Francis Marion (F.M.) Hatton walked across the rich, agricultural fields of Delaware County and stopped to talk with an elderly man about his interest in purchasing the land from the neighboring landowner.
The man was laying on a daybed at his residence and talked with his mouth full of tobacco — a spittoon at the ready — listening intently to F.M.’s story. F.M. talked about his plans for the land and his frustration in being a bit short of funds to cover the purchase price. At the story’s conclusion, the elderly man wiped the tobacco from his chin and reached beneath his daybed to produce a can containing untold funds, but plenty to cover the additional $600 F.M. needed to pay for the 134-acre property — thus started an incredible family tradition farming the land.
Born in 1867, F.M. had come from Stantontown east of Ashley to the north. He built a new house on the property and began to farm it. He quickly began to demonstrate the agricultural leadership and community involvement that would eventually become synonymous with his family legacy. He named the operation Hardscrabble Farms.
“F.M. had hogs and cattle like every other farmer back in that era. He was a speaker at Farmers Institute educational events in the area. I have seen his notes and there were sentences scratched out in his speeches from the changes he made. He was the first Delaware County Farm Bureau president and there has been a county Farm Bureau president in every generation of our family since then,” said Gary Skinner, who currently owns the property and farms 4,000 acres with his wife, Carolyn, sons Brian and Darin, and their families. “F.M. did a lot of drainage work. I think his mouth would hang open in awe just looking at the grain bins and combines and tractors we have today. I can remember my great grandfather Francis because I was about five when he passed away. He was progressive and always was looking forward. He would be proud, I think, of what we are doing today.”
There are no original structures left on the farm from F.M.’s time there, just two trees. The equipment, facilities and the technology have changed dramatically, but the family remains. F.M.’s modern descendants have often wondered what the farm’s founder would think of the farm today.
“He’d probably be amazed at how many acres can be farmed by one family,” Carolyn said.
“We are amazed at how he made a living off of 132 acres,” Darin said.
“He’d probably say, ‘Where’s my house?’ if he saw the farm today because Mom and Dad moved it off the farm and built a new one in the same spot,” Brian added with a grin.
Gary’s grandfather was the only one of F.M.’s children who survived.
“F.M. lost his first wife during childbirth and then remarried a nice lady, but they never had children. I was young but I can still remember her,” Gary said. “Most all those farmers back then were lean without an ounce of fat on them. They did everything by hand. They shoveled corn, hand milked the cows, dug fence post holes, and worked hard all day. They dug those drainage trenches with spades.”
“It is a lot of work today just working on fixing those tile lines with a backhoe,” Brian said.
F.M.’s son and Gary’s grandfather was Bernard Hatten (at some point the family name changed from “on” to “en”) who took over ownership of the farm in 1949. Bernard was the first of the family to graduate from college at Ohio State University. He farmed and worked on the merchandising side for the Ohio Farm Bureau, setting up some of the first state accounting systems. He was good in accounting and was meticulous in all he did. Bernard was a good friend with Murray Lincoln, who started Farm Bureau Insurance, which is now Nationwide Insurance.
“In 1918 he bought 90 acres in Berlin Township. He nearly died from the flu and was sick for a whole year. Three of his four kids were valedictorians of their high school class. The fourth one who wasn’t was my mother. Her name was Alda and she was the oldest. Bernard worked for the Bank of Louisville Cooperatives and understood finances. Until 1950, there was only one local bank in Delaware. When he was farming with my father they were turned down for a cattle loan, even though they had plenty of collateral so Grandpa decided Delaware needed another bank. With some help from others he got the initial investors lined up and started the Delaware County Bank,” Gary said. “In later years Bernard was clerk for the Delaware County commissioners and he also took a job way after retirement to do roadside mowing for the township to keep busy. I remember him as being polite and courteous, but very serious minded.
“He tried to join the Army for World War I but he had a health issue and the military wouldn’t let him in. They told him they needed him more agriculturally than in the Army anyway. He was a photographer too. He was very thorough and precise. He would take pictures and type information on envelops with the pictures inside. He documented the history and was very active in the community and served as treasurer of the Delaware City/County sesquicentennial.”
During Bernard’s time there was a dairy on the farm and he too worked extensively with drainage and land conservation as his father before him. All four of Bernard’s children graduated from Ohio State, earning him the title “Dad of Dads” at the 1946 Ohio State Homecoming football game. One of his sons went to work on the Nautilus, the first nuclear submarine and was sworn to secrecy for years.
His daughter Alda married Jay Skinner while he was on leave as an Army Ranger in World War II. He served in Italy, North Africa, France and was in the Salerno invasion.
