mile distance to the nearest neighbor. White and gray Arabian horses roam spring-green pastures beside the house, munching on a mix of fescue and timothy.

The property sits between Gans and South Gans Creek roads, about a mile south of U.S. 63 and Nifong Boulevard. The farm is the site of cliffs, Gans Creek, the occasional spring and rolling pastures separated by sections of timber. It’s a quiet place, and so few cars pass by that a black-and-white dog feels safe enough to amble down the middle of Gans Road.

Memories are rich even along the driveway. To the side is a blue spruce the family planted for Vincent Crane, Muriel’s husband, on his 70th birthday in 1987. They planted it because “a man of 70 who plants a tree is a man of vision,” Sue says.

“When we planted it, it was the ugliest little tree you ever saw,” Muriel says. Now, the spruce towers over power lines that run parallel to the driveway.

Near the gate of the driveway is a dark-red boulder. Every gate at Lofty Cliff has one like it. The second-generation owner, Joe Crane, placed the rocks, likely using a team of horses to drag them from the creek or other spots on the farm, Sue says. He did it because he had a bad leg and needed a boost to mount his horses.

To the left of Muriel’s front door, a carved wooden sign welcomes visitors: “Lofty Cliff Farm, Muriel & Vincent.” Inside, the decor attests to the family’s simple lifestyle.

The living room has two reclining chairs, a low-sitting sofa and a wooden rocking chair. The television is so small it’s easy to miss. There are no framed family photographs — Muriel’s never been a big picture-taker — but large framed lithographs of landscapes adorn the walls. In the dining room, documents and piles of paper overwhelm the table, and black cow figurines sit atop a desk.

Muriel is a collector. The wall of her small but organized kitchen displays a group of graters hung in no particular order. There are old ones and new ones, some used for apples, others for cheese. The smallest, which fits in the palm of a hand, is for nutmeg. The graters surround an aerial view of the farm that Sue painted. It shows details such as the types of grass in particular areas and the kinds of livestock on the farm.

Muriel’s ensemble of Alfred Meakin white ironstone pottery — a collection of pitchers in an array of sizes and shapes ­— adds a touch of elegance to the lower level of the house. The heads of two white-tailed deer are mounted on the wall. A family friend shot both animals. Muriel doesn’t hunt deer, but she became a member of the Missouri Show-Me Big Bucks Club, a group that recognizes and records deer heads and promotes interest in deer hunting, when she found a deer rack and had it mounted on one of the deer’s head.

Muriel has lived in Boone County all her life. Before she met Vincent, she lived in Deer Park, a town just south of the farm. She met her husband at Bonne Femme Church; they married when she was 20. Vincent served in the Air Force during World War II, and the couple bought the farm while Vincent was still in the service. Muriel has lived on the farm for more than 60 years. Vincent died in 1993.

“I’ve probably lived on and owned this place the longest,” she says, about the generations of Cranes.

A walk through Lofty Cliff Farm

When the Cranes talk about the farm, they refer to three sections: “the front,” “the creek bottom” and “the back.”

“The front” runs along the south side of Gans Road. Here, behind Muriel’s back yard, Robin Crane — Sue’s sister — works in a red stable, feeding her nine horses: gray and chestnut Arabians and one mustang. They don’t always get along, so she has to separate them before feeding. The horse that gets picked on the most, a gray Arabian that’s short for her breed, eats alone outside the stable.

Robin is the farm’s primary caretaker, but everyone pitches in for big projects.

“I’m basically supposed to be the one in charge,” Robin says.

The front of Lofty Cliff Farm is mostly rolling pastures, scattered with groves of trees. A small walnut grove west of Muriel’s house surrounds one of several deer stands spread throughout the property. The conspicuous wooden stand, used as a lookout for hunters, resembles a tree house, and has been there as long as Robin and Sue can remember.

The stand overlooks “Mexico,” a section of pasture to the south. Robin and Sue used the stand as a lookout point and a fort when they pretended to be “Indians” as children. They would pick walnuts, store them in the fort and hurl them at imaginary enemies to protect their horses.

“We just went around like a lot of kids do, creating story lines and playing those roles,” Sue says. “Mostly we pretended we were a cross between Indians and whatever other fantasy a kid can come up with. We pretended our horses were magical horses that we had to protect from the outside world.”

Next to the stable where Robin feeds the horses is an arena where children from Granny’s House come for horse-riding lessons on Thursdays and Saturdays.

When Sue was young she wanted to turn the farm into a camp for children, so when she met Pamela Ingrim, the “Granny” who oversees Granny’s House, she started volunteering with the group. She eventually made trips to Lofty Cliff part of the program.

Robin, Sue and Sue’s daughter, Riki, are the instructors. Sue teaches the children how to care for a horse and tries to illustrate how patience, kindness and a gentle nature will help them in other aspects of their lives. Robin teaches them safe riding. Riki teaches horsemanship, which covers approaching horses and recognizing and handling emergencies.

