One family, two century farms for Hotzlers
OKABENA — Of the more than 200 century farms recognized in Minnesota this year, Rodger and Ardis Hotzler of rural Okabena have something of a rarity among honorees.
They have not one, but two, farms that have been in their family for more than 100 years. The farms were handed down from one generation to the next on both Rodger’s dad’s side and his mom’s side of the family.
“I think that’s a pretty good achievement, from both sides,” said Rodger. “That’s got to say that we’re a part of the community — we’ve been here a while.”
The Hotzlers reside on what they call the Hornickel-Hotzler Century Farm in Section 1, Ewington Township, Jackson County. The 120-acre farm was originally settled by Rodger’s great uncle, Conrad Hornickel, in 1902.
The second century farm, just a few miles down the road, in Section 24, Alba Township, is also 120 acres in size. The Hotzlers’ youngest son, Wade, his wife Tonya and their children reside there, on what is referred to as the Hesh-Hotzler Century Farm. The land was originally settled by Rodger’s great-grandfather, Jacob Hesh, in 1913.
Both farms boast several original buildings.
The story of the Hornickel-Hotzler farm is mired in tragedy, pride and perseverance — dating all the way back to 1902, when Conrad Hornickel purchased the land.
Living in Illinois at the time, with a brother, JC, in Minnesota, Conrad bought the land in Ewington Township with plans to come to the North Star state to farm it.
“He died during the move,” Rodger said, adding that while his family was laying Conrad’s body to rest, the train passed carrying all of his belongings to Minnesota.
JC, living in Lacrosse Township, Jackson County, at the time, collected Conrad’s things and rented out the land to a neighboring farmer. Since Conrad had never married, the land was turned over to his mother, Fredericka Hornickel, in Illinois.
“She never came up here,” Rodger said. “She never paid the taxes on it, so she lost it. There was a tax sale on it and my grandfather (JC) paid the back taxes, so it never left the family.”
For about $3,500, JC acquired the 120-acre farm.
The tax sale angered JC’s family back in Illinois — the remaining siblings had assumed JC was paying the taxes for their mother — and he never spoke to his Illinois family again.
Some time after JC purchased the parcel, his daughter and son-in-law decided to farm the land. They built a granary and house on the site in 1945.
When they quit farming a couple of years later, JC’s other daughter and son-in-law, Josephine and Ralph Hotzler, moved onto the site.
“They moved here in 1948,” said Rodger, who was born in 1950. He is the oldest son of six children born to Ralph and Josephine.
Having spent much of his life on the Hornickel-Hotzler farm, Rodger has many memories of the fun and hard work accomplished on the land.
One of his stories centers around the barn, built on the farm in 1953, when he was just a few years old.
“When they were building it, I liked to climb,” he said, adding that he climbed not quite to the rafters before his mother — pregnant at the time — discovered him high above the ground. Everyone seemed to be in a panic, but Rodger wasn’t scared.
It took a carpenter, with the lure of a candy bar, to bring Rodger down.
“He said, ‘If you come down, I’ll give you the 3 Musketeers bar,’” Rodger recalled. “I came down, but I didn’t get no 3 Musketeers bar.”
Instead, he got “a damn good lickin’! She let me know I shouldn’t have been up there.”
Before Rodger was old enough to help with milking chores, his folks decided to get out of dairying and shifted their herd of Milking Shorthorns to a cow-calf operation. Chickens and feeder pigs were also raised on the farm.
“It was a lot of work, but I enjoyed being on this place,” Rodger said. “I liked haying, putting up straw — I liked tractors and machinery.”
If there was one thing he didn’t like about farm life, Rodger said it was grinding feed.
“It was always so itchy!”
Rodger learned from his father the ability to repair the equipment he used on the farm, and he continues to do mechanical work for himself today.
“My dad would sooner fix something than use it,” he shared. “He was more of a mechanic than he was a farmer.”
Rodger’s dad died in 1980, and his mom remained on the farm until 1989 before moving to Heron Lake. At that time, Rodger and Ardis moved on the farm with their two sons, Weston and Wade, and purchased the farm the following year.
The couple had been farming on land in the neighborhood since 1973 and went full-time farming in 1978, when Rodger and his uncle Harold began working together. A car accident, head-on against a drunk driver in the fall of 1977, sealed Rodger’s decision.
“I planted the crop (in 1978) on crutches,” he said, adding that he spent six months in a wheelchair recovering from a broken leg, five cracked ribs and 150 stitches in his face.
