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Hilligoss, 102, Still Going Strong After Working Hard

by Jerry Goshert

Published: Friday, January 10, 2020

For most folks, the start of a new year brings hope, optimism and new opportunities. At age 102, Max Hilligoss of South Whitley is as optimistic as ever.

For starters, the retired farmer is not your average centenarian. Although his hearing is fading, he is in very good health for a man of his age. He renewed his driver's license last June and makes the daily journey to Huntington every day for lunch. Last spring, he did some light farm work, such as mowing the pasture.

Today's farm work is easy compared to the labor-intensive tasks Hilligoss performed during the Depression era and the years that followed. He remembers a time when he shucked corn by hand, shocked wheat, planted crops with mules, shoveled manure with a pitchfork, pulled boulders out of the field with horses, and dug ditches by hand.

He said hard work never wore him out.

"That was part of life then," he said. "That's how you proved yourself."

At age 14, the young Hilligoss got up every day at 5 a.m. and fed the horses and cattle before returning to the house to eat breakfast. He and his father, who had a day job in town, took turns working in a 25-acre field. His father tilled the field at night and Max planted during the daylight. Corn was planted in 36-inch rows—going both ways. This standard practice back then, known as "check rows," allowed farmers to cross-cultivate.

Max said he planted corn using two mules and a two-row planter. He said mules were preferable to horses because they walked faster and can withstand the heat better.

During the 1940s, Max worked as a tenant farmer. His landlord provided housing as part of the work agreement. Back then, most farm workers were poor and didn't have enough money to pay for rent, so most of them wanted to do a good job to keep a roof over their heads. Otherwise, their landlords might kick them out.

During corn harvest, Hilligoss worked with a partner to do one of his favorite farm jobs—shucking corn by hand. Each partner had a team of two horses. After working several hours to fill a wagon, he and the partner would then have to shovel all of the corn by hand into a rail pen. All of the corn was used to feed cattle.

Hilligoss said he competed in corn shucking contests many times.

The 102-year-old farmer has witnessed many changes in farming, including tractors replacing horses and mules, and herbicide sprays replacing cultivation. As a result of these changes, yields improved and farmers could farm more ground.

He never served in the military. He earned an exemption (based on a point system) because he was a farmer and had a wife, Dolores. They were married in 1938 and, together, raised three daughters and a son. Today, Hilligoss has 10 grandchildren. Dolores passed away in 2001.

After serving as a tenant farmer for almost three decades, Hilligoss, in 1968, purchased the family farm from his father, who lived to be 84 years of age. The Washington Twp. farm has been in his family since 1915 and has earned the Centennial Farm designation from the Indiana State Department of Agriculture.

Hilligoss started out using his father's tractor, a Fordson made in the 1930s. His first tractor purchase, however, was a new Farmall that cost $1,000. He didn't have all of the money when he made the deal but was able to convince the dealer to give him more time until he sold his hogs. Back then, Hilligoss said your word was your bond.

He also acquired a three-bottom plow, allowing him to farm more acres.

Today, Hilligoss' most difficult daily task is cooking his meals and washing the dishes. He gets up every day at 7 a.m. and eats a bowl of oatmeal with a banana and washes it down with a cup of coffee. His son John buys the groceries and vacuums the house.

A recent hip replacement has slowed Max's pace, but the fact that he can drive a car and mow the pasture at 102 is a testament to how vigorous he is.

Just a few years ago, John says that his father, at age 100, was tackling as much work as most 75-year-old men. Max would rise early every morning and come to the hog barn at first light to do chores. Max even ran the combine until he reached the century mark.

"He's always been determined," John said of his father.

Max said the key to surviving to his current age is having good genes. He had a brother who lived to the age of 98 and a sister who lived to be 99.

In 2019, the Hilligoss family reached a watershed moment in their farming operation. John, who is 65, said family members decided to rent the farm rather than raise crops themselves. He said he is at peace with that decision, and looks forward to moving forward as a landlord.

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