You are here
SF Special: Kansas Farmer Still Going Strong at 102
The clipped cadence of swishing water springs from a center pivot irrigation unit traversing a south-central Kansas cornfield.
A half mile away, Loyd Ratts sits in his easy chair in a two-story farmhouse on a beautiful July evening. He’s marveling at FieldNet by Lindsay, a wireless irrigation technology that enables him to remotely control and optimize his irrigation scheduling.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think I could do this,” says the St. John, Kansas, farmer. “I can take the cell phone out of my pocket and bring it (the center pivot) up on the screen and tell it what to do.”
Then again, Ratts has realized a lot of dreams over his 102 years.
There was the aspiration that prompted Ratts and his father to save the family’s mortgaged farm by traveling 85 miles through Depression-era dust storms to farm a western Kansas homestead. Then there are his lifelong mechanical skills that have morphed visions inside his brain into reality.
Another dream realized — and lost — was when he married his soul mate, only to become a widower at age 41. Then again, Ratts’ hope to one day meet another kindred spirit was realized when he entered into a loving 44-year marriage in 1961. Ultimately, both dreams led to his proudest achievement: his eight children.
“I am very proud of my children and all they have accomplished,” he says.
The feeling is mutual. “We all are really proud of who he is and what he has done,” says son Jim Ratts. “He has lived his life beautifully and gracefully.”
Waiting for Dad
Ratts was born in 1915 on a farmstead just a few miles away from where he now lives. His parents, Edmund and May, had two other children, Vida and Thelma.
As a young lad, Ratts showed a steely initiative that would serve him well throughout his life.
“I was 4 years old when Dad loaded up a wagon load of wheat with a pair of horses on it and sent me to town,” he remembers. “He thought he could scoop another load on another wagon and catch me before I got to town. Instead, I beat him into town. I distinctly remember going down Main Street, and people stopping and watching. At 4 years old, I was very small. But I was smart enough to remember that when we’d drive up to the elevator, there was an exact spot where Dad would have to raise the lift behind the horses. I knew I couldn’t do that, so I pulled over to the side of the street and waited for Dad.”
Ratts didn’t stop there. At age 6, he steered a four-horse team pulling a harrow. At age 10, he drove his family’s first tractor. At age 12, his father told him he was a better worker than anyone he could hire. And at age 98, he was still in the field driving a grain cart for fall harvest.
It wasn’t all blue sky and eatin’ peanuts growing up, though.
“In October 1929, the Great Depression hit with Black Friday,” Ratts remembers. “Because my family had gone into the Depression with big debt, it was extremely hard on us. We had to mortgage everything we had. It took the rest of the 1930s for us to recover from that.”
Health issues piled up, too. Ratts’ aunt, who had inherited their farm, was stricken by a stroke and bedridden for the rest of her life. His mother, May, took care of her sister and her son, along with her own family, during those dark days.
Still, they persevered.
“We milked cows and had beef cattle and hogs,” he says. “Mother raised chickens to help feed the family. We gathered cream and eggs. Instead of buying cornflakes, we’d scoop wheat out of a bin, run it through a coffee grinder, and put cream and sugar on it for our breakfast.”
Saving the source of that food, though, remained a challenge.
“We saved every penny we could to make mortgage payments,” he says. “At that time, though, there was no help for anyone. States tried, but they weren’t in any better shape than the federal government. Neither were the churches.”
To bring in money, Ratts tapped his mechanical talent by working at a farm shop in nearby Radium, Kansas. At that time, drop center rims for rubber tires were coming into vogue, as farmers wanted to convert tractors from steel to rubber tires.
“In the Great Depression, farmers didn’t have the money to buy them (new),” Ratts says. “We figured out we could do this. So, farmers would come to us from a 20- to 30-mile radius to convert their tractors to rubber tires.”
Every little bit helped, but it wasn’t enough. Desperate to pay the mortgage, Ratts’ father, Edmund, decided to farm both the 400 acres on the family’s home farm and 160 acres he had earlier homesteaded in 1911, which was 85 miles away in western Kansas.
This took some effort.
