By: David Laatsch
Cutting through the early morning gray-black sky, the sun once again begins its diurnal journey. Struggling to surrender its dominance, the night gives way – at first a purple-blue, then an orange and finally a yellow-white. Morning has broken. The newborn light illuminates the cool, moisture-laden fog appearing in the lower fields. The dew moistens the grass. Crisp brown corn leaves rustle as a soft northwest breeze begins to pump life into a new day across the West ½ of the Northeast ¼ of Section 16, Town 12 North, Range 14 East.
As the dusk-to-dawn yard light flickers its last beams Janet (Keil) Arndt heads to the barn to tend her 25 Angus-Cross beef cows, their calves and 20-30 Holstein steers. Her size 8 work boots saunter the same 60 paces across the yard as six generations of her ancestors have done each morning for 150 years before her. For a century and a half the Keil Family has toiled, celebrated success, overcome discouragement and stood proudly on their roughly 80 acre farm in the Town of Trenton. This land has produced milk, meat and grains that have sustained thousands of families since the time of the Civil War. Time and new technology has required many of the old buildings be replaced with modern pole buildings, yet the farmhouse and old barn remain steadfast since the 1800s.
On Tuesday, August 7, 2012, Janet and Duane Arndt and the Keil family were recognized at the Wisconsin State Fair as stewards of a Sesquicentennial Farm. They became one of only 616 families in the state to have been recognized for continuous family farm ownership for more than 150 years.
The farm’s ownership began with a matriarchal influence, when Anna Barbara Keil and her husband Theodore Huth purchased the farm from Wolfgang Zimmerman, the original deed holder. Anna Barbara, the daughter of George and Anna Maria Keil, was born in 1811, near Erbach, Hessen Darmstadt, Germany, the eldest of six children. At age 27 she immigrated to Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. Hardship, indicative of the times, challenged Anna Barbara, as two husbands died. Her parents and siblings immigrated to join her in 1846. A year later in 1847, Anna Barbara moved once again, this time to Milwaukee. Her mother and siblings followed upon the death of her father. Anna Barbara met Theodore Huth and married in 1851. Huth was a Prussian immigrant and a prominent businessman. He moved his wife to Beaver Dam five years later where he was elected Mayor, founded the German National Bank and was a director of the Cotton Mill. Whether the purchase of the farm on December 13, 1862 was a business investment, a country get-away or perhaps a final resting place for the Huth’s three infant children (infants were often buried on farms in those days) is unknown.
Anna Barbara and Theodore sold the farm to her brother, (Johann) Philip Keil in October of 1866. Described as a “good man and highly respected citizen,” Philip and his wife Anna carved out a living on the family farm. Cutting trees, grubbing stumps and digging stones on this niche of Oak Savannah woodland, the Keils made a good living. The brick house became the family’s home and a wood-beamed barn was constructed to house the horses, cows and other livestock. Their six children that survived to adulthood bore names upon which the Beaver Dam community was built on, Mrs. John Herr, Mrs. Julius Miller, Mrs. Anna B. Gutgesell, John Keil and Mrs. Margaret Keller. But it was Samuel and his wife Lucetta (Jung) that continued the lineal ownership of the Keil Farm by transfer from his father and mother in 1891. Samuel and his family would face the same sunrise as his ancestors for the next 27 seasons with two daughters and a son Philip.
Upon his father’s retirement from farming in 1918, Philip and his wife Laura (Lidtke) lived on the “home place” until 1925 when Philip’s growing family of five, Frederick, Phillip, Barbara (Gutgesell), Caroline (Strohschein) and Ruth Ann (Polzin), moved to a 30-acre farm in the Town of Beaver Dam (located just north of the city where Culver’s is today), and hired help was brought on to operate the Trenton farm; the hired help was often displaced farmers, as the years after World War I were difficult for farmers. Frederick recorded that there was lots of family to share picnics with, and the biggest community event occurred when the circus came to town. The farm was located near the train tracks; Fred would run to meet the circus to pitch out the manure in the boxcars in order to get a couple of tickets to see the show.
Fred worked for his dad on the Beaver Dam and Trenton farms throughout his high school years. A year after graduating from high school in 1934, his dad bought one of the first rubber-tired tractors in the neighborhood, a WC Allis-Chalmers. Future Farmers of America, 4-H and the Dodge County Fair gave Frederick the opportunity to meet Florence Birkholz. After their marriage in 1938, the newlyweds moved to the “home farm.” Five children, Marlene, David, Robert, Margaret and Marcia grew up on the farm of their ancestors. Fred and Florence purchased the farm from his parents in 1958, and for 30 more growing seasons, the sun would rise each morning, as Fred would go about his daily chores.
Then in 1988, ownership would pass to the sixth generation of the Keil Family. Bypassing son David and Sharon Keil whose farm is adjacent to the “home farm,” granddaughter Janet and Duane Arndt sustain the uninterrupted family bond to this piece of land. A not-so-atypical modern farm family, Duane works at Apache Stainless Equipment in Beaver Dam by day and crops the “home farm” and the neighboring farm by night. Corn and soybeans are raised for feed for the cattle or sold as a cash crop. Starting at sunrise and ending when exhausted, farm work stops at 7:00 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. each school day when Janet drives a school bus route for Johnson Bus Company. Calving season is usually March and April and is always hectic. Janet oversees her cow-calf beef herd, while cooperating with her dad and brother Wayne in the production of “club calves” in an operation called A-K Acres Show Cattle. Wayne, his wife Dawn and son Easton live one section to the west of the “home farm.” Their sister Karen and Tom Gibson have moved to Juneau, yet maintain connections to the farm.
Janet explains it best: “We are proud to be the caretakers of this farm. It is the ‘home farm’ for so many cousins, aunts and uncles and generations to come. The ‘climbing tree’ out front is as much theirs as it is ours. Their memories intertwine here. This farm, this land and all of our relatives make up our family.” Life and land go on together.