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Changing Frontiers: Ode to the Family Farm and Way of Life ~ 2000

Home built by Charles Patterson (grandson of Thomas Patterson) built in 1895, burned down 1898

Home built by Charles Patterson (grandson of Thomas Patterson) built in 1895, burned down 1898

I wrote this just as my three sisters, brother, and I were on the verge of selling our family farm in 2000.

The Iowa Farm has been a cherished place by six generations of Scotch-Irish-English descent, the Patterson-McLennan families.  I can only imagine what my forefathers and foremothers found as they arrived in Benton County, Iowa.  Then, in 1999, the sixth generation made a difficult decision… to sell the farm.  Why?  Well, times change, families change, and ways of life change.  The quest for efficiency and profits has left small farms a dying breed.  Many have fallen into disrepair as the small family farmer desperately hangs onto the only livelihood he has known.  Unfortunately, many of these men and women turn to supplemental incomes in order to cling to the earth they have worked.  In these times, a family can rarely thrive on 160 acres.  Instead, the sixth generation owners of the Patterson-McLennan family are determined to use the values instilled in us by our ancestors along with the proceeds of selling the farm to embark on another new frontier.  These values are gifts beyond the land itself and include: intuition, determination, honesty, integrity, and faith in God to name a few.  We pray that we will incorporate these values on our walk in a new frontier.  But from where did these values and this wonderful Iowa farm come?  It all began in 1854.

At first appearance to Thomas Patterson and his son David, it may have been just what the pioneer heart was seeking.  Moderate slopes with few rocks, tough sod, adequate drainage, and perhaps there were a few trees along the lower areas.  Word was out that the glaciers some eons ago carried some of the richest soil to these parts of the country.  Being farmers from Ohio, they likely envisioned the land as a rich source of livelihood for the family and hopefully generations to come.  The rush was evident as many potential homesteaders flocked to new, untouched parts of the New Frontier.  Thomas and David probably compared several possible tracks of land that would be most suitable for their needs.  Then they must have excitedly laid claim to a small homestead by driving stakes that carefully identified their new found territory.  With light hearts and big smiles, they must have returned to Ohio to share the promising news with their family.  While traveling back to Ohio to share the news of their claim, did they daydream of this new land and its potential?  Did they question how they would carry out their grand plan?  Who in the family would leave their home in Ohio to return to the new land in Iowa?  What challenges and rewards lied ahead?  How would the family receive the news or had they wired ahead to inform them?

Thomas and Elizabeth Ertel Patterson, parents of David, decided it was David who would return to Iowa and to the land that was staked.  It would be his homestead.  Thomas being a cabinet and wagon maker carefully made a covered wagon for David.  Then in 1855, a year after they staked the land, David left Ohio for Iowa and became a true pioneer.  What worldly possessions accompanied him in the wagon?  Did they include some food supplies and staples, tools, clothing, extra boots, bedding, an oil lantern, a gun, photos, letters of encouragement, a family Bible?  How long did the trek across the plains and crossing the Mississippi take?  Which route did David take?  What a leap of faith for the pioneers who left their homes for the New Frontier.

These pioneers were also called sod busters as they worked in earnest to work the land by breaking through the virgin sod to find rich Iowa soil beneath it.   Who can fathom the seemingly endless hours, days, months, and years of courage and strength that this young and determined man spent just clearing the land?  Within two years of arriving in Iowa, David married Elvira A. Kennedy, of Scotch descent, who was a very willing partner in creating their homestead.  David and Elvira and their children labored earnestly to nurture crops of corn, sorghum, soybeans, hay, and oats.  What livestock did they have as well?  Likely a dairy cow or two and a coop of chickens would have been the bare necessities for a growing family.

