Thompson Century Farm
Hancock County, Iowa
CHANGE — REFLECTION UPON A REFLECTION
By Doug Thompson
In May of 1948 in Belmond Iowa in a large house that served its function as a hospital, my time arrived and I began my journey. This house/hospital was in no way comparable to any hospital that we presently have in rural or urban Iowa in 2023. Today’s medicine delivery via “telemedicine” is only a specific example of the seismic change that has occurred not only in medicine but in all aspects of life’s experiences and life tasks.
My parents Richard Thompson and Florence Norby Thompson were born in 1925 and 1926 respectively, both of their births were at home without todays “standby” assurance that all contingencies could be dealt with. They were both children of first-generation immigrants that arrived from Norway and Scotland. Their parents and grandparents were part of the 1850-1900 migration that left northern Europe in search of opportunities in a “new country” that was free of century old rule by monarchy and plutocracy. My heritage is about three quarters Norwegian with the balance coming from present day Great Britain.
My Norwegian ancestors came from an area near Brumunddal, Norway which is located on the shores of Lake Mjosa. This area between Oslo and Lillamer (1994 winter Olympic games) is very scenic but opportunities in the 1800’s were limited by too many people and very small farms. Notwithstanding the uncertainties of Civil War, the United States was in many ways a stark contrast of opportunity. New States were being added to the country as the vast lands of the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 were being settled with the help of the Pacific Railway Act of 1862 thereby insuring transportation and communication from the east coast to the west coast. The many native American Indian tribes who were occupying these lands as “hunter gathers” were being forced into submission by military and confined to smaller land reservation areas so as not to threaten the very rapid conversion to an English property ownership system we so universally accept today. That change and conversion was significant to the development of the modem-day rural Iowa I live in and now embrace. The juxtaposition of the native American Indian with the waive of European immigrants was a rapid and many times, violent substitution of the “caretakers” of the lands.
In the early 1860’s my great-great grandfather Thomas Anderson Hjemle left the scenic landscapes of Norway and boarded a steamer for the “New World”. His family spent over a year traveling from Norway to northwest of Belmond, Iowa. There were stops in Quebec, Prairie du Chien, Claremont and lastly Belmond. Along the way immigrants from an earlier time provided assistance and inspiration to the journey. We cannot forget that there were births and deaths that punctuated the journey for so many. These people went “all in” when they committed to the search for their hopes, dreams and opportunities with all that the United States had to offer.
There was a shedding of many old traditions and an eagerness to assimilate in the “new world”. In Norway you were known as - where you were from or where you worked. Thomas Anderson Hjemle was from, and had owned, the Hjemle Farm near Lake Mjosa. Upon arrival in the United States, his only son Ole officially changed his name (Americanized) to be Ole Thompson. No longer to be recognized as where he was from, but in tribute to his father, he was Thomas’s son. Can’t you imagine how proud he was to be Thomas’s son. His father Thomas, together with his wife and six children sold everything they had and embarked on their dream, with a hope of providing a better future for his family.
Thomas and Johanna Hjemle and family arrived in Belmond in the late 1860s and settled on a farm northwest of Belmond. In that area there were many other Norwegian families that had arrived earlier and had become a support group that shared a similar history, as many were from the same geographic area of Norway. The families worshiped together in their homes as clergy and churches were limited to the town of Belmond. Traveling 5 or 6 miles to town was not done regularly - especially in the winter. The early years of my family’s tenure in Belmond Township was in a transition time, a movement away from subsistence frontier farming and to commodity farming. Everyone had a garden, and the women were adept at sewing and canning. Almost every farm had their own milk cows, beef cattle, hogs and sheep which they used for personal family consumption and for sale at the local sale barn. And then there were horses. Horses worked the fields and provided the transportation to town and market. This time in the 1860- 1890’ s was a transition, fueled by the rapid expansion of the railroad and the ability to reach rapidly growing eastern markets via rail. Cattle were the easiest way of converting grasslands to dollars. This wasn’t the wild west we saw in the movies - it involved cattle and crops. There was a lot of virgin prairie that on a dry year could be dangerous. Prairie fires were a real risk. But the winter on the farm with livestock was a particular challenge. Providing fresh water to livestock when temperatures could fall to 20 degrees below zero involved tank heaters and axes. Thomas Hjemle was mauled by a bull and died in about 1873. My great grandfather Ole took over the management of the farm from that point forward. He assumed care of his mother Johanna and sisters. It was an old-world tradition that the oldest son inherits and assumes those responsibilities vacated by the loss of the father.
