Courtesy of Anuta Research Center
Top: Agriculture played a key role in the development of Menominee and Marinette counties during their sprouting years. Farms like the above 2,560 acre Cloverland farm located in Whitney, a small community in northern Menominee County, gives younger generations a snapshot of the early years of agriculture. Bottom: The historic Pine Hill Farm, once owned by Sam Stephenson of Menominee was one of the premier farms in the Upper Peninsula in the early 20th century. The sprawling farm was located at the edge of the west city limits on the Highway 577 corridor. The famous two-story brick “round barn” shown on the left, housed one of the finest stables of horses in the U.P. riding horses and polo horses were later sheltered there.
Courtesy of Anuta Research Center

Top: Agriculture played a key role in the development of Menominee and Marinette counties during their sprouting years. Farms like the above 2,560 acre Cloverland farm located in Whitney, a small community in northern Menominee County, gives younger generations a snapshot of the early years of agriculture. Bottom: The historic Pine Hill Farm, once owned by Sam Stephenson of Menominee was one of the premier farms in the Upper Peninsula in the early 20th century. The sprawling farm was located at the edge of the west city limits on the Highway 577 corridor. The famous two-story brick “round barn” shown on the left, housed one of the finest stables of horses in the U.P. riding horses and polo horses were later sheltered there.

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I’m venturing into a segment of American culture today that admittedly I know little about. My topic will be on farming. Just because I was born and raised in a small city doesn’t mean I don’t have a great sense of respect and admiration for people who come from the field of agriculture.

I’ve always considered farmers to be one of the most unheralded groups of working Americans in the land. They deserve much better. I’m going to track some of my family roots and reflect on the pleasant memories I hold when I spent summer vacations on farms owned and operated by my grandfather and my two uncles.

As a newsman, I had the privilege of writing about farm life and the work they do in feeding the world. On second thought, maybe I’ve learned more about farm life than I realized.

When people talk about social and industrial changes over time they often forget about life on America’s farmland, I remember some of the old farm machinery, from hand-held implements to the complex harvesters of present-day life. Crop productions, primary and secondary tillage of the soil, fertilizer distribution and application, pest control, transportation, storage, seeding, planting and harvesting are only some of the major changes.

The old days of pitchfork and scoop shovel in dealing with livestock has turned to sophisticated machines for handling water, feed, bedding and manure. The computer-age is a keystone in farming.

My mother was raised on a farm in Manitowoc County. My grandfather — Jacob Heinzen — farmed in Iowa before settling in Manitowoc County where he operated a 90-acre farm, which he later sold to his son Herbert. My mother also had two sisters who operated farms in the Manitowoc area.

Kids today take long-journey vacations with their families to the recreation havens that were a fantasy story in the 1930s and the Great Depression. But I’d match the fun I had spending time on a farm with their joys. My cousin, Richard, and I were about the same age. After a few morning chores there was plenty of time for fun. We rounded up enough people for softball games, pitching horseshoe, wrestling in the haystacks and some of the other popular games of yesteryear like kick-the-can and hide-and-go-seek.

When the dinner bell located on the back porch rang for the laborers in the field that it was time to eat, we answered the ball, too. No matter where we were positioned we would turn the signal to eat into a foot race to the house.

While teams of horses did the burdensome work in those years, I remember my uncle’s old truck and the rides to the cheese house down the old dirt road. We would flex what muscles you would expect from second-or-third-graders to help push the truck out of the barn so sparks wouldn’t ignite the hay when it backfired when starting.

In later years I had a job driving truck for Hansen Bottling Co. (soft drinks) of Menominee. Servicing the county fairs in Wausaukee and Stephenson was a good assignment. We visited farmers who had concession stands at the fair well before the fairs opened. A tour of the farm was usually a part of the visit.

After enrolling in the newspaper business, I got to visit many farms in our two counties. There was never a scarcity of material to write a news or feature story. I never tired of listening to a farm family explain the ups and downs of their occupation. The history connected to some of the farms was fascinating.

I remember a big change in farming occurred in November 1950 when Michigan voters marched to the polls and voted for the right to buy colored oleomargarine. The spread we now call margarine was invented as a substitute for butter. The dairy lobby, working to stifle competition, had successfully opposed efforts to color the margarine to look more like butter. In fact, some states had laws that required oleo, as it was commonly called, to be colored pink so that consumers would not be confused — and so that the stuff would look nasty.

In some places, shoppers had to pay an extra tax to get yellow margarine. There was even yellow oleo smuggling. Michigan was one of seven states where the manufacturing and sale of oleomargarine was a crime.

Older Michiganders remember buying margarine in bags that contained a capsule of food coloring. They broke open the food coloring and mixed it with the margarine to make it look edible. The last state to legalize yellow oleomargarine was the dairy state of Wisconsin.

I’m not supposed to write about family secrets, but the statute of limitations is long passed on this one. When my aunts and uncles from the farms in Manitowoc County would come to visit us here in Menominee, they would often buy cases of oleomargarine and conceal it in the trunks of their cars before returning home. That’s called smuggling.

There’s something about old farms that intrigue people, and I’m not thinking of the provoking land developers who want to gobble up rich farm property and move the city closer to rural life whether it be highways, bridges, shopping malls or housing projects. The lonely barns picture a rural heritage at risk. A barn, stripped of its siding, stands proud above a field of grass. Photographers, artists, poets and novelists can’t find enough of them.

A roof is usually the first to go on a barn, battered threadbare by wind and rain. The siding, faded to a driftwood gray, follows. The foundation begins to crumble and doors hang from rusty hinges. 

There are no other old vintages of life on a farm. Old water pumps are reminders of rural living. Broken down fences and tottering sheds where machines once were stored serve as lasting reminders of a special era. 

Farms have declined in large numbers in recent decades, spurred by lifestyle changes and unpredictable economy. There are other factors that cause the nation to lose its grip on a great American heritage. 

We need to freeze the farms of yesteryear and give younger generations an image of what the ghosts of our rural landscape looked like. All of the laboring men, women and children who embraced the calling in the past, and those who continue to do so now, deserve our respect and gratitude.