Host of first Farm Progress Show in 1953 remembered

Host of first Farm Progress Show in 1953 remembered

ARMSTRONG – Stephen Bass doesn't remember why his uncle, the late Earl Bass, was chosen to host the first Farm Progress Show back in 1953. But after thinking about it, he said it makes sense that his uncle was selected.

"Earl was a good farm manager," Bass recalled of his father's older brother. "He was kind of an innovator. He was always coming up with inventions to make the farm better."

"He farmed lots of land and had lots of cattle, lots of hogs and lots of hired men," added Lester Frerichs, who rents the farm today. "He did everything in a big way."

Both men said they're looking forward to the 50th Farm Progress Show, which is returning to Vermilion County, not far from its original site. The show – which has grown into the nation's leading outdoor farm show – features extensive information, state-of-the-art technology and the latest equipment, products and services for agricultural producers. It will be held Sept. 23-25 northeast of Henning.

Farm Progress officials themselves said they aren't exactly sure how the Earl Bass farm was selected to host the first show.

But at the time, the site was close to the geographic center of Prairie Farmer magazine's circulation base, they said. And it was large enough to accommodate the displays and demonstrations as well as the 5,000 to 10,000 visitors that were expected.

Back then, Earl Bass ran the 960-acre farm, which was established in 1892 by his father, Arthur Bass. Eventually, Earl Bass took over the operation, and Stephen Bass' father, Fred, began farming near Tuscola. A sister, Irene, married and moved to California.

Earl Bass grew corn, wheat, alfalfa and some soybeans. He also raised cattle, sheep and hogs, and kept horses, which were used to pull farm implements.

"They put up a lot of hay for their livestock," recalled Stephen Bass, who has fond memories of visiting the farm on Sundays. "They had a big hay barn, and we used to climb up in the hay mow."

Stephen Bass, who farmed near Potomac, remembers his uncle as being very progressive and innovative. One time, he built a huge hay feeder the size of a corn crib.

"It had openings like a bin had for the hay to fall out," he recalled. "You didn't have to feed them by hand all the time."

Another time, he had a bean planter follow a combine through a wheat field. "They could combine the wheat and sow the beans and get two crops in one year," Stephen Bass explained. "He had a lot of little inventions like that. He was always trying to improve efficiency."

"He was pretty innovative," agreed Frerichs, who rents the farm, now called the Bass Heirs Farm. "He was one of the first who used a Caterpillar tractor out in the field."

Frerichs, who grew up in the Royal-Penfield area, never knew Earl Bass personally. But when he went to Armstrong High School, he passed by the Bass farm frequently.

When Frerichs was a freshman, Earl Bass served on the Armstrong school board. And one year, the farmer was voted the school's man of the year.

"I went by this place for years. I never thought I'd live here," Frerichs said with a laugh. He and his family moved into the original farmhouse, built in 1916, when he became the tenant farmer in 1982.

Both Frerichs and Stephen Bass recalled hearing about some type of farm show, which the Prairie Farmer and old Wallaces' Farmer magazines were putting on at Earl Bass' farm.

"There really wasn't much talk about it," Stephen Bass said. He was an engineering student at Purdue University at the time and couldn't go to the one-day affair. "Of course, nobody knew what it was going to turn into. It gets bigger all the time."

Frerichs, who was then a high school freshman, remembered that classes were dismissed so students could go to the show. "No one knew it was going to draw so many people," he said, adding that organizers and area residents were surprised when 75,000 turned out. "Being a 13- or 14-year-old student, I remember running around and picking up all of the little trinkets and things they had. I still have a box of things I kept from the show, like a little packet of fertilizer. Now I wish I'd kept more."

Today, Stephen Bass is retired, and Frerichs and two sons – Gayle and Doug – farm the 460 acres left of the Bass Heirs Farm, along with another 2,340 acres. They also raise cattle, but not hogs.

"The girls said no hogs," he said, referring to Earl Bass' daughters, who, along with their brother, inherited the farm when their father died in 1956. After the children died, the farm was passed down to their children, who are scattered across the country.

Frerichs and Stephen Bass said they've been able to make it to a few Farm Progress Shows over the last five decades. Both plan to attend this year's, especially since it's so close.

"I knew the 50th (anniversary) was coming up," Frerichs said. "In the back of my mind, I'd hoped they'd have it here. But we're so busy with our cattle and everything, I didn't initiate anything. We're trying to clean up the farm a little bit. I'm sure people are going to be driving by because it's the original site."

You can reach Noelle McGee at (217) 443-8487 or via e-mail at

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