Farm women in those days devoted themselves to the endless details of home life.  What creativity it took on their part to be frugal!  For these pioneer mothers, daily tasks may have included: candle making, cooking over a wood cook stove, tending to the family’s vegetable garden and fruit trees, putting up the summer’s bounty of vegetables and fruits, hand sewing the family’s clothing and bedding, instructing the children in schoolwork, gathering eggs, churning butter, milking the family cow, plucking goose and chicken feathers, and keeping the family’s hearth warm.  And in this part of Iowa, it was not unlikely to encounter a few curious passersby from time to time.

How eternally grateful they must have been each year if they had good weather, good crops, and good health.  David knew the land’s value as a source of food for humans and livestock.  Fortunately for him, his father Thomas returned in 1861 to acquire even more acres bringing the total to 160 acres so that the family homestead was enlarged to support the family.  The family had great faith in God Almighty to help them through the lifecycle that is typical of farm life.  Those who rely on the land for a living are ever mindful of a Greater Power to provide for them, especially when at the mercy of nature.  One can only imagine the devout faith they displayed as they read Bible passages, gathered with friends and family, and shared in communion on Sunday mornings to praise God for the week’s blessings.

Throughout the years, David and Elvira carefully recorded their bounty and tallied the homegrown products they sold to surrounding neighbors and folks afar that knew of his reputation.  Found in some of his farm ledgers are notes of honey, grapes, strawberries, and apples, which they sold.  He eventually purchased additional land where he was to build a thriving nursery.  People as far as Nebraska purchased his young nursery stock, which he carefully shipped via the Chicago Northwestern Railroad.  As part of a successful marketing tool, David had a catalog available, which depicted accurate; color pictures of the mature fruit that these fruit trees would eventually bear.  The catalog was entitled, “The Iowa Valley Nursery Catalogue.”

Out of David and Elvira’s eleven children, their son, Charles, continued to farm the homestead.  Charles married Della Jackson, an Ohio girl, on October 21, 1891, whom he met on a visit back to Ohio.  They had two daughters, Julia Elvira born April 7, 1895 and Geneva Lavone born February 11, 1897.  Charles and Della continued producing crops and livestock that kept the family in business.  The family was active in the Belle Plaine community, which lied four miles to the Southwest.  Having the railroad as a means of transportation, created a thriving little city complete with brick paved streets, churches, school, and a variety of local businesses.  As a young man, Charles carefully carried a young hard maple sapling to a low spot south of the home.  He positioned it in the right type of soil and tended it in order that it would eventually provide some nice shade.  As Charles’ father was a nurseryman, the farm was beautifully landscaped with shrubs, bushes, fruit canes, and the much-needed windbreak to the North and West of the home.  So Charles was no newcomer to nurturing trees.  This maple sapling that he carefully planted and nurtured over the years grew to the circumference of 23 feet, taking nearly three adults’ arm spans around the trunk.  It stood its ground for 100 years until a series of windstorms battered it, leaving only its trunk and one large limb.  In 1999, it was removed, as it no longer thrived, but instead posed a safety hazard.

Charles Patterson (middle) planted the tree as a young boy. Photo taken in early 1960s. The tree stood until the late 1990s.

Charles Patterson (middle) planted the tree as a young boy. Photo taken in early 1960s. The tree stood until the late 1990s.

Charles also was an accomplished carpenter, having built a new house on the homestead.  Unfortunately, when their daughter, Geneva, was just 18 months old, the home burned to the ground.  However, given no other choice, he rebuilt a home on the same foundation.  During the rebuilding, the young family lived in a small outbuilding, which eventually served as their carriage house and car garage for succeeding generations.  Charles also built a two-story home at 1705-11th Avenue in Belle Plaine.  His finishing details and millwork of the oak interior trim were quite impressive.  In 2000 both of the homes that he built are still occupied, but no longer owned by family members.

