By Matt Reese
Stuart Heavilin lives with his family in a home built around a cabin moved to the farm by his ancestors around 1875. The old cabin had some notable upgrades through the years. In 1913, the cabin was expanded into a house, with upstairs bedrooms and one of the first in-home bathrooms in the area. The house got another upgrade after Stuart’s grandfather bought the property from his cousin at an auction in 1989. Stuart moved into the home in 2011 and, with his wife Tara, has done significant improvements and renovations, including adding a basement to the structure.
When Stuart’s grandparents Eugene and Matilda “Tillie” Heavilin bought the family farm with the house back in 1989, most people, including the auctioneer, assumed the house and 173 acres would sell for development or recreation to capitalize on nearby Tappan Lake. Eugene and Tillie, though, hoped they’d saved up enough to buy the family farm.
“I can remember coming over and washing dishes and getting the house ready for the sale. I was in the house and something just said, ‘Go upstairs,’” Tillie said. “I did and here was this gentleman that I knew. He went to our church and he was working for the auctioneer. He was taking the door off the bedroom and I said, ‘What are you doing?’ And he said, ‘Well the auctioneer said that these doors have a special finish on them, some kind of a varnish finish, and they’re selling well now as antiques, and so we’re taking the doors and we’re going to sell them.’ And I said, ‘Over my dead body you are.’ He looked at me so funny and came trotting back down the stairs and the door stayed on.”
While Tillie’s encounter saved the doors from being sold individually, there was an old stained-glass window from the house that did sell at the auction to a local antique shop. The piece was quickly resold. When the folks at the antique shop found out Eugene and Tillie bought it, they had a replica made to give to them so it could be put back in the house. The replica window was reinstalled in the house up until the more recent renovations with new windows.
There is something truly special about Ohio’s historic farms where family roots run deeper than the crops growing there. This is something that was lost on the auctioneer and the guy from church taking off the doors. To them, the farm and the house up for auction that day did not seem like much. The house needed significant repair and updates. The farm needed some revitalization. That the farm would be sold for comparatively higher dollar development value seemed to be a foregone conclusion to the people looking at the dollars and cents of the matter. But historic family farms are about so much more than finances.
To Eugene Heavilin, that old home built around a simple cabin was a priceless mansion for childhood memories. The tired acres were fertile with life lessons learned and rich with the toil of his ancestors. Outside of his family, nearly no one knew, or even understood why it was Eugene’s plan to buy back the family farm that day.
Eugene passed away in 2003, but his legacy lives on in the farm he saved. Looking back, the Heavilin family has certainly seen value in the 1989 purchase of the farm. Blair Heavilin (Eugene and Tillie’s son, and Stuart’s’ father) enjoys the idea that when working in the woods on the property, there is a pretty good chance that if he takes a break to lean up against an old oak tree, that one of his ancestors did the same. Blair is so glad to see Stuart’s efforts to improve the farm through rotational grazing with sheep and hay production. They all understand the deep connection that can result between generations of family on the same land. There is great value there that cannot be defined with profits or price tags.
Whether it is acknowledged or not, there is value to the community in the preservation of the open space and societal benefits of keeping productive soils in agriculture. Communities need large areas of open space to handle the water runoff from acres of rooftops and concrete, harness the carbon in growing plants and offer the benefits from the aesthetic appeal of farms.
Outside of human capital, Ohio’s soils are the state’s most valuable resource — serving as the very foundation of our society — yet we continue to wantonly pave over our future for short-term gains. In Ohio, land in farms in 2021 was 13.5 million acres, down 100,000 acres from 2020. In 2022 land in farms was 13.1 million acres, down 400,000 acres from 2021. The alarming trend shows no signs of slowing in 2023.
As in 1989, the dollars and cents continue to loom large. Staggering sale prices make it inevitable that more Ohio farmland will be lost. Fortunately, though, there are still a few, like Eugene, who are willing to pay the price for benefits others will enjoy, even though they know it may never pencil out, and they will not fully see the long-term value of their investment.
With this in mind, I love that after the fact, the local antique shop recognized the significance of the purchase of the home farm by making that replica stained-glass window for the Heavilins. Though just a small token, it shows someone outside the family appreciated the great value of continuing a family farm. Because, as the man attempting to remove the doors from that old farmhouse on auction day discovered, some things (such as avoiding the ire of Tillie Heavilin) are worth more than dollars and cents.