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The Story of a Family Farm: Saving the Place through Writing the History

For some families, there exists a family home or homestead that has been passed down through generations. The small family farm often represents one of those places. Particularly since these farms have increasingly disappeared, capturing the memories and history of that place while it exists becomes an important – and for the family treasured – act of preservation. One story I collected back in 2010 was the story of the McCormick’s Shellsburg, Iowa heritage farm. It is a story focused on a particular interview, but it could be developed into a complete book if some of the century and heritage farm required documentation and the area and farming history were added.

A Story of David and Debby McCormick’s 158-year-old Family Farm

A fun aspect to hearing families tell about their Century Farms is the very different ways that each story is told. The day I visited David and Debby McCormick to hear the story of their Shellsburg Heritage Farm, I sat around the kitchen table with David and Debby as well as David’s older sister Mary Ellen and her husband Larry Inman. The next hour was filled with banter and memories and the extensively researched history of the family’s 158-year-old farm. As that history was narrated, David, Debby, Mary Ellen and Larry passed around family trees, land plots, and photos. There were clarifications about land distributed, which homes were built and lived in by various aunts, uncles, and grandparents, and clarifications of which David in each generation was which. The story of the farm began in 1852, when David Kirkpatrick came to Benton County from Missouri and obtained a 1200-acre land grant from the U.S. government. The next year David and Nancy Kirkpatrick and their 9 mostly grown children arrived, built a log cabin and began to farm. Over the next 158 years, the 1200 acres were divided between the children of each generation, with about 400 acres of the original grant coming eventually to the McCormicks. It is this portion that the Iowa DALS Heritage Farm program recognized in 2007.

Although the McCormick family members had been talking about being recognized as a century farm, when they did decide to apply, Debby thought they should submit their 155-year-old farm for the Heritage recognition. “Our friends the Showmans had done it the year before and I knew their family had come about the same time as the Kirkpatricks did, so I thought, ‘Let’s go for it,’” Debby explained. Original abstracts, all written in long hand, and documents from the family genealogy collected by David and Mary Ellen’s mother, gave Debby the information she needed to fill out the application form. Documenting the relationship between her husband’s family and his great-grandfather and the fact that the family currently lives on at least 40 acres of the original 1200-acre farm was the main information needed for the award.

The present-day farm house is only one of many that has been built on the land and lived in by family members over the years. Across the road from David and Debby’s present home once stood a large house that was the primary home for many years and where many of the unmarried uncles and aunts lived. There was also a house off West Road that must have been built in the 1860s on land where David and Debby’s son Tim and his wife Angie live today, and it is this house where the McCormick family lived when Mary Ellen and Paul were born. It is the current house built by Roy and Lillian McCormick, and whose plans were drawn up by Lillian McCormick, that was designed with a special purpose. Mary Ellen explains that one reason her parents built the house when she was a teenager was because her dad wanted a place for his teenaged children to bring their friends: “I was part of the Canton Up-Streamer 4H club, and we had Halloween parties and 4H parties as well as church parties here.” In many ways, Mary Ellen and David agreed that their house lived up to their father’s hopes.

Like the story of their childhood house’s purpose, many of the memories shared centered on the experiences Mary Ellen, David, and their brother Paul had while growing up. There were memories of the cut down pick up used by the kids to feed the hogs, sledding a half a mile – with a good push - on sleds made from the hood of a car, and summer evenings spent driving to Shellsburg to cool off with floats made from creamery ice cream.

A difference in memories came when Mary Ellen and David told about shelling corn and the exodus of the resident rats as the corn ears were pulled from the corn cribs. Mary Ellen remembered that time as chances for rat hunting contests by family and friends: “We weren’t scared; it was just part of farm life.” David remembered that the dogs would chase the mice and rats while everyone fed the ears of corn to the auger that ran along the side of the building to the sheller. “We’d take the shelled corn to town and they’d let it dry over the winter. There weren’t driers then,” David pointed out.

Along with the farming, the McCormick family has a legacy of teaching that began in the 1850s with David Kirkpatrick, a school teacher receiving $1.25 a day who then became the county superintendent. Grandma Della was a school teacher at the country school, and her daughter was a home ec teacher. Mary Ellen and her brothers attended a consolidated school. The members of Mary Ellen and David’s generation then got their teaching degrees, and while some have gone on to other careers, still “we were all teachers,” Mary Ellen mused.

As for the future of the farm, at present David and Debby’s son Tim and his family intend to stay on the land, as well as the McCormick’s son Nate hopes to return someday as well. The collection of stories that make up this Heritage Farm promises to continue through another generation.

(Originally printed in the Vinton Eagle, July 2010)

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