A Century on the Land
In August of this year, Jefferson County doubled its stock of Century Farms when two local families were honored with the designation. Klann Farms on the Agency Plains and the 27 Bar Ranch out near Ashwood joined the Eddie Bolter farm and the Read farm in reaching the 100-year milestone.
The Century Farm and Ranch program is administered by the Oregon Farm Bureau Foundation for Education and supported by a partnership between Oregon Farm Bureau, Wilco, Oregon State Historic Preservation Office and OSU Libraries' University Archives.
To be eligible for the Century Farm designation, the farm must have been owned and worked by the same family for at least 100 years and must have grossed at least $1,000 in income in three of the last five years. Ownership has to have been passed on to children, siblings, or nieces or nephews and applicants must submit documentation of continuous ownership.
Recipients of the Century Farm designation receive a certificate signed by the governor and a metal road sign they can put up to identify their property as a Century Farm or Ranch. Successful applicants and their families are also invited to a special ceremony at the Oregon State Fair.
Jefferson County's newest honorees are not very similar in their operations. The Klanns have an irrigated farm on the flat land of Agency Plains, where they grow mostly grass seed, wheat, and barley. The Nartzes' 27 Bar Ranch is in the dry, hilly country around Ashwood, where it takes 19,000 acres to support a herd of 200 cows and where lack of water limits what they can grow.
What the Nartzes and the Klanns have in common is perseverance, pride in their family history and a strong sense of responsibility to carry on.
In May 1912, Seth and Cora Luelling prepared a covered freight wagon for a reconnaissance mission to the country southeast of Bend. Leaving their homestead in the northwest corner of the Agency Plains near Madras, the Luellings and their six children, who ranged in age from 15 years to 11 months, set out on a six-week journey in search of more hospitable farmland.
They were particularly looking for some land with a convenient source of water for livestock and household use because the necessity of spending significant amounts of time hauling in tanks of water made it hard to get ahead on the Agency Plains.
The Luellings' destination was the area around Paisley, which was newly accessible thanks to the recent completion of the railroad line from the Columbia River to Bend. Had they found what they were looking for, perhaps the Luellings' century farm would be located in Lake County instead of Jefferson County.
Instead, they turned around and came home.
One of the children, Chester S. Luelling, who was 10 at the time of the journey, says in his self-published memoir Saga of the Sagebrush "We'd been gone six weeks. It was now near the end of June and we were all glad to be home. Mamma and Papa were also more satisfied to stay here. They had found nothing on the trip that would justify leaving the homestead, in spite of the lack of water."
Though the trip was not the major turning point it could have been, it still marked a new phase in the Luellings' life on the Agency Plains. They had proved up their 160-acre homestead claim in 1911. Now, in 1912, after determining that the grass wasn't greener farther east, they began to expand their operation.
That same year they purchased two more homesteads —the Monner place and the Larson place. Eventually, the Davis place and the Ferguson place became part of the Luelling place. By 1929, the Luellings were farming an astonishing 1,200 acres.
The Luellings' holdings grew to such an impressive size in part because they persevered while other farmers gave up and sold out. Luelling family history suggests that their success in farming was not a fluke.
Seth Luelling's illustrious agricultural pedigree is remarkably well documented, probably because of the stature and historical significance of his predecessors, particularly his grandfather, Henderson Luelling.
Henderson Luelling's father, Mesach Lewelling (the spelling of the family name changed more than once) moved the family from North Carolina to Indiana in 1825. Once there, he planted an orchard and set himself up as a nurseryman.
Four of Mesach's sons became nurserymen, including Henderson. In 1837, Henderson Luelling and his wife and children moved from Indiana to Iowa to establish a nursery operation in partnership with Henderson's brother, John.
According to some sources, the Lewellings planted the first fruit trees in Iowa, but they are better remembered for leading a split within their Quaker community over abolition and helping escaped slaves.
Just 25 miles from slave state Missouri, their large home was a station on the Underground Railroad. That home is now the Lewelling Quaker Museum in Salem, Iowa.
In 1847, Henderson Luelling undertook the venture for which he is best known in the Pacific Northwest: bringing 700 fruit trees ranging in size from 20 inches to 4 feet tall across the Oregon Trail in a specially outfitted wagon.
