There’s a lifetime farm story in that gentleman with a cowboy hat and contagious smile frequently seen throughout the Midwest.
Don Peterson is a familiar face to many although they have no clue to his Morris County, Kansas, farm upbringing.
Closely tied to farming and agriculture his entire life Don stayed tightly affiliated with the industry well past retirement age.
Always energetic in his love for the land and its production, Don moved from the farm to serve other producers.
His Santa Fe Agriculture Services at Council Grove guided farmers throughout the Midwest in developing financial management programs.
A few years ago during this season realizing his was a generation soon to be forgotten Don shared personal experiences.
Born March 20, 1930, on the Ray and Merna Peterson farm southeast of Delavan, Kansas, Don was then the couple’s youngest.
“My sisters Glenna, Ollie and Helen were 13, 11 and nine years older than me. So I was just a live doll coming into the family, until Bob came along, then Elda Ruth,” Don said.
Beginning of the Dirty Thirties, now forever remembered drought the Dust Bowl, leading into national economic disaster Great Depression. “My childhood memories are of hot days, dust, grasshoppers, chinch bugs, blister beetles and jackrabbits,” Don reflected.
Horse powered farm machinery tilled six-foot strips to slow dust erosion and save portions of planted crops. “Mom hung damp dish towels on the kitchen windows to help keep dust out of our home,” Don cringed.
Starting to school at Grandview District 43 in 1936, Don’s folks drove him in the family car on dirt roads. “I’d have to walk home in the afternoon,” he said.
In two years, they got a Shetland pony called Beauty for Don and Bob to ride to school. “Beauty got so she’d balk a little ways from home so Mom would have to follow behind.
“Dad got fed up and went along one day to give Beauty a good spanking with a leather strap. We never had any more problems,” Don smiled.
When his youngest sister started to school, the family also got a bigger pony called Tony. “If Elda Ruth rode to school with Bob, she would ride home with me,” Don said.
A snow blizzard in April 1937 drifted 10-feet high so travel was at a standstill. Pasture fence was broken between hedge posts from the pressure of the heavy drifting.
It was a one-room school so younger children were learning from the older students as well as the teacher.
“When it was report time, each student got up in front of the entire school so everybody heard responses. “I’m sure that much knowledge was shared with lower grade students in this manner,” Don inferred.
World War II was going when Don started at Delavan High School in 1944, so Delavan Air Base was in “full swing.” Don remembered that local military facility “accommodated B-17s first, then B-24s and finally B-29s at the end.”
Notably, school class size varied considerably during that time as airmen were quite transient.
Horses were still ridden to and from school where a barn stabled them during the day. Brothers took turns opening and closing gates on the route and once Bob took off before Don was mounted.
“My horse started running after him while I was getting on. I was in the air but I didn’t get bucked off,” Don grinned.
Membership in the Delavan 4-H Club is amply credited in developing leadership knowledge for Don’s agriculture life.
Starting with a sale barn calf when he was ten, Don has fondest recollection of Andy Olson helping with projects.
“We went to the Davis Ranch managed by Orville Burtis at Manhattan and picked out a calf,” Don said. “I showed several calves from there over the years and placed relatively good at the Topeka and Hutchinson fairs.
“It was quite a feat for me years later to have my children also show calves from Orville Burtis,” he added.
Annual event was the Morris County Livestock Judging Contest. Ralph and Jim Collier provided Shorthorn cattle and Poland China hogs. Jerry Moxley furnished Hereford cattle and Percheron Horses.
Known as a Duroc hog breeder, Don started with a gilt purchase as a 4-H club member. “I was proud to show my home raised hogs and sold Durocs as projects and to other hog breeders,” Don said.
Accomplishments in 4-H club work were recognized when Don was state champion in general livestock, soil conservation and beef.
“I was awarded two scholarships to attend Kansas State University,” Don noted. “But I didn’t take advantage of them thinking farming was more important.”
Early years farming was with horses. “Most farmers had two teams before tractors were put into use,” Don said.
Hay was the main feed for wintering cattle with summer’s major job being to harvest the grass for hay.
“We mowed and hand stacked hay which required lots of work, then it was fed with a team and wagon,” Don described.
Stationary hay balers were used by some farmers as well. “It was hard work requiring ten men for a hay baling crew which my dad was part of,” Don said.
Warm memories are often repeated by Don of the neighboring Whiting Ranch rented in a partnership by his dad.
Both cattle and sheep were run on the six sections today the Diamond Creek Ranch owned by the Vanier Family.
“Originally a cattle ranch, it also became a sheep operation in 1938 with 1,700 ewes shipped by train to Burdick. They were driven seven miles to the ranch,” Don recalled.
When ewes had twin lambs, Don bottle-fed the orphans until they could eat grain. “At the peak, I was feeding 14 lambs,” he tallied.
Added income from sheep was wool sales, and Don was called into duty catching ewes for the shearing crew. “The fleece was worth enough to support a ewe for a year leaving the lamb sale mostly profit,” Don tabulated.
Coyotes were constant threat to newborns both cattle and sheep. “Neighbors trapped coyotes as an income and to help control populations but it didn’t remedy the problem,” Don said.
Lightweight grazing cattle were shipped in from Texas to railroad stockyards pens at Delavan, Burdick, Diamond Springs and Wilsey.
They were driven to summer pasture by horseback and back again in the fall after weight gain. The cattle then usually went to the Kansas City terminal market where packing houses were located.
