DIAGONAL — Jack Stephens said he raised two families on his farm east of Diagonal. First he helped his mother with the five siblings who remained at home when his father died and took care of the two who were still in high school when his mother passed away six years later. Then he raised his own two sons there.
Stephens’ farm, 75 acres of which was part of his grandparents’ original farm, is being honored as a century farm this year. He said he has not yet received the plaque and sign. That would have happened during the Iowa State Fair, but it was canceled due to COVID-19. There have been several other events where the presentation could have taken place that were also canceled due to the illness.
The original farm
Walter and Viola (Byerley) Stephens bought the family’s first plot of land in Ringgold County in 1914. They started with 155 acres. At its largest, it was over 400 acres.
Jack Stephens’ father Velmer Stephens was born on the farm in 1919.
Velmer Stephens married Beth “Maxine” Beymer and they had 14 children of their own, eight boys and seven girls, besting his parents’ 14 offspring by one. The siblings all survive to this day, the oldest turning 80 in December, the youngest at age 60.
As sibling number seven, Jack Stephens falls squarely in the middle of the group.
All of the brothers and one sister have worked in agriculture most of their lives.
“It’s been in our blood.” Stephens said.
Jack farms part of the original land. His brother John owns the other 80 acres of that land, which is also receiving a century farm designation this year. Other brothers have owned their own farms or worked for farmers from Clearfield to Indianola. One brother worked in farm management and one taught Ag at the Diagonal High School for awhile. A sister has a farm with her husband right north of Jack.
Jack said all 15 siblings plus their 249 combined offspring try to get together at least twice a year. Usually around 150 attend these reunions.
Their Christmas-time gathering usually takes place at a hotel in Des Moines, renting out a block of rooms or even a whole floor to accommodate the group. Jack said he expects this year will be a little smaller due to COVID-19.
Jack helped his father and grandfather on the farm as far back as he can remember.
He remembers his grandfather planting corn using horses. This was before there were so many machines for farming. Jack and his brothers sold hay bales for spending money.
“Whenever you’ve got that many kids you don’t get that much,” he said. “You get a bottle of pop and you split it three ways and you hope everyone drinks the right share.”
The farm provided much of the food for the family.
“We milked a lot of cows, anywhere from seven to 14 cows just to get milk for the kids,” he said.
Velmer, who also lived on the farm with them, said it took two calves, nine pigs and 300 chickens to feed the family of 18 each year.
Jack is proud to see that the school in Diagonal where he and siblings attended is still open today — against the predictions of some who felt a school could not survive in a small town.
“When I was in junior high they were doing a lot of consolidating,” he said. “They said it would never be open when I graduate. Here, my kids graduated from there and my two grandsons go to school there today.”
Jack was 21 when his father died in 1969. He was still at home, having not passed the physical to join the Army. Four of his older brothers were already married with their own homes. The oldest brother was in Indianola. One was in the service in Vietnam. A younger brother and sister were in college at Maryville.
At that point, Jack also began running his own cattle and started purchasing the machinery and livestock from his mother, while helping her keep the farm running and raise the five siblings who were still at home.
In 1975, Viola died as well, leaving the farm in a trust for the family and the youngest two siblings in Jack’s care. Jack was able to buy the rest of the equipment he needed to continue to farm the land, which he rented from the family.
After the youngest turned 21, the trust became a corporation owned by the 15 siblings. Jack continued to live and work on the farm, buying 75 of the original 155 acres from the corporation in 1979 or ‘80.
Due to the farm crisis in the ‘80s, Jack ended up going to work for FSA for 20 years. He kept his cattle and hay ground and rented the crop land out.
A family of his own
Jack and ex-wife Janice raised two boys on the farm. Although the boys left for a time with their mother, they both came back to live on the farm around the time they were in high school.
The oldest, Matt, lives three miles away now and has been an owner operator truck driver. He had some cattle as well until a few years ago. He and wife Susan have two sons, Adlai, 12, and Dylan, 8. Sean, a radiologist in Council Bluffs and his ex-wife Ashley have two daughters, Shelby, 8, and Camille, 4.
Jack, now 73, said he imagines both of his sons will want to keep the farm when he is ready to give it up, most likely continuing to run cattle and rent out the rest.
While neither of them is currently involved in farming, the next generation shows promise that agriculture will continue to be in the family. Adlai and Dylan have three cows that run with grandpa Jack’s herd.