Tradition of agriculture enduring in county


JASPER — To the Native Americans who first farmed the land in Dubois County, the best time to plant corn in the spring was when the oak tree leaves were the same size as squirrels’ ears.

When the earliest European settlers arrived in the area in the early 1800s, the Native Americans shared that wisdom, helping build the foundation of agriculture in the county.

“Early American homesteaders record learning planning techniques from tribesmen of whom [Dubois County historian] George R. Wilson writes, ‘Everything they raised, they ate or wore,'” local historian Lee Bilderback said in a presentation on Dubois County’s agricultural history Wednesday night.

Bilderback’s presentation — titled “The Story of Dubois County Agriculture” — was the latest in a joint, five-part series by the Jasper Public Library, Jasper Community Arts Commission and Dubois County Museum, “Crossroads: Change in Rural America.”

In his presentation, Bilderback took the roughly 40 attendees on a journey through Dubois County’s agricultural history, peppering his presentation with surprising facts and personal stories about his own family’s homestead near Holland. He began with the story of how the Native Americans shared some of their farming techniques with the area’s earliest white settlers whom, Bilderback explained, weren’t German. They were poor families from the Southern states, especially Kentucky and the Carolinas. Bilderback quoted a historian who said, “Some were too proud to work among the slaves and too poor to own their own plantation.” Those people moved out of the South in search of a better life.

“Many find what they are searching for right here,” Bilderback said.

He shared a photo of one of those early Southern families — his own great-great-great-grandparents who moved to the area from the Carolinas.

The first white family to move to and farm Dubois County was the McDonalds — a Scots Irish family that set up a settlement near Portersville. There, they cleared the land to farm corn and livestock on the hills of Southern Indiana. According to a story Bilderback found in Wilson’s histories, at that time, one of the men always patrolled the farm’s perimeter during clearing, planting and harvesting, carrying a long rifle for protection.

At the time of the McDonalds, Bilderback said, homesteads were valued at about $400, and an acre of land sold for about 75 cents.

Then, in the mid-1800s, German settlers came to the area, bringing with them farming techniques from the Old Country and developing land of their own, a privilege not afforded to them in their home country. Here again, Bilderback shared a photo of his ancestors — this time Germans — who farmed the area.

“I believe this illustration shows they take pride in their farming accomplishments,” Bilderback said. “Notice that they had their horses and mules in the photo with them.”

Early Dubois County agriculture also had crops not often seen in the area today, such as cotton, indigo and tobacco. Cane, which was processed into sorghum, was also quite common. Eventually, those crops gave way to the corn and soybeans grown today.

In addition to field crops, Dubois County farmers also embraced fruits, planting and tending orchards across the county. And livestock, milk and eggs were major products as well, with each family having a few cows and chickens of their own.

“The Indiana Gazetteer of 1833 notes poultry as one of our county’s articles of export,” Bilderback said. “Production begins with early homesteaders’ dozen or so hens passing a brood of chicks. In time, eggs and their products supplement the family diet.”

At one point, Bilderback said, Dubois County chicken feathers were a major product, filling early feather pillows and feather beds.

Turkeys, too, were a major and enduring product for Dubois County farmers, and county histories recall times when turkeys left the farms to mingle with the wild turkeys in the area. Sometimes, Bilderback said, the farm turkeys were accidentally hunted and killed as they interacted with their wild cousins.

“We have noted in Dubois County fistfights, and even lawsuits,” Bilderback said of the times when a farmer's turkey was mistakenly shot.

By the late 1800s, agriculture in Dubois County was flourishing, providing the building blocks for the agribusiness of the county today. In 1872, the county held its first county fair, and in 1890, the first of several annual Farmers Institutes were held. In 1895, the Huntingburg Feed Mill opened, and in 1905, the Holland Creamery opened. Both are examples of how farming has evolved with new technology. Dubois County farmers embraced more steps along the production line that carried products from the farm to kitchen tables.

Also in the late 1800s to mid-1900s, farming events became major community events. Each year at harvest time, teams of men harvested wheat and corn together, moving from farm to farm in threshing teams. Arnie Mehringer, 78, was part of those teams.

Mehringer and his family farmed land east of Jasper on 400 North, raising crops, hogs and cattle. One year, he said, his family tried turkeys.

“But Mom said that was the last year for that,” Mehringer recalled.

Today, Mehringer is one of only a few people left who participated in the threshing teams. He remembers that time of year as a big party with a smorgasbord of good food shared by all in the community — all of which came from local farms and gardens.

“We had a lot of pies,” he said. “It was fantastic.”

Now retired, Mehringer often gives tours of the Dubois County Museum, walking visitors through the antique farm machinery exhibit that features several pieces like the ones he and his family used on their farm.

While Bilderback’s presentation provided a walk down memory lane for Mehringer, for 18-year-old Jared Schipp, the presentation provided a look at how much the world has changed.

“I learned a lot about the older generations and how their lives were compared to mine,” he said.

Bilderback closed his presentation with a brief look at the large farms and agribusinesses that help fuel Dubois County’s economy today. Many of them have deep roots in the county’s agricultural history and survived because they changed and grew with the times.

In his presentation, Bilderback shared the John F. Kennedy quote, “Change is the law of life, and those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.”

Sitting among the antique farm equipment in the Dubois County Museum while listening to the history of how the county’s agribusiness men and women have ridden the waves of change throughout history, one could only wonder at what kinds of stories historians will one day share about today’s Dubois County farmers.

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