Last weekend marked the end of an Iowa tradition. It was the last Christmas on the Sullivan-Miller family farm in rural Jackson County, which has belonged to my family since 1859.
It’s where my paternal grandparents, Harold and Lois Sullivan, moved right after they were married in 1950. It’s where they raised cattle, grain and five children, several gravel miles away from the nearest town.
No one in my generation of the family is a farmer. Grandpa Harold has been dead for almost two decades, and my one farmer uncle transitioned into non-farm work years ago. In early 2020, Grandma Lois will close on the sale of the farmhouse and move to a duplex in the nearby town of Preston, next door to one of my aunts.
By the time I was old enough to remember him, Grandpa Harold had severe symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, dying at just 69 years old. We now know there is a strong correlation between Parkinson’s and exposure to agricultural chemicals, which farmers of his generation thought were safe to have direct contact with.
Like so many other farms in Iowa and around the Midwest, the details of my family history and our connection to the land that sustains us is at risk of being lost. Rural communities are in decline and a smaller portion of the population is involved in growing the food we all depend on. It’s no one’s fault, only the result of a changing economy and new methods of farming.
My family members and I spent much of our last Christmas on the farm sifting through old photos and trinkets, saving a few treasures that were otherwise set to be auctioned off when Grandma Lois moves to town.
I am now the proud owner of several photo prints Grandpa Harold entered into county fair contests, a pocket knife my dad got as a gift when he was young, a few Kris Kristofferson records and — best of all — a 1950s Lee Rider jacket worn by my great-grandfather, James Sullivan.
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As soon as I got home that evening, I spent a couple of hours researching the denim jacket, and also the family farm.
I learned that the Sullivan property was included in the first set of Century Farms — farmed by the same family for 100 years or more — to be designated when Iowa launched the program in 1976. An original 40 acres was purchased for just $400 in 1859, about 12 years after Iowa became a state, by my great-great-great-great-grandfather, Nicolaus Miller, who likely migrated from Germany.
I found a copy of the original Century Farm application from 1975, featuring my grandma’s recognizable cursive handwriting. When I sent the document to my family, Grandma Lois’ response, as reported by my cousin, was “Now they get to traipse to Des Moines and get their picture taken, but back then all we got was a certificate.”
Our last family gathering at the farm could have been a somber affair, but it wasn’t. It was full of laughter and sharing memories, all held up by the stoicism and resilience of an old Iowa farm lady. When I asked Grandma Lois how she was feeling about the move — away from the house she made a home for the past 70 years — she didn’t have a lot to say.
“I’m not sad, but I’m not excited. I’m just accepting it, I guess.”
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