Monday, May 3, 2010

Back To The Future

History has always intrigued me. Maybe it's genetic. My Dad is a huge World War II buff, and as a child, I remember our house being filled with shelves of history books, paintings of planes signed by famous pilots, and spending hours with him watching documentaries. I learned the importance of studying the past, both mistakes and successes. Now I'm not saying that I haven't had a blunder here and there, but I figure, in most cases, it's easier to spend a little time seeing how other folks have erred and try to prevent repeating them, than it is to learn things the hard way.

As an 8th grader, my main project for the year in my U.S. history class was a term paper on "Agriculture from 1900-1990". Now THAT was overwhelming. From horse-drawn equipment to the invention of the cream separator, the tractor, and then modern equipment- WOW! Farming has come a long way in a short time! In fact, just 70 years ago, in 1940, the average farmer fed 19 people. Today each farmer feeds 155 people! (Source:

As part of my research for that 8th grade project, I spent an afternoon with my Grandpa Thomas interviewing him about all the changes he had witnessed growing up on my family's farm, living through the Great Depression and WWII, and working later in life for a local John Deere dealership. Thankfully, I recorded the interview with my little red battery-powered cassette player. That tape is now a treasure.

At the age 26, I realized that Grandpa Thomas, then in his mid-80's, was likely nearing the end of his days. I rushed home to visit with him, armed with my digital video camera, and a list of questions. It broke my heart that when I arrived I found that the chemo treatment he'd had that day had completely wiped him out and he passed away just a few hours later. I was devastated to lose one of my best friends, and I never got the chance to ask him so many of the things I still wonder about today.

Sometimes we do have to learn things the hard way. Not wanting to miss another precious opportunity, I've MADE the time to sit down with my husband's Grandfather, Grandpa Wilson, who will turn 90 this fall. I've been interviewing him, scanning the amazing collection of family photos he has, and recording the history of our farm, with the kids clamoring around and all.

What an amazing journey this has been. You'll definately have more posts to read on this in the future, but here's a little tidbit to whet your appetite.

My husband's Great-grandfather, J. Harry Wilson, was a true innovator in agriculture. He left the east coast, homesteaded in Indiana, then Kansas, then North Dakota. Going broke, and starting over each time. In fact, the farmstead where we farm now was the third farm in the Jamestown area where J. Harry had tried to make a go of it. Grandpa Wilson tells me he was a "hard man", and "wiry". Five feet eleven and about 140 pounds of pure grit. He had three young daughters when he lost his first wife, and re-married to Grandpa's mother, Suzie, a school teacher in her earlier years.
When they got to North Dakota, he and another farmer went to Wisconsin and brought the first dairy cows back to our area. He was one of the first farmers to individually feed his cattle based on production. Take a gander at the picture of J. Harry and Suzie Wilson, with horses Molly (left) and Libby (right). This picture was taken in 1914 in Salina, Kansas. They brought Libby along when they moved to North Dakota.

From the sounds of it, J. Harry was a brilliant man, with a solid work ethic. But as Grandpa Wilson says, he would "pinch a penny, but lose a pound". "The last farm he lost, he could barely pay for the land, but he had a good crop and went out and built a new silo on the place, and put in all new steel fence posts, and when he lost the farm, all the improvements he made stayed with the place." By the time they'd gotten established where we are now, Grandpa Wilson was getting old enough to help out and manage things for his father, and in my opinion, he saved the farm.

So here's the lesson of the day from my time with Grandpa Wilson: Work hard, but treat your family with respect and kindness. Try like the dickens to stay out of debt and invest in the things that last.

And the lesson I'd like to share with you all: Be sure to make the time to thank those in the wiser generations for their efforts. From the way Grandpa Wilson lights up when he shares his memories with me, I can tell he's enjoying our visits as much as I am.
Sometimes going back and taking a stroll through the past, can help you step forward into the future. I hope my husband and I can continue to learn from the past and the present so we can provide future generations the opportunity to farm.

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