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Bonanza farming, Iowa style

By Staff | Oct 11, 2019

-Submitted photo Twelve manure spreaders are shown in front of the huge barn that housed the mules at the Adams Ranch near Odebolt in years past.



ODEBOLDT – If there were an Iowa farm containing 10 to 12 contiguous sections of land, long rows of livestock barns, grain elevators and up to 150 employees, it would be impressive in any era. The fact that all this defined the Adams Ranch in Sac County farm more than a century ago makes this history even more intriguing.

“It’s fascinating just how efficient the Adams Ranch was, thanks to the modern business practices used on the farm,” said Sandra Kessler Host, an Odebolt native who documented this history of this Odebolt-area farm in the new, illustrated book, “Adams Ranch Story: 1872-1964.”

Host, a 1961 Odebolt-Arthur High School graduate, remembers the Adams Ranch well, including the beautiful gardens she enjoyed while attending a party at the farm in the 1950s. She also recalls how the Adams’ family’s daughters participated in 4-H, showed cattle and attended the local school through seventh grade before attending finishing school in Massachusetts.

Carol Raasch (left), a volunteer with the Rural Legacy Project and Iowa Rural Schools Museum in Odebolt, and Sandra Kessler Host, who compiled the information for “Adams Ranch Story: 1872-1964,” display copies of this new book at the 1883 Richland Township No. 1 country schoolhouse (also known as the “Willow Tree School”) in Odebolt.

By the 1950s, the Adams Ranch had been operating in Sac County for decades. Multiple generations of the Adams family had owned the farm, whose roots could be traced back to the 1870s. It was one of two bonanza farms in Iowa, both of which were located in Sac County. The Adams Ranch was located south and west of Odebolt, while the Cook Ranch (a 7,680-acre operation also known as Brookmont Farm) operated north of Odebolt.

While they were ahead of their time in some respects, these large farms marked a turning point in Iowa agriculture, ushering in a new era when farmers would transition from small-scale, subsistence operations to larger, commercial farming enterprises. Other farmers paid attention to the business practices used on these large farms. “My dad used to say, ‘If it’s good enough for the Adams’ family, it’s good enough for me,” said Host, who grew up on a farm near Odebolt.

Settling western Iowa

“Bonanza farm” is a term associated with large-scale agriculture, especially in North Dakota and the Red River Valley. In the late 1800s, there were more than 100 of bonanza farms from the Dakotas to the Canadian border, with most in North Dakota and some in Minnesota.

It was no accident that Iowa’s two bonanza farms were established in Sac County. This reflected a combination of events, from the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 to the westward expansion of the railroads across Iowa.

Farm managers at the Adams Ranch were early adopters of a variety of new technologies, including anhydrous ammonia to help fertilize the cornfields.

The Adams Ranch’s history dates back to 1872, when Hiram Cyrus Wheeler of Chicago bought Sac County land in the area now covered by Wheeler Township and Richland Township. Wheeler had owned the Galena, Munger & Co. Elevator that burned in the Great Chicago Fire. Fortunately, his business was insured, so Wheeler decided to take these funds and invest in real estate and wheat farming in western Iowa.

Land buyers like Wheeler were a prime target when the Iowa Railroad Land Co. advertised extensively in newspapers from Chicago and Cedar Rapids and beyond. A typical ad, like this one from the September 2, 1872, issue of the Cedar Rapids Daily Republican, read:

“Wanted This Spring 10,000 Farmers! To improve 1.7 million acres of the very best farming lands in the world which can now be had at present value on long time with 6% interest and deferred payments. Railroad grants along the Chicago and North Western, Illinois Central and Sioux City & Pacific Railways are mainly located in the middle region of western Iowa. Noted for its salubrious climate and inexhaustible soil, a finely watered yet perfectly drained district in the best agricultural state in the Union. Now is the time to secure a home at $4 or $5 per acre in the luxurious valley of either the Boyer, the Maple, the Soldier or the Little Sioux.”

