Sharing MFA’s history

MFA HAS A STORIED HISTORY IN CHARITON COUNTY, MO. It was here, in a one-room schoolhouse just outside Brunswick, where a meeting of seven farmers in 1914 inspired the formation of what would become today’s MFA Incorporated and one of the largest agricultural cooperatives in the nation.

Norman Lenger, former manager of MFA Agri Services in Salisbury, Mo., is helping to preserve that co-op history. In May, he donated a 70-piece collection of MFA memorabilia to the Chariton County Historical Society and Museum (CCHS). Lenger worked for MFA for 39 years and eight months, and he and his wife, Pat, began collecting artifacts in the 1970s.

“We like to visit antique stores and see what interesting things they have,” Lenger said. “I started to pick up a few MFA items. I guess it just became a hobby.”

Lenger’s history with MFA is even more impressive than his memorabilia collection. He started working for MFA in 1965, the day after his high school graduation, as a laborer and truck driver. A year later, Lenger was drafted into the Army and served as a reconnaissance scout in Xuan Loc, Vietnam.

“I was shot up pretty severely—three times actually—and still have shrapnel in my body,” Lenger said. He was awarded three Purple Hearts for his time in Vietnam, where he served with the 11th Armored Cavalry during the Tet Counteroffensive.

When he came back home in 1968, MFA came calling again.

“One of my friends was managing the MFA in Boonville and asked me to work as the book­keeper,” Lenger said. “I told him that I didn’t know anything about keeping books. He said they would teach me. So, I said, ‘Sounds great. I’ll be there.’”

With his strong work ethic and determination, Lenger was promoted to assistant manager. Five years later, he became manager of the MFA Pilot Grove Exchange. In 1979, he and his family moved 50 miles north of Pilot Grove so he could become the manager of the Salisbury MFA elevator. For 27 years, the Lengers made their home in Chariton County, where they raised their two children, Christopher and Julie.

“In the 1980s and ’90s, I really started buying MFA items and saving them for…” Lenger paused, holding back emotion, “for future generations to see, I guess.”

Lenger’s remarkable collection includes an MFA gas pump globe from Salisbury MFA, many vintage feed and seed sacks, signs, promotional products, photographs, and items from the days when MFA had a grocery division.

Purchased for $1 each in an antique store in Hermann, Mo., Lenger has a couple issues of William Hirth’s The Missouri Farmer from the 1930s. Hirth acquired The Missouri Farmer and Breeder, now Today’s Farmer, in 1908. The magazine’s name was changed to The Missouri Farmer in 1912 and was owned by Hirth until his death in 1940.

The publication was used to promote improving farm life, es­tablishing farm clubs and using a cooperative business structure. Hirth’s ideas were appealing to farmer and stockman Aaron Bach­tel from Brunswick, Mo. Bachtel was so taken with Hirth’s view­points that he gathered six of his neighbors in Chariton County to discuss forming a cooperative to purchase farm supplies. After their meeting at the Newcomer Schoolhouse, the group placed an order for 1,150 pounds of binder twine with Hirth, thus launch­ing the cooperative now known as MFA.

Since MFA was organized in Chariton County, Lenger said he believed that his decades-long collection belongs here. Sharon Wilkey, president of the county museum, said she will add his items to the smaller collection of MFA memorabilia currently on display.

“We had a visitor who called us the ‘Smithsonian of Missouri,’ a tagline we have now adopted,” Wilkey said. “Norman’s generous gift of MFA memorabilia will greatly enhance our collection.”

Despite the breadth of his collection, Lenger said a few items eluded his search through the years.

“At one time, MFA was heavy in the dairy business. They had a herd improvement program where they would deliver bull semen to dairy farmers via airplane,” he explained. “MFA would fly over the farm and drop the capsules from the plane to the farmer. I read about the program but never found any memorabilia related to it.”

Lenger retired from MFA in December 2004. He and Pat moved to the Boonville area in 2006, near the family farm, which he now maintains. The farm, located near Wooldridge, has been in the family for 155 years. Lenger’s great-grandfather purchased the ground when he returned home from the Civil War in 1867.

“When I retired, somebody said, ‘Why don’t you stay for an even 40 years?’” Lenger said. “Well, if I stayed for an even 40 years, then I would have to go through another spring planting season, and that’s just too hectic.”

Keeping history alive for future generations seems to be one of Lenger’s life missions. During his years in Salisbury, Lenger helped with the upkeep of Newcomer Schoolhouse. When the building needed repairs, Lenger was there to coordinate.

With visible pride, Lenger watched emotionally as his daugh­ter, Julie McPike, arranged his items on a table in their new home at CCHS.

“It was fun to do,” Lenger said, reflecting on his MFA collection. “And now I think it’s time we pass it along. I want other people to enjoy it and see what it’s all about.”

The CCHS Museum is located at 115 East 2nd Street in Salisbury, Mo. For more information, visit online at www.charitoncountymuseum.org

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