Four generations of Hromatko family called rural Lake Wilson farm homeLAKE WILSON — Wesley Hromatko can trace his mother’s lineage all the way back to New England in the 17th Century, but it is his father’s ancestors, who settled on land just northeast of Lake Wilson, who can be credited with establishing roots on a farm that has been handed down through four generations in a span of 100 years.
By: Julie Buntjer, Worthington Daily Globe
LAKE WILSON — Wesley Hromatko can trace his mother’s lineage all the way back to New England in the 17th Century, but it is his father’s ancestors, who settled on land just northeast of Lake Wilson, who can be credited with establishing roots on a farm that has been handed down through four generations in a span of 100 years.
As family stories go, Joseph Hromatko rode the train from either Sibley or Ocheyedan, Iowa, to the little hamlet of Lake Wilson in Murray County in 1911. He walked out to view the land that was offered for sale — an 80-acre parcel with a homestead and a quarter-section across the road — and walked back to town to pay sellers, C.A. and Julia Tatum, $11,109 in cash that he’d carried in his pocket.
Joseph had bought the land for his son, another Wesley, so that each of his sons could have a future in farming. Thus began a tradition of passing on the land from Hromatko fathers to sons.
The younger Wesley Hromatko and some of his relatives have done considerable research about the family’s history. There are collections of photographs, family trees, binders of information and even a book.
Joseph Hromatko was just a year and a half old when he came to the United States in 1867 with his parents, John and Terezie, and John’s father, Frank.
“That was the first year they could leave,” said Wesley of the family’s Bohemian roots. Their passports said they came from Austria, but it was actually the Austrian-Hungarian Empire.
“It was the kingdom of Bohemia, something like a state,” he explained. “They came from Reichenberg, now Liberec. They spoke Czech.”
According to records, the Hromatkos were living in Johnson County, Iowa, near Shueville, in 1870. Joseph attended college in Iowa briefly; and then married Mary Chlad in Iowa in 1886. Two years later, they moved to a farm near Ocheyedan.
Wesley said his great-grandfather Joseph took the train to Lake Wilson because of the lure of cheap land. It was his intent to buy the farm for his son, and in fact he didn’t reside on the place until after his wife died in 1931.
“As I understand it, my Grandfather Wesley and probably his father came up here, planted, and then went back to Iowa,” Wesley shared. “They also worked on the new barn. The first year’s harvest went into a couple of bags and was taken by wagon to Hadley. I remember him telling me about it.”
Joseph and Wesley built the barn on the homestead in 1911, and constructed a large farm house on the site in 1923. A second, smaller home was built on the farm in 1946 and now serves as the home for the fourth generation Hromatko farm owners, Wesley and his wife, Marilyn.
“There was a house here when (Joseph) bought the farm. One or two rooms downstairs — like a salt-box house,” Wesley said. “There were so many holes in the house when they got here, Dad said he could always see the wind move underneath the wallpaper.”
The farm remained in Joseph’s name until after World War II. He sold the land to his son, Wesley, in 1945 for $1 and, that same year, moved to the farm to stay with Wesley and his wife, Emma.
“(Joseph) was getting blind and stone deaf, but he would keep everything up, cutting weeds off with a pocket knife along the fence line,” said Wesley. Joseph died in 1947.
From 1945 to 1966, Wesley and Emma owned the farm.
“My grandmother, Emma Jensen Hromatko, enjoyed big family holiday dinners,” Wesley shared. “She was a great baker and for most of her life baked with the cook stove.”
Wesley’s grandfather and namesake, on the other hand, wasn’t well and his son AJ (Annel) was needed at an early age to help with the farm work.
“My dad always worked like an adult. He got through the eighth grade — he’d often have to come home and take care of stuff here,” said Wesley. “My father also custom farmed all over the place for people. He got two Massey Harris self-propelled corn pickers and would pick for people. After that he got a mounted one for an M Farmall.”
It was while doing custom corn picking by hand that AJ met the woman who would become his wife. Her name was Maybelle, and she lived on a farm near Avoca.
“After they were married, my parents lived in a small two-room house with only a potbellied stove and no water,” Wesley said.
After Wesley’s birth, the family had a small house moved onto the farm site, and that became their new home.
“My father said he moved four times without leaving the farm yard,” Wesley added.
AJ and Maybelle purchased the family farm in 1968 from his mother following his dad’s death. The selling price was $1 — just as it had been when Wesley purchased it from his father, Joseph. AJ’s sister, Gladys, and her husband, Eldon Heetland, received the same deal on a parcel Wesley owned near Ocheyedan, Iowa.
When the newer home was moved onto the Hromatko farm, it coincided with the addition of electricity on the site. Still, Wesley said his parents didn’t have a telephone until after he completed graduate school.
“We had a radio and I remember listening to Jack Benny, although it was because the TV and radio signals were broadcast together,” he said. “As I recall, TV only came in 1961 and I bought it with some of the money I made on one calf.”
During Wesley’s growing up years on the farm, his family raised corn, oats, soybeans and beef cattle, opting for a little more freedom than dairying allotted them.
“Dad was milking cows by hand and he would come in and put his hands under hot water just to unbend them,” recalled Wesley. When it came time to add more cement to the barn and expand, AJ chose instead to get out of dairying.
“Dad didn’t want to milk anymore. You couldn’t go anywhere when you milked,” he added. “I remember taking milk and cream into Lake Wilson, but that was when there was still a Saturday night and people would stand on the street corners and talk forever.”
After getting out of the milking business, AJ started raising feeder cattle. It was something Wesley could invest in as well.
“That’s a lot of how I paid for college,” Wesley said. “I always wanted to be with Dad when I was little. I’m allergic to all kinds of stuff, which is one of the reasons for going to college. I would try to do stuff and I would get so terribly sick.”
Wesley credits his mother with encouraging him to learn about and use computers. In addition to working on the farm, she made and sold aprons, sold Avon and eventually became the bookkeeper for the Chandler Co-op.
“My mother wrote a memoir of life on the farm, ‘80 Years and Counting.’ Professor Joe Amato from Southwest Minnesota State University used some of it in one of his books,” Wesley shared.
The son returns
Wesley left the Hromatko farm behind and went to college, earning his bachelor’s degree in history from the University of Minnesota and then his masters and doctor of ministry from Meadville/Lombard Theological School (then affiliated with the University of Chicago) in Chicago. He is an ordained minister in the Unitarian Universalist church and served congregations in Illinois, Indiana and Massachusetts before returning to rural Lake Wilson with his wife in 1990 to help his parents with the farm. Marilyn is a native of Chicago and has both a bachelor’s and masters in English.
Wesley now does pulpit supply for Unitarian Universalist churches in need of a minister. He and Marilyn also enjoy spending time on the farm, although it is much quieter now than it was in its heyday. Gone are the livestock and chickens. The land is custom-farmed by neighbors — it’s been done that way since AJ died in January 2007. Following Maybelle’s death in January 2011, Wesley and Marilyn became the owners of the land.