On February 14, 1917, Charles and Della’s only surviving child, Geneva, married Horace McLennan, the youngest of Lachlan and  Lodosca (Plumb) McLennan’s four children.  They homesteaded in the Hartwick area.  McLennan’s were of Scottish descent and Plumb’s of English descent.  Horace and Geneva lived on the Patterson homestead to continue farming.  Horace continued farming under the often-judgmental eye of his parents-in-law, who fiercely wanted to preserve their fine reputation.  He worked the rich soil.  In early spring he carefully prepared it for planting.  Then he cultivated the rows of crops to rid them of crop-threatening weeds throughout the summer.  Finally he would complete the annual cycle by harvesting the crops from late September through October.  Thus the cycle continued year after year, generation after generation.   In 1942, Charles and Della acquired an additional 160 acres north of Belle Plaine and farmed it as well as the other 160 acres.  This gave Horace additional acres to farm.

With each succeeding generation, farming techniques improved as the means of power changed.  Many techniques done by hand or by horsepower were replaced by steam powered engines.  Yet, horse drawn farm machinery was still a mainstay on many farms as not everyone could yet afford steam-powered or gasoline-powered engines.

A farmer, who relied on horsepower and more primitive tools or implements, also relied on an important craftsman…a blacksmith.  Horace’s mother was a Plumb and her father, Henry, was the original blacksmith in Belle Plaine.  Many area farmers visited him on a regular basis for his honed skills of fitting horseshoes, creating fine hand tools, and making necessary implement repairs.  He spent many a sweltering day at the forge, shaping and hammering and at his pedal powered whetstone, sharpening tools.  Henry provided an essential ingredient to farm life and provided a living for his family, who came from Ontario, Canada.

Horace and Geneva carried on the longstanding tradition of their mutual families’ work ethics.  With the help of hired men, Horace worked the land.  Livestock included cattle, hogs, chickens, and sheep.  The team of horses continued to be a vital component to crop farming.  Of course, horses were the main form of transportation for most farm families.  Cars were gaining popularity in larger cities and only for those who could afford such a luxury.  However, gasoline engines provided ample energy in powerful tractors and eventually replaced the strong team of draft horses.  Tractors opened up a whole new world for farmers.  Plowing, planting, cultivating, and harvesting crops became more efficient.   Putting up hay for the livestocks’ winter food supply also became much easier due to the addition of tractor power.  Finally, the only horses remaining on farms were for riding pleasure, horse show competitions, or perhaps drawing an occasional buggy.  As time passed, Horace and Geneva added a car to their way of life, making Cedar Rapids, Des Moines, and other Iowa cities quite accessible.

As a farm wife, Geneva had a passion for gardening and turned their house yard into a lush and ardent retreat.  She convinced Horace into creating a fishpond in the northwest corner of the property, which was composed of concrete in a kidney bean-shape.  A number of smaller, porous limestone boulders were hauled from the MacGregor, Iowa area to be used in the surrounding landscape near the pond.  Geneva’s nursery roots were evident as the home landscape included arborvitae, forsythia, privet, and lilac bushes to name a few.   A large gardening area boasted a variety of vegetables, strawberries, raspberries, grapes, gooseberries, and asparagus.  A number of fruit trees kept the family supplied with fresh fruit in season and canned jams or fruits year round.  What a lovely setting for the family with the well-planned and maturing landscape.

1962 Belle Plaine Centennial, Geneva Patterson McLennan wears a pioneer dress and bonnet that she made

1962 Belle Plaine Centennial, Geneva Patterson McLennan wears a pioneer dress and bonnet that she made

One area of the backyard was graded to be flat so that croquet could be enjoyed in the summer as entertainment for family and guests.  Horace built an outdoor barbecue out of bricks complete with a handsome chimney.  Before gas powered mowers were added to the list of yard maintenance necessities, Horace or a hired hand would cut the lawn with the hand powered, push mower.  This was quite a task if the lawn had grown a little too long.  As the fourth generation owners of the farm, Geneva and Horace proudly referred to it as Sunset View Farm.  With its location at the crest of a slope, the farmhouse had a spectacular view of the sunset on the western horizon.  On clear evenings it was a sought-after scene for many to enjoy.

