Earle Tanner has lived 100 of his 103 years on his family’s Century Farm

Farm Forum

The Tanner family of rural Gettysburg had something special to celebrate when it received its Century Farm award at the South Dakota State Fair: its patriarch, Earle Tanner, age 103, has lived on that same farm for all 100 of its years.

Earle, who most often goes by “Pete,” was in attendance at the August 28th Century Farms program organized by the South Dakota Farm Bureau and the South Dakota Department of Agriculture. He was introduced by Governor Dennis Daugaard and Secretary of Agriculture Lucas Lentsch, receiving a hearty ovation from the crowd. Sixty-eight other families were also honored at the event, for either 100 or 125 years of continuous family ownership of at least 80 acres of South Dakota farm or ranch land.

Not only has Tanner lived on that same farm all his life, he and his wife Mildred (“Bea”) live in the very same house where he has lived for 100 of his 103 years. The house was constructed in 1914 after Earle’s parents, John Henry and Mary Tanner, purchased the farm from Daniel and Louesa McKinnon in January of that year. Earle is the youngest and last remaining of the family’s 11 children.

Tanner took some time after the Century Farms program to share stories from the past. His family – his parents and the 7 children still at home – moved to their farm northwest of Gettysburg in the spring of 1914. They all slept in a double-granary building and his mother cooked in a little claim shanty while his father built the 24’ by 26’ house that still stands today. His two eldest brothers did the farming while their father did the construction.

When Earle and Bea were married in 1937, he says he had 65 dollars to his name. The couple did make some improvements to the house, including digging a basement underneath and adding on a kitchen and bathroom for modern plumbing. “We’re real comfortable here,” Tanner says of the house in which they raised their 6 children. “It’s home.”

Tanner recalls the years of the Great Depression in great detail. “Then the Dirty Thirties hit. In ’33 there was a pretty good crop, but then in ’34 was the year we sold cattle to the government. They gave you 20 dollars a head,” he recalls.

His father died in 1934, and he and his brother kept back 12 cows and continued to farm. They had one Allis Chalmers tractor and did the rest of the work with horses. In 1935, 1936 and 1937 there was nothing for a crop. After their father died, there was a mortgage against the place, and Earle’s siblings deeded the farm to him. “I hoped maybe I could hang onto it,” he recalls, “but it wasn’t very promising.”

But hang on they did. Raising turkeys was one of the ways they were able to keep the farm in business during those dry years.

“We struggled along. Bea’s grandmother gave us two old turkey hens and a tom,” Tanner recalls. “And you know, we raised $120 of poultry off those two old hens. It kind of started us into the turkey business.”

“We did pretty good with that,” he continued. “And those cows kept gaining a little bit, getting a few more. In ’38 we got a pretty fair crop, and from there on everything seemed like it kind of picked up.”

Tanner went to work for the WPA (Works Progress Administration) for a time, helping build a dam about 8 miles to the north of his place. He recalls going to work at 4 a.m. and getting the fires started in the culverts, which were used to warm the cement that was being poured during the wintertime. He was grateful for his paycheck of $44 a month.

“They talk about the bad times, but you know, they’ve got money as such an object these days, it’s just not good. They don’t have time to love one another,” Tanner says. When he was growing up, even though they’d work until 7 p.m. and still have to do milking chores, they’d always take time after supper to play horseshoes or do something together as a family.

His advice for today’s generation? Live as he and Bea, his wife of 76 years, have. “Bea and I have had a good life, a simple life,” Tanner says. “It’s been a loving life. We’ve never forgotten to tell one another of our love.”