Community Rooted in Agriculture

By S. Roy Kaufman | Mar 5, 2013

My part-time work at Heritage Hall Museum reminds me at every turn of the history of this rural community, and its agricultural roots. The larger Freeman community was established mostly by Germans from Russia, who arrived here in the 1870s, now 140 years ago. They were an agrarian people, with a long history of living on the land, coming here as faith communities of Lutheran, Reformed, Catholic and Mennonite faith.

Southeast South Dakota was virgin prairie when these pioneers arrived here, only recently opened for white settlement after the 1858 treaty of the Yankton Sioux with the United States. There was no infrastructure—no roads or towns or commercial settlements. The railroad was not built until 1879 leading to the incorporation of Freeman in 1893. Life was incredibly harsh and hard in those early years. In his memoir of Mennonite immigration to the Great Plains, Emil Waltner in Banished for Faith recalls the blizzard of 1888 (recently highlighted in the January 9 Courier), an 1889 prairie fire, the 1878 West Vermillion flood in which nearly the whole Jacob Gering family perished, and the grasshopper plague of 1875 that decimated the first crop the pioneers had planted (pp. 196-202).

The early pioneers preferred land near a creek or river, with easy access to water. My own great-grandfather, Christian Kaufman, claimed a homestead on Turkey Ridge Creek a mile east of the “church road.” But the West Vermillion flood demonstrated the dangers as well as the opportunities of settling near the streams of southeast South Dakota. It was often only through bitter and painful experience that these pioneers learned to cope with what was then a harsh and erratic climate. But these pioneers were resilient and resourceful people, as the eventual establishment of the Freeman community attests.

Undoubtedly, it was the agrarian heritage of the pioneers that enabled them to establish a community in this place. These people knew how to make do. They knew or were willing to learn what was required for them to become self-sufficient in living on the land they had homesteaded. In the end, the community they established was largely self-sustaining. They gave more than they took from the land, while also trading for the things not readily available to them in this climate and geographical setting.

At the same time, the local ecology also dictated the formation of the community. The agriculture they established in this unique natural setting shaped the culture of their community. Agriculture describes the practices, arts, and sciences involved in cultivating the soil, producing crops and raising livestock, and preparing and marketing these products. In its root, agriculture literally means “cultivation of the field.” Culture, meanwhile, describes the “customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits” of a particular group or community. In the case of the Freeman community, the culture of the community was shaped by its agriculture.

The question I have is how agriculture still shapes the culture of this community. My own bias is that the life of a rural community depends on the vitality of its particular agriculture. A healthy agriculture rooted in the possibilities and limitations of a particular place will produce a healthy community. How do our current agricultural practices inform and shape the cultural life of our community?