“We had an Allis Chalmers 20-35 tractor, but we didn’t have money to buy another one for that farm out west,” Ratts says. “It was the biggest farm tractor in existence then. We couldn’t haul that heavy a tractor on our Model T Ford truck.
“So, we jacked up the rear axle of the tractor, took a slide wheel out, and took gears off,” he says. With gears removed, the tractor had no brakes, but a chain though a pipe enabled the tractor and truck to be linked together for transport.
“We went out there during the worst dust storms and drought,” he says. “Dad drove the Model T, and I steered the tractor. We went in low gear up hills, going about 1 to 2 mph. Downhill, we’d go 30 mph. Overall, we kept up a steady clip, though, because the weeds grew faster every place we passed.”
Once there, they plunged four fence posts into the ground, wired stock racks from the Model T to the posts, and draped hole-pocked combine canvases over them. This served as their living quarters until they rented a windowless two-room house initially filled with three feet of Dust Bowl dirt the next year. A young man they hired and Loyd split shifts to keep fieldwork going 24 hours a day while Edmund bought fuel, oil and food. Edmund prepared meals on a small gasoline-burning stove.
“We had the only green patch of wheat within 5 miles,” Ratts says. “So, some neighbors who owned the land out there asked us to farm their ground. If it bordered what we were farming, we took it.”
So why was their wheat a winner while the rest withered?
“At first, there was no difference, except that we kept the weeds down,” he says. Later on, though, they attached oak paddle units behind their one-way disk plow.
“The paddles made trenches, which kept rain on the fields instead of having it run off,” he says. The saved moisture made the difference and attracted more landlords.
“By 1936, we were farming 2,500 acres out there on top of the 400 acres we farmed back home,” he says.
It wasn’t all grinding work during the Depression, though. Ratts and his sisters, Thelma and Vida, formed The Ratts Trio. They performed at local and regional events and on the radio.
“His singing voice was always beautiful,” says Ratts’ son, Jim, who went onto a music career that included songwriting and being in groups associated with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. “The three of them had that three-part harmony. It was that sibling connection that allowed them to blend beautifully.”
As the 1930s wound down, the western farming arrangement helped the Ratts family pay their mortgage. Challenges remained, though, when Edmund’s health failed to the point where he quit farming in 1939. Ratts then built barracks at Ft. Riley in Manhattan, Kansas, and then worked for Cessna Aircraft in Wichita, Kansas.
The job in Wichita ended up being more than just a job.
“I was a member of the youth group at the church I attended,” Ratts says. “The minister there had three sons, and I became quite close to those boys. About Christmastime, I went to one of the young people’s meetings. There was this beautiful young lady who was master of ceremonies that evening. It turns out she was the boys’ sister and had been away at college the first semester, and she was home for Christmas vacation.
“For one of the entertainment events, she had us holding hands in a circle, and she went around and pinched each one on the forehead and ears. She made about 10 trips around the circle. When she got done, she handed me a mirror. I had lipstick on my face, and I was only one who had any lipstick. After we all had a good laugh, she offered to help me clean it off. I told her it would be a shame to take it off, after she had gone to so much trouble to put it on.”
The next day, Ratts called up Bonnie Williams for a date, and she accepted. After dating for two years, they married and made their home on the St. John farm. In 1954, he started Loyd’s Repair Shop on the farm, and he kept his neighbors’ and his own equipment in top-notch shape.
A family also bloomed. First came Lorraine, then Jim, Vicki, and Lana.
“She was such a wonderful person,” says Ratts, remembering Bonnie. “I detest quarreling, and she and I never quarreled. I thought, surely, there is no other woman in this world who could be as good as her.”
One day in 1956, Bonnie went out to the shop and asked Ratts to look at her eyes. The whites had turned yellow.
“When she was young, she had an eardrum infection,” says Ratts. “It left a pinhole (in the eardrum), so she had infections frequently. One of those infections formed on the bone behind the ear. She went to the hospital, and they gave her a blood transfusion during the operation. She recovered quite quickly, but the blood transfusion gave her hepatitis, which completely destroyed her liver.”
