A yellow farmhouse just northwest of St. John is the home of Loyd Ratts. He’s been a farmer at heart since the day he was born, and proven it decades over.
Ratts was born just five miles south of his yellow farmhouse in1915. He celebrated his 103rd birthday last Feb. 18, surrounded by his eight children and numerous grand and great-grandchildren. Photographs of his family line the interior walls of his home, along with farming memorabilia, all reminders of his long life.
A life of farming
Ratts got his first experience with farm work when he was just four years old. His father hitched a wagon loaded with wheat to two horses and sent Ratts to town. The elder figured he’d load another wagon and catch up to his son, but he was wrong. Ratts beat him to town.
His father brought the family’s first tractor home when Ratts was 10, and just two years later in 1927, he was doing the same work as hired hands. During that time, Ratts’ aunt Elizabeth owned the St. John farm, but that same year she had a stroke. Her husband left, and Ratts’ mother took care of his aunt and her son.
Aunt Elizabeth died in 1929, leaving the St. John farm -- which had been mortgaged by Elizabeth’s husband -- to Ratts’ parents.
“In 1911, my father homesteaded 160 acres in Kearny County, 85 miles from here, straight west,” Ratts said. “My parents mortgaged the Kearny County farm to keep the St. John farm after aunt Elizabeth died, so everything they owned was mortgaged.”
Then October 1929 came. Ratts said he’s never been depressed a day in his life, but he lived -- and farmed -- through the Great Depression.
“When the Depression hit, we started farming the Kearny farm to save the mortgages,” Ratts said.
Ratts and his father would drive the 85 miles west -- pulling their tractor with a Ford Model T -- to farm the ground in the dark and the dust. The two mounted a generator to the tractor when they got there, and pulled a headlight bulb from the Model T so they could see.
“No one within five miles had green wheat,” Ratts said. “But we had it. Folks started asking if we would farm their ground, and we decided if it bordered what we were farming, we would take it on. By the end, we were farming 2,500 acres out there.”
But it wasn’t easy. Ratts remembers wearing a wet bandana around his face to fight back the dust. He said some days you could barely see.
“Many animals died from what they call dust pneumonia,” he said. “I had friends die that way, too.”
Ratts farmed through the Depression, and farmed his way right out of it. He kept farming until 2000, when he gave it up. He still has a 120-acre irrigated circle, which is farmed by his son-in-law and grandson.
A life of invention
Ratts believes multiple factors have contributed to his long life. To name a few, he said he has good genes, and he doesn’t drink alcohol, smoke or do drugs. But mostly, he said the key is staying active.
“When I was younger, that part -- staying active -- was kind of forced upon me,” he laughed.
To stay active today, Ratts makes sure to make time for exercise -- for both his body and his mind. His inventions help him do both.
Most days, Ratts can be found in an old machine shop just south of his house. Inside the tin shop is a multitude of tools, strips of metal and evidence of Ratts’ handywork. For nearly 15 years, the shop has been his blank canvas, his drawing board. Ratts has always been mechanically inclined, and puts that knowledge to work bringing his inventions to life.
He received his first patent at the age of 98 for a system that allows him to open and close grain bins from the ground. He removed the armrest from his electric wheelchair, and replaced it with a home-built tray, which keeps his tools close at hand. Even the shop was built by Ratts.
One of his main projects to this day is creating metal book holders -- similar to a small easel. He sells them, or gives them free to those who need one, but cannot afford it.
Book holders throughout the shop range from a simple, standing design to swiveling on a hinged arm -- evidence of Ratts’ ever improving design.
“I’m grateful for the fact that my mind is well enough I can continue to make improvements,” he said.
Ratts’ improvements can be seen across the farm. From the grain bin system to mirrors around his easy chair, the homestead is covered with ways Ratts has made his life easier.
Earlier in his life, he made extra money for the family converting tractor wheels to support new rubber tires. He ran his own mechanic shop from his home. He even built airplanes for a while, working for Cessna Aircraft in Wichita.
A life of love
While working at Cessna, Ratts fell in love.
Ratts became friends with the three sons of the minister at his church. When Christmas came around, the young adults of the church had a get together, and Ratts said the most beautiful young girl was serving as master of ceremonies.
“She was the sister of the three brothers I was friends with,” Ratts said. “She’d been away at college and was home for winter break.”
The next day, Ratts asked Bonnie Williams on a date, and she said yes.
“Since she was the daughter of the minister, it wasn’t hard to get her phone number,” Ratts laughed.
They dated for two years before Ratts asked Bonnie to marry him. She said yes, and they moved to the St. John farm. In 1954, he stared Loyd’s Repair Shop in the shop still standing at his home.
The two had four children, Lorraine, Jim, Vicki and Lana.
It was perfect while it lasted, Ratts recalled, but in 1956, Bonnie suffered from an infection formed in the bone behind her ear. She was taken to the hospital and given a blood transfusion, but the transfusion gave her hepatitis. The disease destroyed her liver, and shortly after, she died at the age of 32.
Ratts was devastated.
Five years later, Bonnie’s sister-in-law said she knew a widow in Wichita who would be a good match for Ratts.
“I was so broken up, I didn’t ask for dates, and I didn’t have the nerve for a blind date,” he said. “But she described her as a fine, Christian young woman.”
He went on the date, and met his second wife, Betty.
“When we got to the door, I didn’t kiss her,” he said. “I just said I’d enjoyed spending time with her and wanted to see her again.”
The only problem was that Ratts was custom silo filling and didn’t expect to be able to return to Wichita for about a month. The next Tuesday, he received a letter from Betty and wrote her back. He received another letter from her Thursday, and by Saturday, he was back in Wichita for a second date.
On the third date, he took a ring along and asked her to marry him. She said yes.
Betty moved to the farm in St. John along with her three children, Doug, Denise and Brenda. Together, Ratts and Betty had a daughter, Terri.
“In my life I’ve told two women I loved them and asked them to marry me,” Ratts said. “And both said yes instantly.”
It’s a feeling and an experience most don’t get, he said.
Betty died in 2005 of complications from cancer.
“I don’t have the words to describe to you the character of these women,” Ratts said. “Or how wonderful each marriage was.”
Now he cherishes the memory of his wives spending time with his eight children and their families.
Quite a life
Ratts has seen the world go from the Model T to the Tesla. He’s farmed in the Dust Bowl and controlled his irrigation system with an iPhone. He’s built his own inventions, airplanes and churches in Mexico.
In his 103-year life, he’s lived many, and plans to keep going as long as the lord allows.
“One day while leaving church, I mentioned that if I have an enemy, I don’t know him, and my son overheard and said ‘maybe they all died,’” Ratts laughed. “It’s been quite a life.”
Chance Hoener’s agriculture roots started on farms and ranches in Southeast Kansas. Now he covers Kansas agriculture as the Kansas Agland editor. Email him with news, photos and other information at email@example.com or by calling (620) 694-5700, ext. 320.