Nothing was more exciting for Horace than spending time watching the thundering steam locomotives that pulled in and out of Belle Plaine on the Chicago Northwestern line.  Being such an enthusiast, he wrote a song, “Railroad in the Sky” in his later years.  As jet transportation became a means of transportation, Horace was quite impressed by the two parallel white trails of steam left behind the jets as they flew overhead.  This sight reminded him of railroad tracks, inspiring him to write his song.

Horace and Geneva had two children, Virginia born February 24, 1918 and Charles (Chuck) born May 12, 1926.  Upon reaching adulthood, Charles farmed with Horace.  They farmed the home place as well as the west place (4 miles southwest and just 2 miles north of Belle Plaine).  By this time, the David Patterson farm, which originally was home to the nursery, passed onto succeeding generations and was eventually sold to someone other than family.  Following his return from the Korean War, Charles continued farming.

On October 24, 1954 Chuck married Roberta (Betty) Vale at the First Presbyterian Church, Anaheim, California. They met while on vacation with their respective families of origin.  Together they had six children: Diane, Charlene, Robert, Laurie, Susan, and Charles, Jr.  Robert died at one day of age.  Continuing the farm tradition and raising a large family, required careful planning from Chuck and Betty’s partnership.  At times this was quite challenging for Betty.  While she had some exposure to farm life through her Grandparents’ Carmitchel, Betty had been raised in Kansas City and Los Angeles, which were quite different environments than Iowa’s farm life.

During his farming career, Chuck purchased more efficient machinery than what he had used early on.  Combines could harvest 6-8 rows of crops at a time!  Adding dual tires to the tractor provided the extra traction to pull larger and heavier plows through the moist spring soil.  Power was emphasized as more and more farmers went into debt to purchase stronger, larger, and more efficient machinery.  What an event to hear of one of the neighbors spending $60,000 for a combine in the 1970s!  Unfortunately, as crop yields increased, demands also increased.  The farm economy became more volatile as corporations muscled into rural America.  The American economy ebbed and flowed and the farmers seemed to be more vulnerable.  Tremendous debts were incurred by small rural farmers who were forced into purchasing larger and more expensive machinery in order to keep up with the demand for crops.  One of Chuck and Betty’s more devastating times was when they had to apply for a 16% loan in the 1980s at a time when they were financially vulnerable.   In hindsight, building a new home on the farm had proven a risky move and placed an extra financial burden on them.  Plus, Chuck was beginning to experience chronic health problems, which made it more difficult for him to farm.  It became more evident that trying to raise a family and continue farming on 160 acres was nearly impossible.  Therefore, they elected to rent the farm out to another area farmer and Chuck took a full-time job with the Belle Plaine School district.  This was the beginning of the end of the family’s farming tradition on this farm.

Chuck McLennan Plants Seed Corn

Chuck McLennan Plants Seed Corn

In 2000, as sixth generation owners of this farm, we can now look back and see many wonderful times.  However, we can also peek back and see the changing landscape of the small family farm and the associated struggles that crept in while our parents farmed.  We have our distinct memories of growing up as farm children, the scents, sights, textures, sounds, and flavors that only living on a farm can provide.  As mentioned earlier, we have the treasured values that our preceding generations have passed along to us.  It is now our responsibility to cling to what is left…those values, our memories, and a bright future filled with hope and opportunity.  The farm gave endlessly and passionately to six generations.  It WAS a new frontier to Thomas and David Patterson.  Now it will serve as a new frontier to the five of us, Diane, Charlene, Laurie, Susan, and Charles, Jr., as we move into the future with our succeeding generations.

McLennan Family circa 1966

McLennan Family circa 1966

Special Delivery

This true story is dedicated to my parents, Chuck and Betty McLennan. They were clever and creative, always embracing the child-at-heart in all of us, despite our age. Mom and Dad created an endearing custom that we enjoyed from the time I could first remember until the youngest of the five of us was probably in high school. How I miss my parents and thank them for their zest for live. Enjoy this Special Delivery story. Merry Christmas!


