There is so much history at Forest Home Farm along the Ohio River in South Portsmouth that the land is always producing clues about the diversity of the humans who have lived, worked and crossed it in the last 12,000 years.
The Cropper family, who now call it home, have meticulously researched and preserved their land’s history, that is so tightly wound together with their own and that of a nation founded in a new world.
The modern farm
Nita Crooper, 86, and her children, William “Bill” Cropper, 62, Gail Swick, 60, and Dwight Cropper, 58, are the 6th and 7th generation of the family to call Forest Home Farm their own.
The farm sits on about 80 acres of what was once more than a 400-acre tract of heavily forested land that stretched along the Ohio River at the confluence of the Ohio and Scioto Rivers.
Nita Cropper inherited Forest Home from her mother, Nettie Miller McElhany, and is the latest to receive it in what has been a mostly matrilineal line of passage from one generation to the next. Nita’s father, Russell McElhaney, inherited it from his mother Idora Killen, whose mother Anna Eliza Laughlin, had received it from her parents.
Anna Eliza Laughlin was the only child of Robert Laughlin, one of several children born to the farm’s first settlers, William Laughlin and Mary Thompson Laughlin. The couple are believed to have bought the land from Mary’s father, after being married by the Baptist minister Simon Kenton had brought to Limestone, Ky., now Maysville.
“We all married well,” says Nita Cropper, explaining the women all chose to marry men who embraced farm life and had the foresight to preserve their land and pass it along to the next generation. She counts herself among that group, explaining her late husband, William B. Cropper, was born in Lexington and was a city boy.
But the couple met at the University of Kentucky, where William Cropper earned two degrees in agriculture. They married in 1948 and moved to the farm in 1953, with their small children to take over operations of it from Nita’s aging parents.
The more than 100-year-old farm house the family still calls home was built by Robert Laughlin in the 1830s or 1840s.
“Daddy had this house wired before we moved into it,” said Nita Cropper, explaining her father told her the couple could choose from one of two houses the family owned before they returned home. She chose the farmhouse because of its proximity to a school for the children.
Although they had electric, Nita Cropper pointed out, it was many years before indoor plumbing was installed.
The two generations share many common memories of growing up on the farm, as generations before them almost certainly did as well. Nita, like her children, played at being Indians around the “Old Fort” walls, the 2,000-year-old earthworks built by the Hopewell culture that are a prominent feature of their pasture land. They explored their old home sites, played in the lofts of the barns and recited the names of their ancestors from the headstones of the family cemetery.
There were also plenty of days of hard work.
“I can remember Dad working a team of horses,” recalled Bill Cropper, who was 4 when the family relocated.
Swick and Dwight Cropper have early memories of those two draft horses, Topsy and Nail, as well.
“I remember the one time that daddy let me ride Topsy back into the barn,” Swick said, “He put me up there with the harness and everything.”
“I remember riding those horses, too,” added Dwight Cropper, “and I remember the day the fellows came and walked them off the farm. I was 3-years-old and I remember that.”
That was in 1956, the same year the family purchased a brand new John Deere tractor, which they still use to cut and bale the family’s hay, the land’s main agricultural crop nowadays.
As had Nita’s parents, she and her husband farmed and worked other jobs in the community.
Under their tenure, they grew corn for the family’s herd of up to 50 beef cattle. They raised hogs, turkey and chickens and had a lone milk cow. They tended a large vegetable garden and picked fruit from the orchard behind the farmhouse, carefully preserving the bounty.
The children had horses, including Dwight’s pony Jake, named because it had a “jake-leg” causing him to limp. The children also had pigeons and rabbits they raised, recalled Swick.
Like his mother, one of Dwight Cropper’s earliest jobs was caring for the flock of chickens. “One of my milestones growing up was when I could carry a 50-pound bag of feed from the barn to the chicken house, without asking Dad to do it for me,” he said. “That was a big thing.”
The boys helped their father with much of the outdoor farming activities, while Swick recalled her duties were often restricted to “indoor things” and helping her mother in the kitchen. She was also responsible for weeding the strawberry patch and shelling peas.
When the family would butcher hogs in the fall, Swick recalled, her job was grinding meat through the grinder. “I remember having to crunch it down in the meat grinder and grind and grind and grind,” she said, with a laugh.
“The floor would be so slick with grease,” added her mother, sharing the old memory. William Cropper would sugar cure the family’s meat, which he stored in a wooden box he had built behind the home.
