This blog is Part One of a four-part series describing the search for the history of a modern-day organic farm outside of Lawrence, Kan.
The farm that my husband and I bought in 1976 was forty acres of hilly, eroded soil, sagging barbed-wire fences and dilapidated buildings. We were young, energetic and poor, and set about fixing those things that did not require much money. We hauled and spread manure, used old baling wire to repair the fences, and wondered where to begin on the old house (pictured in the 1890s, at left) — was it worth fixing up, or did it need to be torn down? Where do you begin with a farm that needs work on almost everything?
With our brand new property, which we named Høyland farm after my Norwegian ancestors, came a priceless document — an abstract. Before putting it away in the safe deposit box, I read it over and was entranced by the hints of the stories there: Otto and Augusta Bruchmiller, the loss of the farm at a sheriff's sale during the Depression, Maynard Wipprecht returning from WWII with his Scottish bride to live on a Kansas farm. I yearned to know the rest of the story, but as the years passed, we were busy rearing our sons, fixing up the old house (instead of tearing it down), trying to keep the animals fenced in, raising fruits and vegetables and working in town as teachers to pay the bills. There wasn't time to pursue a serious inquiry, nor did I really know where to start.
But children grow up, projects get finished (well, some of them — we still don't have a garage), and time begins to open up. I realized that I had the key to begin my search for the past — the abstract, filled with the names of everyone who had owned this farm. It even had some stories of death and divorce, to clarify the title of the property. I just needed a way to follow the names. Starting with clues and stories from neighbors and moving on to the internet, I tracked virtually all of the names, sometimes finding living descendants who could help me with my search.
When a neighbor showed me a family booklet telling his family's history, I found one of the names that I had been searching for: Gertrud Bruchmiller. Gertrud had married the neighbor boy, Arthur Skeet. Their daughter, Fredericka, was mentioned in the book, along with her name and address (pictured as a child at right). She was living near Seattle.
Fredericka and I began to correspond by email, and our farm's story slowly emerged. When I wrote to her, I told about what was happening on our farm now and speculated about how it would have been when her grandparents lived here. Because she was over ninety years old, I did most of the writing. For two or three years, Fredericka sent me photos and stories of her family. We chatted on the phone and came to feel very close to each other. I finally persuaded her to let me come visit for a few days, although she felt nervous about actually meeting me. I, too, was a bit nervous — but very excited.
My trip to Seattle was thrilling: meeting Fredericka personally, probing for memories, looking through albums and documents together. At the end of my brief stay, Fredericka gave me most of her old family albums and documents. I had to buy a suitcase to carry them home.
Using the documents and stories, I was able to trace the Bruchmillers back to Germany using internet genealogical sites, to the beginning of Bruchmiller Farm. To the beginning of Hoyland Farm, my farm.
A letter written to Fredericka on May 30, 2006:
We are having a wonderful rain, the second in two days. The ponds are full, the stream is running and the crops are happy. Bob is out transplanting tomatoes and will not come in until he is done or it is pouring. We create a lot of dirty, soggy clothes. I weeded the asparagus, black raspberries and carrots. We just got our first carrots of the season. They are small, but tasty. We will have some for dinner. I came in BEFORE the rain.
Tomorrow I will be back to painting if it is not too wet. The house is white with red trim. The neighbors cannot remember if being any color but white, and in the places where I can see old paint (in the attic, where an addition was put on) it is white. I think long ago the trim was green. In the gully in the woods, way back behind the house, we found the posts that once held up a porch roof. They are round, turned posts, as many houses had. I know the house had a back porch, and maybe a front porch too. Now there is just a back porch. Nobody uses the front door of the house, except maybe to let the cat out.
Read Part Two of this series, Immigrant Stories, to find out how the Bruchmillers came to own a farm in Kansas.