Wandering in York County

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This book includes 25 short chapters about Ken Rexroth, a farmer who grew up in York County. Jamie Noerpel Photo.

Stories from Ken Rexroth, a York County Farmer: My first book

Born in 1943 during WWII, Ken Rexroth grew up on a Windsor farm with eleven other siblings, raised by parents who overcame the Great Depression. He witnessed the rise and decline of trolley cars and railroads, tobacco sheds and grist mills, one room schoolhouses and farm show competitions – all of which you’ll read about in my new book: As He Tells It: Stories from Ken Rexroth, a York County Farmer. 

You can purchase a copy on Amazon or visits the York County History Center’s library to read it for free. All sales proceeds will be donated to the History Center. 

Ken spent many hours discussing the importance of farm equipment, including his precious Farmall tractor. Rexroth Photo.

Today, the family farms thousands of acres across the county to raise no-till grain. But their home base remains in Windsor. It’s there where they raise 1,200+ head of black angus cattle.

In the winter of 2022, Jim Rexroth, Ken’s son, asked me to document the memories stored in Ken’s mind. Cancer had reared its ugly head, and even though Ken faced it head-on, he knew eventually death takes us all. I wrote my dissertation on agriculture, which is how I came to know the Rexroth family. Jim showed me around the farm, entertaining my questions that ranged from his philosophy on GMOs to the history of bank barns.

Not only do the Rexroths know all about farming, but Ken’s first-hand account of York County’s rich history was too good to pass up. Here was a man who lived through decades of change and continuity. His experiences were like strands of yarn that I got the opportunity to weave into a colorful tapestry.

I interviewed Ken six times from March until June. We’d sit in the office, or in his living room, or drive along the backroads as he beckoned forth events and people from decades past. His hands folded in front of him or pointing out the truck window. A hat always on his head. 

His stories, just like his life, are special because they give us a glimpse into the everyday life of farmer.

I thoroughly enjoyed writing this book. Ken’s stories of York County’s farming past are special. I’m proud to have been able to preserve his memories in this book. Jamie Noerpel Photo.

Here is an excerpt from Chapter Six: “Ain’t Nothing Fast About it”: Moving into the Next World.” 

York Countians now know that smoking is bad for our health. But a century ago, all we knew was that cigars were good for our economy. 15 million cigars were shipped out of Red Lion’s Maryland and Pennsylvania Railroad – the same train station Ken’s father used to ship dogs – in October 1929 alone. “In Red Lion, you either smelled furniture glue or tobacco,” Ken says.

For over 150 years, growing and processing tobacco kept thousands of locals gainfully employed, including the Rexroth family who grew and sold the crop to the Neff’s. Ken made sure to rotate the crops to prevent nutrient deficiency. They’d plant wheat one year, then tobacco, then wheat, then potatoes. “We always have grain in-between, or hay,” Ken says.

Ken remembers spearing the stalks, hanging them in the barn lofts to dry. “It didn’t matter if it was a 90-degree day,” Ken says. “It was hard work, but everyone did it and didn’t say much about it.” Back-breaking, laborious work occurred daily on the farm, and Ken grew up without a pat on the back – hard work was the expectation.

Once they finished hanging the tobacco, they descended from the lofts to the ground. “It felt like air conditioning when you came down,” Ken says with a sign of relief. “Ahhh.”

“I didn’t mind it at the time,” Ken says. “My problem was,” knocking on the wooden table, “I was a little better… I‘m not going to say better business man, but I could see that I could make money doing other things than growing tobacco.”

Ken crunched the numbers. He computed a net profit of $300 to $400 per acre of tobacco. They averaged 14-15 acres, maxing out at 16 acres one year. “I could grow 60-70 acres of potatoes, up to 100 acres,” Ken says, “but make the same per acre!” The same went for tomatoes. “That is why I gave up tobacco as early as I did.” Ken knew decisions like this took time to calculate. “Everything slow, ain’t nothing fast about it,” he says.

Reflecting on the changes on the farm over the decades, Ken considers what he would say to his 20-year-old self. The biggest change Ken never would have predicted involved corn. As expected, he has a story to tell about that experience.

In the fall of 1960, the FFA selected Ken to travel to Kansas City to see the new advancements in corn harvesting combines. At the time, their innovations included a two-row head, “and they weren’t getting a lot done because they weren’t made for corn.” Ken says. “Even though out west they think they do things bigger or better.” To put it in perspective, Ken compares it to his own work. “Right here at home, if we shelled corn out of the crib,” he says, “me and my one brother could work pretty hard. They could do the same amount of work in one day… and deliver it.”

Once technology produced a four-row combine made for corn, Ken harvest capabilities skyrocketed. “If I rushed it a little and no break downs,” he says, “probably an hour or and half of less, I could do 20 ton of corn.” Dazzled by the memory, he says, “I thought that was super. I thought ‘man we moved into the next world.’”

Today, with one machine, the Rexroth’s can harvest 28 tons of corn in 20 minutes. “I never saw it coming,” Ken says in astonishment. “I couldn’t believe it.” Even with his aptitude for predicting the future, Ken can still be surprised. 

Living on a farm taught Ken many lessons, the most important being family

The book is off the press and Ken is still battling with cancer. He received his copy and, I understand, is settling down to read about a good man’s life and times. About how he lived. And all he meant to others.

This book is larger than one man’s life, but a compilation of stories reflecting home, history, the nation, and most importantly – family. By no means comprehensive, these stories only touch on the surface of Ken Rexroth’s life. 

I tried to capture his spirit, using his language and manner of speaking. Each story has its own moral lesson, but my biggest takeaway is this: People won’t remember how many bushels of corn they bought from you or how old you were when you learned to drive truck. Instead, they remember how you treated them. Your legacy lives in your relationships with others.

The Rexroths make an intentional effort to pass down their farming skills to each generation. Here Ken holds his grandson atop a tractor. Rexroth Photo.
The Rexroths make an intentional effort to pass down their farming skills to each generation. Here Ken holds his grandson atop a tractor. Rexroth Photo.

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