Driving through Brown County, South Dakota, it’s easy to see why Millicent Atkins felt such a strong attachment to the land she called home. The prairie sky is enormous, framing a wide-open landscape of gently rolling farmland, thin lines of trees, and scattered wetlands.
Atkins, who grew up on a farm near Columbia, a small town east of Aberdeen, left this landscape for only one extended period of time: in 1937 to 1938, when she attended the U of M’s School of Agriculture, which was then a high school associated with the University. That encounter, however brief, has led to the largest single gift ever made to the U’s College of Food, Agricultural, and Natural Resource Sciences (CFANS)—an estimated $12.3 million estate gift from Atkins, who died in July 2012 at age 93.
According to her friends, she didn’t talk much about her time at the U, except to say that she was extremely homesick. “What little she did talk about it, she would say it was a good school. It taught her something about agriculture,” says her friend Beverly Burgod.
But after just a year, Atkins returned home, where she graduated from Northern State Teacher’s College in Aberdeen (now Northern State University) and taught elementary school briefly before deciding that education wasn’t her calling. Her real passion, say those who knew her best, was farming.
A woman in a man’s world
Atkins’ mother, Blossom, who also attended the U of M’s School of Agriculture and graduated in 1905, died when Atkins was just 25 years old. An only child, she lived with her father, Fred, and soaked up his knowledge of farming until his death in 1955, when she inherited all of his land.
Atkins bought additional land through the years, waiting for the right plots and the right timing to make her purchases. At the time of her death, she owned more than 4,100 acres of prime farmland in Brown County, which she farmed through a crop-share arrangement with about a dozen tenant farmers.
In rural South Dakota in the 1950s and 1960s, it was unusual for a woman to be in charge of such a large-scale farming operation. “She was a woman in a man’s world,” says Marty Weismantel, vice president of First State Bank in Columbia, who’s known Atkins since he was a child.
“She was very knowledgeable, very sharp,” he says. “She was always quizzing the guys at the grain elevator, listening to conversations, taking in what was being said. She didn’t miss anything.”
Friends say Atkins also supported her community philanthropically. She cared deeply about her hometown of Columbia and the city of Aberdeen, where she lived in a modest apartment. She donated to various causes, including funding a fence for the Columbia cemetery where her parents and grandparents are buried.
Memories of the storms
Atkins, who never married or had children, had strong friendships with the tenants who farmed her land. Stan Carlson, one of those tenants, is eight years younger than Atkins. He says that like others who lived through the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, Atkins was shaped by the historic droughts and windstorms that blew away farmers’ rich topsoil.
“The wind would blow, and it would get so dark that you’d have to light the kerosene lamps because you couldn’t see anything,” he recalls. “In those old houses, it would blow dust right through the windows.”
With improved farming practices and an end to the drought, the dust storms stopped, but Atkins remained concerned about soil management for the rest of her life. Carlson remembers a time when he was ready to plow his corn stubble under in the fall, but Atkins argued that it would be wiser to leave it in place over the winter to prevent blowing. “She never forgot the dust storms,” says Carlson.
Friends say she loved trees, many of which were planted in the 1930s to serve as windblocks, and she preserved them whenever possible on her own land. Today, these lines of sturdy trees between acres of corns and soybeans form part of Atkins’ legacy—a legacy that now includes scholarships for generations of CFANS students with a similar love and respect for the land.