Merrigans celebrate 120 years of farm ownership

Posted August 9, 2012 at 5:00 am

Editor’s Note: This is a series on area Century Farms that have been recognized.

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Merrigan siblings gather to celebrate their family’s 120 years of farm ownership. From left: Liz Merrigan, who lives on the farmstead; Margaret Smith, JoAnn Merrigan, Jim Merrigan, Virginia Hartmann of Akron, Jeff Merrigan, Ethel Merrigan and Vernon Merrigan.

by Julie Ann Madden

“Land is the only thing in the world that amounts to anything.

“For ‘tis the only thing that lasts and don’t you be forgetting it.

“‘Tis the only thing worth working for, fighting for, dying for.

“It will come to you this love of land; there’s no getting away from it —

“If you’re Irish.”

That quote of Gerald O’Hara in the movie, “Gone With The Wind” says it all for the Merrigan family of rural Garryown, near Burbank, S.D.

“I think anybody who lives on the land — farmers — have soil for blood and harvest for tissue,” said Liz Merrigan who hosted a celebration in honor of her family’s 120-year farm ownership July 7.

On May 24, 1879, Anders Anderson bought 160 acres in the Northwest Quarter of Section 17 in Spink Township, Dakota Territory.

Her grandparents came to the Spink area in 1892, originally living north of Spink two or three miles she thinks.

“My father said his father and mother (Edward and Catherine (O’Connor Merrigan) came in wagons and the children walked from Spink to their new homestead,” said Liz, explaining it’s two miles west of Spink and 1.25 miles north on 471st Avenue.

Originally, the house was just the kitchen, a pantry, utility room and a loft, where the parents and children slept.

In 1893, they added on the rest of the house. Although the interior has been remodeled some, the size hasn’t changed.

Her parents, Hazel Blair and J. Earl Merrigan married Sept. 3, 1930 and Earl brought Hazel home to the family farm. His mother and sister moved to town at that time.

“They raised 12 children on oats, corn and soybeans,” said Liz, who remembers sowing oats with her father and their horses, Dick and Dan and Betty and Bill. She also loved chicken chores.

Her father farmed as well as had a truck to haul livestock to market for neighboring farmers. Her mother, who had taught school in Tripp County when she was 18 or 19, returned to teaching in 1960 when the youngest child entered Kindergarten. She taught in Clay and Union counties, including the Brule country school. Her mother retired in 1973. She also worked as an aide at the Akron Community Hospital before she returned to teaching.

The Merrigans had chickens and cows in addition to crops, said Liz. “We were raised on the egg check and cream check that my parents received from Spink’s general store.”

They attended the Garryowen Church, St. Mary’s Catholic Church, which was a central part of the Spink community. At one time, many of the area had Irish roots.

On one wall of the farmhouse is Liz and her siblings’ high school graduation photographs. After attending country school just down the road at Garryowen, they all attended high school at Vermillion or Mount Marty.

“Then we went off to various careers,” said Liz, noting three of her siblings, Sterling “Bud”, Jeannie and Mary are deceased as well as Maurice who died at birth. “We live around the United States: Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Minnesota, South Dakota and Wisconsin.”

Liz followed in her mother’s footsteps, becoming a teacher. She attended Mount Marty College, then taught four years in Lincoln, Neb. In 1970, she moved to Milwaukee, Wis., where she taught sixth grade at Shorewood for 32 years. After retiring, Liz purchased the farm from her mother’s estate in 2002.

She sold 80 acres of the family farm to settle the estate with her siblings. Currently, 15 acres are the homestead building site and the rest is rented to “the most wonderful neighbors,” David and Esther Larsen.

On another wall is the Blair-Merrigan Wall of History which contains their ancestors’ wedding photographs and snippets about each’s life.

“When the children come, they read about the relatives and see the familial resemblances,” said Liz, adding the family farm is kind of special as it is centrally located. “It’s a place that’s still here for everyone to gather.”

The tradition of gathering at the home place continues with holiday gatherings and summer picnics, said Liz, adding they have a family golf tournament every summer, which is a “fun night of total amateurish golf.”

Although not all of the 110 descendants can make it each summer, all of Liz’ siblings were home for the farm’s 120th anniversary.

“I remember always playing games,” said Liz about growing up on the farm. “The Mannings across the road had eight children. Summers were spent playing Hide and Seek, Annie I Over (the House), and Kick the Can.”

“We always worked hard at various tasks but we always had fun,” she said. “When we played, we played hard. When we worked, we worked hard.”

“I have the best and I had the best of both worlds,” said Liz. “The rural influence and then all of the amenities a large city brings to a person: live theater, fine restaurants and art museums.”

“Beautiful sunrises and sunsets here,” she said. “I’ve probably taken a thousand photos of these.”

“I’ve always thought when you grow up on a farm and you see the totality of the sky, it’s sort of like beauty comes unfiltered to you,” said Liz. “You get it immediately. “It’s beautiful and lovely like a perfect June day. No buildings to distract.”

“Beauty comes so quickly and so does tragedy,” she said. “Tragedy also comes immediately and unfiltered. I often think of that when I sit out on the patio and look at the clouds and think about life and other people’s lives.”

“In a rural area, you get it immediately,” said Liz. “All the beauty and all the tragedy all at once and what we do with that is what makes our lives.”

“When I think of the refinery being built in this area, I think of all the people in this area who probably have had land longer in their family than ours,” she said, “and how important their land is to them, how long it has been in their families and how they want to carry on that tradition.”

“How much land is fruitful and bearing harvest, then you introduce some polluting behemoth, it just seems disgraceful,” said Liz. “Keats said ‘A thing of beauty is a joy forever.’”

“Only when the last tree has died and the last river has been poisoned and the last fish has been caught will we realize that we can’t eat money,” she said, quoting a Cree Proverb. “(Farmers and the Merrigans) try to take care of our environment and be good stewards of the land.”

Liz continues to keep the family farm maintained for the people who will follow after her: my brothers’ and sisters’ children and their children’s children.

“It’s a central part of our lives,” said Liz, who plans to have another celebration at the 125th anniversary of Merrigan ownership.

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