“When I was born, my dad was in a fox hole in World War II. He was trapped on a mountain for three days when the company clerk got word to him that he had a son. One day when he got home on leave from the service, market hogs were $30 and that is what he made as a private in a month. He said his life wasn’t worth as much as a hog’s,” Gary said. “I always hear people talking about how my dad was fun to be around. It wasn’t like that at home. He was always serious. He was on the Delaware County Bank Board. My mother was a teller at the bank and later director of child welfare for Delaware County when she retired. My dad was a full time farmer and he was on several boards. He was the Soil and Water Supervisor and the Ohio Farmer’s Co-op. He was always gone a lot when he was older but he told me he was still a farmer. He was named Master Farmer by ‘Ohio Farmer.’ Our family was also named a Blue Ribbon Farm Family and we got to meet and eat with Governor Rhodes at the Ohio State Fair.”
The farm was still a dairy when Gary was young.
“I remember getting up about 4 a.m. to go to the dairy every other weekend when the hired man had the weekend off. I’d go up in the haymow and sleep for about half an hour in the hay until I’d get yelled at to go get more cows in from the holding area. I loved everything about it,” Gary said. “Plowing was a big thing back then. Plows used to have a trip-hitch back then and every time you hit the smallest thing you’d have to stop and re-hitch.”
Gary noted there were many good friends in the farming community back in those days.
“I liked repairing and fabricating things early on. We built a lot of our bins with our own hands. The neighbors would come over and help. You hear about the threshers and their big dinners, working on bins that was kind of like that,” he said. “The group of friends to help each other has gotten smaller because the equipment has gotten bigger. We still have good farmer friends, but there are fewer of them.”
That is one of the most significant changes on the farm.
“The equipment has changed it all and information is out there right away. Today’s modern technology is one of the biggest changes. People talk about big operations now, but many are still family farms. The only thing we hire out here is trucking. The rest is all family,” Gary said. “The equipment has gotten so much bigger and higher quality. Our family had Farmall tractors and they were Hs and Ms with about 35 and 45 horsepower. Today tractors are as 300 and 500 horsepower. My dad bought the first two Farmall 560 diesel tractors in Delaware County. The diesels were just coming on board and they were just learning about them. The lawn mowers are almost as powerful today.”
As equipment got bigger, so did the farms.
“Farmers can get more done because they are working longer hours in the comfort of larger equipment. When I first can remember, we were farming 750 acres and that was a good sized farm then — 350 acres of corn is a lot when you have a two-row corn picker. In the 60s livestock began to disappear from the county. We last had cattle 30 years ago on the farm. Planting dates have moved way earlier now too. Years ago no farmer would plant soybeans before June 15th because no one could control the weeds and they just kept working the ground. Another major change since the 1960s has been the use of on-farm grain drying. That has really increased the amount of acres you can farm,” Gary said. “We have purchased ground when we had the chance and rented more as we could. Our family has rented ground from the same family since 1939. This year will be the 77th crop for our family on that land. That is a long time for two families to work together.”
The Skinner farm has grown in a county known for incredible growth in areas other than agriculture.
“Delaware County’s growth has been nibbling away at our farm,” Gary said. “Everybody use to like the ag community, but today agriculture is seeing more concern from the public about chemicals, noise, dust, and odors —all things that will happen if we are to produce food and fiber.”
Brian and Darin, after going to OSU’s Agricultural Technical Institute, came back to the farm in the early 90s.
“There were not a lot of people who came back to the farm in the late 80s and early 90s, but we got into farrow-to-finish hog production in ‘91 and we did that for four years until more land came available,” Brian said. “We got out of the hogs and got better excavating equipment and expanded that as a sideline source of income. We kept at that pretty hard for 20 years or so while row crop farming was tough.”
They have dabbled in organic production and have never grown a genetically modified crop on the farm, focusing on conventional varieties and the premiums they offer. The Skinners continue to work in excavation and have remained very involved with Ohio Farm Bureau, the Delaware County Bank and the community. They have served on a Mutual Insurance Company Board, Grady Memorial hospital board, as a township clerk, Ohio Soybean Board, Ohio Wheat Growers Board, and are active members of the Delaware Chamber of Commerce. For the past two years they have enjoyed hosting “Benefit In The Barn” which brings the Central Ohio Symphony to their farm to entertain some 600 guests. The tradition of conservation on the land continues too.
The next generation of the farm looks bright as well with Gary’s grandchildren already showing an interest in agriculture and extending the rich family tradition on the Skinner Century Farm.