“Sold!” The auctioneer’s voice boomed. Land that had been in my family for 70 years changed hands last week, from three generations of Johnsons to the new owner, a Peterson who grew up down the road.

My ancestors were homesteaders, taking up the government’s offer of free land in the late 1800s in exchange for someone willing to settle it. They built a ranch in northwestern South Dakota but were driven east by drought and the Great Depression in the 1930s. In 1942, my grandparents, George and Judith Johnson, bought the farm where I grew up near Revillo, S.D., for just under $5,000.

The decision to sell the land wasn’t easy. After my father died in 2004, we set up an LLC and rented the land with every intention of passing it on to another generation. But as time passed, it became apparent that it would be a burden on the 14 kids who were dispersed literally around the globe. We decided late last fall to sell…then hesitated for a few months…and then finally went ahead last Friday.

A farm auction is a social event, and the streets of the small town were lined with pickup trucks as neighbors and potential buyers drove in from miles around for the sale. My brothers Bill and James were there, along with cousins representing almost every branch of the family. A Meyers was bidding. A Magedanz.  Both neighbors. Second cousins were seen punching a calculator.

In another era, the bidders would have all been local. The global economy brought bids from Chicago and Arizona, via telephone. In the end, I’m glad the land went to a neighbor, whose grandparents used to swim and water-ski with my parents at Lake Alice.


We siblings deemed the sale a success. But I can’t help but be a little melancholy with thoughts of my dad and mom, who built a house and raised a family on this little patch of God’s earth. They grew wheat and corn, raised cattle and hogs, planted hundreds of trees and tended a vegetable garden as big as a city block.

I can still picture my father standing on the road to the pasture, scanning the western horizon for rain.