Pair of local families get state honor for having centennial farms

Melissa Killen (left) sorts through photos showing the Killen family farm as it has changed through the years with her father, Donald Killen, during coffee time together at the Café of Hope, in Huntington. Donald Killen still lives on the homestead, which was recently recognized as a Hoosier Homestead Farm for being in the Killen family for more than 100 years.
Melissa Killen (left) sorts through photos showing the Killen family farm as it has changed through the years with her father, Donald Killen, during coffee time together at the Café of Hope, in Huntington. Donald Killen still lives on the homestead, which was recently recognized as a Hoosier Homestead Farm for being in the Killen family for more than 100 years. Photo by Rebecca Sandlin.

Their families have been the salt of the earth for generations in Huntington County, producing food by tilling the land and raising a variety of animals. This year, the two families are being recognized for having their farms in the same family for at least 100 years.

The Hosler farm, begun in 1906, and the Killen farm, started in 1918, both received the Hoosier Homestead Award in recognition to their commitment to Indiana agriculture. To be named a Hoosier Homestead, farms must be owned by the same family for more than 100 consecutive years, and consist of more than 20 acres or produce more than $1,000 of agricultural products per year.

“For more than a century, these farming families have been providing Hoosiers and Americans with the food, fuel and fiber they need for their everyday lives,” said Indiana State Department of Agriculture Director Bruce Kettler. “Each generation has learned to adapt and evaluate how to keep their farm successful with changing times and technology.”

The Hosler and Killen families traveled to the Indiana Statehouse in Indianapolis, where they were part of 65 farm families across the state who were recognized. They received a certificate and a metal sign to place on their property denoting the longevity of their agricultural legacy.

The farm where Tom Hosler and his wife, Bonnie, live is located at 1464E-200N in Union Township.

“I feel honored and privileged that we were able to acquire this award,” Tom says, adding he’s got a place picked out to display the prestigious Homestead Award sign.

It was his grandparents, Harry and Eda Hosler, who purchased the first 40-acre homestead.

“In 1906 they decided they wanted to buy a farm. They were married right at the turn of the century, Dec. 31, 1899. I think they’d been living with her parents but they wanted to have a farm,” Tom Hosler recounts. “It was more than they wanted to pay, but I think it was around $70 an acre.”

The young couple borrowed the money and began their new life. Not long thereafter they and their three sons, Victor, Ora and Eldon – who was Tom’s father – were working the land and providing for the family. Harry was also a schoolteacher until around 1920 and then worked as a postal clerk at the Huntington Post Office while he farmed. When he retired he handed the farm over to Victor.

Eldon’s family moved to an adjacent farm about a mile away in 1952. That’s when Tom’s dad took over working the farm, increasing the original 40 acres to 80. Today the Hosler farm sits on 300 acres. Tom says the value of what his family has was instilled in him at a young age.

“Back in the ’30s my grandfather claimed that there was a lot of money buried on this farm,” he recalls. “We finally figured out that what he meant was he had installed a clay tile drainage system. It was during the Depression and no one had any money, and he didn’t either. But he said he put all he had – he ‘buried’ this tile … there were 13 miles of tile on this 100 acres that he owned at that time.”

When Eldon started farming back in the ’50s they raised dairy cows, pigs, chickens and sheep in addition to crops. Nowadays, his son rents the arable land out to other farmers, who grow mostly corn and beans.

Tom graduated from Purdue University with a degree in agricultural engineering. He retired from farming, but his children have left the family farm and gone into other professions. He says he doesn’t know what will happen with the next generation.

“More than likely it won’t continue another generation,” he speculates. “If none of the children or grandchildren would care to take it over, then it will someday be sold … But I do have two grandsons.”

At 1572S-600W, where the Killen Homestead is located four miles south of Huntington near Harlansburg, Donald Killen lives in the family farmhouse, a part of the metamorphosis the farm has undergone since it was first purchased in 1918.

“My father grew up half a mile east of Harlansburg and his family lived there and then he bought a place half a mile south of Harlansburg,” Killen says. “Right now there’s 330 acres, but when he bought it it was 80.”

J.R. Killen, Donald’s father, was in what his son calls the “horse stage,” raising mostly Belgian draft horses, along with sheep, pigs and chickens.

