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Potter farm remains in family after 138 years

Joan Berns of Peabody is the family matriarch

Staff writer

Sitting high on a hill southeast of Peabody is a stately two-story wood-frame house. It dates back to 1877 and was constructed for Thomas M. Potter and his wife.

As inscribed on the gatepost at the entrance to the driveway, the original property with its stone house was named Hillcrest. The Potters purchased the 320-acre farm in 1871, paying $2,720 to William Endicott Jr. of Boston, Mass.

At that time, the town of Coneburg was being established just north of the Potter property, but the legality of land titles in Coneburg was in question. The Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad was coming through Potter land, and Thomas realized it would be an excellent place for a town.

In May 1871, he sold lots on both sides of the railway route. People already were building houses and businesses when railroad tracks were completed through the site. Railroad officials named it Peabody, in honor of the treasurer of the company.

Shortly afterwards, the Peabody Town Company was organized, with Potter in the lead. A plat of the town officially was filed on June 28, 1871.

In time, the original town of Peabody expanded to take in all of the disputed Coneburg site plus adjacent areas. Division Street in Peabody, aptly named, is the dividing line between the two original settlements.

The Potters moved from Marion to the Peabody farm in 1875 and began growing yearling cattle, fattening and then selling them through stockyards in Kansas City or St. Joseph, Mo.

They built the current wood-frame house in 1877, which still stands today, though it has undergone numerous changes.

Now under the ownership of great-grandson Fred Berns, the farm continues its stocker tradition, but calves are sent to commercial feedlots for fattening.

In public life

Thomas Potter not only made his mark on the Peabody agricultural community but also was involved in many other facets of local and political life. An enlarged portrait of the man hangs in Marion County Courthouse.

He served as a private in the Civil War, and was a teacher in Marion after the couple moved there from Michigan in 1868. He was the first teacher in the new, stone “hill” school that was built in 1873, and served as principal. He taught grades one through eight and also taught a few higher-level subjects including algebra.

Potter later spent 25 years on the State Board of Agriculture, 10 of those as president. He also served as president of the Kansas State Livestock Association.

From 1904-1912, he served on the Board of Regents at the University of Kansas. Potter Lake, created in 1911 on the KU campus, was named in his honor and used as a water source for fighting fires.

Potter served as a state senator from 1908-1912. He also made a run for the Republican nomination for governor.

Potter served as president of Marion County Old Settlers Organization in 1912 and was a charter member and founder of Kansas Historical Society.

The next generations

Joan Berns of Peabody is a granddaughter of Thomas M. Potter. She was born in 1916, and has a sister, Pat Jackson of Marion, and a brother, Ethan, a retired lawyer living in Leavenworth. Their oldest brother, Thomas M. II, is deceased.

Their parents were George “Percy” and Helen Potter. Percy took over the farm when his parents moved to California in 1916. Helen’s family were original Coneburgers.

The four Potter children grew up in the house on the hill. Joan remembers playing around the old, stone house as a child.

A tenant house was used to board cowboys at roundup time. It also served as a perfect place for games of “Andy-I-Over.” In winter, children came from Peabody to join the Potters in sledding on the hill.

Joan and her siblings made a game out of swatting flies on the front porch. In summer, they often slept in a second-story sleeping porch on the east side of the house. Joan has special memories of rain beating against the canvas shades as her mother read stories such as Swiss Family Robinson and Uncle Wiggly.

She said she sometimes envied friends who lived in town and enjoyed Saturday nights downtown and roller-skating on smooth sidewalks.

The Potter family endured the Great Depression but had no lack of the necessities of life. There were chickens for meat and eggs, a milk cow, large garden, and canned beef and sausage. Joan recalled potatoes spread out in a loft of the barn to cure.

After high school, Joan attended Baker University and graduated with degrees in English and history. She taught school in Whitewater for several years. She also completed 19 hours in library science from Emporia State University.

In 1941, Joan married John Berns and began a new life as a resident of Peabody. John grew up in Peabody, but his father was a rancher, owning many acres of land in surrounding areas and the Flint Hills.

John established his own ranching operation, and the couple lived in Peabody all of their married life. He died in 1986.

Joan’s brother, Thomas M. II, took over the Potter farm after her father’s death. He decided to pursue a career in agricultural banking at Bank IV in Wichita but remained deeply involved in maintaining and managing the grassland using hired help.

Joan’s son, Fred, and his wife, Lynn, bought the farm, thereby keeping it in the family. They combined it with their own, large ranching operation. Now the Berns Ranch, Fred continues to call the farm the Potter Ranch in honor of his late great-grandfather, Thomas M. Potter.

Community activist

Following in her grandfather’s footsteps, Joan has been active in the Peabody community all of her life. She served on the school board and library committee and was involved in planning for Fourth of July celebrations. She also was active in church functions and various civic clubs, and was an avid golfer.

Activities of the 93-year-old woman have become limited in recent years, but she remains in good health. About a year ago, she suffered a broken leg, spending two months in the hospital and a month at Legacy Park before returning to her home at 412 N. Vine Street.

With the help of home health, grocery deliveries, meals-on-wheels, and meals at the senior center once or twice a week, she is able to lead an independent lifestyle.

She continues to drive her car in Peabody but no longer drives out of town.

“I can’t believe they extended my license for five years!” she exclaimed.

Every Wednesday, she goes to the high school to read with students. She also makes trips to the library and hair dresser.

“I am fortunate to have family nearby and to have good health,” Joan said. “We lived through trying times — the Depression, the war — but I felt the challenges we met really strengthened us and added to our lives.”

She is concerned about younger generations who have things too easy and have not learned how to manage money.

“But I suppose they’ll be able to handle it just like we did if hard times come,” she said.

The thing she most regrets is not being able to visit family members who live out-of-town. She realizes that someday she may have to go to a care home.

She is uncertain about the future but faces it unflinchingly.

“I sometimes think it would be nice to live where someone else provided three meals a day, but I don’t know,” she said. “I’m probably more active here in my own home.”

In addition to Fred, Joan has another son, Bruce, and two daughters, Patricia and Elizabeth. She also has 11 grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren.

Last modified May 7, 2009

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