The journey across the continent was hazardous and some thought it ill-advised, but half of the fruit trees survived the ordeal, as did his wife and family of eight children.
The Luellings settled near Milwaukie, Oregon, and went to work producing fruit and propagating fruit trees. Henderson's son-in-law, William Meek, was a partner in the business.
By 1850, they were well enough established to sell about 18,000 fruit trees. By 1853, they had four branch nurseries in Oregon and their grafted fruit trees were the foundation of the Willamette Valley fruit industry.
Henderson Luelling and his brother, Seth Lewelling (uncle and namesake to the Seth Luelling of Agency Plains fame), together with their head orchardist, Ah Bing, developed the Bing cherry.
For their pioneering efforts, Seth Lewelling was inducted into the Oregon Nurseries' Hall of Fame in 1999, and Henderson Luelling was inducted in February of this year.
In 1854, Luelling moved to Oakland, California, to capitalize on the gold rush. There, he founded another orchard and sold grafted fruit trees. He planted the first grafted apple and pear trees in California, as well as cherries. The Luellings named the area where they lived Fruitvale, and that is still the name of the Oakland neighborhood where they lived and worked.
Always a colorful character, in California Luelling became involved in a free love society, the Harmonial Brotherhood. In 1859, he sold Fruitvale to the governor of California and sneaked away from his wife (not his first wife, who had died years earlier) to join the brotherhood on a ship bound for Honduras with the intention of forming a commune.
The venture failed miserably. Luelling returned to California and tried to get back into the fruit industry but was unable to regain his former success before his death in 1878.
Despite his difficulties later in life, Henderson Luelling is still remembered as the "Father of the Pacific Fruit Industry." The story of his family's Oregon Trail journey was retold in a fictionalized account in the picture book, "Apples to Oregon," written by Deborah Hopkinson and published in 2003.
Luelling's oldest son, Alfred, worked with him in the orchard business but also appears to have tried his hand at other work. Chester Luelling wrote in his self-published memoir, "Saga of the Sagebrush," that Alfred Luelling had done some freighting between The Dalles and John Day about 1890 and briefly had a sheep ranch near Post.
Alfred Luelling's son, Seth Luelling, was, predictably, working in an orchard when Cora met him in 1894. Her family, the Converses, also came to Oregon from Iowa, but they came almost 50 years later by train and settled on a farm near McMinnville.
Though Cora Converse did not come from a prominent agricultural dynasty like Seth did, she would later prove to be a consummate pioneer woman.
"She could do anything. We've got pictures of her killing snakes, trapping coyotes and bobcats and doing about everything," said her great-grandson and current manager of the family farm, Brad Klann.
One story Klann remembers his great-grandmother telling him concerned a porcupine that she had trapped. She put it in a sack to take it somewhere and without thinking, slung it over her shoulder. She got quills stuck in her back and sometime later one worked its way out her front.
Seth Luelling and Cora Converse married in McMinnville in 1896. Seth Luelling worked for other farmers and for himself on rented farms, including one owned by his wife's parents. Interestingly, they had to move from the Converse farm because Cora's father was not satisfied by Luelling's work on the place.
Early days on the Plains
The Luellings were working a farm near Viola when they were encouraged by former neighbors who had homesteaded on the Agency Plains to homestead there too. On an early October morning in 1904, Seth Luelling loaded one last thing onto their wagon — a chicken coop with a dozen chickens in it — and set out for Central Oregon.
The Luellings had four children at the time: Ellen, 7, Johnnie, 4, Chester, 3, and Lloyd, 6 weeks. In addition to the children and the chickens, they brought along a few dairy cows.
Accompanying them were Luelling's bachelor brother John, whom they called Uncle Johnnie to distinguish him from the younger Johnnie, and who was also looking for a homestead, and the former neighbors who had given them the idea to try homesteading — the Mayfields and the Beesons.
Cora Luelling's account of the family's experiences farming on the Plains, written later in life, was no-nonsense throughout, including her brief passage on the wagon trip over the mountains from their former home in Viola. If Cora Luelling was blown away by the scenery in the Deschutes River canyon or the majestic views of the Cascade Mountains from the plains, she did not record it.
