A Century of Family Farming in Tyler
ELK FORK – For more than a 100 years, the Roberts’ family farm has stood as a testament to the solid values that have made Tyler County a special place to live.
The family’s warm, white, wooden old farmhouse stands firm, tried and true against a sloping hillside overlooking a valley where cattle graze.
“I was born in this house,” said John Roberts, 80, the family’s patriarch. “I’ve never lived anywhere else.”
Herds of photos are posted on the walls and above the mantel in the family’s century old home. Roberts’ grandmother (Susan Haught) designed the house more than 103 years ago. Roberts and his wife JoEllen have six children, five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
“It was built to her specifications,” Roberts said as he picked up a framed, black and white photo of his grandmother. “These other photos – this is Jenna when she was little and had blonde hair. This photo here is a great-grandson and this one is a grandson; this one a granddaughter; my son Bill and his wife. Family is important to us. Always has been.”
An antique clock on the mantel tells pretty good time. As to time, not many farms, particularly ones that have been in the same family, have been in continuous operation for a century or longer. The West Virginia Association of Conservation Districts began the Century Farm Program to recognize farms in the Mountain State that have been maintained by the same family for at least 100 years.
“The best part about being a farmer? You’ve got to love it. I loved working with the cows. … But I have to say, the best part about farming is I had the kids with me all the time when they were little. Maybe that’s why I can’t get rid of them today. I’m so glad,” Roberts said with a warm smile.
There is a tall hill by a tree covered ridge in the distance where the sun rises early and sets long before the work is done on the Roberts’ farm that traces its roots to 1904. Back then, the farm catered to a few company homes that served folks who worked in an oil refinery nearby.
Roberts has old black and white photos and newspaper clippings of what the farm and the surrounding area looked like in the early 1900s.
“Then, we raised beef cattle and a few dairy cows,” Roberts said. “They sold milk to all these houses around here. The family raised everything they needed to eat vegetables, potatoes, beef, pigs, chickens. They sold eggs and a few cattle. It was a lot of hard work.”
Farming is in the family’s blood.
Back in the ’40s and early ’50s, when Roberts came into his own as a farmer, he had one ambition.
“I always wanted to milk cows from the time when I was a kid,” said Roberts, the third generation of his family to farm the land and tend to the herds. “My father gave me a cow. He gave it to me when she was a calf in 1943. Later, I sent her to market at an old age.”
The days were long, but hard work was ingrained deep in Roberts’ bones. He remembers carrying milk in 2-gallon buckets on the school bus to Tyler County High School for his vocational agriculture teacher’s family in 1950. Roberts worked closely with Jimmy Fonner providing milk on a route through Middlebourne. Working with Fonner, Roberts’ personal herd began to grow quickly.
Roberts was a busy man in high school. Cows take 5-8 minutes to milk, so Roberts woke up very early to milk around a dozen cows before school started.
“How long does it take to milk a cow? Depends on the cow. Some were easy to milk, while some were hard to milk,” he said. “After that, I’d clean up, go to school. When I had study hall in sixth period, I’d milk more cows (for Fonner) and he would bring me home after school. Then I would get our family’s cows in and milk them.”
Roberts’ cows produced a lot of milk.
“When I was in high school, if you had a cow that gave five- or six-thousand pounds of milk year, it was really something,” he said. “My own breeding and feeding if you had a cow that milked over 100 pounds a day way back then that was something.”
Roberts said while he was in high school, he began buying more cattle to add to his herd.
“I said to Fonner, ‘Man, I don’t have a nickel,'” he said. “Ended up, we bought eight cows off him. I delivered milk in Middlebourne. I missed five days in that 12 years of delivering milk. Anyway, we kept at it by adding to the herd for 12 years. We eventually ended up with 42 cows. That was just what we could do as a family so that we didn’t have to hire somebody.”
Before Roberts ever considered doing anything but farming, he remembers “politicking” for office.
“We’d have the 4-H, FFA, church groups and any group that wanted to come to see us milk and put hay in our silage or whatever we always had ice cream and chocolate milk for them,” he said. “I was politicking and didn’t know what I was doing. I had no intentions of running for office.”
Over the years, cows came and went along with the dairy business until 1988 when Roberts made a fateful decision the family sold the dairy cow herd. This farmer decided he wanted to go into politics.
“My mother said, ‘you won’t get it.’ I was a Democrat. This is and was a real Republican county,” he said. “But, I sold the cows the day before the election. Of course, I won the election. I won seven times. I had no bone to pick with anybody when I filed, but I told my mother, ‘I don’t go into anything to lose. But one thing I know; I’m not milking cows.’ By then it was a lot of work and I had arthritis. I said if I have to, I’ll go to McDonald’s.”
Roberts served as a magistrate for 26 years before he retired in 2014. He presided over the arraignments of most any crime, large and small, ranging from bad checks to murder.
“Did we get any murderers? Yeah by God,” Roberts said. “The worst I hated to deal with child abusers. A kid can tell you so many things that you knew had to happened.”
Roberts said for many years, cases had to be heard in person, which meant he had to be available day or night as the situation demanded. Later, regional jails allowed for video arraignments, he said, so things changed except to sign warrants or domestic violence cases. Roberts’ day didn’t end if he had to preside over a late night arraignment.
“Oh yes! I was still running the farm that next morning,” he said.
Next week, part two of the Roberts’ family saga.