Lee and Shirley Wohler in the kitchen of their farmhouse south of Waterville, Kan.
Lee and Shirley Wohler in the kitchen of their farmhouse south of Waterville, Kan. Becky Sullivan/NPR
This year, the Homestead Act of 1862 turned 150. That landmark piece of legislation opened up the Western territories to settlement. Almost anybody could receive up to 160 acres for free if they built a house and "improved" the land over the course of five years. Millions took part, and eventually, more than 10 percent of all U.S. land was given away.
A German peasant named Frederick Wohler was one of those early homesteaders. Wohler received the deed to 80 acres of farmland in north-central Kansas 138 years ago this weekend. And today, the Wohlers are still there.
The Wohler house is nestled behind a row of cedars, at the end of a gravel driveway off U.S. Route 77. Lee and Shirley Wohler have lived here for 50 years, but the house has been here since the turn of the century, and it looks the part.
Good Crops And Bad
Surrounding the house is 560 acres' worth of soybeans, wheat and a grain called sorghum — or milo, as they call it out here.
"It's going to be a pretty decent crop, I'll believe it," Lee says. "And our beans, I think, will be all right. But, you know, it won't be nothing outstanding."
They've escaped the worst of the drought this summer. It's hard for Lee to get too worked up about one year's mediocre crop. Generations of his family have grown up here, and they've seen good summers and bad.
Over the years, the Wohlers' original 80 acres have grown to 560. What's now a field of soybeans once held a residence.
"The divide was right back here at our cedars," Lee says. "And my dad tells me that when he was a kid, there was a log cabin right north of here."
That cabin is long gone now, but the yard is still decorated with relics from its own yesteryear: an ancient-looking hand plow, an old windmill turning slowly in the breeze. Near the house are a couple garages filled with more tractors and equipment, many of them antiques — Lee's "collection," he calls them.
Lee and Shirley are both retired now. They spend their days minding the house, tending to its decorative plates and model tractors. Their three children are all grown, each one over 50. Their eldest son, Steve, bought 240 acres from his parents about five years ago. He runs things now, leaving Lee mostly to his own devices.
Four generations of Wohlers have lived in the 106-year-old farmhouse.
Four generations of Wohlers have lived in the 106-year-old farmhouse. Becky Sullivan/NPR
"I still help out on the farm," Lee says. "But then, I don't get as much out of it, and I don't put as much in it."
Their other son, Jim, helps out, too. He chose to live in the nearby town of Junction City, population 23,000. But living in town has its downsides: His two kids don't have the same connection to the homestead farm that he does.
"I wish I could give them the joys I had growing up there," he says. "Walking the pastures and finding all the trails and hearing all the stories and things like that."
His kids are both teenagers — too young to know yet what their futures will hold.
"What happens after I'm dead and gone, I can't say that for sure," Jim says. "I'm hoping that maybe my son will take an interest in it and try to keep it."
It's tough for him to talk about, especially because he knows it's not his decision to make. For his parents, on the other hand, retirement means no longer worrying about the farm's future.
"I don't think I'll probably be around then," Shirley laughs. "I'm 77 now."
She and Lee agree that it's up to the younger generations — Wohler or not — to take up the reins. It's satisfaction enough, they say, that the farm has fed and clothed the Wohlers for well over a century.
"It's been a good life," she says.
At that moment, the main thing on the Wohlers' minds was the storm brewing out to the west. Maybe it would finally bring some rain.