Farm History

This is a garden blog, but I thought readers might find the history of the settlers on this piece of Iowa land interesting.

When we bought our five-acre property in 2008, I did quite a bit of research about the land, house and previous owners of the property and wrote a one-hundred-page history about them.

(If you'd like to read a somewhat redacted and shortened version of my original House History, here is a PDF: House History).

But here's a short web overview:

First Survey and Land Patent (1841, 1854)

The first survey, done in 1841. My house is at the location of the asterisk in the center of the survey map. 

This part of Iowa became United States Territory in 1837, and was first surveyed in 1841, shown above. The squiggly line above the asterisk is a small stream that still exists north of our five acres, and the outlined area below is an area of timber or trees, described as "nothing but hazel ruff -- there is some small timber." The rest of the land was covered in "Prairie, 1st rate"and this section was described as "land rolling, rich & brushy hazel & prickly ash, timber... Elm, Lym Oak & Ash".

The original Land Patent Certificate
for Miles White in 1854. 

This land was first granted to a Miles White of Baltimore County, Maryland in 1854. The Patent doesn't mention how much he paid, but the going rate at the time was $1.25 per acre. He sold the land within a year to John Butterbaugh, presumably a land agent, who re-sold it that same day to an Irishman, William Kenney.

First Settlers: The Kenneys (1855-1872)

William Kenney was the first settler on this land. He and his wife, Mary, had both been born in Ireland (around 1809 and 1814, respectively), although they lived in Indiana before they came to Iowa in 1855. They purchased 40 acres on this spot for $200 (about $5,000 in 2007 dollars), and likely built a rudimentary log cabin for their first house (presumed house #1).

An illustration of a Lee County, Iowa log cabin and farmstead, likely similar to how the Kenney's place appeared in the early years, although there were fewer trees near the Kenney's house (1874 Lee County Atlas).

The 1860 Census shows that they and their seven children grew 500 bushels of corn, 100 bushels of potatoes, and 10 tons of hay. Mary Kenney churned a respectable 200 pounds of butter that year. They had 3 horses, 5 milk cows, 6 other cattle, 5 sheep and 28 swine.

By 1870, they had been able to purchase 63 more acres, for a total of 103 acres. They now had 6 horses, 2 mules or asses, 5 cows, 7 other cattle, 17 sheep (which produced 60 pounds of wool) and 23 swine. They produced 250 bushels of spring wheat, 1,400 bushels of Indian corn, 260 bushels of oats and 40 tons of hay. There was a small orchard on the farm by that year, because they produced $12 of orchard products. They grew 40 bushels of potatoes, and Mary Kenney, with help from children certainly, churned 300 pounds of butter.

By that year, 1860, the Kenneys had also probably built a better house on the homestead (presumed house #2). The railroad had made building materials more affordable, and during the 1860s, carpenter gangs roamed this county, busy replacing the settlers’ shacks and poorly-constructed livestock sheds with sturdily-constructed balloon-frame houses and substantial barns. The new house (presumptive House #2) was likely a simple one- or two-story rectangular or T-shaped frame house that stood close to or was even built onto the original cabin. It certainly was close to where the present house stands, as indicated on the 1870 plat map. A limestone cellar attached to the basement of the current house might date from around 1870 – which means it could have been built by the Kenneys, or by the next owners.

Kenney's new house might have looked like this illustration.

The Kenneys had made a success of this land, with the sweat of their brows improving it from unplowed sod and timber to cultivated and fenced land able to support a family. But Germans were moving into this area and the Irish were moving further west, and it was time for William Kenney to retire. He sold the land in 1872 to Phineas Harris for $3,605 (about $63,000 in 2007 dollars), who re-sold it to William A. McGrew (likely his brother-in-law) within a year. In 1875, McGrew sold it to Henry H. Hershberger.

Amish Settlers: The Hershbergers (1875-1908)

On March 19, 1875, Henry Hershberger paid $3,150 (with a mortgage of $1,000) for 90 acres (about $61,000 in 2007 dollars). He was about 36 years old at the time and had been born in Pennsylvania, from a long line of Pennsylvania Amish-Mennonite settlers from Switzerland. In 1865, he had married Elizabeth Bender and they eventually had 11 children, 7 of whom survived to adulthood.

The Hershbergers were devout Amish, and Henry was ordained a minister of the church in 1875, the same year he bought this property. This shows that he was a man of humble, stable character, and that he was a good manager of both his farm and his family affairs: essential qualities for being selected for leadership in the Amish community. The family would have spoken Pennsylvania Dutch (the Amish-Mennonite dialect of German).

