Off Beat: Farm story assignment rekindles childhood memories

Courtney Kueppers

On the first of my two trips to the Seibel family farm in rural Bloomer in late June, I held a piece of paper in my hand with directions scribbled on it in red felt-tip pen.

Donald Seibel’s daughter Debbie had recited them to me over the phone a week earlier. They were the type of directions you could never get from a GPS, the type that can only come from a person who has visited a place hundreds of times.

They included “turn left at the top of the big hill,” a personal touch a GPS has yet to offer me.

As I drove my vehicle to spend my morning with a man 70 years my senior, I couldn’t help but think about my grandfather.

My maternal grandpa, Harry Nielsen, 89, has farmed for his entire life near Gilmore City, Iowa, a town in the north-central part of that state with a population of just 500.

My grandpa’s farm is off the beaten path. It is home to two silos, a greenhouse and aging buildings from the farm’s heyday. It’s the scene of my mom’s childhood, the place where she and her five older siblings grew up and where her parents still reside.

In my memory the scene hasn’t changed much. By the time my brother, sister and I became the youngest of 14 grandchildren, the farm had calmed down drastically from its days as a full-working operation. The beef cattle that once roamed lush green pastures had been sold, along with the pigs. The barn had been torn down and replaced by a garden.

But just because my grandparents had slowed down did not mean my grandpa was done farming. These days many of the farm duties have been given to my Uncle Paul, but my grandpa continued to help until slowing recently.

Farm memories

The idea of me having farm roots may seem laughable to many who know me. I was raised in Lino Lake, Minn., a suburb just north of the buzzing Twin Cities where my parents made their home after meeting in Mankato, Minn., during college. A farmer I am not.

But as I rounded the corners past the Chippewa County community of Tilden on June 19, going where my directions scrawled in red ink directed me, I couldn’t help but feel pangs of nostalgia, recalling visits with my grandparents.

My mind wandered to the aroma of Grandma Shirley’s famous oatmeal bars that greets us at the door whenever my family visits the farm. I thought about the times my grandpa brought my siblings and me out to pick pumpkins from his garden and apples from his trees, showed us corn in his fields or offered rides on his tractors.

I remembered Christmases on the farm, with everyone packed into the living room with red stockings hung around the window: one for each of us with our names stitched in white. The crowded window frame served as evidence of our ever-growing family.

There have been countless laughs in that living room and countless hours of home videos watched, usually leaving us marvelling at how much has changed with the passage of time.

Family ties

In the time since my initial two-hour visit with Donnie Seibel at his rural Bloomer farm, I couldn’t help but think maybe he, my grandfather and their peers aren’t so different but are members of a different and arguably simpler generation.

My grandfather and Donnie worked hard to provide for their families and make an honest living on their small family farms, like those that once littered the countrysides of this nation.

In the fall I will start my junior year at UW-Eau Claire, and this summer is my first away from home. I’m spending it working as an intern at this newspaper. The last thing I expected to find during my time here was a family that in many ways parallels my own.

I worked on the story about Donnie Seibel here and there during the past month, hoping to give justice to the hard work and dedication of Donnie, his family, my grandfather and all the other farmers in this country who work day after day without a “thank you” for their efforts.

So, thank you, Donnie and Grandpa.

Kueppers can be reached at 715-833-9203, 800-236-7077 or