Rural Refuge Starts Near Billings
By Candace Krebs
On a 45-minute drive east of Enid, farmers in the surrounding fields are plowing ground and planting crops. Shoulder high stalks of bluestem grasses the color of cinnamon swing together in a strong breeze. The leaves of the cottonwoods rustle softly along a long winding gravel lane that ends at a sprawling house and deck surrounded by a serene lake and meadow drenched in afternoon sunlight.
This ranch just east of I-35 near the Billings exit is the childhood home of Oklahoma’s two-time Republican governor, Henry Bellmon. The 1,000-acre spread where he was born and raised — and where he still maintains a residence — continues as a working cattle and wheat farm, operated by three different family members. Now two of Bellmon’s three daughters are also transforming its comfy houses and calming views into a quiet refuge set apart from modern urban life.
Nearly 500 family farms across Oklahoma have created new ventures with assistance from the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture’s growing agritourism program. A preference for day and weekend trips, and an interest in wholesome family activities, are behind their rising popularity. Studies also show that when people travel, increasingly they want to learn something new through an educational experience.
“Agritourism is a huge industry in this state, it really is,” says Ann Denney, who now lives and works at the Bellmon farm along with her sister, Pat Hoerth.
Hoerth, who is partnering with her in creating Turtle Rock Farm retreat center, takes it a step further.
“The land has intrinsic value, whether we get any value out of it or not,” she says solemnly. “That’s the paradigm shift. Just by being in nature and noticing it, it’s going to heal us.”
The two sisters are passionate about the farm and its healing powers. Diverse lives and careers mean they’ve returned to their childhood home with a wealth of skills and experiences to invest in a new undertaking.
“For me, it’s like a culmination, completing a circle. Everything in that circle will be used here,” Hoerth says. Denney adds, “I think nothing is lost. Everything in life is for a purpose.”
Denney lived in Maryland for 25 years, where she worked as a secretary for a vocational technical school. Her academic training is in psychology and sociology. Hoerth also lived on the East Coast for a time, working in Washington D. C. as a journalist. After she returned to Oklahoma, she became a chaplain and worked with cardio rehabilitation services for St. Mary’s hospital before eventually returning a second time to Phillips Seminary to become a Methodist minister. She pastored churches at Kremlin and Elgin, near Lawton. She is currently coordinating congregational care at Enid Presbyterian Church on an interim basis.
Together they are launching a busy schedule of classes and retreat opportunities at the farm, most of which emphasize sustainable practices, ecology and spirituality. In addition, Denny is a practitioner of energy kinesiology, and Hoerth offers spiritual counseling.
The two believe they are in tune with a much larger trend. “We live in this increasingly fast paced, multifaceted, bottomline-oriented society and it’s killing us,” Hoerth says. “As a culture we are ready for some shifts. We want to connect to some of the basic trends but also offer practical steps.”
Their focus will be on simple living and self-reliance. One class will explore growing food in small spaces. The sisters have created a 4 ft. by 4 ft. garden prototype to demonstrate its many advantages. Another class they offer is called “pick two that you can do.”
“When people think about how to stop global warming, they get overwhelmed,” Denney explains. “But anyone can pick two things and start with those.”
“We want to live more sustainably, and model sustainability for other people,” Hoerth adds.
They plan to host groups of schoolchildren at their farm, teaching them about growing their own food and spending time in nature.
Hoerth is particularly interested in blending environmental awareness with spirituality, a philosophy known of as eco-spirituality, which she now identifies as her personal ministry. She is working with an Oklahoma City homeless ministry on a program that would give the dispossessed a chance to come to the farm to enjoy a day in creation.
These ideas may sound innovative or unusual but they aren’t new, she adds. “Women’s religious communities have been doing this now for 25 years,” she says.
Back to the future
When Bellmon’s father first moved to Oklahoma from Kansas, he lived in a dugout nearby. Eventually the family who homesteaded sold him the farm. In 1893, the Bellmon family built the first house on the property. That farmstead is designated as an Oklahoma Centennial farm, and Hoerth lives there now. Bellmon and his wife Shirley built a second home a quarter of a mile down the road and dug a lake beside it 50 years ago. “All of the wood to build this house came off of the farm,” Denney says, during a tour of this expansive second residence. “Mom laid all the tile herself and did all of the stained glass in the house.”
The two recently hosted their largest group yet for a weekend retreat. Between the two homes they had room to accomodate 18 visitors. “We weren’t sure what to expect, but it was fun,” Hoerth says.
While they say their dad is supportive of their efforts, he still marvels that others would value the chance to come here just to spend time. His daughters however recognize what a gift this farm is.
“There are lots of people who would like to return home to the family farm but they don’t have one to return to,” Denney says. “When people come here, they slow down. It changes their whole being.”