NEW AUBURN — Few people living can tell the stories of the rocky, rolling farm fields and woods west of New Auburn quite as vividly, or with as much firsthand knowledge, as Verna Klemish.
Klemish, who celebrated her 100th birthday in February surrounded by family and friends, grew up in these hills, farmed and taught school here and still lives independently on the small farm now run by her son, Randy, and his son, Joe, 29 — the fifth generation to farm here.
Klemish has lived through 18 presidencies. She remembers life with no electricity and carrying lanterns to the barn to milk cows by hand. With no milk trucks at the time, milk was stored in cans for delivery by truck to local creameries.
She credits much of her longevity to a balanced diet that includes a variety of nutritious foods, herbal supplements and no junk food such as soda. She starts her day with a big breakfast — cereal topped with milk, cinnamon and a tablespoon of nuts, along with a banana or strawberries.
“I wouldn’t have to eat the rest of the day,” she said. “If I keep eating the right stuff, I might do another 100.”
Her general rule of thumb is that if she looks at a food label and can’t pronounce most of what’s on it, she probably shouldn’t put the product in her body.
“She always preaches to me that you should eat some of everything. Everything has something in it your body needs,” Randy said.
At least part of the reason for Verna’s long life likely is due to her feistiness, which includes second-guessing doctors who try to prescribe more medications for her. She says she can’t remember the last time she was sick, she takes just one pill — for a heart condition — and does her own health research through books and magazines.
“I do everything but what the doctors tell me,” she said. “I doctor myself.”
Her guilty pleasure? An ice cream cone at 3 p.m. Neapolitan, if it’s available. And she indulges in a square of dark chocolate each morning.
Along with diet, Verna, a grandmother of five and great-grandmother of three, is a firm believer in staying active, physically and mentally. Word finds help keep her mind sharp.
“I got a lot of exercise on the farm between cows and picking rock,” she said, adding that, as a wife and mother of two, she kept a large garden and did a lot of canning.
Growing up, she said, “Dad always had a job for us,” whether it was digging quackgrass or filling milk pails with wild berries picked from the bluffs surrounding the farm to sell in town.
“We never had time to take a rest; he always had little jobs for us,” she said. “Every time we had nothing to do, he’d give us a pail of salt and have us go along the woods and kill the thistles.”
Verna, who relies on a walker to get around the house, said she still does as much as she’s able to do as far as cleaning and cooking, although it’s difficult to open the oven door, and she regularly uses an exerciser. She keeps most things she needs at an easy-to-reach level, to avoid falls.
She only goes out if someone accompanies her. Randy, who lives next door, checks on her every day, assisting with chores such as opening jars and fetching items, and brings her mail and groceries.
“Sometimes, I forget to pay him,” Verna admits. “If I didn’t have Randy, I couldn’t stay by myself. ... He’s my legs.”
Her eyesight still is pretty good, although her memory is short and she can’t hear in one ear. Hearing aids only “made everything noisier,” so she returned them, she said. Several years ago, she had a pacemaker put in to help control heart rhythm, and she’s had gallbladder surgery and both hips replaced.
She said she doesn’t have much feeling in her hands anymore and often feels weak and “shaky,” and her balance is failing. Finding shoes is tricky, she said, as her feet are two different sizes.
“I’m getting pokey all over,” she concedes. “I haven’t got much strength.”
Childhood days never dull
Born in 1919, Verna grew up on a small farm about eight miles southwest of Bloomer, where the family milked about 15 cows. She and her five siblings worked hard, both in the home and around the farm, she recalls. The arrival of electricity on the farm, which was located at the end of the line, revolutionized everything from pumping water to illuminating the evening homework routine.
She had a three-mile walk to school, some winters going through very tall snowbanks. Sometimes, it was so cold that her lunch was frozen by the time she arrived at school. She said she went to school an extra year because her younger sister didn’t want to go alone.
Verna and her late husband, Vernon, who passed away in 1983 after a short illness, were married in 1942, and she moved to his home farm, where she helped out with everything from baling hay to picking rock. She recalls their first tractor in the 1950s — a Fordson with a growling transmission that could be clearly heard at work in far-off fields.
Randy said his older sister, Luanne Winget, who with her husband, Bruce, recently retired from dairy farming, remembers them farming with horses.
A college graduate, she taught for many years in local one-room schools, one with as few as nine students. She rounded out her career in the 1970s at St. Paul’s in Bloomer. One former student still sends her a card every holiday.
“I just like kids, period,” she said.
When Randy took over the farm, expanding the milking herd to about 40 cows, he and his family moved into the main farmhouse — the third home built here, in 1918 — and Verna moved to a trailer.
Farm changes with times
A lot has changed on the Klemish farm since its establishment in 1889, when the family settled here from Czechoslovakia. There have been new buildings, barn additions and land acquisitions. On a road once home to eight dairy farms, the Klemishes are the only one left.
But some things have remained the same — the focus on family and community, a love of farming and the continued challenges that come with this lifestyle. Randy said farmers like him only want to be able to make a living.
“We just need to get paid for what we do. If the price in the store would reflect the price we get on the farm, there would be no surplus,” he said. “These little farms like this, you can’t generate enough income. There’s always been somebody working off the farm. They’re all hurting right now.”
Randy said his dad used to drive a can truck to help make ends meet, and Randy’s wife, Dixie, works off the farm at the local post office. Joe’s wife teaches in Colfax.
Joe drove truck for two years before deciding he preferred farm life. He milks about 50 cows, while Randy manages the crops. The Klemishes crop 170 of their total 260 acres. They have discussed a possible herd expansion to about 100 if Joe decides to, eventually, buy the farm.
They’ve also explored alternative markets. Joe does custom baling, and with rocks plentiful throughout the property, they’ve turned this curse into a blessing by selling many of them to Chippewa County to crush for base; Barron County might buy some next year. Randy said they can harvest as much as 104 tons of rock per acre when they break new land, but once an area is clear, they’re left with nice, heavy ground for growing crops.
“It makes you work for it,” he said.
This year, they’re experimenting with a small patch of six different kinds of garlic that should be ready for its first harvest this summer. They’ve been considering the sale of straw bales for straw-bale gardeners and growing other crops such as ancient grains.
“People are getting more food-minded all the time,” he said.
As for Verna, who filled a little black book with jottings on everything from births and deaths to major farm purchases and weather events until about 2010, hopes to spend many more days witnessing the changes on the farm from her home there.
“Only the Lord knows,” she said. “I thank Him every day for being with me.”