Oklahoma farmers and ranchers celebrate 100 years (and counting) of living off the land.
Family agriculture values continue to guide fifth-generation Centennial Farm and Ranch owner Chris Hitch, Tri-County Electric Cooperative (TCEC) member. Photo by James Pratt
More than 1,400 properties have been family-owned and operated within the state for at least a century.
Four families share their stories of surviving hardships and creating innovations in the Sooner State.
The land has a tendency to beckon those searching for a deeper purpose in life.
For the early pioneers who abandoned the familiar and answered that call, sweat and sacrifice turned open fields into a living legacy for future generations.
One hundred years later, an Oklahoma farmer is tilling the same dirt as his ancestor, a rancher is using the same brand as her great-grandfather and, as a point of honor, have the same blood pumping through their veins.
At the end of 2015, the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) at the Oklahoma Historical Society listed 1,482 properties families have owned and operated within the state for at least a century.
“That is a significant number of families who made it through dust bowls, the Great Depression, droughts and awful winters—things that today most of us can’t even begin to imagine,” Shea Otley, Oklahoma Centennial Farm and Ranch coordinator, says.
Not only are these farming and ranching families important to the state’s past, they are vital to the future of Oklahoma’s rural economy. For the SHPO, the Centennial Farm and Ranch Program award recipients are examples of the perseverance of agricultural families in Oklahoma.
A handshake is as good as a contract if you’re willing to stand behind it, according to Jason Hitch, Co-CEO and chairman of the board at Hitch Enterprises in Guymon, Okla.
That sense of honor and integrity has been passed down through more than 125 years of family land ownership. The family agriculture values continue to guide fifth-generation owners Jason and Chris Hitch, Tri-County Electric Cooperative (TCEC) members.
It all began in 1875 when James Kerrick Hitch bravely put $10 in his pocket and said goodbye to his Tennessee home. Nine years later, Hitch homesteaded the original 160 acres in a strip of what was called “No Man’s Land,” a term that now refers to the Oklahoma Panhandle. Today the family’s holdings have grown to deal in corn, wheat, beef and pork commodities, supplying jobs to more than 300 employees.
Among many accomplishments, the Hitch family notably introduced modern beef production and center pivot irrigation to Oklahoma in the mid-1900s. H.C. Hitch, Jr., was the first landowner in the state to apply for and receive the honor from the Oklahoma Centennial Farm and Ranch Program in 1989.
Among many shifts in technology, one of the biggest changes in the family’s way of life was when electricity first powered the ranch in the mid-‘40s.
“The first priority was to give power to run the offices and take care of the cattle,” Hitch says. “They only ran the household electricity a few hours a day.”
However, progress is not without its hardship. Hitch recalls stories passed down through generations about the adversity the area faced during the Great Depression.
“We bought a lot of the land during the Great Depression and traded for things that would help people travel,” Hitch says. “One of our neighbors packed up his whole family and traded his acreage for a buckboard wagon. Another traded land for a mule and shotgun.”
Despite the challenges, the tightknit Panhandle territory is filled with neighbors who work together to bring success to the counties. Hal Clark, owner of the Clark Ranch in Boise City, Okla., knows the power of community first hand. After graduation from Texas Tech in 1953, Clark and his wife Pat moved into the house Hal’s grandfather, Robert, built in 1895. Although the home held a lot of memories, it had no electricity and no phone.
“Bless her heart, I don’t know how she stayed with me,” Clark says with a chuckle. “It must have been love.”
The young couple was then greeted with a terrible drought followed by destructive blizzards in ’57 and ’58.
“Our folks and neighbors helped us survive those lean years and get started on our own,” Clark says.
Clark enjoyed many years on the ranch and was active with the Oklahoma Farm Bureau, Oklahoma Cattlemen’s Association, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and the Farmers Royalty Company. Perhaps his greatest joy was raising his three children, Jan, Brad and Jay, and seeing six grandchildren also develop a love for the land. Jay ran the ranch for more than 25 years with his own wife and three children.
Hal and his son talked about the ranch almost every day on the phone until Jay passed away in 2006.
