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Local family shares Hoosier Homestead farm memories

Photo provided.

The Johnson family, of Huntington, was recognized with a 2021 Hoosier Homestead Award in the spring, presented by Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch and Indiana State Department of Agriculture (ISDA) Director Bruce Kettler.

According to the ISDA website, “To be named a Hoosier Homestead, farms must be owned by the same family for more than 100 consecutive years and consist of 20 acres or more, or produce more than $1,000 in agricultural products per year.”

Families may be eligible for three different distinctions of the award, which are the Centennial Award for 100 years, Sesquicentennial Award for 150 years or Bicentennial Award for 200 years.

The Johnson farm was established in 1843, so the family received a Sesquicentennial Award.

According to Elaine Gillis, granddaughter of Harold and Vera Johnson, there is debate about the pronunciation of the initial purchaser’s name. The original purchaser was Philip Cohn, though it is believed that it could have been Zahn. In family discussion, he is referred to as Philip Zahn.

Philip Zahn acquired the land with two of his brothers through a sheriff’s sale. He was the first relative to live on the Hoosier Homestead farm.
Since Philip Zahn used money borrowed from his sister, Sophia (Zahn) Johnson, to purchase the land, he reserved a life estate of the land for Sophia and her husband, Philip Johnson.

Gillis says the land then passed through several generations by “will bequeath” until it was acquired by Harold and Vera Johnson in 1959. The couple shared the home with Harold’s mother until she passed away.

Harold and Vera raised their 14 children in the home that still exists on the property today. While the couple ran the farm, they had row crops and dairy cattle, which they used to sell milk to Schenkel’s Dairy.

“One of my all-time favorite memories is barefoot, under the stars, on crisp fall mornings, bringing the cows in for Darrel to milk,” said Charlie Johnson, son of Harold and Vera.

Gillis says she remembers visiting the farm when she was young and getting “warm, fresh milk from the dairy barn” delivered by her uncles who still lived on farm.

“Grandma served it (the milk) in this one red-orange plastic pitcher,” Gillis said. “I also remember vividly the Wash Day cookies—kind of like a gingersnap—that grandma made. I’m pretty sure the recipe was a hand-me-down from at least one generation and grandma made the cookies from memory. When I asked for the recipe, it was written as “half a handful of this” and a “dash of that.’”

Harold passed away in January 2007 and Vera passed away in October 2020 at the age of 101.

According to Gillis, there were 13 children (Linda Johnson, deceased), 33 grandchildren, 47 great-grandchildren and one great-great-grandchild when the farm celebrated the award in March of this year.

“A farm—especially a farm still in production—that is nearly 180 years in the same family is very rare these days. So, to have this farm ground remaining in the family after all these years is a very heartwarming feeling,” Gillis said. “To see it remaining in production is even more exciting and to know that it is being passed into the hands of a first generation farmer is really amazing.”

“Homesteads don’t stay intact like the Johnson Homestead has,” Gillis continued. “The entire family is really proud of being able to keep this property for all these years and to see it get passed onto the next generation, especially knowing that it will be remaining as an operational farm for many more years to come.”

Several relatives recalled stories of their time on the farm.

Jim Johnson, son of Harold and Vera, said, “In my earliest memories, there were many out buildings in the barnyard, none of which were still used and some had collapsed. Mom directed us as preschoolers to do the dismantling. Since kids love to destroy things, it was a great way to spend an afternoon.”

David Johnson, grandson of Harold and Vera, said, “As a little kid, the farm always seemed to be a lot of work, but also a lot of fun. I remember we used to walk the fields behind the picker and grab the ears of corn it missed and throw them in the triangle (bin). For a little kid this seemed to be so much work, but then came the fun.”

David continued, “We got to play in the triangle as it was unloaded into the silo. It was a blast of a game to run around on top of the moving corn and to see if you could go over to where the corn was being pulled down, let yourself get sucked down just enough that you could struggle back to the top and over to the edge for safety. Never failed that someone would lose a shoe, which Grandpa would grab it off the elevator and put it in the grass.

“Then one time it wasn’t a shoe, it was my little sister. She was smaller than the rest of us and went a bit too deep and couldn’t get back to the top. She disappeared into the corn and to the rest of us, she had to be dead. We shimmied around to the side where the corn came out and peered over the edge to see my sister sitting in the grass with the shoes.”

Today, Gillis says that there is still some acreage in agriculture production on the farm, raising corn and soybeans. Harold and Vera’s grandson Noah Johnson and his wife, Natalie, will soon move to the homestead to take over the farm, making the transition to a seventh generation owner.