Instead, she wrote, "Next morning came to Deschutes River and crossed over on the ferry, then up a long grade to Agency Plains and stopped to eat noon lunch, but hard wind was blowing a gale, so the men fastened the tent over the wagon wheels for a little protection ..."
The Luellings found that most of the Agency Plains had already been homesteaded, but after a week of checking around, during which time they stayed with their friends the Mayfields, Seth Luelling found a homesteader, Frank Ringo, who wanted to relinquish his claim.
The homestead was on the northern edge of the Agency Plains, bordered by the deep Deschutes River canyon. Just across the canyon were the Mutton Mountains.
The Luellings moved their tent onto their land on Oct. 18, 1904.
There wasn't time for the Luellings to build a house on their new homestead before winter set in, so for expedience, the family moved into Uncle Johnnie's 12-by-14-foot cabin newly built with the help of Seth Luelling and one of the Mayfields.
Uncle Johnnie's homestead was on a bench below the canyon rim abutting the Frog Springs Canyon on the north end of the Plains.
Cora Luelling's depiction of her family's homesteading experience is highly informative, providing dates and a detailed catalogue of what had to be done to set up and maintain a home and farm, including trading labor with the neighbors.
"Nov. 26, we moved down to Uncle J's place, next three days Seth sowed wheat for Jesse Mayfield, then helped with their potato digging. Then cut juniper posts for corral, also cut timbers for chicken house dugout. Finished the chicken house first part of December," she wrote.
She continued, "Uncle J came home December 23rd (he had gone back to the Valley for their father's funeral while Seth Luelling stayed on the Plains with his wife and children), then they cut wood for cookstove, cut timbers for barn. After finishing, they cut lots of fence posts while snow was on the ground as there wasn't room in the 12x14 cabin for them."
In the spring, the Luellings' neighbor, Mrs. Stangland died. In a passage that is poignant despite her terse style, Cora Luelling describes how she and her friend Lulu Mayfield kept watch on the body and cared for the Stanglands' children, finishing with, "Next day the funeral was held at the Gard cemetery. Seth and Uncle J attended, my shoes were too badly worn to be seen by the public, so I stayed home."
The Luellings spent their first spring and summer on the homestead grubbing sage, planting grain and potatoes, and building fences.
Uncle Johnnie had a bout of doubt as to whether this was the life he wanted. He passed much of the summer in Oregon City and was back on the Agency Plains for less than a week before he took off on Aug. 11, to live in California.
Cora Luelling wrote that he "got as far as The Dalles and while waiting for a train talked with someone who told him he was making a big mistake to give up his homestead, so he returned here on the 14th to remain."
Seth and Cora Luelling moved their tent from Uncle Johnnie's to their own homestead in September. They put in a foundation, hauled lumber from a mill near Grizzly, and by Oct. 14, 1905 — almost exactly a year after they came to Agency Plains — they had moved into the new house.
Chester Luelling's account, based on his childhood memories, adds some color to the story: "The main part of the house had a cedar shingled roof and a boughten cedar paneled front door. Ellen walked barefoot on the door before it was hung. After it was put up, her dusty footprints looked as if she'd walked up the wall."
Like other homesteaders, the Luellings "worked out" whenever they could in order to earn enough cash to get by. In the late summer of 1906, the whole family headed to Yakima, Washington, so that Seth and Cora Luelling could earn some money picking hops and packing fruit.
After they got back, Seth Luelling took to hauling freight from the railhead at Shaniko to what were then, on the unpaved roads, far-flung towns such as Mitchell, Prineville, Bend, and Silver Lake.
The money Seth Luelling earned from freighting kept the family afloat and Cora Luelling stretched the family's grocery budget by trading her eggs and butter for other items they needed.
With her husband away freighting for long periods, it fell to Cora Luelling and the children to continue clearing the land. Seth Luelling had cleared and planted 40 acres to the west of the house and put in a large garden adjacent to the house, but much of the rest was still covered in sagebrush.
In the morning, Cora Luelling would push her youngest at the time, baby Mary, out to the field in a baby buggy. The older children would play while she worked and helped her by piling up the sagebrush and burning it. When Mary got fussy, they would distract her.
Seth Luelling's freighting operation provided enough extra cash that he was able to buy his wife a camera. She had worked in a photography shop back in Iowa and so she had some experience with taking pictures and developing film, which she did in a darkroom upstairs in their house.
