FARM LIVING: Melcher family farm celebrates 150th anniversary

By Kelly Terpstra, kterpstra@charlescitypress.com

Deep within the rich, black dirt is a story.

Not so much a tale of topsoil, but a narrative of the people that farmed the land, generation after generation.

Husbands, wives, brothers, sisters and great-grandparents — some long gone, but forever remembered in the family lineage.

For two years now, Gayle Melcher has worked on his project, a tireless effort to bring his proud family together for a milestone occasion.

Melcher is a fifth-generation owner of his family farm west of Charles City, and he honored all those who came before him at the 150th anniversary of the farmstead that he grew up on as a kid.

All those decades of continuous family ownership mean the Melcher farm has entered elite distinction. The family was bestowed with a certificate recently at the Iowa State Fair by the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship as a Heritage Family Farm.

That means a farm has had at least 150 years of consecutive ownership by the same family. The Melcher Farm, which was purchased by Mary and George Melcher in 1868, is currently owned by Gayle and his two sisters, Darcy Mullenbach and Judith Coyne.

The 160 acres — well, at least part of it — was the site of the Melcher Family Reunion on Saturday, Aug. 18. Relatives met, some for the first time, to reminisce about the farm’s storied history and even learn some new things.

“I met cousins I really never knew I had, at this reunion,” said Gayle, a 1972 Charles City High School graduate.

Whether the topic of discussion was Grandma’s old rocking chair, Dad’s WWII uniform or the 1930s Hart Paar green tractor that Gayle remembers riding on as kid, the family cherished every moment of a time since past.

“For us, it’s just the continuity and the history of our ancestors,” said Gayle, who has run the Osage Co–op Elevator for the past 12 years.

Gayle received from a cousin at the reunion a Post No. 3 GAR (Grand Army of the Republic) ribbon that was awarded to his grandfather Charles.

That was just one of the highlights of the reunion which featured a petting zoo, a sandpile for kids to play in, three pigs, two goats, a miniature donkey and several geese.

Gayle said about 100 people attended the family gathering, some from as far as Alaska. Others drove and made the trip from Massachusetts, Michigan and California.

Gayle organized a reunion a few years back and broke out pictures that definitely peaked plenty of people’s interest.

“Everybody was just like, ‘who’s that, who’s that?,’” said Gayle.

Gayle’s great-grandfather Lewis served in the Civil War at just 16 years of age. He returned to the farm alongside his father, George, and in 1885 purchased another 80 acres, which is now the southwest corner of the farm.

Lewis would become president of the Floyd Creek Cheese Factory and became one of the best–known threshers in the area. He was also a justice of the peace and a member of the Charles City school board for 12 years. He would live and farm on the ground until 1910.

Lewis’ oldest son, Charles, continued to keep the farm in the Melcher family name. He built the house that still sits on the property in 1903. The house is no longer livable, but nine of his children were all born in the first floor bedroom.

Charles’ son Oscar, Gayle’s father, continued to work the farm and left it only once, to serve with the 40th Division in World War II for three years. He was nominated for a Pork Producers award one year after handling 2,670 hogs over nine years. He raised an average of 300 swine a year.

“What’s amazing, in 150 years there’s been five owners. Every generation is 30 years,” Gayle said. “All those people came from those two people — that’s what I find fascinating.”

Lloyd Melcher, Gayle’s brother, was the last Melcher to farm the ground. Lloyd farmed until 2009 and died in 2015.

Grant Greenzweig, a 23-year-old graduate of Iowa State University, farms the Melcher land now.

There was a point during the Great Depression when the farm was in jeopardy of changing hands. Gayle said there was $10,000 owned on the farm and the family met to decide  what course of action to take.

“They decided to keep going,” said Gayle.

Gayle said the insurance company that loaned them the money on the land was getting back so much ground that it didn’t want anymore.

“They said when you can make payments, make payments,” said Gayle.

In 1942, Charles paid off the debt. By 1958, when the family settled Gayle’s grandmother’s estate, each of the eight kids received $10,000.

“So it’s all timing. In another 20 years it all worked out,” said Gayle.

The apple and plum orchards are no longer in bloom at the Melcher farm. The team of horses hasn’t been used since 1953 to prepare the earth for planting. The fresh potatoes, strawberries and flowers that produced a bountiful harvest from that dark soil are no more than a memory now, but a link to the past nonetheless.

“It’s only been 65 years ago we were still using horses. Now the tractor drives across the field and nobody touches the steering wheel,” Gayle said.

Gayle had samples of the soil from his family farm and capped them in little jars that he handed out at the reunion as a memento or keepsake that family members could take home with them. He said the soil had a 92 CSR (corn suitability rating), which is excellent.

Gayle’s ancestors lived off the land and were self–sufficient because of it. Many have come and gone, but the land still remains.

“It’s always there. It’s always a place you can go back home to,” said Gayle.

Gayle’s hope is that the farm remains in his family’s name another 150 years.

“I guess it’s my sincere hope that we can pass it on to the next generation,” said Gayle. “That’s going to be harder as time passes on.”

There are currently 1,207 Heritage Farms in the state of Iowa. Most of them are found on the eastern side of state. Seven Heritage Farms are in Floyd County, including the Melcher farm.

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