“Now that we have lost Jay, it means everything to me that I moved away from the ranch so he could raise his family there.”
Clark then returned to ranch operations, which still uses the original ZH brand from the 1880s. Hal is strongly involved in the conservation movement in Oklahoma. He is putting his college degree in animal science with a minor in ranch management to work, focusing on preserving and maintaining the land for the state.
“Looking back on my life, certainly I am happy,” Clark says. “Life on the ranch just can’t be beat.”
Gov. Henry Bellmon did many things for the state, including announcing the Oklahoma Centennial Farm and Ranch Program in 1989. In his personal life, he instilled a strong love of the land and an appreciation for the earth in his children.
“The sunrises, the sunsets and everything that goes with it—I love it all,” daughter Ann Denney says.
George Bellmon, Henry’s father, drove his first wife and two baby daughters in covered wagon from Sedan, Kan., to the Cherokee Strip in 1897.
Along the way, Bellmon’s father stopped and dug up five seedling red cedar trees along the Arkansas River. He replanted those trees in the property’s front yard, and three of those trees have survived to this day.
Bellmon grew up on the family farm and left only to serve as a Marine in WWII. During that time his mother passed away from leukemia, leaving his father to run the farm by himself.
“As soon as the war was over, he requested and was allowed to be on the first ship back from Iwo Jima to help his father farm,” Denney, a Kay Electric Cooperative member, says.
Between the three children today, they lease the majority of the land to a local young farmer who raises wheat, cattle and hay. A small part of the land maintained by the family holds a pecan grove and a walnut grove Bellmon planted 20 years ago. Although he never saw a pecan harvest, the last family harvest yielded 5,400 pounds of pecans across 35 acres.
Denney’s sons, daughters-in-law and grandchildren enjoy coming back to the farm every fall for harvesting or pruning and taking care of the grove. Last year even the fifth-generation farmers, three 1-year-olds, took the shucks off of the pecans.
“It’s a big legacy of his I am thrilled to maintain,” Denney says. “We all feel very blessed and fortunate that dad had this land available and feel honored to tend it.”
Denney often has people visit from metropolitan areas who remind her of the values of country life.
“They always comment they can see the stars because it’s so much easier to really see the sky.”
However, the land is never truly silent. At night, the sound of coyotes and cicadas create a song that is comforting to those like Denney who have heard it many times before.
Peace and Quiet
Trading city noise for a peaceful place is what drew Mike and Debra Hagy back to the Hawkins-Hagy-Hurst Farm in Frederick, Okla. The couple began their careers in Oklahoma City, but the Southwest Rural Electric Association members decided they wanted a rural way of life to raise their family.
“We realized fairly quickly we loved the hustle and bustle, but we knew we didn’t want to do that forever. We wanted to give our kids the same opportunities we had when we were growing up,” Debra Hagy says.
In 1980, the Hagys returned to the family farm Debra’s great-grandfather purchased in 1907 for $8,000. Since their return, farming has not been the Hagy family’s main occupation. However, the wheat harvest has been a side operation in addition to their full-time jobs.
The land has an allure to it that is hard to explain, according to owner Mike Hagy.
“I don’t plant cotton anymore, but when I used to cultivate it, one of the best feelings was the smell of the dirt and seeing it look so nice between the rows,” Mike Hagy says. “It gave me a lot of satisfaction.”
After a career in education, the military reserves and now as general manager/CEO for Southwest Rural Electric Association, Mike Hagy says the farm remains his place of solace.
“When the world closes in, the farm is my refuge,” he says.
That sense of closeness to the land is not lost over time. Debra Hagy’s father still joins them for the wheat harvest, although now he sits and watches from the truck. His role may have changed, but Debra says he feels even more joy seeing her family live on the land and continue the heritage.
“There’s an emotional attachment when it’s been in your family so long rather than just going and purchasing a piece of land,” Debra Hagy says. “It has more meaning somehow. It runs in your blood.”
For more information regarding the Centennial Farm and Ranch Program, contact Shea Otley at 405-522-4485 or firstname.lastname@example.org.