Love of Land
In eastern Shelby County, generations of the Meltzer family have farmed the land for more than 160 years, adapting to technological and cultural shifts, and weathering two pandemics.
For their role in preserving Meltzer Farm outside Shelbyville, siblings Kris Meltzer and Karen Meltzer-Armstrong won the 2021 John Arnold Award for Rural Preservation, presented by Indiana Landmarks and Indiana Farm Bureau in August at the Celebration of Agriculture, hosted by the Indiana State Department of Agriculture at the Indiana State Fair.
Frederick Meltzer moved from Germany to Shelby County and purchased the homestead in 1857, the first in a long line of Meltzers who’ve farmed the land ever since. Kris Meltzer, Karen Meltzer-Armstrong and her husband, Tony Armstrong, currently oversee production of corn and soybeans on the farm’s 100 tillable acres. Today, the farm includes the original 1850s farmhouse and timber-frame barn, log barns, a log cabin, a one-room brick schoolhouse, gas well, artesian well, an outhouse, a pumpkin patch, and an old growth forest.
“The award committee was deeply impressed by the unique and diverse collection of historic agricultural buildings still in use at the Meltzer Farm,” says Tommy Kleckner, director of Indiana Landmarks’ Western Regional Office and Arnold Award coordinator. “And the commitment generations of the family have demonstrated to preserving and maintaining the farm’s heritage is extraordinary,” he adds.
With a practical, waste-not, want-not approach, the Meltzers have incorporated the farm’s historic buildings into modern operations. The nineteenth-century frame barn houses farm equipment, hay, straw, and occasionally livestock, and the log barns store grain. The original farmhouse has served as a machine shop and time capsule for preserving the family’s heritage. The outhouse remains in working order, nicknamed “The Roosevelt” in recognition of it being one of the millions of sanitary privies constructed during the Great Depression through President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal. Along with vintage buildings, the Meltzers have preserved vintage farm equipment, including Brady Meltzer’s steam engine and an antique thrashing machine.
Brady constructed three log barns on the farm in the 1940s reusing timbers dismantled from historic log buildings that other property owners planned to demolish. To accommodate his interest in muzzleloaders and long-range rifles, Brady built one of the log structures to house Meltzer’s Muzzleers, a muzzleloading shooting club.
Liberty Township School #2, built by members of the family in 1875, still stands in its original location south of the farmstead. When school consolidation eliminated the school’s original use, the Meltzers repurposed the building as a machine shop and secured its entry in the National Register of Historic Places. They continue to serve as caretakers of the property. “We’re loaded with Indiana history here,” says Karen’s daughter Vanessa Armstrong, who helps operate the farm.
The family’s love of the land extends to conserving the property’s 60 acres of woods, one of the last remnants of the state’s old growth forest, meaning it contains trees more than 150 years old. In 1928, Brady Meltzer placed the woods in Indiana’s Classified Forest Program, and in 1974 it was designated a National Natural Landmark. To ensure its long-term protection, his son Philip Meltzer partnered with the Central Indiana Land Trust to dedicate Meltzer Woods as a nature preserve, and today the family welcomes walkers and scientists who come to explore and study the forest.
The property took on new significance during the pandemic in 2020, when the family sequestered in the Italianate-style farmhouse built by the first Philip Meltzer in 1882. “We were sheltering in place in the same house where our ancestors sheltered during the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918,” notes Vanessa. “My grandfather Philip shared stories from his deathbed—the same room where he was born in 1926. Listening to him reminisce about his life on the farm and what it meant to him has given me a great appreciation for his lifelong work to preserve the farm.”
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