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Vona Mae and John Vihlen stand on the field approach with the remnants of the farm originally settled by Frans and Anna Christina Vihlen in the upper left. (Julie Buntjer/Daily Globe)

Settled in 1896, Vihlen farm has been in family for 118 years

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Settled in 1896, Vihlen farm has been in family for 118 years
Worthington Minnesota 300 11th Street / P.O. Box 639 56187

John Vihlen’s grandparents, Frans and Anna Christina Vihlen, purchased the farm from the Langseth Brothers (Nils O., Jens and Martin) in 1896. The original parcel was 80 acres, purchased for $20 per acre.

“(Frans) worked on the Rock Island Railroad until he purchased the farm,” explained John, who resides with wife Vona Mae on a farm a mile and a half down the road from the farm his grandparents settled. The railroad ran just a quarter-mile from the farm site.

The site had a house on it at the time, said Vona Mae, adding that a stone foundation could be seen on the property.

Frans and Anna Christina had been actively farming in Sweden but came into financial trouble after signing a note for someone who ultimately went bankrupt. They lost a sizable farm that included servants and servants’ quarters.

When the matter was cleared up, the Vihlens — like so many other Swedes at the time — emigrated to the United States.

“They were disgusted with the whole system, so they decided to go to the land of opportunity,” said John.

They made the move in 1896 with their two sons, destined for Superior, in Dickinson County, Iowa, because they knew a family there.

John still has the trunk his grandparents sent to the Jacobson family in America ahead of their travels.

Frans’ work on the railroad was brief before finding the parcel for sale in Indian Lake Township. Once the purchase was made, the family finished constructing a new home in 1898 — using boards from the old house to eventually construct a shop and machine shed. Other buildings added included a barn, chicken house, garage, granary and corn crib.

“Right outside the house they built a dry well,” said John, describing the structure as lined with stone and about four feet in diameter. “They could put their milk, butter and cream down there. It would be colder down there at 14 feet. If the rope broke, I guess you had a problem.”

Frans, who attended agricultural school in his homeland of Sweden, did numerous tree plantings on the farm site, and did his own grafting of fruit trees. There were a variety of apple, crab apple and plum trees growing on the farm, as well as a 16-foot-square border of lilac bushes.

“You’d walk in through the bushes and you’d be inside (a courtyard),” shared John. “Church was the center of all activities back then, so the church ladies would stop over and they’d go out there and talk Swedish and have coffee.”

Anna Christina had a large loom and wove rag rugs, in addition to selling garden produce in Round Lake, eggs and honey from their own bee hive.

The barn was large enough for eight horses and eight milk cows, and the chicken house held 300 hens. There were also pigs in the barn and ducks and geese roaming the yard.

“When she went to town and sold things, she talked Swedish and most of the people in town talked German,” said Vona Mae. “They didn’t have any trouble (communicating).

“There was no one to teach them English, but she learned English,” she added.

Frans and Anna Christina gave birth to their third son, George, on the Indian Lake Township farm. Quite a bit younger than his two older brothers, George was the one who would ultimately take over the family’s farming operation.

He had worked alongside his dad on the farm until 1926, when Frans died. At the time, George was 29 years old.

Anna Christina remained on the farm, moving to the upstairs of the house after George and his wife, Esther, were married.

Esther, a native of Moline, Illinois, was related to a trio of sisters who grew up neighbors to the Vihlen family.

“These three girls … told dad, ‘We have a friend coming up from Moline and you’re going to have to meet her,’” shared John. “They told my mother, ‘When you get to Worthington, Minnesota, there’s a young fellow up there and you’ve got to meet him.’”

“The meeting place for everyone was the church, so they all met at the church,” he added.

“He must have been a pretty brave guy,” John said, because George asked Esther if he could give her a ride home that night.

After Esther returned to Illinois, she and George corresponded for a year — writing each other every week.

“We have a lot of those letters,” John said.

“After one meeting and a year of sending letters, he drove down with a car and they were married,” he added.

Esther’s move to a southwest Minnesota farm was quite a change from her office job in a city. For starters, she had none of the modern conveniences like indoor plumbing and electricity.

“They lived on the farm 26 years before they got electricity and a modern house,” John shared, adding that his mom milked cows and did the chicken chores, carrying water by the bucket load to water the chickens.

“She even had to learn how to cook on a cook stove,” added Vona Mae.

John recalled one story in which his mom attempted to bake bread in the cook stove. Because of the uneven temperature in the cook stove, the bread came out “burnt to a crisp.”

“Dad sat down and ate them all. He said they were all right,” John said with a smile.

George and Esther gave birth to four children on the farm. Their first child, Ernest, lived to be just six or seven months old.

“At one time, Dad said he was just getting to where he was fun — they could play with him — and then he got pneumonia,” John said.

A couple of years later, they welcomed their daughter Joyce. John was born in 1932, followed by Carol. The youngest of the Vihlen children lived to the age of 8, also losing her life to pneumonia in 1944.

“They were going to give her something for her pneumonia, but it was something (my parents) couldn’t pronounce and couldn’t spell,” John explained. “It was probably the first dose of penicillin in Nobles County. (The dose) was probably too much or too little to save her.”

Despite the challenges and the heartache, John said his family “had a very good life.”

“You didn’t need electricity to have a good life,” he added. “Work was a way of life. Work wasn’t something bad — work is what you did.”

After John and Vona Mae were married, John said he mentioned to his dad the possibility of taking over the family farm.

“I hinted at Dad that if I couldn’t find a place, they’d probably have to move to town,” John recalled. “He said, ‘No way.’”

At the time of George’s death, John and his family — including daughters Pamela, Bonnie and Sharon — were settled on their own farm site a mile and a half to the south. John took ownership of his parents’ farm 31 years ago.

Today, the farm that has been in the Vihlen family for 118 years is farmed by John and Vona Mae’s son-in-law, Bob Bents. John retired from farming at age 70.

As for the future of the parcel, John can only speculate.

“Our kids could hold it or sell it to have money for other things,” he said.

The Vihlens celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary on June 20.

Julie Buntjer
Julie Buntjer joined the Daily Globe newsroom in December 2003, after working more than nine years for weekly newspapers. A native of Worthington and graduate of Worthington High School, then-Worthington Community College and South Dakota State University, she has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism. At the Daily Globe, Julie covers the agricultural beat, as well as Nobles County government, watersheds, community news and feature stories. In her spare time, she enjoys needlework (cross-stitch and hardanger embroidery), reading, travel, fishing and spending time with family. Find more of her stories of farm life, family and various other tidbits at
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