Mark Metzger’s Alvada, Ohio, farm has been in his family since 1832. The retired dairy farmer now uses his 1898 barn for family gatherings and has preserved its authenticity down to the last detail. His life is a testimony to the knowledge and dedication of Hancock County, Ohio, farmers.
There are several farms in the Findlay area that share a rich history, not only of agriculture, but also of original owners that immigrated to the U.S. from Europe and handed down precious land to the next generation. This was the start of northwest Ohio’s Century Farms. Thanks to a partnership between The University of Findlay and the Hancock Historical Museum, this history will be kept alive through the voices of the farmers themselves.
An Offer Extended
In late summer 2013, UF’s grants administrator, Tricia Valasek, received an invitation from the Ohio Humanities Council to a meeting in Ft. Meigs, Ohio. She invited Julie McIntosh, Ed.D., dean of the College of Education, and Nikki Diederich, Ph.D., interim dean of the College of Liberal Arts, to accompany her.
“The Council was interested in funding humanities-related projects in northwest Ohio,” said Valasek. “They were offering mini-grants in the amount of a few thousand dollars.”
McIntosh and Diederich contacted their instructors and program chairs to ascertain if there was an interest in pursuing a grant. Christine Denecker, Ph.D., associate professor of English, and Gwynne Rife, Ph.D., and Elizabeth Raker, Ph.D., professors in the College of Education, responded. Sarah Sisser, executive director of the Hancock Historical Museum, was invited to the first brainstorming meeting.
The Museum had just conducted its inaugural Historic Barn Tour and more than 700 people had participated in the self-guided exploration of six, century-old barns in Hancock County. Sisser felt there was a growing interest in Ohio farms and suggested a project focused on agricultural heritage. Denecker, who has experience in collecting digital narratives, thought an oral history of area farms, expressed by the farmers themselves, would be a valuable archive.
“I’m from Hancock County and generations of my family were farmers,” said Denecker, “Since farming is in my blood, I couldn’t turn down a chance to record these histories.”
Now the Real Work Begins
Valasek got to work writing the grant proposal, establishing the timeline as Feb. 1, 2014, through Oct. 31, 2014. Denecker and Sisser proposed a focus on six area farms, including two that had been designated “Certified Century Farms.”
From February through March 2014, Denecker and Sisser, along with UF students, developed interview questions and conducted non-recorded meetings with the six farm owners. From April 1 to May 15, 2014, they conducted one-to-two-hour interviews with the purpose of creating dialogue to record stories of life on these farms. To comply with Ohio Humanities Council requirements, student workers began work in August to transcribe the audio portion of all interviews. They are expected to work through the fall semester, if not longer.
Denecker, who has provided support to The Ohio State University on the Digital Archives Literacy Narrative (DALN), said that the history of Hancock County farms is really a history of the entire community.
“I think I can honestly say that this project is one of the most gratifying experiences I’ve had in my career,” she added.
The Ohio Humanities Council, UF and the Museum all agreed that the farm histories had great educational value and should be shared initially with students and members of the community. With assistance from the College of Education and UF’s office of Marketing and Communication, the two project leaders developed a storyboard on each farm, and one describing the project.
The storyboards were displayed in the Farm Bureau tent at the Hancock County Fair in September 2014, making them accessible to more than 80,000 people who attended the fair during its seven-day run. The boards were also featured at the Museum’s 2014 Historic Barn Tour. They are now permanently housed at the Museum.
“This ties in so well with the Museum’s educational focus on our agricultural roots,” said Sisser. “We currently have an agriculture traveling trunk program, and feature an agriculture station in our ‘Hands on History’ program that’s presented to nearly all Hancock County fifth graders.”
The project culminated in a two-hour public presentation by Denecker and Sisser held at the University’s Alumni Memorial Union. Well attended by community residents, the farm families interviewed, and students, the presentation was also a dialogue about the value of preserving stories and anecdotes about rural life in northwest Ohio.
Both Denecker and Sisser expect the project could further expand with more funding. A documentary could even grow out of the hours of video they’ve collected.
“We will eventually go outside of Hancock County,” said Denecker. “We may start with only Century Farms, and once we’ve gathered the stories of Hancock County, may move out into other regions of Ohio in order to preserve the great agricultural history of our state.”
When asked what she thought about partnering with another community organization on a project like this, Dr. Katherine Fell, UF president, replied, “To our knowledge, no one else is doing this. It gives the University the opportunity to share the area’s heritage with our students and ties in beautifully with our heartland values.”
Ohio Farm History Project
Digital narratives from the owners of the following Hancock County farms were presented in the Alumni Memorial Union in September as part of a grant-funded partnership project between UF and The Hancock Historical Museum.
Jacquelynn Johnson has owned this Forest, Ohio, farm since 1978, receiving it from her father, James R. Schey. Johnson’s great-grandfather, Lawrence H. Plotts and his wife, Mary E. (Montague), acquired the property before 1875. The barn on the Johnson farm is entirely hand-hewn and dates to pre-Civil War times.
Wayne Marquart remembers watching the barn being built on his farm just north of Jenera, Ohio, in 1942. All the timbers were sawed and notched by hand. Marquart also remembers German POW’s working on the farm, blocking sugar beets, and migrant workers helping his family harvest the family tomato crop. He still manages the 300-acre farm.
Spahr Dairy Farm:
A Certified Century Farm, the Spahr farm is more than 700 acres and one of only four operating dairy farms in Hancock County. Situated just outside of Findlay, Ohio, near the Hancock County reservoir, the farm includes two historic, timber-framed barns built in the late 1870s and updated in the 1930s.
Mark Metzger has owned this Certified Century Farm in Alvada, Ohio, since 1956. Now retired from his large dairy operation, Metzger is a wonderful steward of this historic property, displaying vintage machinery and artifacts of early life on the farm.
Gary and Mary Wilson own and operate this farm that has been in their family since 1883. Their daughter, Jennifer Wilson, moved back to the farm this year and is the eighth generation of the Wilson family to live on the property. The 40’ x 70’ barn was built in 1905.
Dennis vonStein and his brother, Dean, operate this extensive crop-farming business on several hundred acres in Rawson, Ohio. Three generations of the vonStein family are actively involved in farming. Dennis and his wife, Monica, also operate Pure Country Greenhouses on the property.
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