There were only a few local residents with cameras in the early 1900s, so Cora Luelling's photographs provide rare documentation of Agency Plains life in that period. The family still has a collection of her glass negatives, which they loaned to the Jefferson County Historical Society to copy digitally for their archives.
Historical Society Director Jerry Ramsey said of Cora Luelling's photos, "The value is specifically local in that here is the coverage of one homestead family, all aspects — little kids, animals, chickens, neighbors. And also farming — priceless photographs of what they were doing and how they did it."
Ramsey noted that Cora Luelling also took photos of the building of the railroad along the Deschutes River, which she could look down on from their property on the canyon rim. Unfortunately, the precious glass negatives of her railroad photos have gone missing.
The railroad construction documented in her photos spelled the end of Seth Luelling's freighting business. He wrapped up his operation in the fall of 1910, just a few months before the Oregon Trunk trains started rolling into Madras. At that point, he turned to full-time farming.
The Luellings bought their first combine in 1917, which required eight to 10 horses to pull. In 1938, they sold all their workhorses and bought their first tractor, a rubber-tired John Deere.
Luelling was a leader in the effort to bring water for domestic use to homes on the Agency Plains. That was accomplished in 1927.
In the mid-1930s, his health began to fail. By that time, the children had grown up and started to go their own ways.
The oldest, Ellen, had become a schoolteacher and then married Fred Klann in 1921. Fred was the son of Charles and Anna Klann, who had followed Anna's parents, Silas and Margaret Connet, from Missouri to the Agency Plains to homestead in 1903.
After they married, Fred and Ellen Klann farmed on rented land until 1933, when prolonged drought and the Great Depression made it impossible for them to make payments on their International Harvester tractor and equipment. Their equipment was repossessed, and they could not keep farming.
As an interesting side note, Brad Klann, current owner of Klann Farms, said that other farmers who had bought International Harvester equipment suffered the same fate, whereas the local John Deere dealer was more flexible with his customers and worked with them so they could stay in business.
Fred and Ellen Klann and their four children moved to an irrigated farm near Redmond owned by Ellen's brother, Lloyd Luelling. Later they bought their own farm near Redmond, where they remained.
With Seth Luelling in poor health, and knowing that when irrigation finally came to the Agency Plains, the Bureau of Reclamation would require farmers to sell or lease all land in excess of 80 acres (later changed to 160 acres), Seth Luelling gifted each of their six children 80 acres. Cora Luelling kept 80 acres for herself and continued to farm after her husband died in 1939.
Chester Luelling had been away working road construction since 1922, but he returned to the farm in 1937 to help keep it going.
In 1952 and 1953, Jim and Harold Klann — sons of Ellen Luelling and Fred Klann — started farming 320 acres Seth and Cora Luelling had purchased from the Davises in 1919, plus 40 acres of the original homestead still in the family. Harold Klann eventually bought that land and it is those 360 acres that are the basis of the Century Farm designation.
The 40 acres of the original homestead have been in the family quite a bit longer — since 1905. "So, we could have actually applied for a Century Farm back in 2005, 14 years ago, but I didn't want to do it because it was only a 40-acre parcel," said Brad Klann.
It is complicated to trace the ownership of the rest of the Luelling land because the six children at various times left the farm, came back, and bought, sold, and rented land, but Brad Klann can tell you.
The great-grandson of Seth and Cora Luelling and grandson of Ellen Luelling Klann, Brad Klann still refers to different parcels by the names of original homestead families — a habit he picked up from his father, Harold Klann. He is likely the last generation to do so, however. Soon, the Davises, the Fergusons, the Monners, the Hannas and other early pioneers will truly be gone from the Agency Plains.
The other 120 acres of the original homestead were sold out of the family in 1954, and bought back in 2011 by Brad's son Seth Klann and his wife, Sally.
Seth and Sally Klann and their three sons live in the house built in 1905, and upgraded by Seth and Cora Luelling in 1913. At that time, the original lean-to housing the kitchen was removed and the house was jacked up so that they could put a new foundation in place. They dug out a basement and the hired men built a new addition.
Near the house is the old barn, built not long after the 1905 house, and a gleaming new malting house with attached tasting house.