“As time went on he produced more milk,” Donald Killen says, adding his father was a “progressive” farmer, utilizing the latest techniques from Purdue University. He received notoriety for reaping over 100 bushels of corn per acre using the most current farming practices.

In the late ’50s when dairy farms switched to using bulk milk pipeline milkers, that’s when the Killens got out of the milk business, Killen says.

He remembers the chores he and his older sister and brother, Shirley and Merritt, worked as they were growing up.

“My father went to bed at 9:15 (p.m.) every night and got up at 3:30 (a.m.). He fixed the fire, and 4 o’clock he called everybody else,” he recalls. “We went out, and you milked 15 head of cows by hand.”

Killen also carried wood for the cook stove, fed and watered the chickens and helped with the horses. He remembers the time they were pulling up hay into the barn loft.

“You had a lift that pulled up loose hay in the barn, and my dad set me on the horse and would drive it out and it would pull that hay up. Then one day something was wrong and I couldn’t help,” he says. “I looked out and the horse knew enough that it did the same thing it did when I was on it, without me. I couldn’t hardly believe it.”

There was also time for play on the farm, and for meeting other farm kids when the family went to the grocery store in Harlansburg or Monument City.

“You always had something to do, from the time that I could remember,” he says. “There wasn’t much loafing … Your work came first. If you didn’t have it done, you didn’t go play. You grew up, you knew it and it’s just one of those things; you did what you were told to do and you did it.”

He also remembers how farming practices have changed since his father purchased the homestead. Corn planters were 36 inches wide when he used one; today it’s more like 40 feet, he says, adding their walking plow cut a furrow of 12 to 14 inches, pulled by a team or horses. When the Killens got their first tractor, it was 10 horsepower.

“Now you’re talking about 200-300 horsepower,” he says. “Now no one has several pieces of equipment; you’ve got about five or six and they’re big and you can’t even hardly get a barn big enough to put them in. Humongous tractors.”

The price of arable land has skyrocketed as well. Killen said he regrets not buying a piece of property offered to him at around $140 per acre about 10 years ago; it sold at $7,500 an acre three years ago.

Killen retired in 1993, and has since rented his land out to others who now work it. It may be a centennial farm, but it looks like he may be the last of his family to live on it. His five children helped out when they were growing up, but four have now moved away, and one is deceased.

“It can stay in the family as long as they want to rent it out,” he says.

Killen’s daughter, Melissa Killen, who now lives in Spencerville, says she loved living on a farm when she was a girl. She has a lot of memories to share.

“Dad let me help out whenever I wanted to,” she recalls. “I remember, I had a little red wagon that I got to go out to the grain bin and fill up my five-gallon buckets with ground corn. Then I’d take it into the nursery and feed the baby pigs. We had a little dachshund that went with me, and a collie … This was like when I was five, and that was a big deal.”

When she was 6, her brothers stood her up behind the wheel of a Jeep in the middle of a field, put it low gear, and had her drive while they shoveled corn to the pigs in the field.

“I was standing on that seat, steering that Jeep across the field,” she says. “They could walk right beside me, so it’s not like I was going fast.”

Don Killen said he remembers men working for his dad, making $5 a week plus room and board. Today, he doesn’t recommend that anyone start out in agriculture as a new venture.

“Unless you grow up on a farm, with an active farm, I don’t think you should even attempt to try to farm,” he advises. “There’s so many things that are different now than they were then, and the cost – a combine now is $300,000. The first one I bought was $33,000. … The cost of getting into it, and timing, and it will be hard to find land that’s available, because every guy is trying to get bigger (property) to make it justifiable.”

Melissa is more optimistic. She says alternative farms such as Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), which allows city residents to have direct access to high quality, fresh produce grown locally by regional farmers, or organic farming could possibly be the way to go for those interested in getting into the ag business.

“I look at the CSAs and the small farms and I look at the 20- and early 30-somethings that are going into farming and they’re doing smaller farms and growing organics and growing locally and selling locally, I feel that there’s a market for that,” she said.

The Killen family has planned an open house and reunion for family and friends to celebrate the farm’s centennial status. The event will be held Sunday, June 10, from 1 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. at Café of Hope, 900 E. State St., Huntington.