They undoubtedly built a larger, more modern house than the existing one. There was a great deal of building in the period between 1870 and 1890, and farm families rarely lived in previously-built houses. The farmhouse demonstrated such virtues as hard work, thrift, and enterprise in attaining a better life. 

Importantly, the earlier house had been built by an Irish family, and Amish-Mennonites had a completely different standard of orderliness on the farm.

The top drawing is undoubtedly what German farmers thought 
Irish farmsteads looked like. (From Wisconsin Farmer, Aug 1858)

The Hershbergers’ new house (presumed House #3) was probably built between 1875 and 1880. Photos by later owners suggest that it was a two-story, T-shaped frame house, with wood siding painted white. It was definitely located very close to the location of the present house.

A photo of the Hershberger's new house, probably built in the late 1870s in a photo likely taken around 1920 (the next owners are pictured, not the Hershberger family). (Photos courtesy of Omar Miller)

Amish farms are known for their diversity of agriculture, which is reflected in the 1880 Federal Agricultural Census listing for the Hershbergers: They possessed 5 milk cows and 8 other cattle and 15 sheep that yielded 15 fleeces at 125 pounds in the Spring of 1880. They had 50 swine, 60 barnyard poultry and 7 other kinds of poultry, which produced 800 eggs in 1879. Elizabeth churned 200 pounds of butter that year.

They grew 15 acres of Indian corn, which yielded 700 bushels, 4 acres of oats for 200 bushels, 2 acres of rye for 50 bushels and 15 acres of wheat for 124 bushels in 1879. The farm produced ½ pound of sorghum sugar and 16 gallons of molasses. They planted half an acre of potatoes for 50 bushels. The property also had an orchard of an acre of fruit trees, with 20 bearing trees that bore 7 bushels of apples and 7 bushels of peaches.

Elizabeth Bender Hershberger died on February 7, 1904, at the age of 61. Henry H. Hershberger followed her the next year on Jul 29, 1905, at the age of 67. He did not leave a will, but there was some sort of legal disputation amongst his children over his assets, and a legal petition was filed, containing this fascinating list of the farm's assets:

List of General Assets of Estate of Henry Hershberger, deceased
One Horse $60.00
Five Cows 140.00
Four yearlings – 3 heifers and one steer 87.00
Four spring calves 30.00
About 25 hogs 126.50
Nine Fall pigs 10.00
One Wagon (old) 3.00
One Mower 5.00
One Hay Rack 1.00
One Corn Plow 0.50
One Harrow 2.00
One Set Double Harness 4.00
One Set Single Harness 1.00
Two sets fly nets
Two old buggies 2.00
About 18 tons of hay 48.00
About 350 bushels of corn 105.00
About 300 bushels of oats 60.00
About 125 chickens 25.00
Some house hold goods 15.00
1 Corn Sheller 3.00
1 Hog Rack 1.50
Wood 15.00
Lumber 5.00
Wire         1.00
Corn Crusher 0.50
Straw 2.00
5 stands Bees 4.00
Potatoes 18 Bushels 5.40
2 Kettles         4.00
Total     766.40
(about $18,600 in 2007 dollars)

Mennonite Farmers: The Yoders (1908-1955)

On March 2, 1908, the 90 acres and the house were sold to Lewis D. Yoder (whose mother was a first cousin of Henry Hershberger) for $9,000 (about $210,000 in 2007 dollars). He had married Katie C. Schlabaugh in 1906, but they had only one daughter, Ida, and a son who did not survive infancy. Their families were originally Amish, but they had converted to the less-strict Mennonite church by the 1920s.

Lewis D. Yoder, his wife, Katie (right) and daughter Ida, probably around 1920, standing on the east side of the old house. The water pump at far left (its shadow can be seen on the house) is still located on the east side of our house over a cistern, which probably collected rainwater to use for washing clothes, as our well water has a lot of iron in it and would ruin clothing.

Lewis Yoder farmed this land, was a livestock buyer and local butcherer, and owned a thresher, which he took around to other local farms to help farmers threshing, for a fee. By the 1920s, they were doing well enough financially to think of building a new house, and their Arts & Crafts Foursquare-style, tan stucco house was completed in 1924.

Ida with her first husband in front
of the new stucco house, c. 1933.
The front yard contains flowers
and is enclosed by a wire fence.

A closeup of the front doors (they might
have had two for Mennonite church
services or funerals (one door for the
women, one for the men).

The earliest aerial photo of the farm, during the 1930s. The house is difficult to see with its dark roof, but is in the center of the square formed by the trees. The large barn is much easier to see, and the driveway was at the south end of the farm, instead of closer to the house where it is now.