The modern era
Brad Klann began farming with his father, Harold, after he graduated from high school in 1974, and married his wife, Debbie, in 1983. Brad and Debbie Klann have steadily increased the size of the farm.
Over the years, the farm has produced clover seed, grass seed, potatoes, mint, and wheat.
Now that Harold Klann is gone, Brad Klann is farming about 1,100 acres — a little less than Seth and Cora Luelling at their peak — with his son Seth Klann, daughter Katie, and her husband, Travis Ralls.
"It's a pretty big thing to be able to keep the farm in the family so many generations," Brad Klann said. "I'd like to see it make the 150, but you never know. It's been one child every generation that's stuck with the farm."
He feels the weight of the responsibility to keep it going. "It puts a lot of pressure on," he said. He doesn't know whether the younger generation feels it, but he says, "Twenty-five years down the road they might feel that pressure just to make it another 25 years or another generation or so."
The Klanns still grow grass seed and wheat, but thanks to Seth Klann, they have added a special strain of barley to the mix.
Seth Klann became interested in growing and malting barley because of his homebrewing hobby. Barley malt or barley malt extract is one of the main components in making beer and through research, he found that most American beer is made with basically the same malted barley.
The Klanns formed Mecca Grade Growers and began growing a variety of barley developed at Oregon State University called Full Pint. They believe that the quality of grain, like that of grapes, is affected by terroir — the environment in which it is grown, including climate, soil and topography — and that the Agency Plains produces topnotch barley for brewing.
All of the Klanns' malting barley is grown within a 2-mile radius of their malting facility, ensuring uniformity in conditions and contributing to a consistent product. They call their malt Mecca Grade Estate Malt to signify that every step in producing it — from growing to packaging — takes place on the family estate.
Growing barley was a cinch for an experienced farming family like the Klanns but setting up the malting facility was a project.
Malting is a process in which the barley grain is first sprouted and then dried and toasted to maximize flavor. Traditionally, malt was made by spreading the malt out several inches deep, moistening and turning it with shovels regularly until it had sprouted. Then it was transferred to a kiln for drying and roasting.
After going to a malt school in Canada for a couple weeks to learn about the malting process, Seth and Brad Klann found an engineer who worked with them to design a uni-malter — a machine that performs each step of the malting over a period of eight days.
The Klanns' malter differs from those of large commercial malters in that it processes the grain in relatively small layers to ensure that the malt develops evenly.
Their prototype machine could process 700 pounds of malt at a time. Two years later, they had another, much larger malting machine built that can process 24,000 pounds at a time. The Klanns' uni-malter is the only one like it in the world because they invented it themselves.
Once the barley is malted, it is sold to breweries and homebrewing supply stores. Seth Klann has taken the lead in the barley malting business, spending a lot of time doing outreach and marketing to educate buyers on how special their product is.
The Klanns give tours of their Mecca Grade Estate Malt facilities to potential customers and hold events in their tasting room a couple times per year. Cora Luelling's black and white photos of the homestead are on display in the cozy tasting room, including one of Seth Luelling and his freighting outfit on the Mecca Grade, aptly illustrating where the business got its name.
It's hard to miss the symbolism: the old house back in the family, occupied by the younger generations, who are using the family's valuable experience on the Agency Plains to build a new business in sync with modern day trends.
With their 1912 decision to stick it out on the Agency Plains, Seth and Cora Luelling anchored a chain of generations that reaches down to the present day, more than 100 years later.
With any luck, the Klanns' melding of tradition and innovation will carry them through another 100 years.
The Nartz family got its start in Central Oregon in 1911, when 23-year-old William Nartz left the coal mines of West Virginia and rode west on a train to make a new life on his own land. He eventually came to the end of the line in Madras, got off the train and started working on ranches in the area, including the prosperous Priday ranch.
If William hoped to experience the Wild West, his hopes were fulfilled on his first visit to Ashwood. "The first thing to happen was Pat Reily and some of his crew rode into town and shot out all the gas lights on the street in front of the Hamilton Hotel, which had the first saloon coming in from the west," wrote William's son, Willis Nartz, in a piece for "The History of Jefferson County."
In 1913, Nartz settled on a homestead in the Pony Butte area where he soon met and married his neighbor, Sadie Sharpnack. Their grandson, Jim Nartz, doesn't remember much about his grandfather, except that the couple was mismatched in size. He was tall — 6'1" — and she was very short — 5'1".
