By JEANNIE WILEY WOLF
The Hancock Historical Museum and the University of Findlay are working together to preserve stories of the county’s agriculture heritage.
As part of the initial work, six farmers are being interviewed on camera. The recorded interviews will be consolidated into a presentable format for the Hancock County Fair and the museum’s second annual history barn tour in September.
A lecture will also be presented in September at the University of Findlay.
Sarah Sisser, executive director of the museum, explained that the project stemmed in part from the success of the museum’s first historic barn tour last year.
“We had close to 800 people that did that tour and it was just so well received by the community,” she said. “It became very evident that there was a need and a desire to have more information and more preservation of our agricultural heritage.”
Admittedly, the museum was predominantly focused on just Findlay for a long time, said Sisser.
“We’ve really tried to, in the last two years, branch out a lot and incorporate more of the county and the county’s heritage,” she said.
She noted that Gary Wilson has been helping with that mission. Wilson, a farmer and retired Ohio State University Extension agent, was named to the museum board in 2012.
The museum also received a grant for $1,000 from the Farm Bureau to implement an educational program with a focus on agriculture, and began inviting retired farmers to come and speak with fifth-grade students who visit the museum.
Because of those successes, museum personnel brainstormed with educators at the University of Findlay, including Christine Denecker, an associate professor and chair of the English department.
“In that session, one of the things Sarah mentioned was how popular the barn quilt tour was, and that got us talking about the stories of farmers and being out on the farm,” said Denecker.
They applied and received a $2,000 grant from the Ohio Humanities Council which is being used to record the oral histories of six farmers, some of whom are retired and others who own Century Farms, including Dave and Linda Spahr, Jackie Johnson, Mark Metzger, Wayne Marquart, Wilson and the Harold, Dennis and Miles vonStein family.
“… We didn’t really guide the stories in any way but a sort of theme has come out of each one,” Sisser said.
Wilson, for example, is the seventh generation of his family to live on his farm in southern Hancock County near Jenera, and is getting ready to turn the farm over to the eighth generation.
“He has a lot to talk about regarding the economics of farming and how those have changed,” Sisser said.
Meanwhile Johnson has spent a lot of time with 4-H, said Sisser, and is helping to guide the next generation into agriculture and keeping that heritage alive. Being a woman in the profession also offers a little bit different perspective, she noted.
“The barn of Jackie Johnson was built before the Civil War,” Denecker added. “And she brings out these Civil War handwritten letters from her relatives.”
The Spahrs’ story was interesting because they have one of the few dairy farms left in the county.
“I think one of the biggest things that has struck Sarah and me is the change,” Denecker said. “There were so many dairy farms and now we’re down to like four or five.”
Sisser said their story is unique because they were able to survive and evolve as a family farm.
“They’re also unique because of their location. They’re sort of sandwiched between a growing development; they’re out by the reservoir, and then the reservoir itself. So they had a unique perspective of being a neighbor as a farmer and what development does to farming and the relationship between the city and the county,” she said.
Another of the farming families, the Marquarts, grew tomatoes for many years, Sisser said. Migrant workers came and lived on the property or on an adjacent property to help.
“They had a close relationship with a family of migrant workers that came every year and kept that tie, and that’s something probably not a lot of people in the community realize,” she said.
Denecker added that several of the farmers were also in World War II and talked about how the war affected farming and their world views.
“Wayne talked about farming in Germany as compared to farming in the United States,” she said.
He also had stories about a prisoner of war camp that was located behind Cooper Tire and Rubber Co., and how the German prisoners would work in the sugar beet fields.
“I’ve lived here my whole life, and I’ve never heard those stories,” Denecker said.
Sisser said Metzger is very knowledgeable about his family’s history on the property and very proud of that history.
“He’s also a wonderful steward of his historic property. He’s retired from farming but his barn is well over 100 years old and he maintains it just beautifully, almost like a museum,” she said.
The von Stein family’s story is unique because they have three generations actively farming, said Sisser.
The overarching theme of the six stories is that even though the area is surrounded by and so closely tied to agriculture, many people today are generations removed from the farm and don’t know where food comes from, Sisser said.
“Many of us don’t know the importance that agriculture still plays in our community, and there’s a real need to educate the community about that,” she said.
“We see that with our educational programming, too. That fifth-grade program where we have students talking with these retired farmers, so many of the kids have no reference for agriculture,” she said. “Even some of the county kids that come in really don’t have a direct link anymore to farming, so it’s great to be able to educate everyone in the community about the importance that it plays.”
The information collected will be prepared in several different formats.
“We have hours and hours of footage now that we’re kind of delving through and trying to edit down. So we’ll have a pretty short format that we’ll present at the fair (in conjunction with the Farm Bureau) and at the barn tour,” said Sisser.
A longer format may show up at an interactive kiosk in the museum’s agricultural building, she said.
They’re also discussing ways the university might be able to house the stories. And if they collect more, whether an online archive could be implemented for the public to access.
“That’s sort of the next step now that we’re gathering these stories, what do we want to do with them and how do we dispense them to the public so people can really appreciate them,” Sisser said.
The process of gathering the stories and the importance of the information gathered will be presented during a lecture with Denecker and Sisser at the university at 7 p.m. Sept. 30.
Sisser said they have learned that Hancock County is fortunate to have a lot of this history still intact.
“We have a number of Century Farms registered here in the county, but there are plenty more that could be registered Century Farms,” she said.
More than 900 farms across Ohio have been declared a Century Farm by the Ohio Department of Agriculture. According to the department’s website, the program started in 1993 to honor those who have maintained their farming operations in the same family for at least 100 years.
Cindy Shy, manager of the Century Farm program, will be giving a lecture in Findlay in September.
“I think there’s a lot of interest in the county on how to participate, and they’re just not sure on how to do the documentation and whatnot,” Sisser said. “So there are plenty of farms here that are eligible for that listing. There’s a lot of pride in our county and in agriculture and in the importance it still plays to our community and in our local economy.”
The two women have become increasingly passionate about the stories and capturing them, Sisser added.
“We’re really excited about the potential for this project going forward,” she said.
Although they are starting on a small scale with just six stories, they want to expand the project.
“We don’t know that there’s anybody else in the nation really that’s focused on capturing the stories of agriculture and farming,” said Sisser. “There are some other efforts to collect oral histories, veterans’ stories, just lots of different topics, but nobody really doing this. So we even see the potential to become a national archive for those stories.”
The women are excited to think about where the project might lead.
“We’ve already seen a great interest. We know there are many more stories in the county that we would like to capture, so we’ll just continue to work on this project and see what the future holds,” she said. “We’d like to grow it.”
Wolf: 419-427-8419 Send an E-mail to Jeannie Wolf
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