The Yoders clearly built their large new house for their daughter, Ida, and her future husband and hoped-for large family. She did indeed marry a man named Lewis Miller, but he died not long after in 1934 (of acute appendicitis, in the downstairs bedroom that I use as my study, and where I am now typing this). Lewis Yoder was apparently so disturbed by Lewis Miller's dying in the house that he didn't want to live in it any more and had a small bungalow built about half a mile away, renting out this house but continuing to farm these acres and keep cattle in the barn. Ida remarried, but never had any children.

The Last of the Mennonites: The Rhodes (1955-1975)

In 1955, the Yoders sold the property to John and Grace Rhodes, and Katie Yoder died the following year, Lewis outliving her until 1972. The Rhodes had been farmers in the area since their marriage in 1933, and had once mentioned to Lewis Yoder that they might wish to buy this property. A decade or so later, when Yoder was ready to sell, he showed up out of the blue to tell them that. The Rhodes were surprised, but decided it was time to buy a farm after all.

The farmstead in the 1950s. There appear to be extensive vegetable gardens to the northeast of the house. The driveway can be clearly seen, still located south of the barn, not near the house like today.

The Rhodes rented the house out for a few years while farming the land, but eventually moved here sometime in the late 1950s, after their two sons were grown (their daughter was tragically killed in a car accident in 1956).

The front of the house in the 1960s. The stucco has been sided and painted white. (photos courtesy of Charles Rhodes)

John Rhodes working with pigs on a cold winter day, probably in the early 1970s.

Aerial photo in the 1960s. The windbreak to the north and west of the house has been replaced and is still small, and the driveway has been moved north near the house. Some of the other large trees in the previous aerial photo may have been lost to Dutch elm disease.

Aerial view from the 1970s. The windbreak has grown in size. The driveway heading south might have been added by the next owners.

The front of the house, around 1974, taken by the Rhodes' photographer son, Charles. There are flowers on the east side of the house, at right.
The large barn, perhaps in the 1960s.

A drawing of our farm from an undated newspaper clipping, probably done in the 1960s.

John Rhodes retired from farming in the early 1970s and they sold the house in 1975, moving to a nearby town. Grace Rhodes died on September 3rd, 1992, and John Rhodes on January 11, 1997.

The Age of Non-Farmers Begins (1975-1997)

In the early 1970s, Philip D. was living in a nearby town and spending a lot of time riding his motorcycle with friends in this area, because of the beauty of the land. One day, one of his friends told him he had heard through the grapevine that John Rhodes had bought a lot in the nearby town and intended to retire, so Phil rode out and asked Rhodes if he would be willing to sell to him. Rhodes told him that when he was ready to sell, he would let Phil know first. After a year or so, Phil married Suzanne, and the day they returned from their honeymoon in 1975, he got a call from Rhodes. They bought the house and land for $99,750 (about $384,000 in 2007 dollars), financed by a seller mortgage of twenty years.

Phil, a computer consultant, was the first non-farmer to own this land. He rented the fields surrounding the house to a friend of his who was a farmer, and he and Suzanne lived in the house and made some cosmetic and structural updates, adding an upstairs bathroom and enlarging the kitchen. They had two sons, both of whom grew up in this house.

Since they weren't using the area around the house for livestock, they removed most of the grain bins that can be seen in aerial photos. But the farm outbuildings, particularly the barn, began to deteriorate after a decade of non-use. By the 1990s, the barn was in pretty poor shape and needed to be torn down, but Phil was worried that removal of the barn's concrete foundation would cost a fortune. The family was considering moving to Chicago. But what to do about the barn?

The barn had seen better days by the 1990s.

Hollywood Comes Calling (1995)

In 1995, Phil placed an advertisement in the local paper advertising for bids to tear the barn down (Amish farmers would re-use the materials for their own buildings). However, a Hollywood film company happened to be in the area looking for a typically Amish-looking farm at which to film a Hallmark made-for-TV movie about the Amish, and they also needed a barn that they could burn down as part of the film. They stopped by one day and made an offer to use their house for filming and to burn down their barn (and clean up everything, including removing the foundation). Phil and Suzanne eventually accepted, and Bernard Sofronski Productions hired movers to pack up their things, rented them an apartment in a nearby town, and the art and set designers took over.

The 1996 film made here.
They made a number of cosmetic changes to the property: burying the outside power lines (which are not present on Amish farms, of course); making the interior of the house more old-fashioned looking; and removing all electrical fixtures inside.

An exterior scene from the film.

In the film's story, three Amish barns are burned down in one evening, and the local sheriff classifies them as possible hate crimes, applying to the FBI for help. The agent from the Hate Crimes Division, played by improbably tall and beautiful Lolita Davidovich, goes to the area to investigate. Another arson is committed and she asks for help in solving the crime from one of the Amish residents of the area, played by Patty Duke. Of course, she solves the crime, learns about Amish ways of simplicity, and applies those lessons to her own life.

