For the life of him, Max Jones has no idea why his grandfather, Daniel Sylvester “D.S.” Jones, left his homestead in Iowa to settle on the cold plains of South Dakota.
“The story is the homesteaders headed north, they ran out of money and had to stay,” Jones said.
Whatever the reason, D.S. Jones founded a farm northwest of Hayes, South Dakota, in 1905, planting wheat and oats while raising pigs and cattle. There he and his family battled through most of what the Plains could throw at them, including droughts, blizzards and prairie fires.
“You had to be tough to live here then,” said Max’s wife, Joyce.
Today, 107 years later, the Jones family, represented by Max and his son, Todd, carry on D.S.’s legacy. The original 160-acre homestead has grown to more than 4,000 between the two, and the truck they now use to haul grain can carry more than the original wooden granary that once held the entire farm’s harvest. That granary is still sitting on their property, which is now recognized as one of South Dakota Farm Bureau’s Century Farms.
“It’s kind of an honor, and born luck that we could keep it together,” Max said.
Other South Dakota families have wrestled out similar long covenants with the land.
Not so far away, south of Hayes, Jack Kirkpatrick farms where his great-grandfather, Henry, first bought a 1,200-acre plot after having to walk from the nearest town to see it.
Henry, a jeweler who came to the state in 1904 wanting to try something new, built a 10- by 12-foot house with paper on the walls for insulation that saw him through a blizzard that raged the next winter.
“Surviving through that was, I guess you say, remarkable,” Kirkpatrick said.
But surviving for 100-plus years is a common tale for family farms in South Dakota, where both the governor and state secretary of agriculture come from similar backgrounds with deep roots in the land.
And as the Jones family notes, all of the families in their neighborhood moved there within 20 years of when D.S. Jones arrived.
Some find those ties to the land worth celebrating. Since 1984 the South Dakota Farm Bureau has annually recognized farms that have been passed down through a family for more than a century with a Century Farm designation. Today the Bureau also notes farms that reached their 125-year anniversaries – it honors them as Quasqui Centennial farms and ranches.
To qualify for either designation, farms must submit an application demonstrating they have been owned by a single family for 100 or 125 years, consist of more than 80 acres and have proof of the original date of purchase.
There are more than 2,500 such farms in the state. And according to Farm Bureau numbers from December, 46 centennial farms were added to the rolls in 2012.
Walt Bones, the state’s Secretary of Agriculture, said he doubts that South Dakota is unique among agriculture-heavy states in having a large number of long-lasting farm families. There is something about holding stewardship over land and livestock that settles in someone’s spirit, he said.
“I’ve always thought agriculture was a higher calling,” Bones said.
Bones’ great-grandfather, John T. Bones, started a farm northeast of Parker in 1879 on 160-acres with a 10-acre tree claim. That was part of the family’s history, and Bones said he was 8 or 9 the first time he sat behind the wheel of a tractor. Today he, two brothers and three nephews work 6,000 acres of farmland and 12,000 acres of pasture.
The biggest change since the homesteading days is technology that has dramatically increased yield, Bones said.
“We’ve raised over 200 bushel corn on the some of the same ground I’m sure my grandfather didn’t get 10 or 15 bushel an acre off of,” he said.
While Jones admits his dad wouldn’t recognize modern farming, there are other areas where change has come at a slow, sometimes glacial, pace.
It wasn’t until 2005 – the homestead’s centennial – that rural water finally connected to the farm.
Before that, they hauled water from an artesian well nearly half a mile from the house. Twice a year the family had to clean and fill cisterns. But the water was too salty and brackish for drinking, so the family made the 12-mile trip to the Diamond Day spring to haul back more palatable water.
“Even now, when we cook a pot of spaghetti or make a pot of coffee and we get the water out of the faucet, I still think ‘Wow,’” Max’s son, Todd, said.
The farm’s connection with urban areas has also slowly evolved. Jones’ father sometimes went to town perhaps only three times a year, Joyce said. In contrast, her family makes the 57-mile jaunt to Pierre four or five times a week.
Her kids went to country school until the eighth grade, then boarded with Joyce’s mother in Pierre for high school, she said.
Kirkpatrick said water still had to be hauled in to his property until 1958. And it’s in his life time that technology went from horses to tractors, he said.
He keeps farming because he wants to preserve his farm, now twice as large as his great-grandfather’s, for the next generation. He also enjoys being out in the open and having the freedom to do what he wants, Kirkpatrick said.
“I’ve never thought of moving to the city,” he said.
Jones had a similar sentiment - there was no question about continuing in his father’s and grandfather’s footsteps.
“Basically it was all I ever knew and wanted to do, I guess,” Jones said.