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Armstrongs rooted on Heritage Farm

By Staff | Oct 3, 2016

Sue Armstrong, right, draws her family’s attention to a detail in a hand-drawn image of how their Heritage Farm used to look like. Moving in for a closer look is her brother, Mark Armstrong, while parents Ken and Phyllis Armstrong look on. The drawing was made by a family friend and is part of the Armstrong family’s archive.

Fifth generation hopes to keep it ‘in the family’




HAMPTON – In 1865, the American Civil War ended. America, grieving over the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, ratified the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution abolishing slavery. John Hyatt was awarded a patent for the billiard ball and Lemon and Mary Jane Armstrong bought a 160-acre farm in Franklin County, Iowa.

SUE ARMSTRONG, and her father, Ken Armstrong, hold the pods that fall from the Kentucky coffee trees that were planted on their farm by Ken’s great-grandfather Lemon Armstrong. Sue said there are still four of the original trees standing, with many younger trees growing up around them.

According to Ken Armstrong, the fourth generation owner on the farm, his great-grandparents arrived in Franklin County in 1856, during the heyday of immigrant settlement of Iowa – 1846 to 1860. But where they originally settled was in low land that frequently flooded.

Ken Armstrong said his progenitors relocated to the present day farm in Ingham Township, on a hillside.

“It’s no secret why they chose this place,” Armstrong said.

At the time, there was a spring that served the farm well as a place for storing full milk cans, keeping the milk cold, as well as watering livestock.

The spring has since dried up, Armstrong said, after the family dug a well for a water source closer to the house and a barn that was subsequently built, but no longer exists.

ACCORDING TO FAMILY lore, a traveling photographer enticed the Merle Armstrong family to pose for this photo in front of the Armstrong farm home in either 1898 or 1899.

His daughter, Sue Armstrong, is the family historian. She produced a photo of the Armstrong’s house taken between 1898 and 1899.

The photo includes a one-story, 10-by-20-foot cabin that served as the main house for the Armstrong’s in 1865. A two-story addition was built onto the cabin in 1866, Ken Armstrong said, because Lemon and Mary Jane had several children and needed the room urgently.

The rafters and sheeting are all oak and walnut, Armstrong strong, all supported by 14-by-14-inch beams.

“I did some electrical wiring on the house,” he said, “and that wood is hard.”

He said while the main portion of the house was being built, a tornado twisted the frame on the foundation. Many neighbors volunteered to help straighten the house but, Armstrong said, “they couldn’t make it square again.

“So this floor has a four 4-degree slope to that corner.”

He said the floor joists are all full dimension 2-by-8-inch pine boards. He said the lumber was from Minnesota, floated down the Mississippi River on rafts. He said he thinks the wood was purchased in Dubuque and brought back to the farm by horse and wagon.

An Armstrong son, Curtis, enlisted to fight in the Civil War in 1862, Sue Armstrong said, and was assigned to Company H, of the 32nd Iowa Volunteer Infantry Regiment.

However, Curtis was discharged for health reasons after six months, before his unit could be sent into action. The 32nd saw extensive action through the western theater of the Civil War including the siege of Vicksburg.

Curtis however, retired to the family farm in Franklin County where he died in 1868.

Sue Armstrong said ag surveys in 1870 and 1880 showed the farm raised spring wheat, Indian corn, oats and hay.

The wheat may have been sold, while corn, oats and hay were likely fed to the horses, that provided the bulk of farm power, plus milk cows and the 73 head of sheep.

A family story indicates there was once a spinning wheel on the farm, and the family may have spun wool for its own clothes. But Sue Armstrong said no one knows the location of the spinning wheel, or if it still exists.

By 1880, the farm had a small apple orchard and had potatoes planted in a half-acre plot. The sheep were gone by then, she said, replaced by 80-head of hogs.

During his lifetime, Sue Armstrong said, Lemon Armstrong served for a short period as a postmaster the road out front of the farm – 175th Street – is a former stage coach road through Franklin County.

During his travels, Sue Armstrong said, Lemon at one point brought and planted Kentucky coffee trees onto the farm. Four of those trees are still standing, and many others have since grown from the many unused coffee seed pods the tree produces.

Sue Armstrong said some people did collect the pods, roasted and ground the seeds for a form of coffee.

“It wasn’t always convenient to buy coffee,” she said.

Lemon Armstrong died in 1880 and the farm was divided equally among his five children. The youngest, Merle, had the house and buildings and eventually bought his siblings portions.

During Merle’s time on the farm he grew tobacco and made his own chew, Sue Armstrong said.

He also made extensive remodeling of the farmhouse.

The third generation was Roscoe Armstrong, Merle’s youngest child, who came into possession of the farm in 1935.

He took down the barn and used some of that lumber to do his own remodeling of the house inn the late-1950s.

Ken Armstrong, who grew up on a farm a few miles away, started farming Merle’s land in 1956 and took ownership in 1976, buying the farm from his uncle.

Ken said he tore down a former brooder house, and moved in a newer building for a workshop, which he is still working on.

He also moved government grain bins onto the farm.

In 1976, the farm was 111 years old, when it was awarded as a Century Farm, the first year of the program. Last July at the Iowa State Fair, the family was back to receive its Heritage Farm award.

Ken retired from active farming in 1996. He rents the land out and has flower and vegetable gardens all around the house.

Sue Armstrong said the farm gives her a sense of belonging “and a connection with the older generations.

The 80 acres, she said, “supported them and seems to have given them a good life.”

She and her brother, Mark, both unmarried and without children, said they feel some responsibility to provide a sixth generation to take over the farm and make it their home.

“I don’t want to see it turn all to cornfields,” she said.

“It has to stay in the family,” Mark said.

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