Petticoat Farmer: The Saga of Sarah Van Hoosen Jones - Background Reading
The Saga of Sarah Van Hoosen Jones
By Saralee R. Howard
A Michigan "Master Farmer," an owner of a large and profitable farm, a
geneticist who experimented with animal breeding.
A full and noteworthy career for any man, right?
Yes, as well as for a woman who, in this case, was the remarkable Sarah Van Hoosen
Jones (1892-1972) of Stony Creek outside of Rochester, Michigan. Not only a farmer par
excellence, Jones distinguished herself in the areas of education and civic service. A
reverence for the past as well as an energetic contemporary activism shaped the saga of
Born on June 23, 1892, on the Van Hoosen family farm at Stony Creek, Sarah was the
daughter of Alice Van Hoosen and Joseph Jones. Her lineage was distinctive with four
generations on her mother's side having tilled the sandy and loamy soil of Stony Creek. It
was Sarah's great-great-grandfather, Lemuel Taylor, who settled that village in 1823.
Taylor's granddaughter, Sarah Ann Taylor, married Joshua Van Hoosen. Their two daughters
were Alice (Sarah Van Hoosen Jones' mother) and Bertha (Sarah's aunt and beloved surrogate
"father"). A world renowned surgeon and teacher of surgery, Bertha Van Hoosen
was instrumental in developing the use of "twilight sleep" for women in
childbirth. In Bertha's popular book Petticoat Surgeon (1947), she said of her
niece: "Through Sarah I have learned that farming is as exacting in its demands as
medicine if not more so."
In twentieth century America, individual women have experienced varying societal and
familial expectations concerning careers. In this case, Alice Van Hoosen Jones was adamant
about the importance of education, and Bertha Van Hoosen served as an excellent example of
a successful woman. Their expectations for Sarah never wavered in her early years: she
would be a physicianlike her aunt. Sarah's father (who died within the year of writing
this note) told his daughter at a tender age:
Four years old! Just think, it won't be long before she will be a sweet school girl
carrying such pretty books to school and coming home to tell Mamma how much she
knowswhat she is daily learning.
But Sarah Van Hoosen Jones had ideas of her own. She longed to be a farmer. Spending
much of her childhood in Chicago, Sarah visited the Van Hoosen Farm with her family and
loved her stays there. "Sarah was a farmer from the time she was born," said
Alice Serrell, Jones' longtime companion who from 1952 on lived at the Van Hoosen Farm.
Attired in overalls and high boots, young Sarah strode around the farm. Her aunt Bertha
related that her four-year-old niece once came into the house with boots smelling of a
walk in the cow pastures. "No one guessed that her own pudgy hand had daubed on the
manure to imitate the smell of the hired men, for whom she had profound admiration."
Sickly but holding on to her desire to be a farmer, Sarah earned a Bachelor's degree in
foreign languages from the University of Chicago in 1914. At this point she convinced her
mother and aunt that medical school would not be her next step. Instead, she enrolled in
the University of Wisconsin and earned a Master's degree in Animal Husbandry in 1916. This
farmer-to-be had not planned to continue her studies, but her mentor, Dr. Leon Cole,
persuaded her to stay. With the advent of World War I came further responsibilities. As
her male colleagues marched off to war, they would ask: "Sally, would you take on my
guinea pigs" or dogs or chicks or whatever animals they were using in their
experiments. This she did, as well as conducting animal genetic studies of her own.
Sarah's intellectual curiosity and love of practical agricultural studies blossomed at
the University of Wisconsin. Several of the articles she penned with titles such as
"Multiple Births in Cattle and Sheep" and "Inheritance of Silkiness in
Fowls" foreshadow the scientific Úlan she was to bring to her later life on the farm.
Respected by professors and fellow studentswho called her "Dr. Sally"Jones
was the first woman to earn a doctorate in genetics from the University of Wisconsin. She
felt no particular self-consciousness about this status saying, "I never think
anything of it and the rest of the class never let it make any difference."
Her 1921 graduation heralded another event of even greater portent. On her deathbed
Sarah's ninety-year-old grandmother gave her determined granddaughter the deed to the
farm. "There upon, with a trembling of the lips she thrust into my outstretched hand
the deed to the farm. The 'girls' had not sold the farm but rather, together with their
mother, had handed it down to the fifth generation." And after an eventful trip to
China, Dr. Sarah Van Hoosen Jones returned to her ancestral homethe Van Hoosen Farmto
fulfill the desire of a lifetime. For all her deeply rooted feelings for the acres of
Stony Creek, she was no impractical dreamer: "I am working for perfection through
efficiency," she said, and had cultivated a magnificent background for such a
Starting off her animal husbandry business with Single Comb White Leghorn hens, this
young farmer slept in the poultry house to assure that no harm would come to her flock.
"The odor, peculiar to a hen house, had had a deep appeal for me ever since my
childhood days at grandmother's."
Running the farm on a scientific basis (not forgetting those less objective attributes
of determination and dedication), Jones gradually developed a four-pronged operation.
