On the Farm, Part 2

NOTE: After I wrote the previous piece about working with my Grandpa Ray and Great-grandpa Alfred on the farm, I asked my Grandma Arleen why Grandpa seemed so unhappy as a farmer. She told me about the long, tempestuous history of father and son farming together. I retell the story here, first starting with some background.

Herman Alfred Faltersack was born in 1899 to Oler and Kate (Temple) Faltersack in Columbus, Wisconsin. The family, who were farmers, had moved to the Faribault area in Minnesota by 1910, and eventually settled in Iosco Township in Waseca County. Alfred, as he was known, married Alma Grob of Waterville in 1919. The 1920 census found them on a rented farm and the proud parents of a son, Raymond Arthur. As the family story goes, Raymond was laid in a basket perched on the open door of the oven to keep him warm.

Although farm machinery was becoming more available, farming in those days was mostly manual labor and working with teams of horses. In addition to strong backs, farmers in those days had to have strong wills to survive. Farms were typically very small, especially by today’s standards, producing nearly all the food the family needed, and in good years, income for clothing and other necessities. In those days, farmers did not have price supports and other government programs to fall back on. Every spring planting was a new gamble. Many farmers failed and they and their families moved on to cities to find work or to new land to try again. A farmer who could stay on his land – make the bank payments – and feed his family was considered successful. Staying on the land was a source of pride.

Alfred and Almie, as she was known, farmed all their lives. According to the 1920 and 1930 censuses, they rented their farm. Their landlord was probably Alfred’s father Oler. Oler and Kate lived next door in 1920; by 1930, they had retired and moved to Elysian. The 1940 census also indicates that Alfred and Almie were renting farmland, although they owned their home. After Oler’s death in 1945 Alfred continued to rent from his mother Kate. It is unclear whether Alfred and Almie could not quite afford to buy the farm, or Kate didn’t want to sell. Regardless, Alfred was likely frustrated, maybe even humiliated by the situation.

Raymond and his sister Mary grew up on the farm with most of the extended Faltersack family living in the area. Sometimes, one or more of their cousins came to live with them when trouble was brewing in their own homes. Many of the Faltersacks were hard drinkers, and their children suffered the consequences.

All the Faltersack children did farm work from an early age. Each child was expected to pull their own weight. Ray milked the cows, cultivated the fields and worked with the threshing crews during harvest time. They grew up during the Great Depression, and made money whenever and wherever they could. During Prohibition, Ray collected bottles along the railroad tracks to sell to bootleggers. He also caught and sold bullheads for a nickel a bushel.

Grandpa Ray told me a story from Prohibition days involving a picnic and home-brewed beer. When they were about 12 years old, Ray and a friend spied some bottles of beer in the back of an old Stanley Steamer at a picnic. When no one was looking, they snuck up to the car, swiped as many bottles as the could, and ran down into a ravine to drink them. Being their first experience with home brew, they did not know to avoid drinking the yeast in the bottles. Grandpa said they got “sicker than hell.”

Ray had a cousin named Ione who had a friend named Arleen Hawthorne. Ione and Arleen did everything together, including climbing on top of parked car to watch the fireworks one Fourth of July. As they were oohing and ahhing, the cloth roof of the car gave way under their weight and they found themselves in the back seat laughing hysterically. Grandma said they bailed out of the car and ran away before the owner returned.

Ray and Arleen began dating in their early teens. When Ray was 20 and Arleen just 17, they decided to get married. He being Catholic and she being Lutheran, there was little chance of their families approving the union. So the lovebirds eloped. Ray cashed in his life insurance policy, took Alfred’s Model A and drove Arleen to Iowa where they were married by a Justice of the Peace. On returning to the farm, the new bride was met at the door by Almie, who asked Arleen if she was pregnant. Arleen replied “no” and Almie said “welcome to the family.”

Ray and Arleen lived with Alfred and Almie in the early years of their marriage, helping with the farm. Ray also worked off the farm, mowing peas for a local cannery. When World War II broke out, Ray’s draft status was II-C, a deferment for men “necessary for farm labor.” Throughout the war, Ray was required to check at the courthouse regularly to see if his draft status changed. Several of his cousins as well as Arleen’s brother Dewey served. The Faltersack farm was where they gathered when on leave.

After the war, Ray continued to work with Alfred on the farm. Increasingly, they became at odds over farm operations. Other conflicts involving Grandma Kate and Alfred’s siblings also added to the tension. Grandma Arleen recalls one argument ending when Ray told his Dad “sell the damn cows, I don’t care.” So Alfred did. This left Ray and Arleen without a future.

After deciding they needed to move on, Ray and Arleen held an auction on the farm. The extended family attempted to interfere with the auction by getting the sheriff involved. Ray had some pending legal troubles after an altercation with his brother-in-law, who was abusive to Ray’s sister Mary. The brother-in-law, with help from one of Ray’s uncles, insisted the sheriff shut down the sale and arrest Ray. Ray’s cousins intervened and convinced the sheriff to let the sale proceed. Ray eventually paid a fine for beating up his brother-in-law.

The young couple headed north in 1948, leaving Waseca County and their troublesome relatives behind. While looking for a place to start over, they stopped at a little beer joint called the Cozy Coach in Westbury, a remnant of a town located north of Detroit Lakes. The Coach was a converted railroad car that featured a bar as well as a few groceries and a gas pump out front. A house connected to the back of the Coach served as a residence. After a few beers, the owner, Henry Katzenberger, convinced the couple to buy the Cozy Coach.

Operation of the business fell largely to Arleen, as Ray was busy launching his custom baling service. He had noted on earlier trips up north that farmers in the area were still harvesting hay by stacking, a method that orignated centuries ago. Ray was familiar with a brand new technology, the hay baler, and soon was baling hay from one end of Becker County to the other and beyond. Ray and Arleen and their three kids were prospering.

A few years later, Alfred and Almie moved north. Alfred, then in his 50s, bought a 160-acre farm a half-mile west of Westbury. Soon it became evident that Alfred needed help on the farm. He needed Ray. So Ray reluctantly became Alfred’s farming partner again.

Soon, the old tensions between the two men resurfaced.  The father’s pride was tied being a successful farmer. The son’s loyalty was tested again.

Knowing all this history, thanks to Grandma Arleen, gives me a better understanding of Grandpa Ray and his relationship with his “Pa”. Grandpa Ray didn’t want to be a farmer.