Ole had met a young lady (Karin) while they were (travel from Norway) in Wisconsin. Her family, Kluge, ended up in rural Thor, Iowa. Stories of the Kluges include the patriarch of the family as a notorious gambler and had lost more than a little money on horse racing. Ole apparently kept in contact and married Karin and proceeded to have a large family. Eleven I believe lived long lives but their earlier years were all about work on the farm. I recall someone saying my grandfather Melvin would carry two/5 gallon buckets, one in each hand all while carrying a lantern with his teeth! All on a run. Ole expected all of his kids to work hard. Ole was an early entrepreneur, becoming very involved in community ventures including banking. He purchased many farms, rented and re-sold many of them to new Norwegian immigrants. At one point he owned over 3000 acres, including 600 acres in North Dakota, which many of his children had their own farm. In the Depression many of the Norwegian farmers that had purchased farms from Ole turned them back to Ole. Because values had crashed, he subsequently was forced into insolvency.
My grandfather Melvin Thompson was born in 1889 on the same farm his Grandfather Thomas Hjemle purchased when he came from Norway. He and his brothers were good horsemen and cattleman. At 4th of July horse races in Belmond - they were among the riders. Melvin went to country school with my other grandfather Bill Norby. Bill was a couple years older than Melvin
- both were part of that Norwegian conclave northwest of Belmond. Melvin only went through the 8th grade in the rural school system but did finish high school at Waldorf in Forest City, Iowa.
Early on, Melvin was always interested in Kanawha, my present home address. He told stories of all the horse drawn wagons traveling to the northwest carrying supplies for the workers that were constructing the railroad from Belmond to Kanawha and subsequently on to Algona. When I drive around the country side between Kanawha and Belmond I can only imagine what the landscape looked like a 120 years ago.
In 1896, Ole Thompson purchased the farm I live on which is located on the shore of West Twin Lake in Amsterdam and Twin Lake Townships of Hancock County, Iowa. One of the motivating reasons for purchasing the farm was the easy access to water. After he purchased the farm one of his oldest sons Adolf moved to the farm. My Grandfather Melvin subsequently purchased the farm from his father in 1914. He pattern-tiled the 80 acres west of the building site as one of his first projects. He married the neighbor girl Ninnette, my grandmother, in 1917 and raised a daughter, my aunt Nadine, and my father Richard. The family went through both the great Depression and World War II. They were able to financially survive the 30’s - however it was a difficult time. My father returned from the Navy in 1946 and married my mother Florence Norby, another neighbor girl, in 1947. If you remember from the first sentence I am “reflecting” now.
When I grew up my story was a simple one. I learned to enjoy working around the farm in the summer when it involved our purebred Angus heard which was our pride and joy. Additionally we had an egg layer flock, commercial farrow to finish hog operation, and a flock of sheep. Row crop farming was quickly becoming much more the centerpiece of activity and financial reward. There still was however a lot of manual labor involved with both enterprises - pitching manure on Saturday morning in the hog house was not at all fun. Cultivating corn, baling hay or walking soybeans on a sweltering summer day wasn’t either. However, I always felt so gratified when those tasks were finished. No matter how mundane or unpleasant the task was I was taught to finish! I need to quote my high school motto, “And this too shall Pass”. Working on the farm created a sense of real satisfaction - a satisfaction I never really felt in any other job. I recently looked at my High School annual and the page showing the FFA in Kanawha - there were 33 members. I am the only one left farming today but only 3 of the group ever became involved in production agriculture.
