There are 76 plaques hanging in the antique tractor display building at the Wessels Living History Farm.
They each have a picture and a story about a person (or a couple, or a group of brothers in several cases) who was instrumental in the field of agriculture in York County.
The large display is called the York Area Ag Hall of Fame.
We, at the York News-Times, started the Ag Hall of Fame in 1999 – 22 years ago. We accepted nominations from the public and after each year’s inductees were chosen, we did stories about their lives and contributions. The plaques were created and the inductees were honored.
Five years ago, we moved the plaques from the basement of the courthouse to Wessels so they can be seen by more people and appreciated for many years to come.
During that process in 2016, I had the joy of reading these amazing stories again. Even if I was the original writer of many of them, I felt as if I was reading them for the first time . . . and the stories of these people, how they lived, what they overcame . . . wow.
What people went through in their lifetimes . . . to homestead land, create farms from nothing but barren ground, embark on then-innovative ways of thinking that included irrigation, invention and conservation. It was simply incredible.
For example, take the story of the Sandall brothers. Jonas, John, Charles and Andrew were born in Sweden and came to America with their parents. Charles and Andrew settled in York County in the spring of 1871, with the two unmarried guys living in a dugout 2 ½ miles west of York. In the fall, Charles told Andrew he was going to go back to Iowa, get married . . . and he’d be back in the spring. So Andrew stayed in York County, alone, that winter . . . to watch their land, take care of the livestock, etc. The story is that Andrew spent a lonely winter in the dugout, completely alone with his only reading material being his Bible and the Almanac. He made it through the winter . . . and the next spring his brother returned with a bride, and six other Swedish families following, which began a substantial settlement of this county that grew to 25 just a few years later. Jonas and John followed . . . they organized the Swedish Lutheran Church Society, were prolific farmers and some family members became state representatives.
Then there’s the story of Russell Nettleton who is credited as the county’s first conservationist. He was one of the first farmers in the area to adopt contour terracing, use grass waterways and plant shelterbelts. The lengths to which he went for planting his first row of trees is incredible – he and his family hoed, by hand, half-mile rows of young trees until they outgrew the weeds. And there’s the story of how he built a dam to prevent soil erosion – he insisted that it include an overflow drainpipe although the builder argued that was only necessary if there was a 100-year flood. Wouldn’t you know it, but three years later, a record 13-inch rain washed out dams throughout York County, but not his.
Then there was Clinton Kirkpatrick, a livestock producer who specialized in Spotted Poland China hogs, Shorthorn cattle and Percheron horses. He was a major player in the statewide livestock industry – but did you know that this man who was born in 1893 was also instrumental in starting the county’s blacktop road system?
Oh, and the story about George Ehlers who was also born in 1893, on a farm near Thayer. He consistently tried new, innovative ideas as he strived to farm as much land as he could physically handle. In 1955, he embarked on a project that only one other farmer in the area had tried before – an irrigation well. Many more followed . . . and the rest, they say, is obvious history.
An amazing story about marketing is that of Harry Rogers, the owner of Boxcar No. 15, which has been called “an important address in York’s agricultural growth.” At that location – tucked among a cluster of hog pens and the railroad, he ran Rogers Hog Market. Historical accounts say that the business eventually handled as many as $4.5 million worth of hogs in a year. Pretty incredible, considering he was born in 1886 and died in 1958. It was his trustworthiness and integrity that drove his business, documents reveal, as it was written, “So solid was his business and his customers were so sure of his honesty that hogs coming into market were often not accompanied by their owners, who knew they were get a fair price.”
Another market-driven story is that of Roy Tucker who began his auctioneering career in York in the early 1920s. At that time, all livestock was transported by railroad and producers came to the sales in wagons, on horseback and in Model Ts. Ranchers in western Nebraska were not satisfied with existing market prices and were looking for other outlets in which to sell their stock. He received so many letters from western ranchers, asking him to sell their livestock for them, that eventually rail cars full of livestock would arrive at the York Livestock Commission for him to sell to local feeders, breeders and dairymen. In that, York became a central point in the state’s early livestock industry.
Did you know that E.C. Bishop, a teacher near Bradshaw in 1898, was credited for helping to start the institution we call 4-H?
And there’s the legend of Lige Levitt who was born in the Ukraine in 1885 and arrived in York County with just a few dollars in his pocket. He eventually became the “father of banking” in this area, a strong supporter of agriculture and a major contributor to many large projects that literally formed York. Besides all of his accolades, Levitt was most known for being humble.
There were 68 plaques moved to Wessels and we have since inducted eight more people and their lives have been celebrated.
All that said, we will be doing the same this year. On Sunday, Oct. 3, we will hold this year’s induction ceremony in the historical church at Wessels.
A special section will run next week, announcing who the inductees for this year will be.
Join us at the farm on Sunday, Oct. 3 – to honor our new inductees as well as visit the large plaque display in the tractor building. Read their stories – some have passed away, some are still with us. They may have been your grandparents, or parents, or neighbors, or ag teachers, or 4-H leaders . . .
All of them have made an impact in the agricultural arena – as well as in their communities as a whole. With York County being an agricultural powerhouse, there are and have been many remarkable people doing remarkable things.