Roy's father, brokenhearted after his wife died during childbirth, passed away himself four years later, leaving Roy to lead the family at 21. The Great Depression was unkind to farmers like Roy, but he fought to take custody of his four siblings and to keep the farm. To make it work, the entire family pulled together. Roy's sister Irene dropped out of eighth grade to raise her younger siblings and take care of the household responsibilities.
"Irene was more like a mother to me than a sister," says Ethel Coltrane Whitaker, the youngest of Roy's siblings, from the porch of the home she and her siblings grew up in. The one-story white house is immaculate. Old photographs and antiques fill the inside of the house while beds of colorful pansies and rosebushes bloom outside. A black-and-white picture of the family posing in front of the house with a horse and buggy sits in the living room, reminding them all of a very different time.
Ethel looks down at the enormous Bible spread across her lap. "My mama and daddy bought this Bible over a hundred years ago," she says. "All the births and deaths of our family members are recorded here." Her delicate finger points to the year Irene died.
All of Roy's siblings, his son, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren now live on the family farm. Despite the demanding nature of their work, there is still a simple rhythm to their lives. They have an unwavering commitment to one another. Every afternoon Branson and his wife eat lunch with Roy and Margaret. The breaking of steaming biscuits and fresh garden vegetables is more than a meal – it's a way for the family to constantly reconnect.
"I think one of the things that's kept us together is that we make time for each other," says Branson. "When I got married over 45 years ago, my father-in-law told me I [had] better be at his house every Sunday for lunch. Nearly a half century later we are still having Sunday lunch together. That's real important."
Looking at the neatly planted cornfields that stretch for miles against the autumn sky, it's hard to imagine the responsibility that goes with maintaining the land. To keep the farm going, everyone contributes. Branson and his daughter-in-law, Amy, are up by 4 a.m. every day. They begin their days at the calving barn, a giant tin structure the size of a football field. They work in a seamless rhythm nearly 365 days a year. Branson, who says he loves the stillness of early morning, drives an old all-terrain vehicle (ATV) as he shuttles between the plastic stalls where the calves are corralled, while Amy pulls out huge baby bottles for the lowing herd.