ASHVILLE, Ohio – Property deeds for Ohio’s 200-year-old farms bear the signatures of some of the nation’s first presidents: John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.
Having a deed signed by President Jefferson and Secretary of State Madison doesn’t faze James “Bob” Fagan, who came by his 227-acre farm in Fairfield County by way of his great-great-great-grandfather, Luke Decker.
“I live in a museum. That’s a fact,” said Fagan, who goes by his middle name. “There’s an awful lot of history here. We’re still discovering things that show us what it was like way back in the beginning.”
Ohio has certified 65 farms as “bicentennial” – having been in one family for at least 200 years. The Ohio Department of Agriculture recognized owners of some of those farms at county fairs this summer and fall.
The goal of the Ohio Century and Bicentennial Farm program is to recognize farming families for their agricultural contributions, said Cindy Winegardner Shy, the program’s manager.
“Their stories are historically rich and compelling, and we know that they are the basis for today’s agricultural industry,” she said in an email.
In central Ohio, Fairfield County has the most bicentennial farms – six. Pickaway County has three; Franklin, one.
Ohio has 73,400 farms, according to the agriculture department. Those farms produced $8.8 billion in economic output and employed more than 93,000 people in 2010, according to Ohio State University.
Owners of the farms are quick to talk about how their ancestors traveled west on horseback or in ox-drawn wagons to buy hundreds of acres in the Ohio River Base for a few dollars apiece.
Here’s a sampling of their stories.
Der Decker Bauernhof
Bob Fagan is the sixth generation to work Der Decker Bauernhof (“the Decker Farm” in German) northeast of Ashville in Pickaway County. Fagan, whose mother was named Decker, grew up on a nearby farm and moved to the family farm with his wife, Irene, in 1981.
Luke Decker came to Ohio in 1804 from what is now Romney, W.Va., to establish a homestead.
“The country was getting off to a good start and trying to develop the lands west of the Appalachian Mountains,” Bob Fagan said.
Congress was offering a good deal on land – $2 an acre. Decker probably traveled up the Scioto River and Little Walnut Creek to claim his farm, Fagan said. Decker built a gristmill on the creek.
He returned to West Virginia to marry his betrothed, only to find she had married someone else, so he married Ivea Fox instead and returned to Ohio in 1809, Fagan said.
Decker cleared the land with oxen and built a log cabin, a barn and other buildings. The barn still exists, added to by succeeding generations, Fagan said, but the log cabin is gone.
Decker built a post-and-beam house in 1816, joining a second house to it, probably in the early 1800s. Fagan said the second house might have been a commissary for Gen. William Henry Harrison during the War of 1812.
Through the years, Fagan’s ancestors raised Belgian horses, cattle, dairy cows, chickens and vegetables. His grandfather raised horses, like his father and grandfather before him, until automobiles put the horses out of business.
Fagan and his farm manager raise soybeans and corn on the remaining 227 acres of the Decker farm and an additional 20 acres at his father’s farm.
“I became a farmer,” said the engineer, who retired in 1986. “It’s just as difficult as engineering. Most people gamble with the stock market, but farmers gamble with God.”
Three Springs Farm
“My great-great-great-grandfather was given a section of land through his father, who fought in the Revolutionary War,” said Dixie Smith, owner with her husband, Howard, of Three Springs Farm near Lancaster.
In 1799, Frederick Harman claimed a spot in what is now Fairfield County, Smith said. He rode his horse from Westmoreland County, Pa.
“When he came here, the (American) Indians stole his horse,” she said. “He had to walk all the way back to Pennsylvania.”
Harman brought back his family a year later.
“They came down the Ohio River into Marietta,” Smith said. “I think his horse must have been branded, because the Indians had sold his horse there. He was able to get his horse back.”
The property was covered with trees.
“Little by little, they made it into a farm,” she said. “Even my grandmother said when she was little there were still a lot of stumps.”
Zane’s Trace, the frontier road built in the late 1790s to open the Northwest Territory to settlement, cuts through Smith’s farm.
Smith’s ancestors raised livestock and crops.
“My father and his father had a dairy,” she said.
Her grandparents also raised sheep and hogs. The Smiths raise Angus beef cattle, as well as soybeans, corn and hay, on their farm’s remaining 81 acres.
Her father, Richard George, and uncle, Bill George, developed part of the farm into Valley View Golf Club in 1956, she said.
“I spent a lot of time here with my grandfather,” said Smith, who grew up on a farm that has since been replaced by the golf course. “I never got very far away from the farm.”
Berry Family Farm
Brad Berry’s great-great-great-great-grandfather Edward Berry was one of the first settlers in Fairfield County’s Walnut Township, coming to Ohio from Maryland in 1805.
“In 1811, he got his land patent paid off,” said Berry, the seventh generation to own the farm. The patent was signed by James Madison, the fourth U.S. president. The original farm measured one-fourth of a square mile, or 160 acres.
“I grew up on the farm, so I love it,” Berry said, pointing to a cluster of trees in a pasture where one of his ancestor’s houses used to stand. His father, James Berry, owns a nearby bicentennial farm.
Berry raises primarily old-fashioned breeds of beef cattle, such as old-style Angus, British White and Belted Galloway. He practices “management-intensive grazing,” moving the 100 or so cattle to a new patch of grass every day.
He raises non-genetically modified corn and soybeans, and hay, to feed the cattle, as well as chickens, turkeys and a handful of hogs.
In the summer, Berry began selling his beef, chickens and eggs directly to consumers at farmers markets in Pickerington and Lancaster.
“We don’t use any antibiotics or hormones, so we make it as healthy as possible,” he said.
Market customers already have ordered all the Broad-Breasted White turkeys he raised this year for the first time.
“It’s kind of like the old-style farm here now, with me doing all this direct marketing,” Berry said. “It gives you a sense of pride when a customer comes back to you and says, `That was the best ground beef I ever had.’?”