Sometimes I like to close my eyes and picture a place I've recently learned about. Blackest of nights. Barely any other humans for miles and miles. No street lights at the intersections to light the way. Out here, paths are rare, and man-made light is even more so. Miles and miles of prairie grass, some of it so tall that you can only see over it from the back of your horse. Then there are the wild animals to consider. Bears, wolves, and mountain lions, feeding on bison, deer and elk.
It starts to sound a little like the old wild west; I'm over here channeling my inner "Dances With Wolves" character, Terrified of Mountain Lions. The interesting part is that this landscape could be seen from where I'm sitting right now: Iowa, back in the mid-1800's. In those days, Iowa was the edge of the frontier. The eastern half was somewhat settled, but the western half was still quite untamed.
In the summer of 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Act. This act gave grants of land to states to finance colleges specializing in "agriculture and the mechanic arts." College educations received on the east coast were of little direct benefit to the early settlers and those on the frontier; there was a need to study these not-yet-understood grasslands and soils. Colleges were needed to educate the working class, and people in the territories acquired through The Louisiana Purchase knew this well. They realized that the needs - and benefits - of a "farmer's college" were quite different (yet no less important) than the sophisticated, urban colleges of the eastern U.S.
If you'd like to read more about the historical aspects of Iowa State's land grant legacy, CLICK HERE. I was surprised by how interesting it is. I had never learned the details of how the land of The Louisiana Purchase came to be settled; I didn't know that land grant acts like the Morrill Act had such a large influence on the development of our early nation. And I didn't know that none of Iowa State's land grant ground is in Story County, which is where Iowa State University is located. Seriously, fascinating!
All of this brings us up to current day events. 150 years ago, Iowa was the very first state to accept the terms of The Morrill Act. Fast forward to recent years, when an ISU Alum thought that his family farm may be an ISU land grant parcel. This is how the current project came to be. To quote Diana Pounds' article,
Turned out the farm wasn't on Iowa land-grant property, but in the process of checking, researchers found several old documents referencing Morrill Act parcels and an idea was born: Locate the original land-grant parcels and connect with the people now tending that land.
One such family is James and Sue Francois of Barnum. The Francois are unique in all of this, because they own the first parcel of land farm in Webster County that was recorded as being sold for the land grant mission of Iowa State. It's also the first in the whole state of Iowa, which means it may be the first farm sold in the entire nation-wide land grant program!
I met with James and Sue Francois on their farm, where I listened to the history of this farmland, and learned about the people who have been caring for it.
There have been many generations of Francois raised on the farm. James has lived on the farm his entire life. Growing up, James' family was very involved with the Barnum community they are a part of. James recalls that his father, Eugene, started the fire department and he was an integral part of building the park in town. For the Barnum Centennial celebration in 1974, James' parents bought a boat and gave it away to raise money to build the town's park shelter. Things like this still occur today in small towns across the USA; done quietly by the farmers and ranchers that are the foundation of many rural communities. Sometimes James would get home from school and learn from his dad that they were headed to the Barnum park to sing!
James has memories of his childhood involving his dad, Eugene, and his dad's younger brother, James' Uncle Frank, getting their families together at the farm.
Uncle Frank graduated from Iowa State, and went on to have a remarkable career, including work as a lawyer, an engineer, and a politician. James remembers playing softball with his Uncle Frank and cousins in years gone by. James' cousins now live all over the world, from Los Angeles to Chicago, even Switzerland and the Netherlands, but they all have been back to the farm. James and Sue remember when James' cousin Marie came home to visit with her daughters, who had never been on a farm. One of the girls, Julia, wandered off. A short while later, Julia was found (in her plaid shirt and straw hat that she wanted specifically to wear while visiting the farm), quietly brushing the baby calves. Those quiet moments can be impossible to come by these days, but not on the farm. They are abundant on the farm.
Though there is work to match the solitude and stillness. Always. James spoke of walking beans in the summer; he remembers getting up before sunrise and walking until dark some days, which was simply the way life was. Thankfully, modern agriculture gave us the ability to move away from the long, hard days of walking beans.
At every turn on the farm, James has memories. Many are from his childhood, but there are plenty from his adult years. James and his father built the house that he and Sue live in. His father, Eugene, was a carpenter, and they built the house when James and Sue's daughter, Maria, was just a year old.
Things have changed on the farm through the years, as they always do. Trees have been brought down by lightning. Old buildings, with their glory days behind them, have been torn down and new buildings have gone up. But similar to James' childhood days, there are still animals on the farm. When James was young, they had dairy cows, horses, ponies, and dogs. These days he still has livestock on the farm! (Highlight of the morning was this sweet little #5.)
James and Sue both have jobs off the farm as well. James is a mechanic by trade, and spent years working on cars. When his parents got older, he decided to take a job at the local school working on school buses to be closer to his aging parents.
He speaks fondly of both of his parents, and also his Uncle Frank. I imagine his mother, Alice, was fun to know. Alice grew up on a farm as well, outside of Clare, Iowa. And she happened to love farming. She also had a penchant for riding snowmobiles, and would take young Maria, her grand-daughter, out on the snowmobiles in the winter.
A few things have become clear to me while listening to families talk about their ties to the land. Mostly, that what it all boils down to is not rooted in the land itself, but the sense of family and community the land gives the people that care for it. The old pictures and precious memories leave me wanting to meet the parents and grandparents that have passed on in earlier years. So, so much.
It is unavoidable for me to wonder about the legacy we will leave for our children and grandchildren as farmers. What will they remember Eric and I for? What will your children and grand children remember you for? Really, I'd like to know. The good, the bad, and whatever is in between. Tell me below, and for goodness sake if you haven't taken a look at this amazing map to see if you have land that is an ISU land grant parcel, click on over and check it out!
Hello from the heartland! I'm Krystal... a farming wife and mom. I believe in living life and living it well. My Christmas tree is up year-round, usually half decorated. I'm a lover of logic and laughter, full-fat dairy products, photography, and starting off my days with God's hand-crafted Iowa sunrises.