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Published September 17, 2009, 11:32 AM

Sibley farm has been in Willts family for 107 years

SIBLEY, Iowa — Gordon Willts lives roughly 90 minutes from the farm he owns in rural Osceola County.

By: Ryan McGaughey, Worthington Daily Globe

SIBLEY, Iowa — Gordon Willts lives roughly 90 minutes from the farm he owns in rural Osceola County.

Yet, he continues to regularly make the trek from the southwest Minnesota community of Tyler to take care of the land. It’s the least he can do to honor the legacy of his family.

Willts, who gained ownership of the farm in 1998 after the death of his uncle, George, recently completed the paperwork to have the property recognized as a Century Farm. He received commemorative plates last month at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines — a short time after being urged to apply for the status.

“I went to the courthouse in Sibley and they looked it up in the book. … The gal in the courthouse said, ‘Gee your farm, that’s a Century Farm, Gordy,’” Willts said. “I said, ‘Oh, so what, it’s no big deal,’ but she said, ‘You should pursue that.’ She told me there was no money, but it’s just state recognition. She gave me a place to write in Des Moines … and through a lot of corresponding between myself and the Fair Board, I got a letter that said my place had been accepted as a Century Farm.”

The farm has been owned by a member of the Willts family since 1902. That’s when Gordon Willts’ grandparents, German immigrants Geerd and Fannie Vogt Willts, settled the then-160 acre property on 220th Street in rural Sibley.

Geerd, born Nov. 4, 1865, died in 1948, preceding his wife in death by 10 years. Fannie, born Feb. 16, 1868, died June 23, 1958. The couple lived at their farm place from 1902 until the early 1940s, when they moved into Sibley.

As a boy, Willts lived in Ashton, Iowa, and he has memories of visiting his grandparents’ farm.

“When I was 10 years old I helped Uncle George and Aunt Fanny and my dad, Henry, paint the barn on Grandpa’s farm,” he remembered. “We’d come down here every couple weekends and visit a little bit. They (grandparents) were self-sustaining; they had all their own vegetables, their own fruit, their own meat. Of course, that was very typical.

“Then, in the early ’40s, it must have been about ’43, ’44, somewhere in there, Grandma and Grandpa moved to town, and Uncle George and Fannie moved to town, too. That’s when it (farm) started sitting empty.”

Willts’ uncle would go on to take care of the farm and rent until his death in 1995. By 1980, the barn had been removed from the property, and since then, many of the other original buildings have vanished. Eighty of the 160 acres — located across the road from the 80 still in the Willts name — were also sold.

When Willts took possession of the farm 11 years ago, he remembered, there was plenty to be done.

“There had been no maintenance, you might say,” he said. “The house was standing until I’m going to say five years ago. It was standing, but it was unsalvageable. … The corn crib and hog house, they fell down and were cleaned up in about 2001.”

Today, the property still has the original machine shed and granary standing.

Willts comes down roughly twice a month to keep the property cleaned up. Now retired, he had driven truck for a few years before working 42 years as a barber, including seven years in Watertown, S.D., seven years in Ruthton and the remainder in Tyler.

He and his wife, Jeanine Johnson Willts (originally from Bigelow) have two daughters. Pam Willts Juber lives in Sibley and has three children, while Lisa Willts resides in Vancouver, Wash. Pam and Lisa will get the farm after Willts’ passing.

Willts said he has never had intentions of selling his 80 acres, adding that his daughters don’t, either.

“When I first took over (the farm), there were many, many opportunities to sell it,” he said. “I’d say, ‘Not for sale. Not for sale.’

“It’s an heirloom, or something like that. It’s just kind of a nice memory, you know?”