Sharpnack had come to what was then Crook County with her mother and two half-brothers, Jim and Harl Harbison. Sharpnack and her brothers took homesteads in 1913, and she married Nartz the following year.
William Nartz — who went by "Bill" — proved up on his 320-acre homestead in 1917 and his wife proved up on her 320 acres in 1919. That was the nucleus of the 27 Bar Ranch, named after its brand, which the Harbisons brought with them from Illinois. The Nartzes don't know what the number 27 signified to the Harbisons.
One hundred years later, the homestead has evolved from being mostly a dryland wheat farm to being mostly a cattle ranch, but it has always been owned and operated by a Nartz. At present, the ranch is owned by the third generation of Nartzes and operated by the fourth generation.
The homestead generation
The wild times in Ashwood were short-lived, as the mines shut down and it became more of a farming and ranching community. Sometime in the 1920s, the Ashwood Saloon was purchased — by Sadie Harbison, mother of Sadie Sharpnack Nartz, and others — and the building was repurposed as a Missionary Baptist Church.
Different denominations have used the old saloon over the years, but it still functions as a church to this day.
Because they arrived late on the scene, all the land with springs had already been claimed, so the Nartzes and the Harbisons had to haul water to their property for household and livestock use.
Bill Nartz must have spent some time away from the ranch because His son wrote in "The History of Jefferson County" ("Nartz-Sharpnack" entry, page 125) that he was one of the first from the county to enlist to serve in World War I. Willis Nartz didn't give the dates, but it would have been 1917-18.
Nartz received multiple medals for his service, including the Croix de Guerre, the highest military honor issued by France.
Somehow the Nartzes held on. The couple added another 240 acres to their holdings in 1923-24 and bought more land when it became available.
"The way I understand it is the homesteaders had a few cows; they tried growing a little grain for selling and some hay to feed their milk cow or four or five beef cows. If they could make a living and feed themselves, that was the goal. This country was so arid, they proved up on their homes and then realized, 'Oh, we can't make a living here; we're starving to death,' so they would sell out to the neighbors," said Jim Nartz.
Nartz noted that there used to be a lot more people living in the area. At one time, there were 40-60 kids at the Ashwood school, plus there was a Pony Butte school and a Donnybrook school.
Because the land was so hilly, homesteaders would farm small plots with their horse-drawn plows wherever they could.
Jody Nartz Holmes, Jim Nartz's daughter and current manager of the ranch, said there's an old plow, abandoned and disintegrating, in a draw on their property, evidence that someone was trying to grow a crop there.
"It's just amazing to me to find these pieces that are left and I'm like 'Wow, I can't imagine deciding this is the spot and I'm going to try to farm this,' because to me there's no way that you would try to farm it. But all they had was just a little piece," she said.
Jim Nartz added, "It didn't last very long. Between 1890 and 1920, a lot of them left and so the places got a lot bigger and so then you had more pasture."
The fact that they were able to acquire more land to support themselves and their livestock is likely one reason the Nartzes were able to make the ranch work. The Nartzes' 27 Bar Ranch absorbed the homesteads of Henry Hawkins, John Gavin, Aaron Hale, Allen Vibbert, the Murphys, the Olsons, the Andersons, and probably others.
An additional motivation for purchasing the Anderson ranch was so that their son, Willis, born in 1921, could get an education. After buying the ranch, they moved into the Anderson house because it was closer to the schoolhouse.
"And of course a lot of them 'worked out.' Grandpa worked down at Pridays," Jim Nartz said in describing how his grandparents got by. The Pridays were some of the earliest ranchers and were well-established by the time his grandparents homesteaded in the area.
Even with the added acreage, the Nartz ranch wasn't big enough to support two families, so Bill and Sadie Nartz left the farm in 1939 or 1940, when their son, Willis, was ready to take it over. After that, they moved around, living in Tygh Valley, Madras, Redmond, and Terrebonne.
Jim Nartz is not sure what they did for a living in those years, but he is pretty sure they were working. "Grandma was quite a worker, really," he said. "Thrifty, I guess you might say."
