September 5, 2017 at 3:32 p.m.

Mitchells' farming roots run 157 years deep

From Wisconsin wilderness to milking 1,000 cows
A yellowed photograph from about 1890 shows the Mitchell family gathered by the front porch of the farmhouse. John’s grandfather, Oliver, is seated in the middle. Photo submitted
A yellowed photograph from about 1890 shows the Mitchell family gathered by the front porch of the farmhouse. John’s grandfather, Oliver, is seated in the middle. Photo submitted

By By Ron Johnson- | Comments: 0 | Leave a comment

HILLSBORO, Wis. - History hangs in the hallway of the milking center at Hillsprairie Dairy. There's a lot of history, too.
Perhaps that's to be expected when a farm can trace its beginnings all the way back to 1855. That's 157 years, and a mere seven years after Wisconsin gained statehood.
So far, five generations of Mitchells have tilled the earth and milked cows near the southwest Wisconsin community of Hillsboro. Knowlton Mitchell and Asineth, his wife, are responsible for this branch of the Mitchell clan sinking its roots into Vernon County soil.
Now it's Jeff and Steve Mitchell, great, great grandsons of the original settlers, who manage the 1,000-cow dairy and 1,300 acres of farmland. Their father, John, helped steer the farm through the second half of the 20th Century and into the next one.
Jeff's wife, Kelli, and Steve's wife, Bobbi, are also important components of farm and family. They're nurturing the sixth generation of Mitchells: Jeff and Kelli's children - Madison, Allison, and Brooks - and Steve and Bobbi's brood - Hanli, Tasha, Jessica, and Toni.
The many copies of photographs and documents that adorn the hallway outside the double-14 milking parlor are largely the product of the Mitchells celebrating the 150th anniversary of the farm's origins in 2005. The operation was bestowed "Century Farm" status in 1955, the year John headed off to the University of Wisconsin-Madison, to begin work on his degree in dairy husbandry.
One document in the Mitchells' hallway of history looks far different than the rest. That's because it's from a far earlier time - 1856. From its gold frame, it proclaims that Knowlton Mitchell has paid for his quarter-section of Vernon County. The signature of the gent who ran the government land office at Mineral Point, Wis., is undecipherable, but it notes that he signed the document for Franklin Pierce, the United States President at the time.
The Mitchells admitted that they don't know for sure why Knowlton came to the wilds of Vernon County. John said his great-grandfather moved there from southeastern Wisconsin's Jefferson County, and possibly before that, from New York.
The Mitchell family goes back to Scotland and England, according to John. Family lore has it that other Mitchell ancestors were aboard one of the ships that sailed with the Mayflower to the New World.
"He probably came here (the Hillsboro area) looking for cheap land and a place to farm," said John, about Knowlton.
Though many exact reasons and details about the whys and whens of the family are now only vaguely visible through the mists of time, John is still a living, breathing history book of sorts. "Grandma said the Indians had teepees right across the road from our house," John said.
He shared an early tale about the local Native Americans supposedly taking offense at something and stealing a couple of the Mitchells' horses and killing the animals atop a nearby hill. To this day, said John, that spot is known as "Dead Horse Bluff."
Those early Mitchells survived and thrived as the Wisconsin wilderness evolved into a patchwork of farms and small towns. Fast forward to the 1890s to a photograph taken at the front porch of the family' first real farmhouse.
Sixteen people are frozen in time in the photograph. They look quite rough and rugged by today's standards, but were the norm more than a century ago. Jeff Mitchell jokingly referred to the picture as of the "Hatfields and McCoys."
Somewhere along the line, the Mitchell place metamorphosed into a full-fledged livestock farm. A photograph from 1930 shows a white, two-story barn that replaced the structure that burned in 1929, the year the stock market crashed.
John's father, Garold, and his brothers, had taken over the farm from their father, Oliver. The words painted on the end of the new barn declare: "G.E. Mitchell and Son's" and goes on to point out that they are breeders of "Guernsey Cattle" and "Chester White Hog's." The trio of errors on the barn was the fault of an "itinerant painter," John said.
Plenty of other things have happened since then. John went into the Air Force in 1959, married Joan, and came back to the farm in 1962.
"I'd planned on going back to college and getting a further degree, but I decided I liked farming more," John said.
At that time, as best anyone can recollect, the farm was about 293 acres and had 51 dairy cows. Time certainly did not stand still, and neither did the stream of changes.
Jeff, the first of John and Joan's sons, came into this world in 1962. He was later joined by Bill and Steve, and Sarah, an adopted daughter.
In 1965, work was finished on a double-four milking parlor and the herd was expanded to 106 milking cows. Three years later, when John still farmed with his father, and brother, Frederick, the Mitchells incorporated the farm.
The year 1970 brought a memorable event. The Mitchells decided to excavate beneath the two-story barn and put in a manure pit. Well, some of the soil slid away, leaving several supporting posts dangling in mid-air. John has a copy of an article describing the incident in a farm magazine of the period.
The passing of another decade found the farm with more land and milking 125 cows. The Mitchells ran a construction business and sold farm equipment, too.
"Fred got us into that," John recalled. "I was running the construction business more than I was farming."
The Mitchells had three Harvestores by that time, had expanded the milking parlor, put up more buildings, experimented with computerized feeders, and begun feeding a total mixed ration (TMR).
Recalling some of those changes had the Mitchells scratching their heads and wondering.
"Computerized feeders! Boy, all these memories are coming back!" Jeff said. "We might lose a couple of nights sleep here!"
His father agreed: "Those computerized feeders were the biggest mistake of all."
Many farms endured the infamous "Drought of '88." For the Mitchells, that dry year proved to them the worth of no-till, a practice they'd begun testing in 1986.
In 2003, the family decided there wasn't enough room at the home place for them to reach for their dreams. So they built their present dairy center with freestall barns, bunker silos and a two-stage manure system a couple of miles away. Right away, they milked 550 cows but soon bumped that up to more than 700.
During June of 2005, the Mitchells celebrated the farm's sesquicentennial with an open barn and lunch. More than 1,000 people attended.
But, noted Kelli, laughing and admittedly a bit embarrassed, "We didn't put out a guest book for anybody to sign."
Today, Hillsprairie Dairy milks close to 1,000 cows three times a day and relies on 22 part-time and full-time employees. Its milk is trucked to seven Foremost Farms USA plants.
Of course, there were smaller happenings and mishaps during the years. They combine with the larger events to make up the history of a family and a farm.
For instance, in 1941, at the age of three, John tumbled 25 feet down a silo chute and broke a leg. The next year, a wagonload of hay fell on him. Happily, it was loose hay.
The 1980s are fondly marked by "Pepper the Weather Dog." The Mitchells remembered him as a "Black Lab mutt."
"If it was going to rain, he'd always crawl around by your feet, shaking. He was afraid of thunder, and he knew it was going to storm, said Jeff.
On one occasion, the Mitchells planned to cut and chop hay in the next two days. Rain was not in the forecast.
"But down in the silo room, that dog was shaking," Steve said. "So we didn't cut. It rained two inches that night. Pepper was the most accurate weather forecaster there ever was."
What does it all mean - to be part of a family that has farmed in one location for 157 years?
"It's really nice," said John. "You've got roots. You know that the Mitchells have been farming here a long time and we built it up over the years. My father and brother and I and my sons made a pretty substantial operation - especially for this area. And we managed to get fantastic yields off some pretty rough ground."
John acknowledged that he has enjoyed farming.
"My philosophy," he said, "is, 'Why would anybody want to be anything else if they could be a farmer?'"[[In-content Ad]]


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