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Saline County Century Farm: McRoberts family pioneered hybrid seed production in county

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

A clipping from The Daily Democrat-News attached to this photo of B.L. and Hattie McRoberts notes that she "is womanly and cultured and the favorite of a large circle of friends in this city where she was born and reared," and he "is one of Saline's substantial farmers, and is worthy the bride he has won." Descendants of the couple recently achieved recognition for their farm as a Century Farm.
(Contributed photo)
In 1891, Benjamin Lone McRoberts purchased a river bluff and bottomland farm in the Blosser area, east of Malta Bend. In 1896, he married Hattie McRoberts and they settled on the more than 300-acre farm.

Today, four generations of the McRoberts family still live on the ground, which was recently honored as a Saline County Century Farm for being in the the same family for 100 years or more.

The McRoberts have continued to pass down not only the land, but many traditions through the years, according to Benjamin's great-grandson, Mark McRoberts.

One of those includes growing and selling hybrid seed corn.

"We were the first farm in Saline County to grow hybrid seed corn and soon thereafter we started growing and hybridizing our own seed corn," McRoberts said. "It was certified Missouri Seed."

Eventually they started custom-growing seed for DeKalb. In Illinois, there was a family named Burrus, also growing seed corn for DeKalb.

Eventually the Burrus family started their own seed corn company. It was after McRobert's father, Ben, took on selling Burrus Seed as a side business, they realized the connection between the two families.

On a trip through the area, the company's president, Tom Burrus, recognized their farm as a place where he would come as a child to pick up hybrid seed for DeKalb. At that time the seed was picked and stored on the ear.

"He knew this farm, and knew where we had our old ear-corn bins," McRoberts said.

Today, McRoberts continues the family tradition, selling Burrus Seed.

Besides farming, the McRoberts family had side occupations as well. Benjamin and his brother, Ernest, built many of the concrete silos in the Blosser and Malta Bend area, including two on the farm.

Although most of the old buildings are gone, some of them stood for many years, including an old grain storage barn made from recycled wood.

"The main structure of that were walnut logs that were the original Steele family log cabin,"

McRoberts said, adding Benjamin had purchased the farm from the Steeles. "I've scooped many a scoop shovel of ear corn, as well as grain out of that grainery."

McRoberts also remembered a small home, also originally built by the Steele family. Until the 1970s, his grandparent's used that building as a garage. He even remembers they hung hams to cure in the garage basement during the winter.

In 1917, Benjamin and Hattie purchased a "pre-cut kit house" from Iowa, after he saw a similar home near Mt. Leonard.

"That style, called a four-square, was basically a square house, four rooms on four rooms," McRoberts explained.

Other family traditions included a love of gardening.

"Benjamin and Hattie definitely had (a) large garden and orchard and passed this on to his son (A.J. III) and my grandmother, who was also a very avid gardener," McRoberts said. "They loved nursery stock."

All of the McRoberts familes put in orchards, and A.J. III (McRoberts' grandfather) planted English Walnuts.

"My grandfather worked with the James family of Brunswick and my grandfather kind of did his experiments with walnuts and stuff like this," he said, adding he grafted English walnut stock with American walnuts.

His grandmother, Mary Shafer McRoberts (married to A.J. III) was known for the black raspberry jelly she made from wild black raspberries found on the farm.

"She was meticulous about draining her juice because there was no skin in it at all," McRoberts said. "It was just black as the ace of spades and it was just pure heaven."

Other family traditions include woodworking, which included a sawmill on the farm. They were also good at working with, fixing and even building equipment.

One of the family stories involves an invention Benjamin Lone and A.J. III built to get rid of grasshoppers during one of the drought years of the 1930s. The grasshoppers were invading in "biblical proportions" taking what was left of crops.

"They had to protect our alfalfa and our crops because you needed that hay so your animals could live through the winter. It was vitally important," he said.

