Couple explains iconic, emotional 1986 courthouse steps photo
Man in picture: Losing farm 'felt like like going to a funeral'
MIDDLETON, Wis. — An unforgettable photograph captured the Massey family anguish as Sue and Ken Massey watched their beloved home, their livelihood, their life’s blood, sold off to the highest bidder. Three decades later, Sue Massey has written a memoir about those painful days, “Letter From The Heart: The Real Story Behind The Iconic Photograph.” Massey wrote the book in her bedroom on her iPad.
“It was kind of percolating and it felt very unfinished,” Sue said. “I kept looking at that photograph thinking, there’s so much more to the story. I just felt this yearning to write the real story behind the iconic photograph.”
The Massey family lived and worked on the land in rural Hollandale for three generations. Ken’s grandfather bought the farm and handed it down to Ken’s father.
“I always knew when I was very young that I so much wanted a large family and I wanted to raise them on the farm,” Sue said. “That was really important to me.”
Ken said he first realized the farm was in serious financial trouble in 1982. His father had stopped milking dairy cows and invested in chickens instead.
“The bills were mounting and egg prices were falling. Sue and I bought some heifers and we thought we were going to make money,” Ken said. “We paid 18 and a half percent interest. You think you’re going to make money on that?”
Sue shared his concern.
“I thought, ‘What are we going to do?’ Ken’s got all these gifts and talents but ask a farmer to write a resume. It doesn’t transfer on paper,” she said.
In the mid ‘80s, the heartland was in crisis. Land values and commodity prices plummeted while interest rates skyrocketed. Three thousand over-leveraged Wisconsin farms foreclosed within a two-year period. Sue entered a contest in Farm & Ranch magazine and won a trip to the Kansas State Fair to meet the country band Alabama. That led to an invitation to attend the first Farm Aid Concert in Champaign, Illinois, in 1985.
On March 4, 1986, Ken and Sue were at the Iowa County Courthouse in Dodgeville for the most difficult day they would ever face. After 80 years, the Massey family farm was on the auction block.
“I remember the night before the auction, we huddled the kids around a candle and we said, ‘Let’s have a family pow wow,'” Sue said. “We don’t know what this is going to feel like but we think it’s going to be like a wake.”
“It felt like Sue described, like going to a funeral,” Ken said. “That maybe if you got through it, maybe you could begin to heal afterward.”
The buyer of the farm was a feed dealer who the Masseys owed $60,000. The feed dealer still owns the property today. Ken and Sue never accepted aid from the hundreds of people who sent money.
“When people start sending you a dollar bill and they start telling you their story, how are you going to take their money?” Ken said. “It just didn’t seem right. There were a lot of people struggling.”
A photographer from the Wisconsin State Journal, L. Roger Turner, was 10 feet away from the courthouse steps when he captured the Masseys’ anguish with a single click of his camera. The photograph resonated with farmers around the world. The Masseys were on the front page of newspapers around the country.
“I think when he snapped that photograph, it was like, at that very moment, the breath ceased of something that you loved and it just stopped right there,” Sue said. “I don’t compare it to the death of a person but I think that’s what was caught.”
The day after the farm auction, the Masseys moved to a rental home on the outskirts of Barneveld to keep their kids in the same school district. After three years, Ken got a job at the University of Wisconsin and the family moved to Madison. For the past 20 years, they’ve run Massey Landscaping out of their Middleton home.
“I’m not judgmental, I’ll tell you that. Everyone has their struggles and situations, and how can you be judgmental toward them?” Ken said. “I’m probably a better person because of this.”
“In this whole thing, the fact that we’re still together and we love each other so deeply and we keep trying to move forward is the moral of our story,” Sue said.
Ken and Sue celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary in November.