— For 40 years, Juli Johnson built a storybook Midwestern life on a hobby farm between Grove City and Litchfield that she called Cricket Meadow.
For 20 of those years, she shared her stories and adventures with its chickens and horses, cats and dogs as well as her Midwestern farm recipes in a column published in the Litchfield Independent Review. Her culinary skills led her to open the Cricket Meadow Tea and Cafe in downtown Litchfield, where she treated customers to delicious dishes and treats like those once served on the red-checkered covered tables of farm homes of years gone by.
But suddenly it was all gone.
Johnson said her husband of 40 years unexpectedly walked out the door and left a mess behind. She sold the 500-acre farm of woodlands, prairie and wetlands and its animals in short order, and closed the downtown restaurant after its seven-year run. She moved to Minneapolis to live near one of her children, but disliked the urban life.
She followed another of her children to Montana, but found that mountain winters never end.
She followed a third child to North Carolina, where she remains today. She also keeps a place on Green Lake, handed down through her family for 103 years, to preserve her Minnesota roots.
Now, Johnson has brought Cricket Meadow back in a self-published book, "Food, Feathers and Fur." It's a compendium of updated versions of columns once published in the Independent Review.
Its stories tell of a sense of place, love for pets and animals and the grief that comes with their loss. There are stories of deep love for family and what it means to carve out a place for home.
Maybe most important of all, "Food, Feathers and Fur" serves as a record of a Midwestern farm life that is disappearing.
"And if nothing else, there are some good recipes in there," Johnson told the West Central Tribune. Each of its 82 short stories is followed by a recipe, from "vegetable beef soup with dumplings" to "windfall apple crisps."
It's been six years since Johnson lost all that she knew. "Bone-crunching," is how she described the experience.
She's known sudden loss before. An editor at the Minnesota Historical Society once was interested in having her write about her experience as a youth when in a month's time her family lost three men to suicide, including her father, a cousin and grandfather.
Telling the story of that deep pain, and what it took to survive and continue to live on that property, would have its value, Johnson acknowledges. But with her mother still living at the time, she told the editor no. It was not something she was ready to do.
But as a longtime writer, she knows the value of story-telling. She had previously placed money with a self-publishing company with the intentions of writing a book. They called her last summer to ask if she had something ready.
She did not, but soon did. She went to work while at her place on Green Lake to produce two children's books, "Chauncey and the Chickens" and "Chauncey and Whitey the Rooster." They are based on a granddaughter, and a rooster and chickens she kept at Cricket Meadow. A third book in the series is now at the publisher.
Completing the first of the children's books proved to be the icebreaker. Last winter, Johnson pored over her years of newspaper columns of stories and recipes and selected her favorites. Not unlike polishing a family heirloom, she rewrote and rewrote each for "Food, Feather and Fur."
"I did a lot of crying when I was writing them," she said. Yet overall, she said the opportunity to bring back the story of Cricket Meadow through writing was cathartic.
It was a way to wrap this all up, and put a bow on her love song to Cricket Meadow, she explained.
She has more to tell.
Johnson grew up on a small, central Minnesota farm. Her parents raised livestock and crops and kept chickens, and found ways to feed their family of six children with what they raised on the land. One of her brothers has reminded her: "No one lives like that anymore."
Telling the story of her childhood and growing up on a farm that doesn't exist anymore is her next goal.
Copies of her children's books and "Food, Feathers and Fur" are available at the following locations: Paisley Threads in New London; Mel's in Spicer; the Middle Fork Cafe and A Novel Idea Book Shop in Willmar; and Mimi's Cafe and the Natural Foods Coop in Litchfield. They are also available from the author at