William Morras left Edge Knoll Farm in 1849, his 200-acre family farm in a beautiful part of County Durham England, on a journey that eventually saw him as a Member of the House of Representatives for the County of Fayette in the State of Iowa. William was later joined in Illyria by his sister Jane and her husband Christopher Wilson in 1852 and then his sister Mary Anne and her husband George Greenwell in 1856
William Morras was a well educated young man and had worked as a Surveyor so could have worked for the railways or in mining. Both mines and railways were then operating around Hamsterley in County Durham. The birth of the railways was just a few miles away from where he farmed as a young man. One of the most famous Surveyors, Jeremiah Dixon of Mason Dixon Line fame, came from a Cockfield village six miles from Edge Knoll Farm.
William chose farming as the opportunity in America which would give him the brightest future. His experience working on Edge Knoll Farm (sometimes spelt Edgeknowle) shaped his life. Though from his accounts of hardships, cold winters, hot summers and agricultural depressions I would guess his training on the family farm at Edge Knoll was what really furnished him with the skills and resilience to persevere in the New World.
William Morras House of Representatives
His education and experience shone through, proving the old saying that “cream rises” first of all taking responsibility as town clerk in Fayette Iowa, then rising through various Civic positions to become a member of the House of Representatives for Iowa and to becoming a successful businessman. This was made possible by the cooperation and financial support of relatives back in County Durham as well as the mutual support of his two sisters The Wilson and Greenwell families.
Looking round Edge Knoll Farm after reading the account of the hardships, and the ups and downs of life breaking ground in America it is not hard to imagine where the adaptability, resilience and stamina came from to enable these brave souls to, not only survive but succeed in the New World.
I am privileged to live on and own Edge Knoll Farm and the old 17th-century Cow Byres and Gin Gang Mill buildings which are now Holiday Cottages. Buildings in which young William and his sisters would have milked cattle to make into butter and cheese for the local community in Hamsterley and possibly where the Morras family learned to make their award-winning butter later in Illyria. He would also have turned corn on the drying floor or led the horse around the Gin Gang to mill the oats for the dairy cows. It is difficult not to imagine being in his shoes while out walking or looking for a rabbit or a pigeon for dinner. The landscape will not have changed much at Edge Knoll since 1849 and he must have done exactly the same thing all those years ago.
I was also privileged to have been a friend of the late Harry Jewitt. Harry’s father bought Edge Knoll Farm in 1927, 78 years after William left to seek a better life. He had grown up to experience the same lifestyle that the Morras family had experienced all those years before. Advances in agricultural mechanisation came in during Harry’s lifetime.
I spent many happy hours in Harry’s company and his descriptions of life and work, at first for his father then later as the owner himself.
Stories of the steam tractor bringing the thresher to the farm, when neighbours cooperated in the threshing and carrying of corn up to the drying floor above the Gin Gang mill. Carrying 500 lb sacks of corn up fourteen steps made for strong backs.
Then the making of the straw stacks, the spreading of the corn on the drying floor and the setting of the “Hit and Miss ” windows which controlled the airflow over the corn while it dried. One of his favourite sayings was that when he went to bed at night he was always back in his dreams at Edge Knoll Farm, no doubt William Morras would have had similar dreams about his childhood home. The farm has that effect on a lot of people, representatives of all of the families who have lived at the farm over the last 100 years have revisited in the last 30 years. Some members of the Wilson family came to see their ancestral home 1990.
Harry’s Work Day
Harry and I had settled down one winter afternoon in front of the log stove in Edge Knoll farmhouse where he had spent a large part of his life. He always referred to Edge Knoll as his “home” and his house Shangri La in the village as his “house”. As he said often enough “When I go to sleep I’m back at Edge Knoll every night”
A can of beer and great conversation made Harry a welcome visitor at least once a week for two or three hours of stories about farming life at Edge Knoll and the gossip about what was happening at the time in Hamsterley Village. He had been a Parish Councillor for many years and was involved in fundraising and keeping the village running smoothly. A similar approach to responsibilities as his predecessor William Morras had been eighty years earlier in America.
Harry in later life suffered with joint pains in his ankles. I asked him if it was because of the many long hours he had spent walking behind the horse-drawn plough. How many hours a day did you spend ploughing? I asked. His story said much for the strength and stamina of this old breed.
“I started about five o’clock in the morning,” he said “walked up to the top of the hill by Church Bank” about five hundred meters uphill, “then brought the horses down to the yard, harnessed them up, watered them, then went in to get breakfast” His mother had left the sliced bacon next to the fire ready for his early start.
“When it was light enough I would take the horses to the field, harness them to the plough and work all day”.
What time did you finish work? I asked.
“When I couldn’t see the horse’s backside,” he said with his usual grin “Then feed and water the horses and turn them out”
A long day then I said, you would sleep at night after that.
“That wasn’t the finish,” he said,” I would have something to eat, wash and change then head down to Wolsingham for the dance” a walk of about five miles uphill and down dale, a feat in itself if you were having a dance as well. ” Then walk back with my friends and go home”
Another beer Harry? “Why not”
Then throw another log on the fire and settle back for more stories of life at Edge Knoll Farm