100 Acres, More or Less
by John Webber

(pdf version)

On our mother's death, my brother, John E. Webber (also a published writer), discovered a cache of family papers, including cancelled mortgages on the family "home place," outside Milan, a small town in north-central Missouri. The documents gave him an in-depth look into a time long past, as our family tried desperately to hold onto their small subsistence farm, their "100 acres, more or less." And while the names of Ben's mortgaged mules may be forever forgotten, you might notice that there are a parade of Susans in my mother-line.

Thank you, John, for this moving testament to one family's love of the land. —Susan Wittig Albert

On the nineteenth day of September, 1902 (at 4 o'clock and 30 minutes p.m.) my great grandfather, Benjamin Jones, borrowed $325 from banker H. A. Higgins. The details of this transaction were duly recorded in flowery script on a mortgage form at the offices of Winters & McCullough, Real Estate, Loan and Insurance Agents and Abstractors of Titles in Milan, Missouri.

Ben needed money to run his family's farm, and he secured this loan by putting up his livestock as collateral. On the mortgage, the animals were described as follows:

  • Twenty-one head of steer calves, ten of which are of Hereford stock and have white faces, and balance are red Short Horn stock.
  • Two deep red Short Horn cows.
  • Two two-year-old mules, one of which is a brown horse-mule and the other is a bay mare mule.
  • One bay yearling horse-mule.

The terms of this document are clear. Pay this note on time or lose your livestock. While losing the milk cows would have been bad enough, the loss of the three mules would have been disastrous, since they provided transportation and implement-pulling power in those pre-tractor days. No mules, no farming. Adding to the drama, Ben was able to pay only the interest on this loan. He was allowed to renew the note in March, 1903, securing a six-month extension using exactly the same livestock as before, minus one unfortunate steer, which presumably gave his all to feed the family. With better luck and perhaps better weather, Ben repaid the $325 in full, on time, plus six percent interest. No doubt his remaining cattle and mules were relieved, as was banker Higgins.

Throughout her long life, my mother, who was guided by a strong sense of home and family, loved to tell long, detailed stories about her grandfather Ben's farm near Milan, which she called "the old home place." As kids, my sister and I covered our ears, rolled our eyes and bolted for the door. These days we wish we had begged her for more details and recorded every word.

Recently I ran across a folder of documents Mom had carefully saved, and it brought the old home place into sharp focus. These yellowed abstracts, mortgages, trust deeds and tax receipts—dated from 1847 to 1923—record how a hardscrabble farm family struggled to hang onto their Missouri land. Each mortgage and trust deed they signed describes the property's boundaries in surveyor's detail, and each description ends with the words 100 acres, more or less.

Like many farmers, the Joneses lived on borrowed money. Their land, and occasionally their livestock, served as their bank (not unlike the way some folks' homes have served as ATMs, and sometimes with the same dire consequences.) By the time Ben put up his livestock as security for the 1902 loan, he—and his father before him—had already mortgaged their hundred acres at least five times. The family raised all its own food, but cash was nearly impossible to come by. Even when crops failed and livestock died, expenses continued. No doubt Ben complained about the annual taxes he paid in 1903, a total of $14.31, up from $11.31 in 1902. In 1905, taxes rose again to $15.22.

Still, some costs seemed reasonable. In 1904, Ben recorded payment of sixty cents, the annual premium on Policy No. 23642 with The Missouri Farmers' Mutual Tornado, Cyclone and Windstorm Insurance Company. While his farm was in an area known for its tornadoes, it was apparently spared that year. I found no evidence of claim submitted or paid.

John Jones, Ben's father and my great, great grandfather, began shaping this property in Sullivan County in 1849, a year after he and his young family made the arduous trek from Monroe, County, Kentucky by foot and wagon. He bought forty acres in Section Twenty-six of Pleasant Hill Township for $10 an acre, homesteaded another forty acres, and later added twenty more. Slowly, John and his wife Susan Emberton Jones, with the help of their fourteen children, carved the rugged wilderness into a working farm with pasture, timber and fields for crops. They built a small log home and added a barn. During the Civil War, they hunkered down on this property. They continued to work the land well into old age. In 1887, when John was 81, they turned the property over to Ben, their twelfth child, for a consideration of $400. They lived there with family until their deaths.

Ben and his wife Sarah raised four children on this land, including my grandmother Susie. Over the years, Ben made improvements and continued his close financial relationship with H.A. Higgins. But he never again used his livestock as collateral. At least six more times, he borrowed money against the property, in amounts ranging from $300 to $1000. No doubt repaying was a struggle, but each note was retired on time. After Ben's death in 1915, Sarah continued this fiscal tradition. The last loan document I found was signed by Sarah E. Jones, widow, in the amount of $2200, pledging the farm as collateral. She paid H. A. Higgins the full amount in 1919. Sarah died on the farm in 1930.

As the years passed, making a living on a hundred acres became even more difficult. Some of the children moved away to seek their livelihood, and those who remained were not interested in farming. Piece by piece, the family farm slipped away. Before my mother reached middle age, the old home place was virtually gone. It was gone but never forgotten, because for her it remained a peaceful, joyful retreat. Recalling the early childhood she enjoyed with her extended family on those hundred acres, more or less, never failed to give her a great deal of pleasure.

While the old documents she kept are remarkable in their detail, some important facts were not included. Take Ben's valuable mules, for instance. If Mom were still with us, I'm quite sure she would remember the names of all three.