The Virgin family farm along North Fork in Oldtown can trace its family and farm history in Greenup County back more than 200 years and six generations to Revolutionary War Capt. Rezin Virgin.
A direct descendant of Rezin Virgin, Roy Virgin and his wife, Betty, are the owners of the farm on about 1,000 acres of rolling hillside and bottom land, which straddle North Fork and stretch from Laurel Ridge to the boundaries of Greenbo Lake State Resort Park.
Roy Virgin, 67, is proud of his family’s history but has matched that with an unwavering commitment to ensuring the farm’s legacy through his own work and actions. Roy has spent his lifetime not only cultivating a new generation of Virgins to care for the farm but adapting its operations to the changing economic and agricultural conditions he faces. He has embraced change.
Shortly after becoming one of the state’s first graduates of the Future Farmers of America program, Roy married his high school sweetheart, Betty Scott, 66. Together, during the last 50 years the couple have raised three daughters — Dana McKenzie, Tonya White and Shawna Kincer — while doubling the size of their land, building their first home then rebuilding their second and running a profitable farm and business.
Not only did the couple anticipate and then witness the death of tobacco, their original cash crop, but they weathered the storms of trial and error that led them to finding the right mix of beef cattle and commercial timbering, which sustain them today.
They have been careful stewards of their land, ensuring the farm can and will provide for future generations.
The first Virgins to settle along North Fork were Captain Virgin and his family. The captain was born in Pennsylvania but came to Kentucky in the years before the Revolutionary War. According to his great-great-great-granddaughter, Kathleen Kenney, Roy Virgin’s older sister, he was among a party of about 10 men who made a trip to what is now Bourbon County around 1775. Captain Virgin staked out a claim of 1,000 acres of land near the present-day city of Paris. But when the revolution took hold and war broke out, he returned to Pennsylvania to enlist and fight.
After the war, Captain Virgin returned to his land in Kentucky only to find squatters had taken over his claim. Although he sued to regain it (Kenney has found several court documents attesting to the suit), he was unsuccessful and instead settled in Greenup County, where he built a log cabin in 1804 on a 1,000-acre farm along North Fork. His wife, Jemima, and their 11 children traveled to Kentucky down the Ohio River by raft between 1801 and 1805, according to Kenney.
Captain Virgin’s youngest son, Elzey Virgin, inherited part of the farm upon the captain’s death in 1825. Although Elzey Virgin died nine years later, leaving his wife with five small children, she was able to hold onto the farm, later passing it down and dividing it among heirs. One of Elzey’s sons, Rezin Virgin, who was born in 1828, inherited the site of the original homeplace.
Rezin Virgin married Lydia Meadows and together they raised 13 children. The couple’s ninth child, Robert Virgin, inherited a piece of the farm, which he passed to his only son, Paul, upon his death in 1931.
Paul Virgin was Roy Virgin’s father and the farm he inherited was 137 acres. Paul Virgin and his wife, Sue Eastham, had six children — Paul, Kathleen Kenney, Jim Bob, Mary Lou, Roy and Steven. They purchased the land needed to return the farm to its original size of about 1,000 acres, which when Paul Virgin died in 1968, following a long battle with Parkinson’s disease, he divided and passed to his youngest sons.
The farm today
Roy began doing much of the work on the farm when he was about 15. His father had already fallen ill and eventually became disabled while Roy was still a teenager and the older children had mostly moved on with their own lives and careers.
“I was the only one around to help on the farm anyway, so it just come natural either to take hold or let go. Farming is something you just have to grow and love it. There’s not a whole lot of money involved,” he said.
Shortly after graduating from high school, he and Betty married.
“We married, and in the process of wondering if we could go on to public work, we just grabbed ahold and started farming,” Roy recalled.
By that time, he had already begun implementing strategies to expand the farm’s operations, hoping to bring in year-round income to reduce the financial risk of relying solely on the once-a-year payoff from tobacco. Using his vocational training, Roy cut and sawed logs from the farm and built a large housing facility for chickens, which included 5,500 individual cages.
In 1965, a reporter from The Saturday Evening Post spent three days with the Virgins while working on a story about the state of U.S. agriculture. In addition to detailing the efforts of the then 21-year-old Roy Virgin to cultivate a commercial egg operation, he photographed Roy tending tobacco, the pictures of which were featured prominently in the story. Greenup County author Jesse Stuart introduced the couple to the reporter and later sent the couple a copy of the magazine.
At that time, Roy’s chickens were producing about 11,000 eggs a day and bringing in more than $11,000 a year in supplemental income. But within 12 years Roy and Betty decided to get out of commercial egg production. “It wasn’t as automated as it should have been and it was working us to death,” Roy said. They next turned to the farm’s most bountiful resource — its wooded hillsides.
“In the process of trying to develop or bring money in through the year, I managed to cut logs on the farm, and that eventually developed into a commercial logging business. But we still farm full time. It really developed as a way to try to bring money in and it just grew from there,” Roy said.
The Virgin Logging Co. employs he and his wife and four others. The couple continue to harvest their own timber lands, although they cleared some hillsides for pasture land. But the majority of the business is harvesting others’ timber throughout the Tri-State.
Roy and Betty bought as much land as they could as it came up for sale around them. In the beginning, they did so to increase the size of their tobacco base, which Roy estimates was one of the largest in the county. Betty said the farm was producing abound 29,000 pounds of tobacco annually at its peak.
Eventually, the Virgins, like so many other area farmers, would give up King Tobacco and turned instead to cattle as their main source of income.
“We could see it coming because of the labor factor and just so many regulations,” Roy said. “They had already changed it where you could lease big acreage; they had just changed it so much from what it had been — small family farms,” he said.
Roy said the amount of chemicals used to grow tobacco had become worrisome. Looking back, he said it was an early warning sign of the crop’s demise.
“We saw it coming. It was just time to get out of the tobacco business,” he said. “It was just one of those things, the circumstances of things going on. It was time to do something else.”
As they scaled down their production of tobacco beginning in the 1990s, they beefed up their cattle operation. Using buyout programs, they built cattle-handling facilities and purchased equipment to transport the animals and to bale hay.
The Virgins keep about 100 cows, which produce about 100 calves each spring. The farm has been divided into four or five different pastures from which hay is cut before cattle are turned into the fields to graze. Each year, the farm produces more than 1 million pounds of hay and can feed both cows and calves through the winter. Each February the previous spring’s calves are taken to market throughout Kentucky.
As pleased as the couple are about their success in finding ways to keep the farm profitable, it’s the raising and nurturing of their daughters that makes them the most proud.
“You normally think of farming as growing crops and taking care of livestock,” Roy said. “But the most precious thing you can raise is your children. By growing up on the farm, the things they have done and seen are memories they will cherish forever.
“As it comes time to pass the farm down to the children and grandchildren, we are sure they will be capable and honored, as we have been, to care of it for years to come.”