This story was originally published by The Gazette, a newspaper in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
A 1944 article in the Iowa Farm Register reported Todd Western Sr. was a well-respected Black farmer in Mahaska County, where his grandparents first purchased land in 1864.
One photo shows Betty Lou Western, age 8, pausing while milking a cow to listen to her father, wearing bib overalls and holding a milking pail. In another, Grace Western and her other children, Charlene, 5, Joyce, 3, and Todd Jr., 1, pose with freshly-canned fruit.
There was an element of marvel about this prosperous Black farm family in the 1940s, when only .06 percent of Iowa farms were owned by non-white people, according to the Iowa Agricultural Census. More than 70 years later, in the 2017 ag census, the share of non-white farmers in Iowa is larger — but still less than 1 percent.
The Westerns still own that farm, making it one of only about 1,700 Heritage Farms — 150 years or more — in Iowa, and likely the only one owned by a Black family.
“Pride was something we had,” said Charlene Montgomery, born Charlene Western, 84, of Waterloo. “We were better off than many of the families we went to school with. Mom and Dad always helped us understand who we were. I saw myself on par with whoever I was around, if not a half peg above because my family owned land.”
Since the family no longer lives in New Sharon in Mahaska County, they lease the original farmstead and, instead, grow corn and soybeans on 35 acres east of Waterloo.
These days, the Westerns working the land are brothers Todd Western III, 56, of Maple Grove, Minn.; Christopher Western, 51, of Cedar Falls; and Adam Western, 43, of Bloomington, Minn. Matriarch Barbara Western, a retired music teacher who lives in Waterloo, is the CEO. They harvested corn Nov. 19.
“It was a blessed event,” Todd Western III said Nov. 30. “Mom just sold it yesterday and I think we got 6,000 bushels. We needed more, but it works.”
Settling in Iowa
Thomas Western, born in 1800 in Virginia, moved from Ohio to Iowa in 1864 with his wife, Susannah, and their children. Montgomery believes her great-grandfather bought his family out of slavery with the help of some Quakers.
It was the middle of the Civil War, in which Iowa supported the Union Army by sending food, supplies and 76,000 soldiers — more than any other state in relation to population, Iowa PBS reported.
The Western family bought 80 acres of Iowa farmland near New Sharon, about 30 miles south of Grinnell, adding another 80 acres in 1886. The 1875 Mahaska County plat book shows the name “T. Western” on a quarter section in Union Township.
In the 1870 agricultural census, Western reported he had five horses, two milk cows and a dozen hogs, according to a report compiled in 2012 with help from Mary Bennett of the Iowa Historical Society. Western reported raising 400 bushels of wheat in 1869, along with 800 bushels of Indian corn, 50 bushels of oats, 50 bushels of Irish potatoes and five tons of hay for livestock feed.
“Some indication of the contribution made by the women of the family is evident in the 100 pounds of butter that they had churned in 1869 and they were likely involved in producing the 20 gallons of molasses reported for that year,” the report notes.
“The value of all farm crops was reported by the family as $682, which was slightly above an average of $584.60 for 10 of their closest neighbors.”
Thomas Western, who died in 1878, handed down the farm to sons George and Kossuth, who worked the land together, Montgomery said.
Kossuth Western, born in 1855, likely was named after Lajos Kossuth, a Hungarian political reformer who led Hungary’s efforts to gain independence from Austria in 1848 and 1849. The Hungarian also inspired the Iowa Legislature to name a county after him in 1851.
“Kossuth’s exploits to free his country in 1848-1849 stirred the emotions of the people of the United States and his struggle for freedom was the reason that the Iowa Legislature felt that it would be fitting to name a newly created county in his honor,” the Kossuth County Economic Development Corporation reported on its website.
A Western family photo, likely from the 1910s, shows Kossuth Western and his wife, Clara Moore Lucas Western, with their children Frances, Todd, Alma, Myra and Lena Lucas Benning (a daughter from Clara’s previous marriage).
Frances, Todd and Alma Western inherited the farm, Montgomery said, but Todd Western Sr. bought his sisters’ shares. Myra died in 1922 at age 17 of pneumonia.
Todd Western Sr. married Grace Jeffers, who was from Buxton, a southeast Iowa mining town unique for its mix of African Americans, Swedes and other Eastern Europeans who lived peacefully in mixed neighborhoods.
By Sept. 17, 1944, the couple were raising 40 head of cattle, 80 hogs, 20 sheep and eight milk cows, the Iowa Farm Register reported.
“The crop plan on the farm this year is 53 acres of corn, 25 acres of oats, 10 acres of soybeans, 30 acres of hay, 22 acres of clover and eight of alfalfa. The first hay crops yielded 28 tons,” the article states.
It was the first year Western Sr. used commercial fertilizer, the newspaper noted. He “hasn’t tried planting on the contours, but is interested in this” because of the rolling hills on his land.
Daughters Betty Lou, Charlene and Joyce all were born on the farm with the help of a midwife, Montgomery said.
“We teased Todd because he was born in the hospital,” she said.
The girls went to a country school through eighth grade, then switched to Lacey High School, where they all played sports. They would milk cows at 6 a.m., go to school, come home to milk again at 4 p.m. and then return to school for practice, said Joyce Cook, born Joyce Western, 81, of Las Vegas.
The girls did the garden work, growing green beans, melons, sweet potatoes and sweet corn. They raised feeder hogs to earn money for college.
