“He was a man of the land,” says Jim Frier as he drives us past a southeast Iowa farm that had been owned by Rolland and Gladys Benson.
Pointing out the house where Rolland Benson grew up, Jim tells us the story of an Iowa man who inherited a family farm and expanded it into nine hundred acres. Because of this, most folks around Washington, Iowa, guessed that the Bensons had a bit of money. After all, the Bensons had given generous gifts to the hospital, the library, and the park board. But they lived out the end of their years quietly, in a retirement home a block from Jim and Priscilla Frier’s home.
After sixty-eight years of marriage, Gladys struggled with Alzheimer’s disease and died in 2002. Rolland lived six more years and continued to enjoy the time he spent with the Friers, the family he and his wife had adopted many years before.
“He told us that we were the ideal family, and sometimes added, ‘I wish I had this growing up,’ ” Priscilla says, explaining how Rolland’s mother had died when he was a baby and how he did not enjoy a close relationship with his father.
Rolland and Gladys Benson married in 1933 and attended Prairie Flower Baptist Church (Washington, Iowa), where Rolland had been a member since he was saved at age thirteen. The couple continued to farm, but had no children of their own.
“Rolland and Gladys fell in love with our family when we moved to Washington from Boone, Iowa, and started attending the same church,” Priscilla says. “Almost immediately they started inviting us to their home, where they learned to love us and our three children.” The two families shared Easter egg hunts, picnics, camping trips, birthday dinners, and especially family Christmas parties. “We believe they considered our children to be their children and our grandchildren, their grandchildren,” Priscilla says.
Jim continues to drive us past one acreage and then another, explaining how he often took similar trips with Rolland. “After he retired, he would often ask me to drive him by his land to see if the tenants were keeping up. I really enjoyed those trips with him, and he loved to talk about farming,” says Jim, who recently retired as a Washington County extension officer.
“Rolland knew and understood everything about his farms,” Priscilla adds later. “He had several renters for his farm and was very good to them; however, he expected them to be every bit as good a farmer as he was!”
His reputation for straight rows of crops and immaculate grounds led to an often-remembered prank. As the story goes, another member of Prairie Flower Baptist Church snuck into the middle of the Bensons’ bean field and planted a huge button weed. As expected, Rolland spotted it when driving by the next day and hurried to pull it, only to find it was “planted” in a bucket.
The story was repeated during many church suppers, Priscilla says, “and true to form, Rolland just laughed with everyone. He had a great sense of humor and could laugh at himself.”
But it was not an easy life. When Rolland graduated from high school in 1930, Frank Sage drove out to the farmstead and had a talk with Rolland’s father. “Your son was one of the two talented business students in his high school class, and I’d like to have him work at the Washington Loan Company,” the banker said.
So Rolland moved into town for a few years, until the bank went bust in the aftermath of the Depression. When his father heard the news, he offered Rolland an interesting choice: to either set him up in farming or send him to college. Rolland chose the farm, and married the rural-school teacher he had been dating.
“The problems that Rolland and Gladys confronted in their life were serious,” Priscilla Frier says, telling of the couple’s difficult early years. Gladys Benson contracted tuberculosis in 1943 and was moved to the county sanatorium for a year of rest, with Rolland visiting nightly after the chores were finished. And soon after Gladys recovered and returned home, Rolland lost his left hand in a tragic corn picker accident.
Gladys spent the rest of their married years helping her husband—buttoning his shirt in the morning, feeding the hogs, driving the tractor during harvest. And somehow supper was on the table when Rolland returned from the field.
“The difficulties only served to make them better, not bitter, and were used to draw them closer together and to their Lord and Savior,” Priscilla says.
• • •
“When I lost my hand and part of my arm, I realized that I had lost my brawn,” was how Rolland later described his accident to Priscilla. “I decided that I would have to use my brain instead.” Drawing on his experience working for the bank—and an innate gift for picking stocks and bonds—Rolland spent his evenings at his desk in the farmhouse. When he retired, the desk moved from the farmhouse to their new home in town, and then made a final move to the corner of his room in the retirement center.
“Rolland was very frugal in business matters and would write on little tiny pieces of paper—even flaps of old, unused envelopes,” Priscilla says. (“Paper costs money!” was Rolland’s explanation.) “Then he would transfer all the facts and figures to meticulously kept ledgers. No computers, no calculators, nothing!”
By the end of Rolland’s life, Jim says, “people knew he had a lot of land, but I’m not sure they knew how much he had invested. He was invested everywhere. Stocks, municipal bonds, utilities, overseas companies.”
After Rolland’s death, when the auction was announced for “Highly Productive Washington County Farmland,” neighbors were at least curious. In a county where 92 percent of the land is used for crops and cattle (21,000 people, but 150,000 hogs), a land auction usually features equal parts of family reunion, church social, and stealthy bidding strategies.
“Not very often!” was Jim Frier’s reply when I asked how often land like this comes up for auction. “Corn and soybeans have skyrocketed in value now that they are used as fuels. As a result, we’re seeing historic highs for prime farmland,” Jim says.
A reporter for the Evening Journal discovered, somewhat predictably, that “few of the people attending wished to comment on the sale.” When the first parcel sold, the winning bidder also “declined to comment.” But when the auction gavel swung, the reporter returned to the office with his headline: “Land Auction Draws Crowd, Record Prices.” Bids had opened at $5,000 per acre—itself an astounding price—and in a few seconds had spiraled to $7,250, a new record for Washington County and one of the highest prices ever paid for Iowa farmland. After the reporter left, records were broken again as another parcel sold for $7,975 an acre.
Rolland Benson passed away on March 12, 2007. Shortly thereafter, a banker called Faith Baptist Bible College and reminded them of some happy news. The Bensons’ trust had made provision for family, friends, church, and civic organizations, but a vast majority went to the college. “He loved the college because it was training men and women to serve the Lord,” Priscilla says. “They certainly were a unique couple whom God blessed with earthly blessings but also abundant love that they shared with us when they had no children of their own.”