Shortly afterward, Bonnie died at age 32.
“We lost her when I was 7,” remembers son Jim. “I have great memories of her, but so much of it is clouded because of the time and my age. But then there’s the legacy she left. She and Dad had such an exemplary relationship. I don’t remember them ever raising their voices to each other. There was always love and respect. She was so charming, so very outgoing.”
Her memory lives on. “We have journals she kept, letters she wrote, and, of course, all the stories we’ve been told by friends and family about her,” says daughter Vicki Livingston. “The love and security she gave us when we were all so little have held tight in our hearts.”
Memories, though, have a way of smacking into reality. Her death left Ratts and four children age 9 and under without a wife and a mother.
“I was absolutely devastated,” he says. “We had 12 years of an absolutely wonderful marriage. I looked around and saw marriages that were unhappy. We never were.”
Ratts still had to make a living farming, working in the shop, and doing custom silo filling. Relatives helped him raise the children.
“I went to live with my Aunt Thelma and Uncle Ben,” says Jim.
Summers, though, were special, as he lived on the farm with his dad.
“He was the best boss I ever had,” Jim says. “When you think about the potential for disagreement and hurt feelings between a father and son working together, that never happened. He was always so patient with me.”
Balancing family with farm and shop work kept Ratts busy. Still, a void lingered.
“I never thought I would marry again,” he says.
Bonnie’s sister-in-law picked up on Ratts’ loneliness, telling him she knew a widow in Wichita who would be a good match for him.
“She described her as a fine Christian woman,” says Ratts.
Her brother was blunter in his description after meeting her.
“Wow!” he says.
“I hadn’t dated since Bonnie – never even considered it,” he says. “I certainly never had the nerve to have a blind date. So, I went home and wrote her a note for a date. She accepted.
“After our first date, I told her I really enjoyed the evening and wanted to see her again. But I was so busy, I wouldn’t be able to come back for 30 days because I was custom silo filling. The next Tuesday, I got a note from her. I answered back, got another letter from her, and by Friday, drove the two hours back to Wichita for our second date.”
On their third date, Ratts took an engagement ring along and proposed to her. “She said yes. We were engaged for six months, and again got married on my birthday,” says Ratts.
After their 1961 wedding, she brought her children, Doug, Denise, and Brenda, to the farm. Together, Loyd and Betty had a daughter, Terri.
Eight children eventually spawned 15 grandchildren and 23 great- and great-great grandchildren.
“Betty embraced each of us in a way that made us feel deeply loved, accepted, and understood by her acceptance, wisdom, humor, and gentle guidance,” recalls daughter Lorraine Brock. “Because of the way we were loved and accepted, we considered ourselves an equal part of this unique blended family.”
Part of the reason is that she was on the same wavelength as the children, Jim believes.
“She was so much younger than Dad – 18 years,” Jim says. “We just felt like she was a contemporary, moving into our family. She brought this incredible love to the family, and we were proud of this younger woman on Dad’s arm.”
On the farm, Betty immersed herself in the children’s lives, baked at a café, kept an immaculate home, did farm chores, taught children’s Bible classes, and became active in politics and other activities.
Jim remembers plenty of playful banter between Betty and Loyd.
“Betty used to tell us, ‘I’ve been hiding the scales again from Loyd. Anytime he steps on the scale and thinks he is a bit heavier than he should be, he stops eating, and I don’t like that!’” says Jim.
She also gave of herself across the nation’s borders. Betty met Rick and Sherry Owens on a medical mission to Mexico in 1991. Following the death of their 15-year-old son in a car accident and losing their home in a fire, the Owenses decided to head to Mexico to build church buildings for the poor. When Betty met them, the Owenses were on their last financial leg. Betty came back to Kansas, talked to church leaders, and got support going for their work.
Then, she and Ratts annually headed to Mexico to build churches.
“We eventually had 165 people (from the U.S.) go down there every year,” recalls Ratts. “We would start building from memory churches 100 feet long and 40 feet wide. After two to three years, we would always end up going back to put on a second story.”
