Yesterday we visited my dad on the farm. While there, I helped orchestrate an interview that prompted him (Dennis) to share details about his growing up years, recorded here for posterity’s sake.
Dennis grew up on the farm, which has been in the Wolters family since 1892. To go to elementary school, he walked two miles to the one-room country schoolhouse in the neighborhood. One winter day, he walked all the way home with no gloves. He got pneumonia. His mother scolded him and told him it was the result of not wearing anything on his hands in such cold weather.
Dad is the blond boy in the second row from the blackboard, third one back. His four siblings are in the photo too.
When he was growing up, weddings were held right on the farms. He named several families in the neighborhood who had built a garage or new shed in order to have a space to host these gatherings. As a kid, he never complained about going to such functions (or to church either). They took what ever opportunities that presented themselves to get off the farm and socialize.
Once he completed eighth grade, he rode the bus to school in Little Falls, about 10 miles from the farm. Grammar was a challenge for him in high school. They expected him to know what a subject and a verb were, he recalled, but he’d never learned that in grade school. After graduating from high school, he did a short stint in the Army. It was then he knew he definitely wanted to be a dairy farmer. His peers in the Army laughed at him. They believed he didn’t have enough money to farm. But he was determined.
He returned to his home and told his father Fred he wanted to buy the farm. Fred was a bit reluctant to sell, but his son gave him an ultimatum: sell me this farm or I’ll find another one to buy. So in 1965, Dennis purchased the farm where he grew up, 120 acres of land, 12 cows, plus all the buildings and machinery for $12,000. A hundred dollars per acre was the going rate at that time. It was a contract for deed arrangement. He had to make an annual payment, and if he wasn’t able to pay the portion of interest plus principle that was due, he lost it all. Making the first few installments were a challenge, but he managed to scrape by.
What he didn’t tell my sons, but I happen to know, was that he gradually added more cows and his income went up. Then he bought nearby land, increasing the size of the current farm to 359 acres. He has never taken out an operating loan. His approach, which has seen him through more than 50 years of farming, is save in advance and pay as you go. Now his son Wayne has taken over the majority of the day-to-day farm responsibilities (and the same business approach.) Dennis still plays an important role in getting all the animals fed and cared for daily; retirement isn’t in his vocabulary. They’re currently milking 132 cows. This is still considered a small family farm. (You’ve got to keep expanding just to stay in business, it seems.)
One of the unexpected silver linings in all this time off from school is that children can pursue learning opportunities with more input from their elders. We can encourage them to collect information from previous generations that may help them better understand their personal heritage and even perhaps their identity.