In 1884, my great Grandpa Johann decided he wanted to emigrate to the US from Langnau, Switzerland. They had 4 kids and they sent over the oldest son to check it out. He was 19 at the time. He went first and sent a letter back home to tell the rest of the family that this is a good place to live and that they should all come. The rest of the family came over by boat on a 6-week journey. After a while of living here, they found this farm for sale. My great grandpa, who changed his name to John when he was here, bought it with 320 acres. I think the main driving force of them coming here was their pioneer spirit and the Land-Grant opportunity at that time.
The oldest son Albert was going to take over the farm, but he died so Ernst took it over. Ernst was my grandpa. In 1900, he married a teacher and I think she dedicated herself to the family shortly after they got married. Ernst had pigs, laying hens, and he principally milked short-horn cattle. We are guessing that he milked 20-25 cows. Everything was done by hand and with horses, including all the crops. Early planting corn was done by using a hand tool, one step at a time. Ernst bought the first tractor and my dad bought tractors and more equipment like a combine and a corn picker. When I look at our farm, it is interesting how things have evolved over the generations.
There were 4 of us kids growing up and we all helped out. After chores, I remember the freedom of cooling off by riding my bike on the country road near home. My dad probably figured that if he had 3 sons, one of them would take over the farm. I imagine he was disappointed that one of us didn’t take it over right way, but I also think he probably understood farming was changing. Our cropland was separate from the house and there wasn’t an easy way to get there up on the bluff. It took time and time was money. Back in the day, you had more time and things started to change when I was of the age to take over the farm.
I interrupted college to join the Peace Corps in India. We started a cooperative to manufacture little implements for gardens and fields. By helping them, I experienced the basics of Industrial Engineering. When I came back, I finished college. After getting married, I went to Racine to work for J.I. Case and lived there with my young family. After 11 years, there were opportunities to move into upper management and I realized that I was not interested in that and I didn’t want to live in an industrial city anymore. At that point, my dad was a scaled down farmer; he was sharecropping with a neighbor and was raising dairy heifers for another farmer. He tried selling the farm because I wasn’t sure I wanted to come home. However, the farm did not sell right away and I decided to move home and buy it.
When I made the decision to go home, everyone said, “You must be really happy you are going home.” It never occurred to me that that is what I was doing, I just thought of it as going to a different place. However, there is this point behind our house on top of the bluff. I call it Inspiration Point. When I hiked up to it for the first time after moving back home, it sunk in. I said wow, this is God’s country. It reminded me of being a kid here and made me feel like I had come home.
I found a job in Winona and so the farm was more for conservation and for our kids. They raised beef cattle. My middle daughter Heidi has fond memories of raising a calf for 4-H. Her name was Peanut and she showed her at the fair all the way up until she had her calf, Squirt. We didn’t plan on milking her, but calf came before market so we ended up milking her. We got up together at 5am every day to milk her and did it by hand the first couple of times. Luckily our neighbor loaned us a portable milker to speed up the process. She produced more than what Squirt needed so we used the remaining milk for meals and made butter and ice cream. We did not train her for it so it was challenging. I remember having to attach the unit carefully so she didn’t kick it off. It felt like we milked her for a long time, but Heidi says it may have only been a month. It was a lot of work since Heidi was going to school and I was driving to Red Wing for work.
Although our family is not farming anymore, we love living out here and being a part of a rural community. My daughter Karen owns the farm now with her family. We rent out the farmland to our neighbors and manage the rest as forest, pasture, and stream. We have harvested timber, restored the trout stream for fishing, and turned some pasture into CRP land. We also hunt. The kids just enjoyed being here. I look at our lifestyle as a rural way of life and it seems like it is gravitating more towards that because farming is under stress.
I love communing with nature at every turn and seeing birds and deer. To me, rural seasons are special. Even though I am not growing crops myself right now, I like following crop progressions. It is something to be able to walk on the same land and drink from the same spring as everyone before me, especially the first generation that did not have a well when they bought the farm. I love the feeling that those before me had the same community connections.