Their trips together continued until illness prevented Betty from going. In 2005, she died from complications from cancer.
“He just loved, adored, and cherished her,” says granddaughter AnnaLee Livingston. “One day, I asked him, ‘Grandpa, you lost two wives, and yet you continue to live with joy and a purpose in life. How do you do that?’ And he told me, ‘I just choose to remember the blessings and the good times and to focus on that, rather than on the loss.’”
And so he did.
This optimism is reflected in his irrigation scheduling on fields farmed by his son-in-law, Phillip Koelsch (Terri’s husband) and grandson Jason Koelsch. That arrangement has made it possible to keep the farm in the family for another generation.
“I have been irrigating since 1973 and have gone through all the improvements in those years,” Ratts says. “The FieldNet system is so far superior to anything I have had before. I can completely control irrigation anywhere I am.”
He’s also taken steps to boost pumping capacity and to lower system pressure.
“Doing that enabled the moisture to sink in deeper,” he says. “Last year in mid-August, my agronomist came by and said, ‘You are getting too wet. You need to shut down for two days.’ That was the first time that ever happened in July and August.”
As always, the smoke and sizzle of a welder and hum of a drill press still continue to churn out of Ratts’ farm shop.
“My biggest memory of him when I was growing up was being in the shop watching him work and weld,” says granddaughter Lisa McSpadden. “It was just fascinating. His saying is, ‘I work hard on things so I can work less.’”
Over the years, his mechanical talent enabled him to install hydraulic units on trucks. Back in the 1960s, he devised a way of putting a planting unit on the back of a plow. He also patented a ground-level control for closing grain bin lids. Mirror installation on multiple implements — four-wheelers, tractors, trucks, combines, cars, even lawnmowers — makes farmwork easier and more convenient. Even today, four mirrors in his living room and by his chair enable Ratts to see company coming in the farmyard and who is entering the front door.
“He just comes across an idea and then makes it,” says Barbara Austin, his daughter-in-law. “He’s a thinker who never rests.”
A Lifetime of Lessons
Ratts is often tapped for his observations of the past century. He’s been a guest lecturer for a University of Kansas history class. Rebecca Tanner, a reporter for the Wichita Eagle, is including his observations in a book.
Beliefs he’s honed over his lifetime include:
- Being frugal. “One of the lessons I’ve learned is that you don’t waste money,” he says. Even today, his shop is laced with parts from 1940s and 1950s implements that he uses for repairs.
- Treating people right. “I did good work in my shop,” he says. “Never did I have a customer curse me out for something. Now, that doesn’t mean everything was perfect, but they knew if it wasn’t right, I would make it right. If it was a mistake of mine, I paid for it.”
- Staying off the sauce. “People have done horrible things throughout history with alcohol,” he says. “I am living proof that you can live without it. The most horrible things that have happened to humans are often because someone is drunk.”
- Keeping up with the times. Tech-savvy Ratts uses a Mac computer, email, and an iPhone. “I work with a lot of technology in my recording studio, but he texts and I don’t,” son Jim laughs.
Ratts recently bought a new television that can be hooked into the internet. “The installer was going through all the things that could be put on it, and he asked Grandpa if there was anything he’d especially like for him to program. He told him, ‘Well, Facebook is one of the things I would like to have.’ The installer gave Grandpa a quizzacal look, then said, ‘OK, I’ll do it,’” laughs Lisa.
“Many people think the amazing thing about Grandpa is the fact that he’s 102 years old,” says grandson Dan Guinn. “I think the amazing thing about him is his humility and how he lives his life. He continues to work every day and seeks ways to serve God. Those are the key things that make him who he is – not his age.”
Loyd Ratts’ children include (from left to right) Terri Koelsch, St. John, Kansas; Lana Farmer, Chattanooga, Tennessee; Denise Guinn, Bristol, Tennessee; Jim Ratts, Englewood, Colorado; Lorraine Kay Brock, Sierra Vista, Arizona; Vicki Livingston, Norman, Oklahoma; Doug Austin, Ozark, Arkansas; and Brenda Guilinger, Bradenton, Florida.