O'Neill family still quietly battling to keep their small kingdom

John Hildebrand — author of Mapping the Farm: The Chronicle of a Family — describes farmland to American century farm families as their "small kingdom."

An old overhead view of the O'Neill family's 240 acres near Rochester, Minnesota.
Contributed / History Center of Olmsted County

(Editor's note: This is the first in a two-part series on O'Neill family farm. Read the second part here. )

ROCHESTER, Minn. — John Hildebrand's 1995 book Mapping the Farm: The Chronicle of a Family tells the history of four generations of the O'Neill family farm, on 240 acres near Rochester, Minnesota.

The farm is still the same size and in its fifth generation, operated by Pat O'Neill, who took over for his father, Ed, who succeeded his grandfather, William. Just as the generations before him, Pat O'Neill faces an uncertain future for the farm in a world where small farms are more of a thing of the past.

A presentation by the History Center of Olmsted County, as part of its Alan Calavano Lecture Series, offered commentary from the past and for the future from Hildebrand and O'Neill.

An outsider

Hildebrand, a professor at University of Wiscons-Eau Claire, nature columnist and author of several books, said he started writing Mapping the Farm to better understand his wife, Sharon, and her family.


When she recounted memories of showing 4-H lambs at the Olmsted Country Fair, Hildebrand — who didn't grow up on a farm — thought how hard it must have been for a 12-year-old to sell her pet to a meat locker.

"She said no, it wasn't like it was my cat," he said.

Hildebrand picked up more life lessons and a new vocabulary when he started to spend more time at his wife's family's farm, where he was given a "hawk's eye view" of a "white-haired man on a Ford tractor" when he first started writing the book: Ed O'Neil.

"I remember learning that on a farm the yard is not a lawn," he said. "The area is circumscribed by the barn, outbuildings and the home. And it's worn smooth by truck and tractor tires."

He learned that a heiferette is an intermediate stage between a heifer and cow, all the ways you can get hurt by a PTO shaft, and what type of person you had to be to succeed at the life.

"I learned that someone's usefulness on the farm was dependent on what they could do, not what they could say, which is sort of the opposite of byline work," said Hildebrand, which is mostly talking and teaching. "As an outsider, I learned that I knew next to nothing about farming, and most Americans today are outsiders."

Small kingdom

Hildebrand describes land to American century farm families as their "small kingdom," which they've managed to keep through a rich and often troubled history.

Half of all Americans lived on farms in 1880, four years after the O'Neill family arrived in the country.


"Today, it's around 1%," said Hildebrand, noting many people only see farms while driving by or on an airplane. "What do you see — just rectangular fields, roads running in cardinal direction, some buildings, no people, as if this land doesn't have any history to it at all."

The blueprint for a farm society

What you can see from overhead are the remnants of the Public Land Survey System, the method developed and used in the U.S. to divide property for sale and settling.

Historic map of Marion Township in Olmsted County.
Contributed / History Center of Olmsted County

"This was a system that was brought about by Land Ordinance of 1785," said Hildebrand. "It divided the land regardless of topography — rivers, hills, into square townships made up of 36-square-miles each."

The grid that exists today was superimposed on the land after the Santee Sioux signed treaties ceding their land west of the Mississippi to the U.S., said Hildebrand. The sections were drawn out by the first surveyor who came to Marion Township in 1853.

"He was an 18-year-old surveyor originally from New York, and what he did was in a sense prepare the land to be to be settled," said Hildebrand.

How the surveyor described the township: In this township the prairie and timber are about equally divided -- Rolling surface and first rate soil. The water is clear and cold and plenty. Timber generally oak openings, all marshes are of course, wet.

Hildebrand said the township survey system was the "brainchild" of Thomas Jefferson, who envisioned the future of America as the land of small farmers rather than city dwellers.

"There is no city worked into the grid system," he said. "It's a blueprint for an agrarian society that would, in theory, distribute enough land to ordinary citizens to guarantee a decent living and a personal stake in democracy."


But it never worked out that way, as dealing in real property symbolized an opportunity to gain and keep wealth. Generations of struggle to obtain land followed the first land profiteers.

A map of the township 25 years after it was first surveyed, in 1878, show mostly Irish surnames filled into the blank squares. Section 27 is where the O'Neil farm is, but the family's name isn't on it yet.

The land was owned by a lawyer in Rochester at the time and a big landowner, who paid $150 in 1855 for it. He bought it from a couple in Wisconsin, who Hildebrand presumes bought on speculation without ever seeing it.

William Catherine .png
William and Catherine O'Neill.
Contributed / History Center of Olmsted County

In 1880 he began renting the land to an Irish couple, William and Catherine O'Neill. It wasn't until 1899 that the couple scraped up enough money to put their name on the land.

"He sold it to them finally for $6,900," said Hildebrand explained. "Not a bad profit."

Noah Fish is a multimedia journalist who creates print, online and TV content for Agweek. He covers a wide range of farmers and agribusinesses throughout Minnesota and surrounding states. He can be reached at

He reports out of Rochester, MN, where he lives with his wife, Kara, and their polite cat, Zena. He grew up in La Crosse, WI, and enjoys the talent from his home state like the 13-time World Champion Green Bay Packers and Grammy award-winning musicians Justin Vernon and Al Jarreau.
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