Snuggled together on my twin bed and sitting alongside me were my sisters, Charlene, Laurie, and Susan with Mama Betty holding our little brother, Charles, on her lap. Our evening bedtime routine often included storytime, but during the weeks before Christmas it typically involved listening to traditional Christmas stories. Saturday night baths were finished, everyone’s hair was neatly combed and pin curls or brush rollers carefully placed for us girls since we had Sunday school in the morning. Each of us had donned our flannel night gowns or pajamas that Grandma Geneva had sewn for our Christmas gifts the prior year. Hand-knitted slippers that Mama made last Valentine’s Day were keeping our toes cozy-warm.

There was a distinct chill in the air as the winter wind whistled through the pine tree windbreak to the north of the house. Located near Belle Plaine, Iowa, our two-story clapboard farmhouse was built in 1899 by our Great-Grandpa Patterson, so despite its former sturdiness, the years since had taken their toll. Therefore, a cold draft had a knack for creeping through the slightest crack in the old window putty, moving the white Priscilla curtains ever so slightly on the interior-side of the windows and sending a shiver up our spines.

Listening intently to Mama’s soft voice as she read of Dancer, Prancer, Donner, Vixen, and of course the most famous reindeer of all, Rudolph, we were quickly startled by something strange outdoors.

“Rap, rap, rap,” came the pounding from the porch door.

“Ho, ho, ho!” boomed a low bass voice.

“Jingle, jingle, jingle,” rang out the deep clang of sleigh bells.

Without skipping a beat, the five of us kids sprang to the window and Mama carefully drew up the shade. Through the Jack Frost etching on the second-story window, we could make out a tall figure dressed in red, cap blowing in the wind, and black boots leaving tell-tale footprints in the fresh fallen snow down the front sidewalk.

“M-e-r-r-y  C-h-r-i-s-t-m-a-s!” shouted Santa as he waved and jumped the white picket gate at the end of the sidewalk.

Excitedly we jumped up and down, shouting, “Santa came!”

Without any coaxing we clamored single-file out of the bedroom to the top of the stairs, Mama leading the way with our toddler brother in her arms. She slowed our pace, saying, “Don’t slip on the stairs in your slippers now and hold the railing.”

Once on the main floor we zipped to the porch door where thrusting it wide open the surprise was revealed. In unison we shouted a resounding, “Yippee! Santa brought our Christmas tree!” There leaning against the worn wooden siding stood the most beautiful pine tree with a fragrant scent of Christmas. This fragrance also brought a rush of memories of our campsite in the thick pine forest of Point Beach State Park in Wisconsin where we camped just four months earlier but only during the oppressive heat of summer.

“Oh no!” announced Mama with sadness. “Daddy missed the excitement. Let’s go find him.”

We shut the porch door, walked into the warm kitchen, and heard a familiar noise.

“Clang, clang, clang…..scrape, scrape, scrape,” echoed the sounds from the basement. Daddy was stoking the furnace with corncobs, coal, and wood.

We threw upon the door to the basement and called to him, “Daddy, come quick. Santa came with a Christmas tree!”

“Just a minute, I’ll be right there,” he responded. Soon Daddy came walking up the old basement stairs from the musty confines of the furnace room and brushing coal dust from his hands. He was beaming from ear to ear and working to catch his breath. Daddy followed us to the front door where he caught his first glimpse of our Christmas tree brought magically to our home in the country.

“Wow, Santa brought a perfect tree again!” cheered Daddy.

An acknowledgement stirred in my eleven-year-old soul as the eldest child of us five. For I recognized the extra twinkle in Daddy’s blue eyes and his quick wink directed at Mama. I closed my eyes, knowing in my heart of hearts the secret of Christmas, and whispered to myself, “Thank you, Santa, for our Special Delivery!”

Circa 1955, Our Special Delivery Christmas Tree After Decorating