In the middle 1970’s I returned to the farm as a tenant renter of a farm northwest of Goodell. I had been gone from the area for nearly ten years working for the Iowa Cattlemen’s Association, Iowa Development Commission and lastly Agri-pro a soybean research company. The fall of 1975 was memorable in many ways as I re-enrolled at the University of Northern Iowa and completed my last semester of undergraduate studies in Political Science. In November of 1975 my grandmother passed away. The evening after her burial I went to my new farm and drove an “open station” tractor with a canvas heat-houser until early morning trying to gather my thoughts all while prepping the field for the following spring. I was back. I was now working with my father and mother - I had my farm they had theirs. I had the pleasure of working with my father and mother - for about 15 years.
My Grandfather Melvin was happy I returned. One day I had been gone and when I returned, he was out in the field pulling weeds! I can only imagine what he was thinking about me and my weeds. He was a quiet man. I don’t recall him ever raising his voice or speaking ill of someone, I think it was a leftover of the Norwegian upbringing.
During the last 4-5 years of his life, I would stop in to see him and see ifl could generate a conversation. One day we were chatting and he said the words “cattle drive”! What - I instantly replied. He went on to explain that his father Ole either owned or rented a large pasture area northeast of Thompson, Iowa, which is about 35 plus miles from the area northwest of Belmond Township. A group of Norwegian farmers pooled their cattle (most likely yearling calves) and were going to let them grow on grass over the summer and then return them home to feed or perhaps market them at the sale barn in the late fall. They gathered the cattle and found enough people to “push” them north. My Grandfather was about 11 years old at the time and went along to do a job. His father Ole did not go along on this cattle drive. Young Melvin, was to work for another neighbor and was due a wage of $.50 upon completion of the drive and return. I vividly recall the disdain my Grandfather had about his pay - he was stiffed - the neighbor said “I’ll settle up with your father”, it never happened. From Belmond to Thompson took two days to move the cattle - they overnighted in Hayfield. I asked Grandpa, “What about all the fences?” He replied, “There were no fences”. I went away from that “reflection” of the past by my grandfather realizing that all of these immigrants had built houses, barns, fences, cribs to store grain and tiled the low land areas - all in an unending quest to turn a raw prairie into a productive commodity farm. And we are still doing it today.
When I returned as that tenant farmer, I rented 320 acres of land. I furnished the equipment and labor - the landlord furnished the land. We split the proceeds 50-50, which was at that time in 1975 fairly typical. Today in 2023 that type of arrangement is rare - with most lease arrangements being cash rent on March 1 for the coming year. Why the change, what happened? We have developed the prairie - developed it to the point that it is fully monetized. No longer is labor traded for capital. Modern agriculture in rural Kanawha is no longer a community effort with farming neighbor exchange labor or joining efforts as they did in the days of Threshing Machines and Threshing runs. Capital has replaced labor.
I have three cousins that are involved in farming activities today; cousin Duane Howlett and his son-in-law Quinten Stortenbecker near Britt, my cousin David and his son Robert Johnson of Kanawha, my cousin Marlys her husband Marvin and their son Dallas Johnson also of Kanawha. My wife Barb, sons Adam and Aaron, are all involved in our operation which is headquartered on the shore of West Twin Lake and is by the way named, “Hjemle Farms, Inc.” Without asking each of my cousins exactly how many acres they each farm I would estimate the total of all our acres is most likely going to exceed 9,000 acres. Marv and Dallas are the only ones that have any livestock at all. Information and technology dominate agriculture in Iowa today as we have had fiber to our home since 1997. The sense of community is reserved to cheering for the same high-school football team! Medical needs are quite readily available in Belmond, Clarion, Britt and Mason City.
150 years since the Civil War, Rail Road Act, Homestead Act and the Land Grant College initiative. 150 years of development and change.
I can only imagine what those original Immigrants would say - was this the dream they envisioned when they boarded the steamer? Maybe.Corn to Whiskey