Barbecues, fireworks and extra vacation days are what Fourth of July means to many Americans. But for members of the Greatest Generation, including 90-year-old Marengo County farmer W. G. (Billy) Rentz, celebrating America’s freedom means much more.
“I turned 18 Feb. 26, 1944; graduated Linden High School May 26, and was sworn into the U.S. Army June 26,” said Rentz. “The next year, on my 19th birthday, was my first day in a foxhole on the front line in Europe. Until I went into the Army, I had only been out of Marengo County twice.”
Rentz was in the 44th Infantry, which saw limited battle in Europe, but he recalls the sound of bullets whizzing overhead and soldiers who didn’t make it home.
“It was war, but the soldiers I knew were not fighting against anyone as much as they were fighting for our freedom,” he said. “I’ve never regretted serving my country.”
Rentz returned home to the farm when the war ended. Cotton was still king in the South and the staple of their family farm in the Campground community. The family also owned a cotton gin, ran a sawmill and raised cattle.
“My daddy had the crops in the ground when I came home from the Army, and I started right back helping him,” Rentz said. “I’ve been farming ever since.”
Rentz has seen a lot of changes to agriculture. He recalls when his father, the late George Godfrey Rentz Jr. bought a one-row cotton picker in 1965. Before that, everything was hand-picked.
As years and low prices crept up on Rentz, he stopped growing row crops — not enough money and too much work, he said. Today, he has beef cattle and still bales several tons of hay each year for winter feed.
Rentz is a lifelong bachelor who lives in the house where he grew up. His brother, Irvin Gray Rentz, 88, lives nearby with his family.
A Gideon and devout leader of the Campground Methodist Church, Rentz has been a Marengo County Farmers Federation board member 55 years — 10 as president; the rest as secretary-treasurer.
Marengo County Farmers Federation President Meador Jones described Rentz as an icon of integrity.
“He’s been a mentor to me since I became (Marengo County) president in 2001,” Jones said. “He has a remarkable memory. Everything he does is done with integrity. He has dedicated his life to his church, his country, farming and Farm Bureau. Men like him are what made our country and this organization great.”