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Family farms honored in S. Dakota

Farming is not just a business, it's a way of life for Cliff Sorum and his family. The Canton, S.D., farmer walks in the footsteps of the generations before him.The family farm is one of dozens honored at this year's South Dakota State Fair.


Published on September 12, 2013 9:18AM

Argus Leader

CANTON, S.D. (AP) — He’s walking in the yard, and the birds are talking, the wind is sweeping through the trees, and the old windmill is creaking in the distance.

Suddenly, Cliff Sorum pauses.

How many times did Great-Grandpa walk this very ground, the 55-year-old farmer wonders as his gaze moves across the lightly rolling hills that define the family’s farm here in the southern shadows of Newton Hills?

How often do the footsteps match up where these sodbusters — four generations apart — worked and left their sweat in the same ground?

“A few years ago, we toured Abraham Lincoln’s house, and I thought that was kind of neat, that you’re walking the same stairs as he did,” Sorum tells the Argus Leader (http://argusne.ws/18SaP8s ). “And you get that same feeling here.”

For him — for thousands of farm and ranch families across South Dakota — “here” is a place called home and a piece of ground that has been plowed, planted, nurtured and harvested by the same bloodline for as many as seven generations now.

In 1984, the state thought enough of that longevity to honor operations in the same families for a century or more during the annual State Fair in Huron. In 2010, another milestone — the quasquicentennial, or 125-year-old farms — was added.

So it was a week ago that the South Dakota Farm Bureau and state Agriculture Department welcomed another 58 century farms and 25 quasquicentennial operations into the fraternity. That brought the total through the past 30 years to 2,729, said Julie Fritzche, an administrative assistant with the Farm Bureau.

“We don’t know if all those farms are still going, especially the ones from the early years,” she said. “But we intend to keep this program intact because we’re so honored by these grassroots families.”

In a decade, some of these farms will be celebrating 150 years. That’s all relative, of course, in a country where the first Americans lived for thousands of years, and where the earliest visitors arrived four centuries ago. Still, the links to South Dakota’s pioneer past remain powerful, almost mystical.

In 1868, Manfred Hill’s great-great uncle, Simen Schiager, rode into present-day Lincoln County in a caravan of 80 people that literally doubled the area’s population. Lured here by the American impulse, he would pay $14 for 160.24 acres of ground just northeast of what is now Canton.

His sodhouse sat at the north end of the property, though in fact Schiager actually lived east of there with his brother, Paul, and Paul’s wife. The actual original house wasn’t built until 1909.

State records indicate that the first homestead claims in Dakota Territory date back to at least 1869 and were signed by President Rutherford B. Hayes.

That was just a year before Sorum’s great-grandfather, Johannes Sorum, arrived from Norway and started turning the rolling hills with a plow and oxen.

How different all their lives might have turned out, Cliff Sorum speculates now, if his great-grandfather, frustrated by the harsh winters and grasshoppers and prairie fires, had succeeded when he traveled to Sioux City, Iowa, to sell his oxen and wagon.

But Johannes Sorum found no bidders. So begrudgingly, he went back. In 1872, he took a wife, a Norwegian like himself named Anna Jesine Anderson. Together they hauled oak timbers from a claim at Newton Hills and built a log cabin. Those 12-inch-thick timbers, now 140 years old, still form the walls of Cliff Sorum’s living room.

The story is similar at Bruce Heggen’s farm house northeast of Corson in Minnehaha County. The square nails Juul Heggen used to build that house in the early 1870s still hold it together.

“It’s been added onto two, three times,” said Bruce’s father, 78-year-old Leo Heggen, who remembers long ago when the home place was not much more than a big room with one little bedroom and something like an attic that mesmerized the child who Leo Heggen once was.

He and his son are the fourth and fifth generations to work Juul Heggen’s homestead claim of 160 acres. Sorum is the fourth generation on his family’s farm; his 14-year-old son, Clayton, a freshman at Canton High, would be the fifth if he so chooses. And Manfred, Richard and Jared Hill represent the fourth, fifth and six generations in their family’s operation.

There’s a nephew, Tate Hill, who goes to South Dakota State University and stands seventh in line among the generations if it’s his will to do so.

Ask any of them how it is possible for a family to endure through pestilence and plague, fickle bankers and Mother Nature, and the answer never changes. It takes hard work, good timing and a lot of luck.

In 1931, there were 84,300 farming operations in South Dakota. The Depression wiped out thousands of those.

