Maple Hill Farm: Celebrating 150 years as a farm and 127 family reunions

July 2016 Posted in Arts, Culture & History
Mount Angel resident Tom Ewing has researched his family’s history and can trace it back to his family coming to America from Scotland.

Mount Angel resident Tom Ewing has researched his family’s history and can trace it back to his family coming to America from Scotland.

By Kristine Thomas

There is an added sense of urgency to remove weeds, mow the grass, prune the flower beds and tidy up at Maple Hill Farm, west of Mount Angel.

Zan Ewing, 69, of West Salem is responsible for mowing the grass while his nephews, Zan, 36, and Ross, 31, tackle yard tasks. Their youngest brother, Nathan, 26, was attending to chores at the Mount Angel home.

Mount Angel resident Tom Ewing, 71, is left to explain what’s happening and why on the farm established by Tom’s ancestors early in Oregon’s history.

For 126 years, decedents of Hanson and Lavina Stevens have gathered for a family reunion, always on the third Sunday in July. This year’s reunion will take place July 17 at Maple Hill Farm, which is also the 150th anniversary of the farm. Hanson and Lavina had seven children. They are Tom’s and Zan’s great-great-grandparents.

Holding a black leather-bound journal, Tom said the book is kept in a safe deposit box at the bank. It’s pages record each family reunion. Tom carefully opens the first page to explain how the tradition of the family reunions began.

“In June of 1891, the children of Hanson and Lavina met for a reunion at the old home place,” Tom wrote. “They enjoyed themselves so much that they did it again in 1892, then 1893, then 1894, each family hosting the event at their respective farms in rotation (the 1894 reunion took place on Maple Hill Farm).  The tradition remains – every year, on the third Sunday of July, the family meets.  2015 was the 126th year of reunion.  Very early on, perhaps 1892 or so, they began keeping a journal, which begins in 1891. Every year, each family member signs in and the “proceedings” of the meeting are recorded.”

When the Stevens family met for its 100th anniversary on Maple Hill Farm it was the only farm still in the family.  A new journal was created and the old one retired to the safe deposit box. 

If in 1891 perhaps 10 or 15 people came, by 2000 there were 200-300, Tom estimated. 

When the family reunion takes place this year, it will  be the sesquicentennial (150th) anniversary of Maple Hill Farm. Tom expects anywhere from 100 to 150 people, along with a representative of Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden’s office to present the family with an anniversary plaque.

“Very few farms/ranches in Oregon get this recognition of being a sesquicentennial farm,” Tom said, adding there is much history at Maple Hill.

“Some sad, well– a lot sad in ways,” Tom said. “It seems like only the sad stories get retold, but others happier.”

Although they never know who will show up for the Sunday potluck, they do know there will be plenty of good food to share, stories to hear and milestones to learn about.

Stevens Family Reunion. Photograph was taken July 19, 1916 at the home of Ellis Stevens in Silverton. There were 53 people at the Reunion including the last names of Esson, Stevens, Wolford, Ross, Henjum, Bump, Buchner, McKey and Weisner.

Stevens Family Reunion. Photograph was taken July 19, 1916 at the home of Ellis Stevens in Silverton. There were 53 people at the Reunion including the last names of Esson, Stevens, Wolford, Ross, Henjum, Bump, Buchner, McKey and Weisner.

This year also marks the “passing of the baton.” Tom and Zan are handing over the responsibilities of the family reunion to their sons – Tom’s son Ross and Zan’s son Chris, 30.

Quietly, Tom acknowledges this may be the last reunion in his lifetime at Maple Hill Farm as it exists today. As he walks to the family cemetery, Tom ponders what’s next. Currently, he said, most of the land is rented to a nearby farmer.

He and his brother have talked about it being impossible to keep the entire farm in the family’s name.

They are working to form a cemetery association to protect the family cemetery and to keep the English Tudor home and the pastures behind and in front of the house.

“I am at the stage in life where I am looking forward and looking back,” Tom said.

His three sons are fifth generation, with Zan, an electrical engineer and Ross, a teacher.

“None of my family are farmers,” Tom said.

The farmhouse is now rented. Health issues recently contributed to a decision by Tom and his wife Virginia to move to a “clone” of the farmhouse within the city limits of Mount Angel.

Remembering the moment as if it just happened, Tom said when he graduated from high school in Mount Angel he promised himself three things: never to return to the farm, the high school or Mount Angel.

After achieving his bachelor’s and doctorate, he and Virginia moved to England where he was a professor of Chinese, Russian and Mongolian studies.

When his mother and father left the farm and rented it out, Tom and Virginia realized if they didn’t return, the family farm would be lost.

So much for never saying never, he quipped.

Of his brother and late sister Christina, Tom said he would have been voted least likely to return. He’s not mechanical, nor a farmer.

Upon returning to Oregon, he went to law school at Willamette University. Another career ensued. Before retiring, he was the chief administrative law judge for the state of Oregon.

Ross, who teaches English and science in China, said he wasn’t planning on coming home this year after he visited in the spring. The costs and time it takes to travel are daunting. But he decided to return for this reunion because he thinks its unique for a family to get together with this longevity.

“There aren’t many people who can trace their family history across the pond,” Ross said. 

Each reunion follows a similar pattern, with families sharing their news, eating, and ending with the song, God be with you ‘til we meet again.

Ross shared neither he nor his brothers want to farm.

“It’s a lot to take care of,” Ross said. “There is ongoing maintenance.”

What he does know is the farmhouse has to stay in the family.

“It’s a central point to the extended family,” Ross said. “It’s the root of the family.”

Tom has done extensive research on his family’s history. He knows the family members that form the trunk and all the various branches.

Maple Hill Farm symbolizes the family for him.

“I think I have the closest connection to the farm,” he said. “The farm means everything to me.”

Admitting collecting the family history was an overwhelming task, he encourages others wanting to do so to divide it up by having several family members tackle interviewing different relatives and researching family history.

He’s reviewed countless old letters and records, including birth, marriage and death certificates.

“I have seen too many families who have no idea where they came from,” Tom said. “They may know who their grandparents are but no further than that. I believe in keeping history alive. By forgetting or not knowing your family history, I think that is disrespectful.”

Looking at the gravestones of Alexander and Christina Esson, Tom shared they started Maple Hill Farm.

In 1864, Alexander and Christina Esson and their baby, Inez, moved to a log cabin on the 300-acre property the Ewings now own.

Alexander later built a frame house for the family that included 11 more children. They raised grain, livestock and felled timber.

“I interviewed the youngest child when she was in her 90s,” Tom said. “She made the point that they made everything themselves – soap, preserved food and did everything they needed by themselves.”

A hedge of cedar trees outlines the family cemetery.

“Alexander and Christina are buried there, my grandparents, my parents, my sister and some other members of the family,” Tom said. “And some day I will be, too.”

The farm, the reunion and researching his family’s history are all important to him.

“I don’t mind if I pass into oblivion but I do mind if my ancestors do,” Tom said.

Sorry, comments for this entry are closed at this time.