Rural Bigelow farm is Nobles County's first to be recognized for 150 years in the family
Matt and Alisa Russell are the fifth generation owners of this family farm in Bigelow Township.
BIGELOW — Nobles County is now home to its first officially recognized sesquicentennial farm, and it’s in Bigelow Township.
Matt and Alisa Russell are the fifth-generation owners of the property originally settled by Matt’s great-great-grandfather, Robert Bird, in 1871, at age 35.
Back then, the railroad owned every other section of land, shared Matt’s dad, Jim Russell. The railroad was charging a dollar or $2 per acre for the southwest Minnesota virgin prairie, but Robert wasn’t about to pay for land when he could claim a piece for free.
A former Scottish seaman living in Pennsylvania, Robert ran a mule team for the Army and, once in Worthington, he hired someone with a buggy to take him out and show him available land.
“When he came, the railroad wasn’t even to Bigelow yet,” Jim noted. “The No. 1 reason why Robert Bird wanted to be in the middle of the United States was because he didn’t want any of his children to be sailors. He wanted to be as far away from the sea as possible.”
Robert found his slice of heaven on earth in a 160-acre parcel three miles straight east of Bigelow. He put up a flag and sent word to his wife, Dora — a peasant working for a German landlord — of their claim. By the time she arrived, the railroad was completed and she was the first person to ever step off the passenger train at the Bigelow Depot.
Following her instructions to the homestead, Dora — who lived to be 78 — had often shared the story of her arrival.
“She said it looked pretty flat, but there were hills and valleys,” Jim shared. Since the land was all virgin prairie, the grass was six feet tall, and she was worried about what was lurking within it. “She would run through the valley and get to the next knoll and see the flag, then run through the next valley again.”
Dora, 16 years younger than Robert, was just 18 when they were married. Because she was used to having so little in life, owning land made her feel as though she was rich.
“They never had a crop the first five years — they had grasshoppers or fires,” Jim said. “(Robert) wanted to leave and she said, ‘I’m not leaving — I have a farm here.’”
In those early years on the farm, Dora became a friend to the Native Americans.
“She didn’t have much, but she’d feed them,” shared Jim, adding that during the uprising, a group of Native Americans killed some foes near Lake Ocheda, but they had strict instructions not to harm the family that was always kind to them.
It’s believed Robert and Dora lived in a sod house on their homestead while raising four children — daughters Margaret and Marian and sons Rudy and Fred. The sons built a two-story, three-bedroom home on the farm in 1905, two years after their dad’s death.
The home was remodeled in 1940 by third-generation owners Harry and Evelyn Russell to include indoor plumbing and electricity — even though the REA hadn’t expanded into their neighborhood yet. A second renovation was done by Matt and Alisa in 2013.
“We gutted the whole house,” Matt said. “It was all horsehair and pig hair plaster. The chimney was like the Rock of Gibraltar.”
As the chimney was removed brick by brick, Jim said he felt bad about giving just one stipulation when he and wife, Cindy, traded homes with Matt and Alisa — do not tear the house down.
While the original home was completely renovated, the original basement — hand-dug by Matt’s grandfather, Harry, during one winter in the 1940s — remains. As for the rest of the homestead, Matt said four buildings were removed in the last 14 years, including three hog houses and a storage shed. Three buildings have withstood the test of time for more than a century — the house, the barn (built in the 1910s) and a granary built sometime between the two.
Following Robert Bird’s death in 1903, Dora remained the owner of the farm until her death in 1930. She and her sons maintained the property, while daughter Margaret — who married Monroe Russell, a boy who lived just three miles south of the Bird farm — moved to Montana. They returned to rural Bigelow following the unexpected deaths of her two brothers and took over the family farm.
Margaret and Monroe Russell, who gave birth to son Harry in 1917 in Baker, Montana, and later added daughter Marian, owned the rural Bigelow farm from 1939 to 1963.
Harry grew up helping his dad in the farming operation, which at that time consisted of growing corn, small grains and alfalfa, as well as raising horses and cattle.
It was Monroe who invested in the farm’s first tractor, and there’s a story to go along with it.
Monroe was plowing the west 80 and drove right through the fence and kept on going.
“He was holding onto the steering wheel and hollering ‘Whoa!’” shared Jim with a laugh. That’s what happens when a guy who’s always farmed with horses does what comes naturally. “My dad told me, 'Don’t ever ask Gramps about it — he’s still mad.'”
After Harry and his wife, Evelyn, were married in 1943, they settled on the Russell farm, moving into the smaller of three houses on the homestead. Harry’s parents remained in the main house, and the third house was occupied by Monroe’s hired hand.
“When I was a little kid, we switched places and Monroe and Margaret lived in the little house in our back yard for about 10 years,” Jim said, noting that his grandparents moved to Worthington in 1963. That’s when Harry took over the family farm completely.