In addition to farming, both Nita and William Cropper taught school for more than 30 years. William started at nearby McKell High School upon the request of its principal at the time, Jesse Stuart. Often their students would visit the farm for hayrides and picnics or for extra help with a particular lesson.
Eventually, as the children grew, they scaled down its farming operation. The brothers eventually both returned to the farm, where they live and each year they bale and sell about 200-pound bales of hay and between 300 and 400 square bales each season. Bill’s horse, Doc, and its companion, Little Jack, a donkey, are the only livestock that now graze in the field between the fort walls.
Although Swick doesn’t live at Forest Home, she owns a small farm in Proctorville, Ohio, where she and her husband have several horses. It is there that her children and grandchildren especially have been introduced to farming and are embracing the tradition.
When it comes time to pass Forest Home to its 8th and 9th generations, the family is confident their heritage and land will survive to be passed along again.
In preparation, Swick has to write down the stories she heard from old relatives — like Capt. Killen protecting his watermelon patch — and other recollections about her life on Forest Home in what she calls “a heritage scrapbook.”
“I think it is very important that it gets passed on,” she said. “It is who we are. It seems to me that there are more and more people who don’t care who they are or where they came from. If they don’t know where they came from it is hard to know where you are going,” she explained, her mother nodding in agreement.
“We’ve become so urbanized and so mobile there isn’t that sense of place anymore,” added Dwight Cropper. “We belong to this farm.
“The land endures but a person’s life is finite. The land was here before you and it will be here when you are gone.
“What are you going to do to ensure that land is…”
“Safe,” added Nita Cropper.
“And used productively by someone else,” finished her son.
“I’ve told all my children and offspring,” said Nita Cropper, quoting her father, who used to say to her, “‘Bud, hold onto your land.’”
That is exactly what they intend to do.
The family has spent years researching their ancestors and their lives on Forest Home Farm as well as its earlier history as a crossroads for Native Amercian tribes and cultures, and its role in the founding of the nation.
Long before Laughlin’s arrived at the farm in 1795, it was the site of a large Native American village and trade center, known as Lower Shawneetown. The village was located on both sides of the Ohio River at the mouth of the Scioto River along the Warrior’s Path, a heavily traveled Native American trail that connected the Great Lakes to the Carolinas.
Many white captives including Mary Ingles, were transported through the village, which was abandoned during the French and Indian War, according to research compiled by the Cropper family. Dwight Cropper, an archeologist, said excavations on the farm and other adjacent properties have recovered numerous artifacts from that period including trade gun parts, glass beads, and Jew’s Harps. Artifacts from even native cultural periods — dating back as far as 9,000 years — have also been uncovered on the farm.
The French and Indian War played a major large role in how the Cropper’s ancestors came to settle there. The family has determined through its research, that the farm was originally comprised of two tracts of land, each 200 acres, that were awarded to two English soliders for their service in the war by King George I of England in 1763.
The land then changed hands several times until the great orator and Founding Father Patrick Henry obtained warrants for the land and had the land surrounding the farm surveyed in 1744.
Six years later, the Cropper’s ancestor Anthony Thompson, of Louisa County, Va., bought the farm. The family is unsure if he was able to occupy the land but he visited the area and settled elsewhere in Kentucky. After the signing of the Treaty of Greenville between the Shawnee and the fledgling American nation in 1795, Thompson’s daughter Mary Thompson married a pioneer William Laughlin in Limestone, now Maysville. The Baptist minister who wed them was William Wood, whom the pioneer Simon Kenton had convinced to settle there.
The couple then came upriver to Forest Home Farm, where they built their first log home near the river. It was destroyed shortly after by a flood, and the Laughlins moved to the top of a natural terrace above the river bottoms land, to build their second log home.
It was a decision future generations would continue to stick by. All of the family’s future homes and barns were built on the same terrace and despite large flood events —most notably 1937 — they were never flooded out again.
The Laughlin’s son, Robert Laughlin, is believed to have built the two-story hand-hewn post and beam home sided with clapboard, in which Nita Cropper and Bill Cropper now reside, sometime in the 1830s or 1840.
Robert Laughlin, who served as a Justice of the Peace in Greenup County, married a descendant of French Huguenots turned Virginia planters and a prominent early Virginia inn keeper, Judith Fuqua. Their only daughter, Anna Eliza, married a Capt. William J. Killen, riverboat captain from Baltimore Maryland.
The couple had three daughters, including Nita Croppers’ grandmother Idora Killen. Nita’s father, Russell McElhaney, was one of four children born to Idora and her husband William McElhaney.