Taking a step to ensure the future of the Bob Evans Farm, the University of Rio Grande and Rio Grande Community College is exploring the possibility of acquiring the spread that is not only the hugher learning institution’s neighbor but a location whose history has been long intertwined with that of the university.
Dr. Michelle Johnston, Rio Grande’s president, confirmed to Gallia County Commissioners on March 23 that URG/RGCC is pursuing negotiations with Bob Evans Farms Inc. about the possibility of gifting the farm to URG/RGCC. Such a move still requires a “great deal of work and detail,” added Johnston, who at the time planned for further face-to-face talks with BEF executives.
Arising from the ownership change in BEF’s restaurant and food product divisions announced in January, the farm is considered a company asset, part of what BEF officials said is an overall goal “to operate (the company) as we have for the last 60 years …” following the sale of BEF’s restaurants to private-equity firm Golden Gate Capital. The annual Bob Evans Farm Festival has been scheduled as usual for the second weekend of October. However, in a changing economic atmosphere, concerns still linger over the future of the farm, one of the region’s top tourism draws even when the festival isn’t celebrated.
The commmissioners inquired about the farm’s use, under Rio Grande’s ownership, in agricultural training. Johnston said that was a “real possibility” and a wrap back to its previous status as a working agri-business in which male students paid their way through instruction at Rio Grande by operating and living on the farm. Historically, that was the purpose when the school, then known as Rio Grande College, purchased the nearby dairy farm of college trustee Harry A. Wood in May 1938. It was part of the struggling college’s Forward Movement campaign that had been recently launched to improve the institution. Copying the model of the “self-help” program for which Kentucky’s Berea College became famous, the farm and its student labor produced milk and other foodstuff to supplement the college’s meal service, selling whatever remained from their labors.
As historians have pointed out, the college could not at the beginning have seen how the idea and the farm’s operations would be affected by World War II and its attendant drain on civilian manpower. Declining enrollment forced employment of outside laborers to keep it going, creating a strain on the college’s resources aggravated by the payment of an annuity it could ill-afford to the previous owner, part of its original agreement to buy the farm.
The Homestead Farm, as it was known, did have some highlights as a training site for agricultural efficiency during the war years, and for hosting the “Second Frontier” celebration of agrarian life and business in September 1948, partly inspired by popular novelist and back-to-the-soil enthusiast Louis Bromfield, then a a Rio Grande trustee. The farm passed into entrepreneur Bob Evans’ hands in the ’50s as the company named for him made its presence known in the marketplace.
Obviously, the commissioners’ interest and that of the agricultural community in maintaining the farm’s legacy has merit in a region where family farming has and continues to survive. Under a Rio Grande stewardship of the farm, its roots in the soil are likely to deepen. “I think the placement of these farms, history and legacy and vision for what we can do at that location, to really expand upon what Bob Evans had as a progressive and forward thinking approach to farming, that’s what I would like to see us capture,” Johnston said.
At the same time, Bob Evans Farm’s status as a primary tourist stop in southern Ohio is a natural for instruction in that industry, if Rio Grande would be interested in offering such a course of study. As Hocking College has its own motor lodge to serve as practical experience in hospitality, the farm under URG/RGCC’s guidance is ideal for tourism training given its standing assets that include a museum, outdoor venue and space for concerts and events, as it currently serves for the annual Gallia County Emancipation Proclamation observation. Only a suggestion, and another option to consider if the university is successful in its quest.
All of this is speculation for now, although we wish Rio Grande the best in its talks with BEF. Seeing the Big Kmart sign come down after the Gallipolis store’s March 26 closing is a significant reminder of the need for regional economic development of some kind, and utilizing Bob Evans Farm’s resources to do so is a major ingredient of what our area can offer. Don’t overlook its usefulness in improving the local economy.
P.S. My thanks to Dean Wright’s original reporting for the Gallipolis Daily Tribune on the meeting between the commissioners and Johnston in providing the background for this piece, and to Abby Gail Goodnite and Ivan M. Tribe, “Rio Grande: From Baptists and Bevo to the Bell Tower, 1876-2001” (Ashland, Ky.: Jesse Stuart Foundation, 2002) for the history of the farm’s connection with the university.
Kevin Kelly, who was affiliated with Ohio Valley Publishing for 21 years, resides in Vinton, Ohio.