“Betty had the courage to leave first,” Montgomery said. “She went to business school.”
Betty Lou Smith, born Betty Lou Western, 86, of Waverly, was a secretary and then worked for the telephone company for 34 years, first doing customer service and then human resources, before retiring in 1995.
Montgomery and Cook both graduated from William Penn College, in Oskaloosa, and became teachers — one of few professions open to Black women in the 1960s. They had to start at small, rural districts, which struggled to find teachers, because urban districts would not hire them.
Montgomery got a job in the Southeast Warren school district, where the superintendent had delivered newspapers to the Western family and vouched for her. On the first day of school, “my classroom line was clear to the parking lot so everyone could see the new teacher,” Montgomery said.
The sisters both ended up teaching in the Waterloo School District, from which Montgomery retired in 1998. Cook served as a guidance counselor in Las Vegas from 1997 to 2014.
Although the women did not inherit the family farm, their parents paid for them to go to college and instilled in them a love for education.
“We never had to have loans. Our parents would always tell us ‘you have to get an education because they can’t take that away from you’,” Cook said. “We passed that on to the next generation.”
Handing down the farm
Todd Western Jr., born in 1943, was the only boy and got the job of driving the tractor, Cook said. He attended North Mahaska High School in New Sharon, where he participated in sports and music. We was also senior class president.
State Sen. Ken Rozenboom, R-Oskaloosa, remembers meeting Todd Western Jr. in the early 1960s when Rozenboom was between 10 and 12 years old and Todd Jr. was 18 or 19. Rozenboom was spending the afternoon visiting the farm of a church friend, who lived down the road from the Westerns.
The boys walked over to say hello.
“In rural Iowa, it was unusual to see a Black man,” Rozenboom said. “That was probably the first time I saw a Black family on an Iowa farm. That’s probably why I remember it.”
Todd Western Jr. went to William Penn and the University of Northern Iowa, where he met Barbara Gordon. They married in 1966, after Todd was done serving in the U.S. Army. They moved to Waterloo in 1968 and Todd Jr. started working as a process engineer at John Deere, his wife said.
But he would go back and help his father on the farm whenever he could. “He was homesick for farming,” Barbara Western said.
When Todd Western Sr. died of cancer in 1974, the farm passed to his wife and then to his son.
For two planting seasons, Todd Western Jr. and Barbara Western loaded up their farming equipment and young sons and drove two hours from Waterloo to Mahaska County. They slept in a mobile home at the farm, driving back to Waterloo each Monday morning so Todd Jr. could shower and return to work at Deere.
Todd Western Jr.’s work ethic also could be seen in his training for and running 17 marathons, often logging miles after 10 p.m. when work was done. He died July 30, 2008, at age 64, when he was training for his 13th Chicago Marathon.
Police found him in a ditch in Waterloo with his bicycle, which he often rode to the Waterloo West High School track to run late at night. Police said it was a bicycle accident, although Barbara Western still wonders exactly how he died.
Closer to home
In the 1970s, the Westerns purchased 35 acres on what was then called Sheep Hill Farm, just east of Waterloo. To this day, when Todd Western III and Christopher Western plant and harvest, they feel close to their father.
“Some people visit cemeteries to think of their loved ones,” Christopher Western said. “I like to come out here to think of my dad.”
Christopher Western, a city planner, knows how to fix things on the farm — just like his dad — while Todd Western III’s business skills come from their mom. But it’s stressful operating a farm on top of a day job.
Todd Western III, a donor adviser for United Way, balances coaching high school football in Minneapolis with farming in Iowa, which often means staying up late on fall Friday nights, sleeping a few hours and then getting on the road south.
“I’ve had people upset me that have said, ‘Why don’t you just rent this out?’” Christopher Western said of the Black Hawk County farm. “That wouldn’t have done him (their father) justice for how hard he worked. I’m sure he’s very proud of us that we came together and kept this going.”
Barbara Western, a Chicago native, said she first “learned to be an Iowa farmer’s wife” and then learned to be the farm “facilitator” after her husband’s death.
Now, she doesn’t hesitate to drive to the grain elevator in Dewar or meet with Iowa State University Extension officers to learn about grants. Barbara had a barn built and bought a new combine this year. She’s also the one to take the family to Red Lobster or buy ribs after a long work day.
Looking to the future
On Oct. 22, the family’s first attempt this fall at harvest, the Westerns all wore matching shirts. Todd Western III and his son, Todd Western IV, did a first pass with the new combine, then made adjustments because it dropped too many ears of corn.
Todd Western III’s wife, Angela, and their daughter, Addison, 9, drove down the row on a four-wheeler with a bucket to pick up the nubby yellow ears.
Because the moisture levels in the corn kernels were too high, the family decided to wait to harvest until November.
Todd Western IV, 33, works in advertising in the Twin Cities, where he’s trying his hand at urban farming by growing green beans and microgreens in the summer. He thinks more young Black people would pursue farming as a career if they had apprenticeships.
He hopes to keep the family farm going strong for his children, Hadley, 10, and Todd V, six months.
“It’s an immense sense of pride,” he said of the Western Family Heritage Farm. “That’s why we have ‘Legacy’ on the back of our shirts.”
Top image: Addison Western picks up loose corn cobs during Harvest on the Western family’s land in Blackhawk County, Iowa on Saturday, October 22, 2022. (Nick Rohlman/The Gazette)