Sue says the Cranes’ work with Granny’s House is an extension of the family’s long-standing practice of volunteering with children. Her great-grandfather Joseph used to bring orphans to the farm to live and work. At Joseph’s funeral six children other than his own were recognized as his.

“Seeing that in our history makes me think that it runs in the family,” Sue says.

Vernita Chapman, 15, has been taking lessons at Lofty Cliff for about two years. She describes Sue as kind, calm and honest, someone who gives a lot. She says she has learned responsibility, patience and organizational skills. She’s saddened that the farm will eventually become a park because she fears it will be too far away to visit.

Tirian McLaurin, 10, who goes by Star, started taking riding and horsemanship lessons when she was 8. She goes to church with Sue and describes her as “nice,” “overworked” and “cool.”

Star says she wouldn’t sell the farm if it were up to her. “I wouldn’t have gave it up. They had their childhood there.”

“You’re selling our memories,” Star told Sue after learning the family would sell Lofty Cliff.

Sue, however, has assured the children that their lessons will continue on a farm near Millersburg that her husband’s family owns.

“I’ve promised the kids that we’re just moving to another farm. …” she said. “When all that development goes in, (Lofty Cliff is) not going to feel like a farm anyway.”

Muriel said she plans to set up a trust fund that will pay for children to come to the park.

Back at the horse stall, Robin prepares to deliver minerals to cattle grazing in the “creek bottom.”

She throws a sack of minerals into the back of her silver pickup and hits the gravel roads.

After passing Muriel’s house, pastures, a narrow creek and wooded area, the barn of Syd Crane, Sue’s brother, comes into view. Tractors and other farm materials are scattered outside. Syd’s gray wooden home sits at the corner of the two roads. His horses munch calmly on the grass.

Everyone “around here” is a horse person, Robin says, adding that even Syd has finally taken an interest. “He’s a guy. They tend to go out to the cars first and horses later.”

Muriel, however, prefers the cattle. “I like the cattle business,” she says. “There’s just something about cows. You come to realize that humans and animals are pretty much alike.”

The Cranes’ neighbors have a manicured lawn and mulch along the creek. The Cranes took a more natural approach, but that doesn’t mean they’re not mindful. Along Gans Creek Road, a cardboard box with crude lettering delivers a warning from Muriel: “To the lazy guy who dumped all these cans here. I set this here for you. If you don’t pick them up, I’m calling the law. I’m watching.”

The creek bottom

Robin approaches the gate that leads to Sue’s house. She’s officially in the creek bottom, which feels private and secluded. Here, Gans Creek flows west, cutting a deep, meandering path through clumpy pastures. It differs from the muddy streams in northern Boone County. Gans’ water flows more clear and cold, trickling over and through the rock shelves that line its bed. It widens as it goes along, forming a pool as it approaches a cliff.

Muriel finds the creek beautiful but says it’s also one of the reasons operating a farm has become problematic. Cattle bathe in and drink from the creek, disturbing the banks and bed of the stream, which is on the state’s list of protected waterways. The Cranes eventually would have had to fence it, which would make it difficult to move cattle from one pasture to another.

“It’s not really an advantage to have a creek run through your property,” Muriel says.

To the west is “Indian Lookout.” It’s at the bottom of a hill where pastures give way to a series of exposed rock shelves. The Crane girls named it “Indian Lookout” because it’s a good place to scout for the imagined enemies of childhood. It offers a view of several childhood landmarks.

Robin says archaeologists have told the family that the farm probably was home to a Native American tribe. Robin occasionally finds arrowheads in the creek bottom.

Robin drives along the creek, past more of the farm’s areas. Sue’s cedar-framed two-story home looks over the valley toward Gans Creek, offering a breathtaking view of tree-covered cliffs that rise from the creek. By far the most scenic part of Lofty Cliff, this is where Mary Jane Crane built the farm’s first home more than a century ago. In the pasture dotted with trees below, Robin passes the rotting trunk of a tree. It was dragged there for Riki’s horse-jumping practice. She participates in dressage competitions.

“I wish it could stay open like this for people who ride horses,” Robin says.

Downstream, Robin points out “Three Rock Side,” or at least what’s left of it. Sue and Robin named the site for the three big rocks alongside the stream. Every year the rocks would shift positions.

She notes a pile of rocks that appears to create a lectern. This is “Council Rock,” where Robin says she, her sister and friends would hold meetings.

“Someone would get behind the podium and hold a speech,” Robin says. “Sue did most of the talking because she’s the lawyer.”

Robin winds her pickup around cattle. They scatter at first, then begin to follow. “Don’t get my babies,” Muriel tells her.