- Cattle herd
- Milk production
- Tillable acres where hay, corn and small grains were grown
Her deepest interest came to be the raising of purebred Holstein cattle. Here Sarah
utilized her past studies in farm management, agriculture, and genetics. "The sale of
Certified milk was the life blood of the farm's economics, enhanced by the sale of
livestock." Milking the cows three times a day, the Van Hoosen Farm produced Vitamins
A and D milk. Sarah and her helpers washed the cows before milking them: scrubbed daily
the drinking fountain and milking machine in the barn; and tested for possible disease.
Bottled right on the farm, the milk traveled to independent dealers under the auspices of
the Medical Milk Commission of Oakland County. Carefully using fertilizer and rotating
crops, Jones lavished scientific attention on growing food for her cattle as well as other
facets of farming. From 1923 until 1952 (when Sarah sold much of her herd to longtime
loyal helper and herdsman Morris Place), this woman farmer managed Van Hoosen Farm as a
progressive and economically successful operation. And farming organizations and
Michiganians were not unimpressed. For the year 1933 the Michigan Farmer named her
a "Master Farmer," one of the first women in America to receive that award. A
Michigan Premier Breeder for nine years (seven years in succession), Jones was
vice-president of the National Holstein-Friesian Association and president of the state
branch of that organization. Her cattle won prizes in shows for quantities of milk and
butterfat produced and for general excellence; she herself was honored for her scientific
Weathering the Great Depression (and actually showing a profit), the Van Hoosen Farm
branched out into a retail venture in 1938. Residents for counties around recognized the
"Black and White Cow" that sold milk, eggs, broilers, cookies and other farm
produce and handmade goods. At this time Alice Serrell joined the Van Hoosen Farm
"family" as manager of the store, which met with instant success. In 1952
Serrell moved in with her longtime companion Sarah in the low, rambling "Dream
House" that Alice Van Hoosen Jones and Bertha Van Hoosen built (rebuilt really) in
the mid-twenties. Surrounded by a low stone wall and abundant greenery, the home combined
the 1840s home built by Sarah's great-grandmother with a newer addition.
The active farm, the retail store, the residence and the care of relatives (Sarah's
mother died in 1951 at the age of ninety-six; her aunt Bertha the following year at
eighty-nine) could have easily absorbed a normal person's energy. But the vigorous Sarah,
who had the "temperament of a firecracker" and evidently the energy as well,
made substantial contributions to civic and educational affairs. Locally this "first
lady of Rochester" served on the Rochester school board from 1924 until 1961. Elected
for two six-year terms (1943, 1949) to the State Board of Agriculture, the governing board
of Michigan State University, Jones was also a member (1944-1955) and president (1955) of
the Association of Governing Boards of State Universities and Allied Institutions. Her
most generous contribution to education came in 1956 when she donated her 350-acre farm to
Michigan State University, retaining life use. Later her will provided that the remainder
of her property within the village, which included a dozen houses and many farm buildings,
also go to MSU.
Shortly after Sarah's 1956 gift, Matilda Dodge Wilson also donated a substantial amount
of Rochester-area land to MSU as well as a generous gift of money. The Wilson lands and
monies were used to build Michigan State University-Oakland, now Oakland University, in
the late fifties. Sarah Van Hoosen Jones sat on founding board of MSU-O. She had hoped
that MSU (which named a women's dormitory on the East Lansing campus "Van Hoosen
Hall" in her honor) would create an educational "living farm" at Stony
Creek. This dream never materialized, and in 1978 that institution made plans to dispose
of Jones's bequest. The Rochester Hills Museum now occupies the c 1840
When, in the 1950s, Sarah passed some of the farm's responsibilities to other
hands, she was able to travel. She and Alice Serrell made varied sojourns throughout the
world. Working at family genealogies, Jones also penned Chronicle of Van Hoosen
Centenary Farm (1969). Her home, filled with furniture and curios from travels and
past generations, reflected her love for history and art. Life slowed down at the
"Petticoat Farm" with Sarah writing:
Such is the day of contentment on the farm. These days of simple living make up for the
great high-lights of the past and present; in fact in their simplicity they emphasize the
fineness of the past's exciting experiences. The farm has yielded much, different phases
of various experiences from the simple to the more complex.
And so the Centenary acres have come into their own. The virgin land which the eyes of
Elisha Taylor scanned still will play its part toward the furtherance of good living.
"Allah is good."
Indicative of her dedication to family and "place" was her authoring a
"biography" about the farm rather than a personal autobiography. Three years
after Chronicle of Van Hoosen Centenary Farm was published, Sarah Van Hoosen Jones
died. Ill health had plagued her in later years; widespread cancer caused her death.
The Michigan Department of State originally published "Petticoat
Farmer: The Saga of Sarah Van Hoosen Jones" as a "Great Lakes Informant":
Series 1, Number 7, "Famous Michiganians." This is an edited version of the
original. It is no longer available in print.
Contact the Michigan Historical Museum.