Pankonin farm reaches century status
SANBORN -- When the Pankonin family built a new barn in 1941, George Pankonin remembers the carpenters looked to the east -- over the land that frequently flooded -- and asked, "Do you think you'll ever make a living on this farm?"
"Well, I didn't know," George reflected, "but I was going to try."
More than 100 years after George's father, Emil, bought the property located between Jeffers and Sanborn, the Pankonin family not only made a living but built a successful business and family legacy.
Emil's parents, Ludwig and Bertha Pankonin, moved from Germany to the United States in 1880, settling on a farm near Dodge Center where Ludwig farmed and operated a blacksmith shop. The family eventually moved to a farmhouse in Germantown Township in Cottonwood County that the Pankonin family believes was located across the road from the farm eventually bought by Emil Pankonin.
"We're a little cloudy on the details," explained George's son, Bruce Pankonin. "It's possible he also lived on another site, but for most of the time, he lived across from the farm."
In 1909, Emil married Katie Rupp, who taught at a country school about a mile away from the farm she and Emil would buy a few years later. The young couple started their life together renting a small farm in the area with poor results -- the first year was too dry and the second was too wet.
In 1911, Emil and Katie bought the farm where they would spend the next 31 years and purchased 160 acres from J. L. Harr for $50 per acre.
The following year, Emil built a large livestock barn. He was so busy building the barn that year that he didn't start harvesting his corn until Nov. 12 and had to ask his brother-in-law to help get the crop in.
The next improvement to the farm site was building a new home for Emil and Katie's growing family in 1914. The couple took out a $3,200 mortgage for the home where Emil and Katie would eventually raise their four daughters: Elsie (Nickel), Linda (Leopold), Viola (Menken), Arlene (Orloske); and two sons: Reinhold and George.
Shortly after George's sister, Linda, was born, the family moved the original homesteaded house they had been living in to another location on the property.
"After Linda was born, Grandma had to make all the food for the carpenters and the house movers that were over," Emil's granddaughter, Diane Dick, said. "She had the cook stove in the old house and the pie was baking and they moved the house and the pie kept baking."
By the time the pie was finished, the house was moved.
The old house was used to raise chickens, and the Pankonin siblings used to tease Linda about being the only Pankonin born in the chicken house.
Growing up, Emil and Katie's children played active roles on the farm. George, now 90, still has stories to tell about life there.
He often milked cows with his sisters.
"When they came out to milk, I would squirt them," George said with a chuckle.
"I remember you saying that it was Elsie (George's sister) that taught you how to squirt milk and she used to squirt you," Diane added with a laugh.
George attended country school where his mother once taught and walked along the road or cut through the fields to get to class.
"Depending on the weather -- Ma was always afraid of the weather. Where we crossed the fence, she eventually put a stile there" George said.
George's mother worried about the fence for good reason. In 1934, George's sister, Viola got caught in the fence walking home from school during a snowstorm. It was 22-below out, and Viola almost lost both of her legs in the storm.
As his children grew, Emil continued to divide his focus between crops and livestock.
Before the family had trucks to transport the animals, they often drove cattle to Jeffers or Sanborn along the road.
"I remember, because one time I wanted to see what was going on, and I walked down to the corner and my dad's car was sitting there," Emil's daughter, Arlene Orloske, recalled. "I got tired and I was under the impression that they were coming back soon, so I laid down on the running board and fell asleep."
Because the family frequently bought and sold cattle in Jeffers and Sanborn, the Pankonin farmhouse had telephone lines from each of the two communities and often served as unofficial operators for their neighbors.
"We were like Grand Central Station," Arlene said. "People from Jeffers would call and ask what the price of eggs was in Sanborn to see if they could get a better price, or people from Sanborn would call to ask us to find out what movie was playing in Jeffers."
In the 1930s, George's brother, Reinhold, a lifelong bachelor, created a wooden frame that was used to make concrete corner posts, many of which can still be seen in the area.
"My brother was a good carpenter and mechanic and a good checker player," George said. "He was the best player in the state. They wanted him to write a book, but he wouldn't do it."
As Emil got older, his sons, George and Reinhold, took on increasing responsibilities on the farm, with George focusing on the farming and Reinhold focusing on the livestock.
In 1942, Emil built a livestock buying station in Jeffers. Shortly after, George took over most of the farming operation in a 50-50 agreement with Emil, and in 1946, Emil retired from the livestock buying business, which was taken over by Reinhold.
In 1947, George married Eunice Zettler, a "city girl" from Comfrey, though George remembers she didn't want to move to the farm until it had electricity.
"He got electricity later than most of the families around," Bruce said. "The neighbors wanted him to get it, but he'd say it was just something we didn't need."
Eunice may not have grown up on a farm, but the family said she "did the housework and kept the family going."
"She learned to listen to the markets for my dad," Arlene added. "If you were having dinner, it was quiet whenever the markets came on."
Throughout his life, Emil refused to tile the property, even though the fields were so wet that his children often ice-skated on them during the winter. After Emil died in 1967, George began tilling the land.
"He didn't want to (tile) because he liked the wildlife and ducks," George explained. "When you'd step here, it's so wet it'll squish out over there. He didn't understand tile."
"Dad did the tiling over three years, but he always said if he had done it all the first year, it would have been better, because he got such better crops," Bruce added.
In 1961, George purchased a baler with a neighbor, Glen Meyer, for $1,600. The first day he used it, George said he baled a total of 1,400 bales by himself. He remembers being told "you'll never get that thing paid for," but after running the baler for 25 years, George estimated more than 270,000 bales had gone through the machine.
While George's brother, Reinhold, may have been the one to focus on livestock, George was also very active in cattle production and went to Windom, Walnut Grove and Sleepy Eye on a regular basis to buy cattle. In 1977, George was named Cottonwood County Beef Producer of the year for his dedication to the industry and in recognition of his beef-feeding operation.
In 1999, George sold the last of his cattle, and for the first time there were no cattle on the Pankonin farm.
In spite of the challenging conditions in the farming industry, George said he was always confident he would be able to make a living for his family -- except for one year when Eunice got very sick.
"That was the one time I thought I was going to lose the farm," he said. "I wondered if I could pay her bills. That was the worst I ever went through."
"You just never knew for sure if you were going to make it or not," Diane added.
Today, the two parcels of land owned by George are rented out, and Bruce said he intends to keep the land in the family.
"Dad was a very conservative farmer," Bruce said. "The same principles apply today as they did then -- you don't spend more than you make. He was a good manager, (he) understood costs and did what (he) could to get the most for the cattle. It wasn't book learning, but it was gained by doing it."
Many of the Pankonin family members have a strong interest in the family's history. Arlene's daughter, Diane Dick, has published multiple books on the family's history and said she is currently working on one about her grandparents' story.
"I'm 62, and it didn't hit me until I was about 60. All the sudden you think, 'I won't live forever,' and when you're gone, you need to be able to tell people what you did," Bruce said of the importance of knowing family history and leaving a legacy.
The family history is already being carried on, and Bruce said his daughter is already starting to ask questions about where her family came from.
After spending more than two hours laughing and reminiscing, Diane spread out her arms as if to embrace the 100 years of history the farm has seen.
"This is why the century farm is important to us," she said.
Daily Globe Reporter Alyson Buschena may be reached at 376-7322.