Patty Duke and Lolita Davidovich in the Amish-ified kitchen.

The smoldering remains of the barn. Hundreds of people came to watch it being burned down for filming, and many local people were involved in the film as casting extras and local helpers. Lots of people in this area remember this episode in local history and are familiar with this house because it was used for the filming location.

The film did fairly well for a Hallmark TV movie, winning several nominations and awards and some critical success. All the media attention was pretty extraordinary for a simple Iowa farm.

After the company was done filming in fall 1995, Phil and his family remodeled the kitchen and did some other updates.

They subdivided five acres of the land around the house, and put the house and five acres on the market. They kept the other 100 or so acres as an investment and moved to Chicago.

The five acres that were subdivided out of the property and sold in 1997.


A Doctor from India and His Family (1997-2008)

The house and five acres were bought in November 1997 by Jatinder A., a physician in a local hospital, and his wife, Kathleen, an American who grew up near here. They had two sons and lived here for nearly ten years, until Dr. A. accepted a position at an Illinois hospital in 2006. They listed the property for sale in mid-2007.

An aerial photo taken in March 2005.

Our Turn (2008- )

We bought these five acres in January 2008 and after two months of interior cosmetic updates, we moved in in March. 

That summer, we had some work done:
  • we had two of the old small sheds torn down 
  • we employed a man with a bulldozer for three days re-grading the land in several spots: grading up for a retaining wall to build a garage on, grading up a flat area to the east of the house for the herb garden, and smoothing out the large yard area where the barn had stood until 1995 and which was quite uneven and bumpy to mow.
  • we had a three-car garage built north of the large shed

By October 2010, this clear aerial photo shows our new garage with larger driveway, smoothed and reseeded big yard, herb garden to the east of the house,  two garden beds north of the house and large vegetable garden toward the bottom of the photo.

In 2011, we had a large library addition built onto the west side of the house. It was nearly finished in this August 2011 aerial photo.

By September 2012, the pond gardens were laid out and the Rainbow Border was planted between the
edge of the driveway and the east windbreak. Also, the ground has been cleared for the new kitchen garden and the posts dug for the chicken enclosure at bottom left (the lumber for both is waiting on the driveway).(I can actually be seen in this photo, on the back (left) side of the garage, where I was transplanting daylilies from the Front Border, which I was completely renovating.)

This aerial photo taken in June 2014 shows the many changes that we made to our property and the gardens I've added. Most important are the new island beds to the west (left) and behind the house. You can also see that one of the two trees north of the house has been removed and the border behind the house has been extended. The longer North Border is also visible behind the house, next to the windbreak. Also, the Kitchen Garden layout is now clearly visible at lower left, and you can see the addition of the Gazebo at the bottom of the photo. 

This March 2016 aerial photo shows the outline of my many garden areas quite clearly. I had not added any new areas since the 2014 photo was taken, but we bought a small red chicken shed, the "Grand Chicken Hotel," which is next to the Kitchen Garden at lower left.

This April 2019 aerial photo shows my favorite garden area, which I had added during the previous year: the four-part Paradise Garden in front of my house. Also, the pergola we built over the patio can be seen next to the lower right corner of our house.

This October 2020 aerial photo is the latest one available on Google Earth. The Paradise Garden looks much bushier in front of our house. Also, we had fenced in our large Kitchen Garden at lower left.

Our house in 2021.

Thanks for reading my Farm History. Researching the history of my house and this property made me realize that I'm taking my place among the ten owners, the at least 11 families and 50 people who lived here, the ten children born here and the three people who died here. 

They were a diverse lot: Irish, Pennsylvania Amish, Iowa Mennonite, Dutch-American and a Hindu-speaking Indian. But all of us have in common our efforts to make something of this piece of land in the best of the American spirit. It's the story of our participation in the greatest experiment ever in opportunity for the common man. 

I've tried to find out all I could about these people and their time here on the land that's mine for a while. I hope you've enjoyed this short overview.


  1. Beth, I was fascinated reading the history of your farm. What an amazing amount of detail you have! Your hard work certainly shows, it is a gorgeous property. We enjoyed reading this so much.

    1. Hi Karen, I'm so glad you've enjoyed the Farm History -- you're probably the only one who has read it... It was so fun to research the history of our land and the people who lived on it -- thanks for reading it! -Beth

  2. I enjoyed reading about the history of your home and land and the previous owners. It was interesting seeing photographs of so many of the past owners, too. You've done a lot of work there and everything looks so nice.