Roberts’ family’s legacy casts long shadow on Tyler County
At a knock, the longtime Tyler County woman opened her front door to give solid directions for the short drive to the Roberts family farm located in a valley in the shadow of a ridge that overlooks both farms.
“I know who they are. They’re good people,” Midcap said.
Country roads led to a white, three-story, wooden-framed farmhouse that has been in Tyler County since the early 1900s. A large dog greeted visitors as they approached the home’s side door.
John Roberts opens the door. He knows Sarah Midcap.
“We were all raised together. She was a Fletcher and married a Midcap. He passed away a few years ago,” he said. “She kept her cows until a couple of years ago. She still has chickens.”
Roberts’ granddaughter, Jenna Archer, added, “She has all kinds of chickens. She tried to give them up once, but she got more.”
“Oh yeah. People like to farm in this area,” Roberts said.
An antique clock on the mantel tells pretty good time. As to time, not many farms, particularly ones that have been in the same family, have been in continuous operation for a century or longer. The West Virginia Association of Conservation Districts began the Century Farm Program to recognize farms in the Mountain State that have been maintained by the same family for at least 100 years.
“The best part about being a farmer? You’ve got to love it. I loved working with the cows. … But I have to say, the best part about farming is I had the kids with me all the time when they were little. Maybe that’s why I can’t get rid of them today. I’m so glad,” Roberts said with a warm smile.
There is a tall hill by a tree covered ridge in the distance where the sun rises early and sets long before the work is done on the Roberts’ farm that traces its roots to 1904. Back then, the farm catered to a few company homes that served folks who worked in an oil refinery nearby.
Roberts has old black and white photos and newspaper clippings of what the farm and the surrounding area looked like in the early 1900s.
“Then, we raised beef cattle and a few dairy cows,” Roberts said. “They sold milk to all these houses around here. The family raised everything they needed to eat vegetables, potatoes, beef, pigs, chickens. They sold eggs and a few cattle. It was a lot of hard work.”
Long time when, the family bought a 100 acres and then during the Depression, another 80 acres. Then, the family acquired a few more acres that was sold by someone who was in “hock” for a few hundred dollars. After purchasing another 23 acres later, the farm goes from one side of the ridge to the other to face a familiar looking place along W.Va. 18. Overall, there is more than 200 acres of land in the Roberts’ family.
“Our farm goes clear over to Sarah Midcap’s place,” Roberts said as he showed a handful of deeds.
Farming is in the family’s blood.
Back in the ’40s and early ’50s, when Roberts came into his own as a farmer, he had one ambition.
“I always wanted to milk cows from the time when I was a kid,” said Roberts, the third generation of his family to farm the land and tend to the herds. “My father gave me a cow. He gave it to me when she was a calf in 1943. Later, I sent her to market at an old age.”
The days were long, but hard work was ingrained deep in Roberts’ bones. He remembers carrying milk in 2-gallon buckets on the school bus to Tyler County High School for his vocational agriculture teacher’s family in 1950. Roberts worked closely with Jimmy Fonner providing milk on a route through Middlebourne. Working with Fonner, Roberts’ personal herd began to grow quickly.
Roberts was a busy man in high school. Cows take 5-8 minutes to milk, so Roberts woke up very early to milk around a dozen cows before school started.
“How long does it take to milk a cow? Depends on the cow. Some were easy to milk, while some were hard to milk,” he said. “After that, I’d clean up, go to school. When I had study hall in sixth period, I’d milk more cows (for Fonner) and he would bring me home after school. Then I would get our family’s cows in and milk them.”
Roberts’ cows produced a lot of milk.
“When I was in high school, if you had a cow that gave five- or six-thousand pounds of milk year, it was really something,” he said. “My own breeding and feeding if you had a cow that milked over 100 pounds a day way back then that was something.”
Roberts said while he was in high school, he began buying more cattle to add to his herd.
“I said to Fonner, ‘Man, I don’t have a nickel,'” he said. “Ended up, we bought eight cows off him. I delivered milk in Middlebourne. I missed five days in that 12 years of delivering milk. Anyway, we kept at it by adding to the herd for 12 years. We eventually ended up with 42 cows. That was just what we could do as a family so that we didn’t have to hire somebody.”