Because of her thriftiness, they were able to save up plenty of money. "And yet she still was a janitor there in Metolius at the Deschutes Potato Warehouse. Grandpa had died and she remarried and they would clean the potato warehouse at night. It made Dad really mad. Dad would say, 'Jeez, you don't have to do that.'"
Though thrifty, Sadie Nartz was also generous. When the springs dried up in the Pony Butte area during the drought and Great Depression years, Sadie and Bill Nartz donated a piece of land to the county so it could drill a well and provide water for public use.
Willis Nartz operated the ranch with his wife, Evelyn, from 1939 or 1940 until 1976. Evelyn Nartz helped on the farm when needed at harvest time but was mostly a traditional homemaker who cooked and cared for the children.
Willis Nartz mainly focused on growing dryland wheat on the original homestead property and up on the flat ground west of Trout Creek.
He served a term as president of the Oregon Wheat Growers League and enjoyed traveling around the state in that capacity. He also served on the board of the Soil and Water Conservation District.
Though Willis Nartz was skilled at it, growing dryland wheat on the old homestead was an iffy proposition. He would plant the wheat and then buy crop insurance and wait to see which one would pay out.
Willis Nartz added several thousand acres to the 27 Bar Ranch by purchasing the Aaron Hale ranch down by Trout Creek. The old Hale home and stage stop burned down years ago and now the Holmes house sits on the same site.
Willis Nartz's son, Jim Nartz, came back to the farm in 1970 after spending a couple years in college. He ran cows and raised hay for them around Gateway because they couldn't raise enough hay on the ranch to feed the herd, while his dad continued growing wheat.
After Jim Nartz had been back about six years, his father had a heart attack and couldn't work anymore. His mother, Evelyn, died in 1983, and his dad, Willis, in 1987.
Jim Nartz took his father's place on the ranch, but soon quit growing wheat because the soil and climate conditions make it too difficult.
"This ground is really poor farm ground for dryland wheat. You can do everything right, but if it doesn't rain, you have a crop failure," Nartz said.
High gasoline prices caused by the 1970s oil embargo contributed to his decision by making it expensive to run the farm equipment.
The land Willis Nartz used to farm is now in the Conservation Reserve Program. It has been planted with native grass.
At one time, Jim Nartz had about 400-500 cows, but the Donnybrook fire in 1996 burned much of his pasture. "I went out and tried buying hay and I couldn't buy enough hay and none of the fences were up because they had burned and it was a real mess when we brought the cows home," Nartz said.
After that, he reduced his herd down to around 150 cows. The size of the herd has fluctuated between 125 and 300.
During Nartz's tenure, he increased the ranch holdings by purchasing 180 irrigated acres near Madras that his son, Aaron, farms and the Myrthena Grater farm near Ashwood. Both those pieces are irrigated and so can produce reliable feed crops for the livestock.
Nartz retired in 2016, but his daughter, Jody Holmes, said, "No farmer or rancher ever really retires." She says that she relies on him for advice and that he still works on the ranch, but chooses what work he wants to do.
Nartz's son, Aaron, worked in road construction for a few years before coming back to work in the family business. He is more interested in farming than in cows, so he works his father's land near Madras.
He grows feed for the cattle and has branched out into other crops like grass seed and corn silage. He brings the farming equipment out to the Ashwood ranch when needed for the feed crops out there.
One of Nartz's daughters, Melissa, came back to the ranch for a couple years after college, but she was single at the time and needed more opportunity to have a social life. She moved off the ranch and decided to become a certified public accountant.
Fortunately, Holmes likes working with cows. She came back to manage the ranch with her husband, John Holmes, and their two children about five or six years ago.
After high school, Jody Nartz graduated from Oregon State University and took a job with the U.S. Forest Service in Nevada as a wild horse and burro specialist. There she met John Holmes, who was working on one of the wild horse gathering crews.
The Holmes got married and lived in Utah for 13 years, where they ran some cows on leased land and had a business contracting with the Forest Service and BLM to gather wild horses.
They decided to come back to the 27 Bar Ranch because the horse gathering business had dropped off, Jim Nartz was ready to retire, and the other siblings were not very interested in raising cattle.
Another reason Jody Holmes wanted to move back to the ranch was so that her children could go to Ashwood Elementary School, the one-room schoolhouse she herself had attended.
