Itasca farmer pioneered irrigation after drought

Oliver H. Kelley was at the forefront of Minnesota farming practices

Oliver H. Kelley / Photo still from Minnesota Historical Society video

On April 30, 1864 the Anoka Star newspaper published an article stating that a prominent member of the community had recently made vast improvements to his farm.

“Mr. O. H. Kelley, of Itasca…has recently procured the necessary apparatus for irrigating his land, and will therefore have no fear of a dro[ght] on his premises.”

Oliver Hudson Kelley settled in Minnesota at age 21, knowing very little about agriculture. He learned to farm by reading agriculture journals, which often encouraged innovative farming techniques.

When severe drought plagued the region in 1863, Kelley took the opportunity to enhance his farmstead by installing the first irrigation technology in the state. He even became the Minnesota agent of J.D. West’s patented pumps, promoting irrigation systems to other farmers.

Sharing knowledge about best farming practices was important to Kelley. In 1867 he founded the Grange, a national farming organization whose mission is to promote the economic and political well-being of farmers and farm families locally and nationally.

The Kelley family kept the farm until 1901. In 1935 the Grange purchased the farm and in 1961 donated it to the Minnesota Historical Society. The Kelley Farm currently operates as a living history program welcoming school groups, tourists and Minnesota families with plans to expand so it can serve more visitors and continue to teach the history of agriculture in Minnesota.

Minnesota Historical Society staff. First appearing in the April 2014 issue of Minnesota Good Age.

To learn more about Oliver H. Kelley and his farm.