Kay brothers purchased farm in 1912OKABENA — Except for a short stint away for advanced schooling, Vernon Kay hasn’t ventured too far from Alba Township, Jackson County.
By: Beth Rickers, Worthington Daily Globe
OKABENA — Except for a short stint away for advanced schooling, Vernon Kay hasn’t ventured too far from Alba Township, Jackson County.
He was born Feb. 21, 1917, on the family’s Century Farm there — making him now 95 years old — and Vernon plans to stay put as long as he possibly can.
The original parcel of 319 acres was homesteaded by John C. Ahrens and sold to brothers Fred and Emil Kay for $79.50 an acre in the spring of 1912.
According to information from “History of Jackson County Volume II,” Emil Kay — Vernon’s dad — was born in 1882 in Cook County, Ill. He was raised with his six sisters and three brothers on a farm southwest of Storm Lake, Iowa.
Emil and Fred began farming near Storm Lake, too, but something prompted them to head north into southwest Minnesota. In 1918, they added 160 acres in West Heron Lake Township, and in 1946, another 170 acres adjoining the Alba farm.
Emil and wife Clara had three children, Vernon being the oldest, followed by two sisters, Velma and Selda, who eventually moved to California. The Jackson County history book details that Emil was active in the Liberty Bond drives of World War I, served as Alba Township treasurer and was a member of the Okabena school board for 35 years. He had also been an active promoter of the Rural Electric Association and, as a member of St. John’s Lutheran Church in Okabena, helped dig the basement for the new church in 1914. The book notes that in 1954 he also helped dig the basement for Our Redeemer Lutheran Church, Okabena, which resulted from a church split and court case between the two factions. Emil also played a role in securing funds to finance the Lakefield hospital and later the Heron Lake hospital.
Vernon attended Augustana College in Sioux Falls, S.D., for one year, and then studied business at Nettleton College. While working as an auditor for the Barnsdall Refining Co. in Sioux Falls, he met wife-to-be Grace, who was rooming at the same boarding house. They married, and in the spring of 1938, Vernon joined his dad and uncle in the farming operation.
“I went to school in Sheldon, but my dad was the depot agent in Matlock,” explained Grace. “When we came here, we lived with his folks while we built our own place.”
The main house on the property was built in 1926, after the former abode was moved to another property. (It is believed to still be in use.) Vernon and Grace lived in a smaller house on the property, moving into the main house after Clara died and Emil moved to the nursing home. Fred had died in 1968.
When Vernon was growing up on the farm, corn, oats, barley and flax were raised on the land, and the family also kept hogs, chickens, milk cows and beef cattle. There were also a lot of horses when Vernon was growing up there, although they were used for work, not pleasure.
“We had 12 horses here at one time,” explained Vernon. “But I never farmed with horses.”
The cows were milked by hand, and the family earned money by selling cream and eggs. There was also a big garden that Vernon planted and Clara faithfully tended.
“I was taught how to drive, and I was the one who had to take his mother into town,” Grace detailed about her own duties. “I also had to get the eggs. We used to get lots of eggs. We probably had 200 to 250 laying hens. There was a place in Worthington that used to come out and get the eggs and the cream. I had the joy of washing the cream separator.”
Vernon and Grace had one daughter, Marsha Yvette Kay Lewis, who died in 2006.
While the Kays have always been and continue to be the owners of the land, there is another family that also has a vested interest in the property. Arthur Bass was the Kays’ longtime hired man, and he and his wife lived on the property and raised their family there. Adeline Bass continues to be Vernon and Grace’s closest neighbor, and she continued to farm the land with her sons after Arthur’s death in 1987.
“Whenever they needed help, I was out here working, although I worked for 18 years at the Okabena school,” said Adeline. “I did everything, I believe, but plant corn. And Vernon was nice enough to let me stay here. It’s worked out nice for everyone.”
Adeline’s twin sons, Vernon and Verlyn, continue to farm the Kay property and have bought additional acreage of their own. Today, the buildings on the farm are devoid of livestock, although the Basses keep a couple of calves in a nearby pasture.
“We haven’t had livestock for ages,” noted Grace. “The only livestock we have is cats.”
Like his father before him, Vernon was active in community affairs, with lengthy stints as township clerk, church treasurer and school board member. But the activity for which Vernon and Grace are most well known is square dancing. They began dancing in 1951 and for many years averaged at least 65 dances a year in as many as nine different states. They are charter members of the Worthington Turkey Trotters Square Dance Club. Due to health issues, Vernon and Grace can no longer dance.
“But that’s what kept us going, kept us in good health,” credited Grace. “We really enjoyed it, too. We got to go so many places. When we lived in the little house with Marsha as a baby, Vernon’s uncle Fred would come over and stay with her while we square danced.
“We’ve had a wonderful life out here,” she added.