The progression of technology that has made it possible to do more with less also has significantly trimmed the state’s numbers — to just 31,000 farms at the end of last year. A pair of oxen pulling a plowshare probably cost his pioneer ancestor $10 in the 1870s, Richard Hill, 65, said. Today, monster John Deere or Case tractors run $400,000 brand new.

“You can’t look back,” Cliff Sorum said. “It’s great that we’ve owned this place for so many years, and we do appreciate the heritage of it. But we also have to look forward at technological advances in farming to make the place more efficient, more profitable, more prosperous.”

When they do look back, however, it’s often at the twists and quirks that so easily could have changed everything.

At his kitchen table, Sorum tells a story of how diphtheria visited this very house in 1891 and claimed three of Johannes Sorum’s children: 15-year-old Anna Marie on Jan. 25, 7-year-old Adina Judith on Jan. 28 and 19-year-old John Albert on March 17.

Had it been worse, Johannes might never have been able to pass the land on to his son, Haran, who in turn passed it on to Cliff Sorum’s father, Robert, who in 1985 died suddenly at the kitchen table and left the land to Cliff and his brother, Jeff.

In 1896, a threshing machine took Simen Schiager’s hand. He was fortunate that it took only that.

At age 89, Manfred Hill still remembers his great-great uncle. He knows the story of how Schiager passed the farm on to his niece, Ingeborg Nelson Roe, who was Hill’s grandmother. He also is old enough to have seen how the dust storms of the 1930s drove so many of their neighbors off the land.

“I got the records of the Lincoln County weather, and I think it was July 17, 1936, when it was 115 degrees here, and there was a strong southwest wind, a strong wind from the Nebraska sandhills, and it changed the color of the crop,” he said.

“That same year, it got to 40 below in the winter. We were lucky.”

Turns out Ingeborg’s husband, Nels, was a self-made veterinarian who made sick livestock well and kept the family afloat during the Depression.

“He looked like Colonel Sanders, you know, with Kentucky Fried Chicken, with his white hair and white goatee,” Richard Hill said.

Stories about Simen and Johannes and Grandpa Nels are important for the lessons passed on about perseverance and struggle and triumph, Sorum and the Hills say.

But the tales told more often around the kitchen table are those that come out of a shared existence at the same address, one that spans the generations.

Like how the screen door would slam after an argument with his dad, and teenaged Jared Hill would wander off into one of the nearby fields to get away and cool off.

Or how he spent hours in the shop with his Grandpa Manfred learning how to fix equipment and become a mechanic. Or the times when a piece of machinery wouldn’t start, and Grandpa Manfred seemed only to have to go over and touch it, and it magically fired up.

“Grandpa always told me, ‘You learn how to work and the rest will come easy,’ “ Jared Hill, 37, said, then with a smile added, “I’m still waiting for it to come easy.”

Where there are century farms that anchor rural life in South Dakota, there are photographs of birthdays and funerals, weddings and holidays — with faces that grow older through the years until they are gone from the photos, but where the background always remains amazingly the same.

These farms are the manifestation of the phrase “coming home,” as the Heggen generations do every Fourth of July when the campers roll in and take their places on family land near Splitrock Creek.

They are the place where country characters with names like “Poor Richard Hill” are forged.

“Why Poor Richard?” the man with the nickname said when asked about it. “Because I was born the son of a poor sharecropper. I’m dirt poor, I live on a dead-end road, and I have a degree in misery.”

And his face barely shows a smile as the words leave his lips.

His sons and grandsons will tell that story someday, and long after that, their sons and grandsons will as well. At least those on today’s century and quasquicentennial farms would like it to be so.

Asked what he wants to see happen to their land near Corson, Leo Heggen said, simply, “Hopefully, we can carry it on.”

He won’t push his son Clayton, Cliff Sorum insisted. “But I’ll encourage him. He doesn’t have to farm, but I’ll encourage him to try to do his best to hold onto it. You can always leave and come back.”

Northeast of Canton, standing outside his father’s house, Jared Hill can’t tell you a thing about the man who started this all, that old Norwegian relative of his named Simen Schiager.

But he can tell you this: “I’m very proud of what I’ve done with this place, what we’ve done with this place. I think, like my dad does, like my grandpa does, that we’re never going to sell this. That’s how I feel. That’s how we all feel.”


Information from: Argus Leader, http://www.argusleader.com


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