By Michele F. Mihaljevich
Kelly Roberts comes from a long line of farmers in Noble County, Ohio – seven generations on her paternal grandmother’s side and five on her paternal grandfather’s. While she knew a few things about her farming history, it wasn’t until she started doing genealogy that she learned details about their lives and farms.
Since starting to trace her family’s history in 2004, Roberts has located the land in Ohio many of her ancestors settled beginning about 1812. Much of it is still farmed today. She’s found documentation showing the crops her ancestors grew and the animals they raised in the 1800s. Roberts traced her paternal grandfather’s family back to present-day West Virginia, where she and her husband Kevin visited a farm that’s been in the family of her fourth great-grandfather’s sister since the 1760s.
“Farming was their life and I want to learn everything about their lives,” Roberts explained. “I’ve had to learn about them in bits and pieces. I want to know what they had on their farm, who their farming neighbors were. They relied on each other. If you’re going to learn about your ancestors, you have to learn everything.”
After pinpointing the locations of her ancestors’ land using deeds, land records and other documents, Roberts visited the properties to see them for herself. “I just wanted to be able to stand on the land they were on. I like to walk in their shoes. In many cases, they were the first to own the property, the first to farm it. They had to clear the land. I don’t know how they had the gumption to leave their homes, move to Ohio and do that.”
Her paternal grandfather’s ancestors started migrating to Ohio from what was then Virginia about 1820. “They came because the land was relatively inexpensive and they could live together. You can tell they were a very close family because they all came together and settled next to one another.”
Roberts’ father, Edgel Davis, grew up on a farm in Olive Township, Noble County. Her grandfather moved the family to Zanesville in 1924 when Edgel was 16. “Dad always wanted to be a farmer again. We had chickens, ducks, a pony and a garden. He would have had a farm again if my mom would have said yes.”
Marsha Smeltzer’s roots in farming in the United States are more recent. Her maternal grandparents came from Sweden in the 1860s and eventually settled in Alta, in Buena Vista County, Iowa, in 1880. The farm Elmer and Clara Bell Kindwall started is still in the family nearly 140 years later. It was designated a Century Farm in 1980.
Smeltzer spent the first five years of her life on the farm until her parents, after six bad years, left farming.
“We have strong roots in farming but my parents got out of it because of financial difficulties,” she noted. “As a kid, I heard lots of stories about the farm and its history. I drank milk out of a bulk tank until I was a freshman in high school. I learned to drive the farm equipment as a kid. Dad didn’t have sons so his three daughters were expected to do the things sons would do.”
At one time, the farm was almost 200 acres. The family raised dairy cows, hogs and chickens, and grew corn, soybeans and alfalfa.
“It’s something to be proud of that the farm has passed through several generations. I’m sure my grandparents would be proud the family was able to maintain the farm even through some very difficult financial times.”
Her mother and aunt did quite a bit of research on the family. “Both of them were great advocates for knowing the family and its history. They were proud of their immigrant roots and their family success here in the U.S. You can imagine that each holiday season was replete with stories of the family and there were fairly frequent family gatherings.”
With her continued ties to the family farm, Smeltzer said, “I’ve been a ‘farm girl’ without having lived on a farm for a long time. Add my sister’s ties to USDA and the Farm Service Agency and my father’s love of the farm too, and it’s been a part of my day-to-day existence in many ways for a long time.”
Marsha’s husband John is also interested in genealogy and has worked with genetics to help add to the family’s knowledge of its past. Marsha and her parents have submitted their DNA for testing.
Genealogy researchers often hope to learn where their ancestors farmed, said Curt B. Witcher, manager of the Allen County (Ind.) Public Library’s Genealogy Center.
“People really love to find the land their family farmed,” hesaid. “Is the dwelling still there, is the farm itself still there? I would hope people would want to go see it and walk the land their ancestors walked on.”
Documents such as wills, deeds, plat maps, county histories, tax records, the federal census, the non-population – or agriculture – census (1850-1880) and land patent records may shed light on where farmers lived and what they grew or raised, Witcher said. Many regions and states have memory projects that might include local newspapers or photos of rural areas from years ago. Links to free and subscription genealogical sites are available at www.genealogycenter.org.