The Good Earth: Family Ties to the Land
Written for the 73rd Carnival of Genealogy
Writing about this topic could fill a book for me.
As far back as I’ve traced on both sides and all branches of my family, there have been land-owners and farmers. I learned very early what was meant by a section or a quarter section of land, that there was nearly always a road on the section line, and I learned that land is organized by counties. I used to take my dad to the county courthouses with me to read the deeds–he taught me to cut through the standard legal language to the “meat.” He could read the land descriptions which looked like hieroglyphics to me–I still have to be very deliberate when I’m reading and mapping them.
No one was a land baron, though I suspect a couple of great-great grandfathers had such dreams. For example, John Osborne ((1808 NC – 1865 TN) bought a large amount of land at the intersection of two railroads in what became Humboldt in Gibson County, Tennessee. My understanding is that this was not an all above-board transaction, but there is even now a part of that town that is called the Osborne Plat. His son came to Texas and had 9 children, born in about 5 different counties– his letters that survive all refer to his search for land.
My grandfathers kept moving south and west as the nation developed and land became available. Everyone farmed. Even the one professional man, who was born in New York City, William Green Ball (1806 NY – 1881 IA), country doctor, was a founding member of the Warren County Iowa agricultural society. My third great-grandparents (2 sets of them) who immigrated to McPherson and Harvey Counties in Kansas in 1874 from Russia brought turkey red wheat with them from the steppes of the Ukraine and southern Russia. I grew up in a town in Texas nicknamed the “Wheatheart of the Nation.”
My dad farmed, his dad farmed, and so did my maternal grandfather. In fact, my paternal grandfather and uncles often planted and harvested a crop in the Texas panhandle, and then they loaded up their equipment and traveled 640 miles north up Highway 83 to South Dakota to harvest their crop there. My maternal grandparents left the Dust Bowl scarred Oklahoma panhandle about 1952 for the very cheap land available in South Dakota, and my paternal relatives farmed part time up there as well.
All of the men in my family farmed and all of the women had gardens. Later, my dad planted a garden out in the field near the irrigation well, but I well remember my mom starting lettuce and some of the more tender plants in hot boxes dad built. My younger brother was recently recalling his “first job,” at age 7 or 8, hoeing our great-Aunt Eva’s garden– for $.75 per hour and all the candy he could eat. Aunt Eva managed to make the desert bloom like a rose–the desert of the high plains of the Texas panhandle–she grew peonies and roses and dahlias and foxglove and water lilies in her ponds. In her garden she grew tomatoes and green beans and cucumbers and onions and peppers and dill for canning. She also wielded a mean hoe if a snake of any sort dared invade her domain. Further north, in the even more desolate Oklahoma panhandle, another great aunt grew a garden so lush and beautiful, you knew it had to be tended by a person with very exacting standards. Aunt Edna always brought us gallon (!) jars of her delicious dill pickles and her pickled, stuffed green peppers, tied with white cotton string. Yum. I know now that she learned her gardening and pickling skills from her German Mennonite family. I’ve given it a try and I can do it, but it sure is a lot of work.
My dad died about 6 years ago. His brother, my Uncle Ray, is still farming at age 80–just one more year, you know. Uncle Ray is the only one of my dad’s 7 siblings still living. I suspect my agricultural heritage ends with that generation. My other brother wanted very badly to farm, but he couldn’t make it pay enough to support his family. His current place on the lake, though, is tended by a smaller version of his favorite John Deere tractor and his garden is luscious. And I do have a cousin with a PhD in agronomy–his email “handle” is “Dr. Dirt.”
Every quarter or so, I get a newsletter from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), because I still am part owner of the 1/4 section my dad owned when he died, and am a part of the partnership that still “farms” our grandfather’s land in Texas. It gives me a sense of pride to get that flyer–I know it is counted as junk mail and unnecessary government intrusion by many of my family members, but when it arrives in my urban mailbox, I like it.
I have my herb garden growing, and I have a couple of vegetable plants in my flower bed. I started some hollyhocks on the back porch and will transplant them soon. Every time I do that, I think of my family and how many generations we have worked the land.
“We know we belong to the land, and the land we belong to is grand” is part of the Oklahoma state song. I hope my 6 generations of Texas relatives will forgive me for using it as a way to sum up this posting.