It was during Harry and Evelyn’s ownership that the farm really expanded. The couple purchased adjoining 80-acre parcels to the north and east, as well as a quarter section a mile to the north where they’d eventually build a new home in 1975.
They constructed a stock pond in 1958 that now provides hours of fishing enjoyment for the Russell clan with its bass and bluegill populations.
Harry and Evelyn raised five children on the farm as well as a lot of cattle and sheep. Jim, the third oldest, recalled many memories of farm life and chores, from feeding the pesky sheep to rounding up the stock cows on horseback every day after school (a tunnel was built underneath U.S. 59 when Monroe Russell sold some land for its construction, and that was used to bring the cattle up from the feed yard to the farmstead).
“We hated feeding sheep because they’d crowd you and you couldn’t get to the bunk,” said Jim, noting that he’d try to get his brothers to help. Younger brother Donn was willing, but a mean ewe attacked him two nights in a row, knocking him to the ground.
Jim said he told Donn that perhaps it was his red coat that the ewe didn’t like, so the third night, he offered to switch coats with Donn.
“The ewe came toward me and just veered off and knocked (Donn) over in the manure,” Jim recalled. “That was the last time he helped me with the sheep chores.”
Another story involved older brother Jerry, who was picked on by an old, mean buck in the sheep herd. Jerry had picked up a large rock one day, and when the buck came at him, Jerry stuck the rock out and the buck head-butted it.
“The buck hit that and fell right over,” Jim said with a laugh. Jerry, thinking he’d just killed the animal, was terrified about having to give the news to his dad. That wasn’t necessary, though, as the buck soon shook his head and got up.
During the Armistice Day blizzard of 1940, the Russells were caught unprepared and lost about half of their roughly 400-head sheep flock in the storm because they weren’t able to find their way home.
They eventually sold the remaining sheep and began custom grazing for a neighboring sheep farmer.
Jim said their family grew a lot of corn for silage, small grain and baled about 100 acres of alfalfa every summer. The feed and hay was fed to their 120-head of Hereford stock cows and 350 to 400 head of feeder cattle that Harry bought in Montana.
By 1975, Harry and Evelyn moved into their new home a mile north of the Russell farm, and Jim and his wife, Cindy, moved in. Shortly thereafter, Harry sold the two smaller houses on the property, and they were moved into Bigelow and are still in use today.
Jim said it was never his plan to go into farming — it was the dream of his older brother, Jerry, to take over the family farm. Jim had gone on to lineman school and was injured on a job in Little Falls. Around that time, Jerry was killed during his tour of duty in Vietnam.
“That’s how things change,” Jim said.
As the fourth-generation farm owners, Jim and Cindy got out of the cattle business during their first year on the farm and began a farrow-to-finish hog operation within the next few years. They raised three children on the farm — Matt, Ann and Susan.
Hogs remain a part of the operation today, with Matt and Alisa custom feeding 3,000 head in a trio of barns they constructed in 2001. They feed for Jackson-based New Fashion Pork.
Matt began custom feeding hogs at age 15 and continued that through two years at then-Worthington Community College. He graduated from South Dakota State University in agronomy and returned to the area, accepting a job as agronomist at United Co-op Elevator in Bigelow.
By then, Jim was farming while also working for his brother, Dan, in Russell Drainage.
Matt’s step into the family family operation “just kind of happened,” he said. He and wife, Alisa, married in 1996 and moved into Matt’s grandmother Hinsch’s house in Bigelow the following year. It’s that house that Matt and his parents traded in 2007.
As the farm’s fifth-generation residents, Matt and Alisa were already heavily invested in ag business. Matt became a Pioneer seed dealer in 2000 and was custom feeding hogs, while Alisa, now a third-grade teacher at Prairie Elementary, worked alongside him to raise their two sons, Nate and Adam.
The two will become the sixth-generation owners of the Russell family farm.
“They both have that love,” said Matt, adding that Nate leaves later this month to join a custom wheat harvesting operation based in Conde, South Dakota. Adam, meanwhile, graduates this spring from Mitchell Tech as an electrician. He has secured a job with Marmen Energy in Brandon, South Dakota, sponsors of his college scholarship.
With technology changing so much during their generations on the farm, Matt said he wished his sons had the experience of walking beans and doing some of the other tasks that farm kids often groaned about having to do.
“They didn’t ride the bean buggy, either, but they picked rock,” Matt said.
At age 50, Matt still has plenty of years to continue farming the land — now 260 acres — before the farm transitions to the next generation. The tillable acres are planted strictly to corn and soybeans these days, and Jim still helps with planting and harvest. Cindy, meanwhile, retired in December 2019 after 31 years with a local ophthalmology clinic.
The Russells — and the Bird family before them — have made a living, and a whole lot of memories on the land in Section 32 of Bigelow Township.
“To quote my mother, ‘When you hear about the good old days, some of them weren’t that good — they were just old,” Jim quipped.