Benjamin and A.J. III used an axle, a pan filled with about 12 inches of waste oil and a brush.

Using a team they pulled the invention along the crops.

"The grasshoppers would fly up and land into that oil," he said, adding they also used it on neighboring farms. "It may have been very inefficient, but it helped. It would slow down the population."

His father, Phillip Benjamin (who went by Ben, Benny or P.B.) would have been young at the time but remembered the strong smell.

"Daddy said there was never anything that stunk so much as when they were burning all those dead grasshoppers and oil," he said.

Ben McRoberts grew up working on the farm.

"In my great-grandfather's diaries it talks about 'Ben did this or Ben did that," he said.

He was married in 1953 to Mary "Louise" McRoberts and in 1962 they completed a modern home up the road from Benjamin's home.

McRoberts said his father loved animals and was gifted with cattle.

Before the family had tractors, they farmed with Percheron horses. They also kept Registered Shorthorn Cattle, which were dual purpose to provide milk and meat.

"That was a thing about the Shorthorns, they did not produce like a regular dairy cow did but they also produce enough milk for the family," McRoberts explained. "My father taught me a lot about dealing with animals through just taking care of them," he said.

Besides cattle, the family also raised hogs.

"Mama and daddy got tired of not being able to go on vacation. That's when they got rid of the hogs," he said. "But we had cattle until 1974 when Daddy had a heart attack, and I was leaving to go to college."

McRoberts remembers many of the family's tractors, including one they used for a long time.

"My grandfather, A.J., he loved his little ol' Ford 8M," McRoberts said. "That's what I learned to drive a tractor with, the little old Ford."

His father also loved tractors, using mostly Olivers.

"My dad farmed mostly with an Oliver 88 row crop, that's what they picked ear corn with for years," McRoberts said. He planted his crops with an Oliver 550.

He also remembers their original combine, which didn't have a cab.

"All open, dust flying everywhere, there would be P.B. up at the top smoking his little cigars running the combine," he said.

He said they also had a John Deere "Johnny Popper" which they used to run the feed mill.

"We had a hammer mill for feed for cattle and hogs and I imagine chicken feed," McRoberts said. "I remember once as a child we stretched out the Old John Deere and we ran the belt and ran the feed mill."

The feed mill was located on the very top floor of the old Steele School barn built into the bluff above the bottom.

"It was part of a bin system the family made up and you went down to the bottom and put your bucket on the bottom of a wooden spout," he explained. "You filled your bucket and you closed it and took your feed bucket to feed the cattle."

Later the family owned other tractors, including a used Oliver 1950, Ben McRoberts purchased in the early 1980s.

"It had a Detroit diesel engine he had rebuilt at Morgans," McRoberts said. "It was horribly loud. I'm sure I lost a great bit of hearing because of that diesel tractor, but it was a workhorse, probably the hardest working tractor we had in the farm."

After a lifetime of farming, Ben McRoberts retired in 1988 because of poor health.

"We kind of had to force him," he said. "He had worked everyday of his life, as a little kid, he had either milked cows or harvested."

Today, the land is farmed by a neighbor, Jim Weaver.

McRoberts, his mother, Louise, niece Brandy McRoberts and great-nephew Aiden live on the farm. Ben and Louise's youngest son, Eric Benjamin, lives nearby in Malta Bend.

Contact Marcia Gorrell at mgorrell@marshallnews.com

Back row, from left, are Ernest McRoberts, Hattie Chaffee McRoberts, Alice MRoberts, Jack Shilts, Grace McRoberts, Clara Shilts and Jack McRoberts. Middle row, sitting, from left, are Nan McRoberts, Ben L. McRoberts, Mary McRoberts, A.J. McRoberts and Alexander H. McRoberts holding Ellen McRoberts. Front row, sitting, from left, are Nancy McRoberts and A.J. McRoberts III. The photo was taken in 1910. (Contributed photo)
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