In 1872, Wheeler purchased 7,040 acres of undeveloped prairie at $3 an acre in southwestern Sac County. This area would become a bonanza farm and the future town of Odebolt. That same year, Wheeler hired Abner Chandler as superintendent of the new Wheeler Farm (which later became known as the Adams Ranch). Chandler directed the building of the farmstead and broke sod so wheat and oats could be planted. Hiring farm managers like Chandler distinguished America’s bonanza farms from smaller farms. “An outstanding feature of the bonanza farm was the large degree to which it used professional management,” noted Hiram M. Drache, author of the book “The Day of the Bonanza.”

As the farm developed and grew, employees produced corn, wheat and sheep. Hundreds of beautiful shade trees (first cottonwoods and later elms) lined the roadways and fences. It wasn’t uncommon for neighbors to take a Sunday drive for a sightseeing trip along the tree-lined roads near the farm.

By 1896, Wheeler sold the farm to William P. Adams, who paid $200,000 (about $6.1 million today) for 10 sections of land he named Fairview Farm. Adams was familiar with bonanza farming, thanks to his father, John, who owned a 9,600-acre operation known as Fairview View in southeast North Dakota, which produced wheat and sheep.

Leaving a legacy

By 1913, W.P. Adams had expanded his Iowa farm to 12 sections of land. The farm employed 45 men in the winter months to 150 men in the busiest months. The business included 120 teams of mules to pull equipment and assist with other farm work. Adams hired Rosco Ross Rector as the superintendent of Fairview Farm (better known as the Adams Ranch), a position he filled until 1949.

Bonanza farms could afford the most modern machinery and were early adopters of the latest ag technology to help the business become even more efficient. In 1925, Adams introduced 15 one-row corn pickers pulled by steel-wheeled tractors.

“This improved corn harvesting over the use of 76 wagons pulled by 27 teams of mules four abreast, with men walking and husking corn for 60 days, averaging 60 bushels per day per man,” Host wrote.

The Adams Ranch also used an extensive crop rotation system to benefit the soil. This rich soil became part of an unusual story connected to Odebolt. In 1916, the Odebolt city council asked Adams to help pay for paving the town’s streets. Adams offered to pay the entire bill if the council agreed to change the name of the town from Odebolt to Adamsville.

The city council refused his offer. After they signed a contract to pave 72,000 square yards of concrete for the streets, they banned Adams from using the newly-paved streets to haul his grain to his elevator near the railroad tracks. After harvest when it was time to haul grain to his elevator, Adams had a wagonload of his fertilized soil brought to town and spread on the paved streets so his mules hauled his grain wagons on his soil and not on the paved streets. When finished, he had the soil picked up and returned to his farm. No further restrictions were placed on travel to his elevator.

Following W.P. Adams’ death in 1937, his son Bob took over the farming operation. Bob Adams worked with Iowa State College to implement new farming practices to increase agricultural production. He experimented with a five-year crop rotation with corn, small grains and alfalfa/clover that was plowed back into the ground to enrich the soil.

Bob Adams’ oldest son, Bill, would be the last generation of his family to own the Adams Ranch. Bill Adams was passionate about Hereford cattle and decided to sell the Iowa farm so he could purchase 6,000 acres of land northwest of Valentine, Nebraska, to graze cattle. Charles Lakin, a native of Emerson, Iowa, purchased 6,510 acres from Adams for $2.5 million in 1964.

By 1975, Lakin conveyed the warranty deed of the original Adams Ranch property to Shinrone Incorporated of Detroit, Michigan, for $4 million. They invested another $250,000 and expanded the ranch’s cattle feeding operation. By the 1980s, however, the original Adams Ranch was sold off in parcels to various farmers and other landowners.

While there are few traces of the Adams Ranch left standing on the landscape, operations like the Adams Ranch were the forerunners of today’s modern agribusiness, said Host, a retired teacher and social worker who lives in Council Bluffs.

“Rural Iowa has so many fantastic, untold stories like this. It’s important to teach this local history,” he said

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