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A legacy of service

Cottington descendants tend the family farm with great care

Mary Jo Johnson is proud of her family farming history in Hamilton County.

STRATFORD — In the lush fields of Hamilton County northeast of Stratford, if there is a patch of perennials blooming along a forgotten lane, perhaps a windmill creaking in the wind, or a barn that bears its age with dignity, Mary Jo Johnson can probably tell a visitor just who lived there and when, the names of their kids and grandkids, and what the mother of the house would bring to every church picnic or funeral dinner.

Johnson knows Stratford and the surrounding countryside from Hook’s Point on over to Stanhope better than most. She grew up there, married and raised her family there, and takes great pride in seeing the next generation of her extended family carrying on the farming tradition.

“I’m very, very happy that it’s still in the family,” Johnson said. “I let all the family know that it would be nice if they would turn out for the Heritage Farm presentation at the Iowa State Fair last summer. My whole family — from across the country — came; I think there were 36 of us in the photo.”

When Johnson puts out a request, one can bet her family will heed it. Johnson was on hand at the fair several years ago when the family received the Century Farm designation. That year, it was her son Curtis and his family who lived on the farm and prepared the application. In 2023, her great-nephew Evan Holt, who is now on the farm, prepared the application for the Heritage Farm Award, indicating 150 years of continuous ownership in one family.

Johnson is humble about the accomplishment, and said it takes a little good luck — and perhaps even some divine providence — for a family to weather the storm of farming — whether that storm be wind and hail from a June thunderstorm, stifling drought of the Great Depression, or high interest rates and low commodity prices of the Farm Crisis.

A Heritage Farm had to survive all of that.

“It’s really surprising for any family,” she said.

“Things have to fall in place right for a farm to stay in the same family for so long.”

It was Johnson’s great-grandfather who first purchased 210 acres in Webster Township of Hamilton County shortly after the Civil War.

Levi Cottington, who had come from Sussex County, England, paid $14.28 per acre on Dec. 16, 1867.

Johnson’s parents, Joe and Hope (Cottington) Engelby, were the fourth-generation owners. For her part, Johnson has warm memories of growing up on the farm.

“It was wonderful,” she recalled. “My first cousin lived down the road and another cousin lived in another direction. It was just a wonderful place to grow up.”

Farms were smaller, closer together, and neighbors shared labor and became close friends in those days. Johnson’s chores on the farm ranged from picking eggs to weeding the garden, and much more.

“When I grew up, you knew who your neighbors were, you knew who had little kids to play with,” she recalled. “We all went to the same church and the same school. There were always mothers in the house. You would drive up and down the road, and you could be pretty sure there was a mother in there and you could stop in and visit.”

Over the decades, Levi Cottington’s descendants would populate much of southern Hamilton County.

“There are lots of Cottingtons,” Johnson said. “The Cottington family came early, the Kent family (closer to the Stanhope area) came early and they settled nearby.”

Remarkably, many members of the Cottington and Kent families, their spouses included, took an active role in public service. The late Gerald (Gerry) Kent was a long-time city clerk in Webster City. Evan Holt’s father, Brian Holt, was a long-time executive director at Hamilton County Conservation. And Johnson’s husband, the late Marvin D. Johnson, was a longtime Hamilton County supervisor who founded Hamilton County SEED — Support Enriching Economic Development — to help rural communities rebuild after the Farm Crisis.

That type of family legacy puts a lot on Evan Holt’s shoulders as the farm’s resident generation. But the young father of triplet boys seems to relish a good challenge.

“I enjoy playing with big toys,” he said of his initial interest in farming.

But, even more than the big toys, he wants to be a good steward of the soil for this farm that has been in his family for 150 years. Several years ago he began transitioning to low-till and no-till farming practices.

“We no-till the beans,” he said. “It’s a lot less wear and tear on the equipment, less hours and fuel — and no-till works, so why waste that extra money?”

Evan Holt credits his parents, Brian and Nancy (Engelby) Holt with instilling a strong work ethic.

“When you grow up on a Christmas tree farm, you learn how to work,” he said with a chuckle.

Ho Ho Holt Christmas tree farm, owned by his parents, was a popular place several years ago, but the happy Christmas shoppers didn’t see all the work of trimming and shaping those trees in the hot summer sun. Evan Holt remembers those days well, wielding the sharp blades that trained a tree to grow just right.

These days, there are few remnants of the old Christmas tree farm left, except in local memory. But a straggling conifer along a fence-row generations hence just may instill a happy memory of what used to be — just like the perennials that still bloom along an overgrown lane decades after the farm wife who once tended them has been commended to the soil herself.

Family farming is like that. One generation learns from the older, tends it for a while, and passes it down to the next — always hoping and praying for the best.

Holt’s three sons, Kanon, Nash and Ike, are only 7 years old — correction, they want all to know that they are seven and a half years old! — but they are already thinking about the future. They like to help dad farm and love to camp and play lots of sports.

Johnson is pulling for at least one farmer in the crop of kids.

“I would absolutely tell them that farming is a good life,” she said.

Hard times, hot days, cold nights, all come with it, but this family seems to agree that it’s worth it — 150 years and counting.

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