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Kentucky farm widow spent 30 years dairy farming solo

Karena Elliott for Progressive Dairyman Published on 13 December 2016
Lee Earl Elliott and Betty Rose Elliott

Betty Rose Young Elliott never planned to be a trailblazer. When she married Lee Earl Elliott in 1942, she was a 17-year-old city girl who moved to the family’s dairy farm and promptly began raising children and gardens.

But tragedy struck in 1966. Lee Earl was burning tree stumps on their western Kentucky farm, clearing land for cultivation. A surprise explosion killed her husband and Betty Rose found herself with an unimaginable decision.

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The 41-year-old widow could sell the farm and move to town with her five children. The oldest was 21, and the youngest child was just 9 weeks old.

But Betty Rose was a child of the Great Depression. She knew that land provided security, and she knew it was the only home her children had ever known. So she turned in and learned the dairy business amidst her own grief.

Their 80 Holsteins weren’t a show herd by any stretch of the imagination. And their farming techniques would never have been described as revolutionary. But the milk check and the tobacco crop put food on the table, sent three children to college and kept the family farm intact.

“In more than 30 years of farming, I never saw my mother drive a tractor,” says Dr. Jeffrey P. Elliott, Betty Rose’s youngest son. Elliott is a ruminant nutritionist for the Balchem Corp., who works with dairies worldwide. “However, she reigned supreme in the milk parlor.”

It was by no means easy.

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For a number of years following the death of her husband, Betty Rose could sign the checks to purchase parts, but she had to send a hired man or a family friend to pick them up because the local implement dealership refused to sell to a woman.

One of those hired men was Elijah Stephens Jr., an African American man who had worked for Betty Rose’s husband prior to his death. He went by the nickname “Junior.”

“I remember when Junior came to the funeral home to see Daddy,” shares Betty Rose’s daughter Cindy Elliott O’Daniel. “Being the 1960s in Kentucky, the funeral home was segregated, and the white men refused to allow him to enter. When my mother heard about it, she walked outside and personally escorted Junior to the casket at the front of the funeral home.” Junior Stephens would continue to live and work on the family’s farm for 20 more years.

“My mother knew she needed hired men to run the farm,” explains her son Kent Elliott. Betty Rose paid her employees well and made sure the families had turkeys and hams at the holidays, as well as new insulated coveralls and boots each winter. “I know she also helped with car payments, paid sick days and financial emergencies for them that we kids never knew about,” Cindy says.

“The men didn’t expect her to make it,” Kent says. In fact, daughter Sherry Elliott Ross remembers men like her uncles standing in the driveway day after day coming to give her mother advice. “Honestly, I think they wanted her to give up and give them the farm,” Sherry says.

But Betty Rose didn’t give up or give in, and she learned to balance being a woman in a man’s world. In the days before concealed carry became acceptable for women, she kept a loaded gun beside her bed even though she hated guns. “The one thing my mother hated worse than guns was snakes,” Kent recalls. “Once when a snake was in the yard, Mother ran to get her gun and somehow shot a hole in the bed. But she got the snake.”

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And while she drove a pickup truck on the farm, she eventually purchased a Cadillac to drive to town, church and her beloved genealogy meetings. Occasionally if she were in a hurry, she would even drive the Cadillac to turn the silo on or off. Jeff Elliott jokes, “I always thought that would make a great commercial for Cadillac to show Mother standing beside her car in the middle of a field full of cows, wearing her rubber boots with her hair tied up in a red bandana.”

Betty Rose Elliott

“After Mother died, people in our community told me they admired her for how she managed not only the farm, but also that she was a great business woman who could make good decisions,” Cindy says. “What I remember about Mother's code of farming was that she didn't buy anything – land, farm equipment or cars – if she didn't pay cash. If you didn't have the money for it, you didn't need it.”

Later in life, Betty Rose was asked about remarrying following the death of her husband. “I went on one date after Lee Earl died,” she said. “But it was just too much for a man to take on at that point, and I refused to give up the farm.” After she died, her journals revealed her loneliness.

When she went to town to pick up her new Cadillac in the late 1980s, the salesman noted her address. “Mrs. Elliott, my wife and I are looking for some land in the country to build a new home. Would you consider selling some?” Betty Rose calmly looked him in the eye and said, “Young man, I live in the middle of 1,000 acres and I’m going to die in the middle of 1,000 acres.”

And she did.

In 2005, Betty Rose Elliott, the city girl who became a solo dairy farmer by tragic circumstance rather than choice, died at her home at the age of 80 in the middle of the farm she fought for surrounded by the family she held together. Thanks to her efforts, the land remains in production by the Elliott family. The Holsteins have been replaced by beef cattle, but her legacy as a trailblazer stands as a proud testimony to a family matriarch.  end mark

Karena Elliott is an international freelance writer who makes her home in Amarillo, Texas. She is also the daughter-in-law of Betty Rose Elliott. And on her first visit to the family’s farm in 1988, she spent the day in the hay field driving the rake while Elijah “Junior” Stephens ran the baler.

PHOTO 1: Lee Earl Elliott brought city girl Betty Rose Young home to dairy in 1942.

PHOTO 2: Betty Rose Elliott of Paducah, Kentucky, dairy farmed solo for 30 years following the death of her husband in 1966. Photos courtesy of the Elliott family.

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