The Cranes have 49 cows, seven heifers — young cows who have not had offspring — and about 30 calves.

The winter hit them hard. “This is the first year I’ve had calves with frost-bitten ears,” Robin says. “I’ve had several of them.”

Robin drives through a gate and over a shallow part of the creek, but the cattle don’t follow. She gets out of the truck and makes a mooing sound. The cows call back but still don’t move. Robin begins to deposit the minerals in the round, plastic bins beneath several trees. The minerals, she explains, are like a daily vitamin for the cows. She adjusts the minerals seasonally for the cows’ needs.

This part of the farm lies in the 200-foot space between two bluffs. The creek flows along the base of one bluff and, a couple hundred yards down, is fed by the largest spring on the property. The spring emerges about halfway up the bluff and spills into a cold pool, where moss has grown over several rocks. Trees form a canopy of cool shade over the spring water.

Robin drives to her favorite part of the farm, an open space next to a cliff. She loves the various colors of foliage. Sycamores stand tall against trees showing off shades of purple, green and yellow.

The back

Several days later, the cattle have been moved to the back of the farm, south of the creek bottom, where pastures roll over bigger and more dramatic hills. Robin has come to ensure they’re staying put and to look for any new calves. Her border collie, Marshal, has come along. He runs ahead and circles the herd. Robin says he plays with the calves, running ahead of them, then stopping to see whether they follow.

This is Berry Field, where Robin and Sue as girls would make rooms in the hay and play house in grass so high it concealed them from their father.

Sue says she would sometimes overhear the grown-ups blaming the cattle for trampling Berry Field. But she and Robin kept their secret.

“Their dad never did know what they were doing,” Muriel says.

Behind Berry Field is Red Field, named for the redtop grass that used to grow here. It overlooks the creek bottom from a rounded hill. This part of the farm remains untouched, crowded with trees, fallen branches and scattered boulders. The family often would ride horses on the hillside. The path created by 130 years of foot- and hoofsteps remains.

The Cranes, however, will soon leave this land behind.

“It’s hard,” Muriel says. “It has taken us a long time to come to the realization that we couldn’t have a farm with the city across the road. But we decided it was time. We are happy with it being a park so that other people can enjoy the open space and beauty of the land.”

Here is the text of a letter Muriel Crane wrote about her property, Lofty Cliff Farm.

320 acres.

Gans Creek runs through the middle of it.

It has been mostly a livestock farm: cattle-sheep-hog-horses.


It’s now on a paved road but hasn’t always been — was gravel and dirt in part. Before that it was dirt or mud.

There are two springs on the place — one is a lovely place coming out of the side of a cliff, flowing over rock for some distance to the creek below.

The creek flows down through a valley that if you stand at the open head of and holler your name you can hear an echo come back to you — some things you will remember always.

All along the creek are bluffs or cliffs, which ever you want to call them. Some of them you can climb, some of them you cannot. The cattle always manage to find a way down it except for one mother cow. She was on top of the cliff and her calf of about three weeks was in the bottom below. It was evening nursing time when the cows and calves always call to each other so they can get together for supper. Some of us happened to be down on the creek as we often were, enjoying a lovely evening. All of a sudden we heard some crashing and saw rocks and dirt, brush come tumbling down the hill and the mother cow landing in the middle of the creek. She had taken a shortcut to get to her baby. It was a bad decision as she broke her back in the fall and was not able to get up. There was nothing to do but put her down, which we had to do. We were very sad and some of us shed a few tears — farmers have to be tough but they do have a heart and love their animals. We named her baby Annie for Orphan Annie and bottlefed her for a long time. She would follow Robin around like she was her mother.

There is one cave on the place that you can go back in for a ways. I think all the family have been in it but me. It has a name. I think it is called Echo Cave and has been mapped by some students a long time ago.

The farm has been in the family for 130 years. Six generations of family have lived here. Mary Jane and Joseph bought the original acres where the old house was built on top of a hill looking across the creek at the cliff along the creek. I think this must be how the name of the farm began, “Lofty Cliff Farm.”

There is a real neat story about the wife of the first owner. Her husband, Joseph Crane, died in the Civil War of flu. She was quite a businesswoman and kept her money in her apron pocket, which — the story goes — was quite a deep pocket. She loaned money to lots of people and, the story goes, she always collected it back with interest.

Vincent and I bought this farm while he was still in the Air Force during World War II. His mother and Dad and Vincent and I bought the farm from the family and then later we bought his mom and dad’s share. We didn’t move on the farm right away. I said I needed to have running water and a good school for the kids. It wasn’t long til we built the house and moved out.

The whole family has a special feeling for the place and all came back to build their home here.

It has taken us a long time to come to the realization that we couldn’t have a farm with the city across the road but we decided it was time. We are very happy with it being a park so that other people can enjoy the open space and beauty of the land.

— Muriel Crane