The decision to go into full-time farming meant renting more land. By 1979, Rodger was farming 200 acres — considered a sizable farm back then. The following year, when he lost his dad, he started renting the Hornickel-Hotzler farm.
For the next few years, Rodger and Ardis were content in their farming operation. Things seemed to be going smoothly, but they eventually faced another hardship.
“In 1984, the bank called in our loans,” Rodger said. “Every loan was an on-demand loan, and they demanded their money.
“I wasn’t broke or filing bankruptcy,” he added. “The bank wanted their money.”
Rodger and Ardis lost their equipment, their crops and their livestock — but not the land.
“I was just renting at that time,” he said, adding that his mom still held the deed to the Hornickel-Hotzler farm.
Rodger wasn’t the only one to have his loan called in by the bank — there were others in the same neighborhood. They were all instructed to haul their equipment to a nearby farm, where it would be auctioned off to the highest bidder.
“Groundswell came in and threatened to stop the auction with a protest,” Rodger shared.
Two young auctioneers from the area ended up buying all of the equipment for 5 cents and 10 cents on the dollar of the appraised value. Then, they struck a deal with the farmers — offering to sell the equipment back to the owners at 10 cents on the dollar. It was a good deal for both the farmers and the auctioneers.
“We bought everything back but two pieces,” said Rodger, who was accompanied by his uncle Harold when he talked to the auctioneer. “I didn’t have a dime to pay for it.”
Within four hours, Rodger was told he needed to get a cashier’s check to the auctioneer and pick up his items. He just didn’t know how he was going to do it.
That’s when Harold invited Rodger over for a cup of coffee. While they sat at the kitchen table, Harold announced he had to make a phone call. When he returned, he asked if Rodger wanted to go for a ride into Okabena.
“We went up to the bank in Okabena, he pulled up at the front door and he said, ‘Sit here a couple minutes. I have to do some business.’”
Harold came back and handed Rodger a cashier’s check for the full amount of his bill to buy back his equipment.
“He said, ‘Let’s go get your equipment — you’re going to be a farmer,’” Rodger said, adding that Harold and his wife decided giving Rodger the money to buy back his stuff would be their anniversary gift to each other that year.
Rodger promised to pay them back every cent — and he did.
“(Harold) was like another father,” said Ardis.
“Harold and Lorena never had children,” Rodger added. “They had 32 nieces and nephews, and they treated every one of them very well.”
An uncle’s dream
The Hesh-Hotzler Century Farm was settled by Rodger’s great-grandfather, Jacob Hesh, in 1913, after he moved to southwest Minnesota from Macomb, Illinois. It isn’t known what lured him and his wife, Ardelia, to the land in Jackson County with their three children, William, Maggie and Amelia.
The farm grew to 400 acres during the 37 years Jacob and Ardelia called Alba Township home. When it came time to pass the land to the next generation, it was divided evenly among the three kids — William and Maggie, each of whom never married, received cropland and an acreage, while Amelia, married to August Hotzler, became the owners of the original homestead and adjoining farmland.
William and Maggie’s shares were eventually paired back with Amelia’s and transferred to the next generation — August and Amelia’s four sons. Divided evenly, 100 acres each went to Ralph, Harold, Warren and Robert.
It was Harold who settled onto the home place with his wife, Lorena.
“(The farm) at one time had two houses on it,” said Rodger, adding that August and Amelia lived in the large house and Harold and Lorena in the smaller home.
The young couple maintained 100 acres for a time, and then picked up another 20 acres after Harold’s brother, Robert, lost some land. That brought the farm size back to the original 120 acres.
In 1978, Harold and his nephew, Rodger, began farming together.
Lorena died in 2002, and Rodger purchased the farm from Harold the following year.
“When I bought the farm from Harold, the agreement was that Harold could stay there as long as he wanted or was able, and he did,” Rodger said.
In 2010, after Harold was discovered in a snow bank on New Year’s Day and brought back to good health, he transferred into an assisted living facility, where he died in 2012.
As for the future of the Hotzler family’s century farms, Rodger said they will stay in the family for “quite a few years more.”
“Plans are to give the land to my grandkids and for it to be in life estate for my son when we are gone,” Rodger said.
The couple has six grandchildren, including two from their oldest son, Weston, whom they lost to cancer in 2003.
Today, Rodger and Ardis farm 500 acres and do custom combining.
They are working on a project on each farm to signify it as a century farm. Large rocks will be engraved with the Hesh-Hotzler and Hornickel-Hotzler farms and the year they were established.
Daily Globe Reporter Julie Buntjer may be reached at 376-7330.