Historian: County’s legacy is in agricultureNovember 12, 2018
BY LEANN BURKE
Dubois County’s agricultural prowess traces all the way back to the first Scots-Irish settlers who built their homes in the area in the early 1800s.
That was local historian Lee Bilderback’s main take away from the hours of research he did in preparation for his presentation, “A Story of Dubois County Agriculture,” which looks at agriculture — both crops and livestock — from the first century of settlers in the county. Bilderback gave the talk Saturday at Jasper High School as part of the centennial celebration for the county’s Purdue Extension.
“Dubois County agriculture is so important and [farmers] have done so many things, to cover the whole 200 years would take many hours,” Bilderback said.
The county’s first settlers, the Scots-Irish, arrived from the southern states in the first decade of the 1800s. They brought with them traditionally southern crops such as tobacco, cotton, indigo and flax. The early settlers also grew corn and wheat, which are still major crops for the county today.
Indigo didn’t last long, Bilderback said, because there wasn’t a market for it. The settlers also abandoned cotton early, discovering that the crop required a longer growing season than Indiana provided. Still, Bilderback found mention of a cotton gin near Portersville in the county’s historical records. Of the southern crops, tobacco was hugely successful, and farmers exported more than two million pounds of the leaves annually in the 1860s and 1870s.
When the Germans moved to the area in the 1830s, they continued growing the crops the Scots-Irish brought to the area and expanded the county’s flax production.
Dubois County’s settlers were also adept poultry farmers, laying the groundwork that made eggs and turkeys major agricultural goods for the county. According to an 1833 article Bilderback found in the Indianapolis Gazette, Dubois County was known for its chickens and turkeys statewide, with local farmers thinking their birds were the best because they were raised on hills, not the flatlands in other regions. Apparently, that made the birds stronger and the meat better.
“I just thought that was an interesting old wives’ tale,” Bilderback said.
Another interesting anecdote involved early farmers’ turkeys. According to George R. Wilson’s writings, the county’s first turkey farmers let their birds roam. Occasionally, that meant hunters mistook farm turkeys for wild turkeys. More than a few fist fights and lawsuits started over a misidentified bird, Bilderback said.
Although the early farmers kept cows on their farms, Bilderback said the animal didn’t become a major livestock for the area until around 1905 when the Holland Creamery — known today as Prairie Farms — opened. From there, farmers expanded their cattle operations to include both dairy and beef.
“It’s interesting to see how many of our Dubois County products started on these family farms and grew to be an important part of our economy,” Bilderback said.
Throughout his research, Bilderback said, the farmers’ progressive thinking stood out. It seemed that no matter what product they produced, the farmers always looked for ways to maximize output and value. In 1804, for example, Bilderback said, farmers found cane growing in Birdseye and used it to produce sorghum, turning the town into the sorghum capital of the world for a period. In Jasper, farmers leveraged their wheat crops to develop Patoka Lily Flour, and in Ferdinand, a farmer with the last name Kitten developed a threshing machine that sparked Ferdinand Kitten Threshing Engines.
“The guy was a farmer who thought he could make a better product,” Bilderback said.
Bilderback credited part of Dubois County’s agricultural success to the Purdue Extension, which came to the county in 1918. The first extension agent, H.C. Thompson, stressed the importance of erosion control and proper plowing techniques that helped farmers of the time develop their crops. Thompson also played a major role in expanding the county’s beef and poultry industries. During World War I, the extension also helped Dubois County farmers export their goods to the Allied forces, providing a patriotic boost to the area’s agricultural industry.
Today, Bilderback said, Dubois County continues to be one of Indiana’s top agricultural counties. According to a 2015 study from Indiana University titled “Agriculture in Indiana Counties: Exploring the Industry’s Impact at the Local Level,” Dubois County was number one in the state for total gross domestic product effects for both poultry and egg production and animal processing. In 2012, the study said, Dubois County ranked in the top five counties in the state for total gross domestic product produced by the agriculture industry with $362 million.
“That says a lot about our farming and our farmers,” Bilderback said. “I think sometimes we take them for granted and the great legacy they have for our county.”
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