“The last cattle drive I remember was two days in the spring of 1947,” Don said. “We drove about 500 head from Diamond Springs to north of Dwight, that’s nearly 35 miles.
“There weren’t any semi-trucks for transporting cattle in those days, and not any suitable roads to drive on,” he added.
It was before his time, but Don remembers a neighbor cattleman’s comment about the stock market crash in November 1929. He said, “A man couldn’t scoop money as fast as they were losing it in the cattle market.”
That first tractor was a McCormick Deering 10-20, generating 10 horsepower on the ground and 20 horsepower on the belt. “It was a plow tractor and not very versatile,” Don said.
An F-20 tricycle tractor was acquired in 1937. “Dad traded in a team of horses worth about $450 on the tractor that cost about $700,” Don remembered.
It could be powered by kerosene or gasoline. “Kerosene was a dime a gallon and gasoline was about 12 cents,” Don said. “Wheat sold for about 55 cents a bushel.”
Few combines were in existence yet, so wheat and oats were cut with a binder into bundle shocks. A threshing crew of a dozen men traveled around with a threshing machine.
“Bundles were pitched into the machine which beat grain from the straw,” Don described. “Grain went into a box wagon with straw stacked on the ground.”
Water is essential for life. “We got our water from a well pumped by a windmill and carried into the home,” Don reflected. “A one cylinder gasoline engine powered the washing machine in an unheated wash house.”
Livestock water from the windmill went in an underground gravity flow pipe to tanks with floats shutting off when full.
“We took water to the field in a glass gallon jug,” Don continued. “Newspaper and burlap ‘gunny’ sacks were wrapped around the jug to keep the water cool on hot days.”
Perishable food was stored in an “ice box” purchased by the family in 1936. “An ‘iceman’ would deliver a block of ice three times a week,” Don said.
Electricity replaced oil lamps and kerosene lanterns for home and barnyard light in 1939. “We started with the bare basics for lighting, with simple appliances and a radio later on,” Don said.
When the family dug a well near the home in 1948, an electric pressure pump water system was installed.
“We had running water in our home and the indoor bathroom sure beat going to the old outhouse,” Don insisted. “Electricity was a great help for rural America.”
While railroads provided cross country travel, horses were main local transportation until automobiles in the early ’20s. “The Ford Model-A came out in the late ’20s as a practical car even with a heater,” Don said.
Country roads were impassable during muddy conditions, until township boards started graveling main routes in 1937. “With stone fences being replaced by barbed wire, the rock was crushed into limestone gravel for the roads,” Don said.
The county took over road maintenance in 1945 and often used creek gravel instead of the limestone.
Telephones in homes during the’30s were a box on the wall with a mouthpiece and a separate receiver.
“To make a call, we’d crank the ‘ringer’ one time advising a local telephone operator who would ask: ‘number please?’ She would ring the person with ‘two longs and a short,’ or some other arrangement.
“Every phone had a definite ‘ring pattern,’ but there were only ‘party lines,’ no such thing as privacy,” Don smiled.
Bell Telephone was used for long distance calls. “It was pretty reliable and respected because of the additional cost of calls,” Don claimed.
Mail was carried from town to town by trains. “After the 1930s, the trains never stopped when going through Delevan. They had an arm that gathered the ‘mail sack’ as it sped by the depot,” Don said.
Saturday evening was time for grocery shipping in Wilsey. “We’ve take eggs and cream to trade for items on Mom’s grocery list to complement our homegrown food,” Don said.
While he was quite young, Don remembers details related in his home about government help programs developed in the 1930s.
“The County Poor Farm east of Council Grove provided shelter for those with no place else to turn,” Don told.
Civilian Conservation Camps known as CCC were public works projects to promote environmental conservation.
“CCC was started in 1933 to help relieve rural unemployment especially for youth, but it ended in 1936,” Don said. Camp Freemont, where the Morris County Fairgrounds are now located, was the local CCC location.
“Public Works Administration known as PWA began in 1933,” Don said. “It provided employment for the older work force doing public construction projects. The PWA was ended in 1939.”
Serving the local National Guard unit, Don raised his own five children on the original Delavan family farm. They’re Linda Lindquist, Osceola, Nebraska; Bev Peterson. Seattle, Washington; Jan Troxell, Council Grove; Marvin Peterson, St. Louis, Missouri; and Nancy Milledge, Goddard, Kansas.
Personal farming operation of Don’s featured stock cattle and a cowherd as well as a farrow to finish hog operation. “We had a diversified cropping program including corn, milo, sorghum, alfalfa, brome grass and wheat,” he said.
With 4-H always close to his heart, Don served as a community and project leader for 25 years.
Most recently, Don has worked as leader-member of the White Memorial Camp management team.
Upon leaving active agriculture production, Don was a pioneer in the crop insurance business utilizing GPS (Global Positioning Systems). “With that then new satellite-based technique, we determined proper fertilizer applications by spot checking yields and related knowledge,” he said.
“I have now turned Santa Fe Agriculture Services over to Jamie Peters of Lehigh. She is a farm wife who is quite active in the agriculture business,” Don verified.
Now “learning to be retired,” Don remains very attentive about agriculture, its past and most important future. “I will carry the ‘roots of challenge’ with me through the remaining part of my life.
“There are capable people who will continue to meet the needs of agriculture for our country and the world,” assured the 89-year-old lifetime agriculturalist.