Milking a cow is …
“For me, it was easy,” he said.
His wife JoEllen added, “But sometimes it was a battleground to get under that cow. You had to be brave.”
Roberts laughed as he said, “Sometimes you get kicked.”
Roberts served as a magistrate for 26 years before he retired in 2014. He presided over the arraignments of most any crime, large and small, ranging from bad checks to murder. His day didn’t end if he had to preside over a late night arraignment.
“Oh yes! I was still running the farm that next morning,” he said.
Roberts was a longtime member of the Tyler County Fair Association, Farm Bureau officer for several decades, Farmer of the Year for the Sistersville Jaycees and he was active in many other organizations.
“I tried to dabble in everything,” he said.
His wife JoEllen added, “A lot of people called and kept him on the phone all evening.”
The family’s warm, white, wooden old farmhouse stands firm, tried and true against a sloping hillside overlooking a valley where cattle graze.
“I was born in this house,” said Roberts, 80, the family’s patriarch. “I’ve never lived anywhere else.”
Herds of photos are posted on the walls and above the mantel in the family’s century old home. Roberts’ grandmother (Susan Haught) designed the house more than 103 years ago. Roberts and his wife JoEllen have six children, five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
“It was built to her specifications,” Roberts said as he picked up a framed, black and white photo of his grandmother. “These other photos – this is Jenna when she was little and had blonde hair. This photo here is a great-grandson and this one is a grandson; this one a granddaughter; my son Bill and his wife. Family is important to us. Always has been.”
As Roberts’ daughter, Julia, was about to go home to make dinner, she spoke to her dad about her plans for the next day on the farm. She still does a lot of work on that farm. And that led John Roberts to talk about when a farmer’s day begins. Farm work is not an eight hour shift.
“Back then, I usually got up around 4:30 in the morning and finish the day around 9 or 10 at night,” he said. “When we were able, we would usually milk around 4 that evening, then eat supper, then work in the hay or work in the garden until dark. Then the next day, we’d get up and do the same thing all over again.”
Roberts talked about family dinners. They didn’t have taco Tuesday, but the real deal with beef and vegetables grown on the farm.
“We had our own beef,” he said. “Whenever we need beef, we’ve got it ready to butcher. That’s one thing I told the kids, ‘don’t ever be without the beef.'”
Before Julia Archer left that evening, she said to her mother, “See you in the morning, mom. I love you.”
JoEllen Roberts smiled warmly before she said, “I love you too.”
Speaking of love, particularly around Valentine’s Day, John and JoEllen Roberts got hitched in 1965 and have been married 51 years.
“It just seems like we always knew each other,” JoEllen said.
Roberts added, “We met in front of Tyler County High School. She was with her aunt and I was delivering milk. I fell in love with him.”
Sharp as a tack, Roberts knew June 18 is the couple’s wedding anniversary.
The couple had a few kids six.
The old married couple laughed when Roberts’ said, “She says I just married her for the kids the labor (for the farm).”
JoEllen added, “I’ve enjoyed being a farmer all these years. Oh my yes! I loved all of it. Whatever he was doing, we were…”
“Doing it together,” Roberts said as he finished his bride’s sentence.
Farming is lot like life; it depends on your perspective, your attitude and wisdom enough to know what you’ve got.
“We had some lean years, but we never really let it bother us,” Roberts said. “We made the most of what we had. It’s not how much you have, it’s how you use what you do have.”
And that quote brings us around to Tyler County appreciating what you’ve got.
“Everybody is friendly,” Roberts said. “Even the ones I had to put in jail (as magistrate), they’d come across the street to speak to me, talk to me. And Tyler County is one family atmosphere. It’s like our church. It’s one big family. If anyone is hurting, we’re all hurting. If you got something good, praise God for it; everybody will.”
JoEllen added, “For me, the best part is the closeness of our family.”
As the goodbyes were being exchanged, JoEllen said, “Drop in anytime.”