By Greg Hoots
Author’s note: This article originally appeared in the 2012 print edition of the Flint Hills Special.
Russell Woofter was the hardest working man that I’ve ever known. Russell approached every task on his farm with the determination and stamina that often belied his age. Perhaps his work ethic had its roots in his childhood, as he was raised on small farm in central West Virginia.
During the Great Depression, times were tough everywhere, and the Appalachian Mountain region of West Virginia was no exception. Drought and heat, punctuated with flooding and dust storms, made farming a challenge across all of America. Everyone had to look for work, even kids; and there was very little work to be had.
When Russell was just sixteen years old, he went to work at Akro Agate Company, a marble manufacturing business, located in Clarksburg, West Virginia. Arko Agate began manufacturing marbles in Akron, Ohio in 1911 before relocating to Clarksburg in 1913. The company chose the West Virginia location for the abundance of sand suitable for glass manufacturing, along with the availability of natural gas which frequently fueled glass plants.
By the time Russell began working for Akro, the company had expanded into the pressed glass market, manufacturing vases, ashtrays, and marbles in their West Virginia factory. The work was difficult and dangerous, but as jobs were so hard to find, most of the glass factory workers were happy to have one.
In 1938 Russell happened to meet an older couple from Dover, Kansas who were visiting in North Carolina, and when they asked Russell to drive them back home, he readily agreed, hoping to find new opportunities in the Midwest.
In a 1998 interview with Eric Gregory of the Topeka Capital-Journal, Russell recalled, “I came to Kansas in ’38 on a visit and never did get back to West Virginia to live. I saw that wheat waving out here, and it was so beautiful, I decided I’d better stay out here.”
Russell stayed in the Flint Hills. He met Marjorie Rogers of rural Dover, Kansas, and the couple were married in 1941 at the Dover Federated Church. For wedding presents the newlyweds received 24 hens and a milk cow. Russell landed a job as a farm hand, earning $30 per month and a small farm house in which to live.
By 1949, the Woofters had purchased 160-acres in Wabaunsee County, Kansas, near Dover, and they milked sixteen cows, twice daily, while Russell farmed. Gradually, the Woofters purchased additional acreage along Gladden Road, expanding the farm to 510 acres on which Russell raised about 150 head of cattle. The couple had two daughters, Carol and Jane.
All of the work on the farm was physically demanding, and Russell’s small frame and quiet nature disguised his strength and toughness. In his 1998 newspaper interview given at age 83, Russell spoke of his vocation. “I’ll tell you, when you milk sixteen cows, twice a day by hand, and go out in the field and work all day with horses, you’ve done something… Farming. You’ve got to fight it when you are in the field. You’ve really got a battle on your hands; you’ve got to stay with it. You can’t quit when quitting time comes.”
For Russell, quitting wasn’t easy. He continued to ranch at Dover until he was 90 years old, rising for work before daybreak every morning. When Russell turned 90 in May of 2005, he decided that he would finally retire from ranching, and he sold his last cattle herd that fall.
The following year was the saddest in Russell’s long life. His beloved wife of 65 years, Marjorie, passed away. Losing both his wife and his life-long vocation was very difficult for Russell. Just a year later, on September 5, 2007, Russell passed away at the age of 92, survived by two daughters and their spouses, six grandchildren and spouses, and fourteen great-grandchildren.
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