Nowadays, the ranch has about 9,000 acres and leases about 10,000 more. They run a cow/calf business with about 200 cows. John raises registered quarter horses.
In the fields around her house, they grow alfalfa and triticale for hay, irrigating with water from Trout Creek.
They share some of the same difficulties experienced by their predecessors. Alfalfa has to be replanted every four or five years because the individual plants die from being stressed by lack of water and then it can be difficult to reestablish.
Because alfalfa is frost sensitive, "you have to wait until first of May or the 10th of May to plant the alfalfa, then the creek dries up usually first part of July to the middle of July, so it's questionable whether you get it established or not," Nartz said.
The triticale, a cross between wheat and rye, works better for them because it combines the hardiness of rye with the higher yield and quantity of wheat. Triticale was probably not available to the homesteaders, though, because it wasn't developed until later.
The family puts their cows out to pasture in the early spring and rotate them through a series of pastures during the summer. They try to leave them out in the pasture as long as the grass holds out in order to save on the cost of feed.
In the next month, they will bring in the cows, wean the calves and then send them back out until the snow flies. At that time, they'll bring them up around Jim Nartz's house, where it's easy to feed them from the back of a pickup.
They sell off the calves in the spring, when they are about 600-700 pounds, for somebody else to fatten up and turn into beef.
The Holmes' kids — Coby, age 11, and Callie, age 7 — help out on the ranch. Coby drives a four-wheeler and Callie rides her own horse to gather up the cows. They throw feed off the back of the pickup or drive the feed truck when needed. And last summer, Jody Holmes started teaching Coby how to drive the tractor and disk a field.
Despite their early acquaintance with ranch work, Holmes is not certain whether her children will want to keep the ranch when they are adults.
"It's a very difficult lifestyle, but it's very rewarding. It's difficult because there's a lot of work involved. It's not regular hours and regular pay. It's a gamble," she said. "I'm hopeful that they'll have the opportunity to do it someday if they choose, but I'm not sure at all that anyone will keep on farming or ranching."
Century Farm application
Preparing the application for the Century Ranch designation was a lot of work for Holmes because the family did not have much documentation thanks in large part to a couple of house fires experienced by past generations.
"The Century Farm and Ranch Program takes that (history of the ranch in the application) and it actually becomes a document in the OSU Library Archives and so I wanted to do a good job in trying to get as much of the story down on paper and then verified what I could and stated otherwise what we don't really know but this is what we are assuming. I wanted that document to be there for someone else to find and look at," she said.
Holmes enjoyed learning more about her family history. "It's neat for future generations to have that written down. I find it very interesting that Great-Grandma Sadie was very thrifty. It's so cool to know this stuff about her and that Uncle Jimmy chewed tobacco and that it was always stuck on his mustache. It really brought these people to life," said Holmes.
A favorite family story involves the Nartzes' neighbor, Henry Hawkins, who was an African American homesteader. The story passed down to Holmes said that when Henry Hawkins died, Bill Nartz prepared his body for burial because the local undertakers refused to work on a black man and Nartz had some previous experience with caring for decedents back in West Virginia.
In the course of trying to verify the story, Holmes found that Hawkins outlived Bill Nartz by a few years, so she guesses that maybe it was Hawkins' wife whose body Nartz cared for. She notes that the Hawkinses are buried next to Bill and Sadie Nartz in the Jefferson County Memorial Park.
Holmes has become something of a history buff as a result of her research for the Century Ranch application.
"It really inspired my interest in the genealogy part of it and the history. Now I want to take the whole ranch and go find those sites where there was evidence of a homestead. I found part of an old stove down in a draw and a couple boards. I want to photograph it and GPS it and document it and add it to the research on the ranch because it's disappearing. The homes are falling down or going into decline, so I want to get them photographed and GPSed before they disappear," she said.
Though Holmes doesn't know whether the next generation will want to take over the ranch when the time comes, she hopes they will.
To me, it's a great source of pride that our family has endured for over 100 years when so many other families sold it. This ground isn't something that I feel like my dad owns or that I might own someday," she said.
"To me, when you see that four generations have held this ground and they have added to it without decreasing it, to me you're kind of holding it in trust for the next generation," said Holmes. "It's not a personal possession, it's more something that you're keeping and caring for the next generation."
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