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Through tragedy and triumph, Brunks at home on rural Brewster land

Members of the Brunk family include Gene (from left) and Cathy Brunk, Lela Haller, and Jennifer and William Brunk. They are standing in front of the granary, one of the older remaining buildings on the farm site. (Julie Buntjer/Daily Globe)

BREWSTER -- When seven siblings share the same farm house, do chores together and arrange their own football games in the farmyard, there are bound to be lots of memories of farm life.

Such is the case for the Brunk family of rural Brewster. They are celebrating 112 years of continuous family ownership on a 240-acre parcel of land in Section 7 of Alba Township, Jackson County. The farm is one of three Jackson County farms to be recognized as a Century Farm this year.

Now farmed by brothers William and Gene Brunk, the land is owned by them and their five siblings: Mary Poller and Lucinda, James, John and Roger Brunk, along with their aunt, Lela (Brunk) Haller.

The farm was originally settled by the siblings' great-grandmother, Amelia Brunk, in 1901. Amelia and her husband, William, emigrated to the U.S. in 1890 from their home in Brandenburg, Germany, and chose to settle near Sheldon, Iowa, initially because they had relatives in the area.

"(The) family lived in Sheldon, Iowa, and a tornado went through there in 1897," recalled great-grandson William Brunk, adding that the oldest of Amelia and William's kids was killed after being caught in the storm.

"Shortly thereafter, her husband passed away and she thought she had enough," William said. "She took the three youngest kids and bought this farm and came to Minnesota to live."

Amelia moved to the farm in Alba Township with August, John and Anna, all of whom were under the age of 12. Two adult children, Ernest and Fred, stayed in northwest Iowa, where they had already married and established farms of their own.

Originally, the farm was 160 acres and had included a home, barn and other outbuildings. The land was purchased by Amelia from S.D. and M.A. King, who had owned it for a decade after purchasing it from the railroad in 1891. Amelia purchased the land for $36.50 per acre.

During her 42 years of ownership, Amelia kept her family busy growing crops of flax, oats, barley, sorghum, clover and eventually alfalfa, corn and soybeans.

"(She had) pigs, chickens, ducks, geese, guineas and sheep," said Lela Haller. "I had to herd sheep in the road ditch."

"It was a universal, general purpose farm," added William.

Unfortunately, Amelia couldn't escape Mother Nature by moving to southwest Minnesota. In the early 1930s, a tornado went through their farm, taking much of the barn's roof with it. The house was spared, however, and no one was injured.

On Oct. 10, 1938, Amelia sold the south 80 acres to her son, August, and his wife, Lucinda, for $1. Then, after Amelia's death on Sept. 6, 1942, her other four children inherited the north 80-acre parcel, which they ultimately sold to August and Lucinda Brunk on Jan. 19, 1944, for $7,200.

August and Lucinda lived in the original farmhouse, where they raised their three children -- Lela Haller, Zane Brunk and Ruth Kannengiesser.

"I can remember going to the one-room schoolhouse for the first eight grades," said Haller, adding that the school was three-fourths of a mile away from home.

The self-professed tomboy liked to be outside working alongside her dad. She drove the tractor and the hayloader, worked with the team of horses to pull hay up to the haymow and milked the cows every evening, with the mornings off.

"I couldn't smell like cows (in school)," she said with a laugh. "There were kids that did."

Haller said their first tractor on the farm was a Fordson, followed by an F-20 Farmall. Cows were milked by hand, at least until after she left home. That's when her dad bought a milking machine.

Of her growing-up years, Haller has fond memories of Trinity Lutheran Church's Sunday School picnics hosted at the Brunk farm, as well as the one-Sunday-a-month sermons that were led in German.

"I didn't know German at all," she said, adding that her mom, Lucinda, learned German in high school and ultimately became a schoolteacher.

Haller also recalls the day electricity arrived at their farm.

"The REA came and hooked us up in 1937," she said. "It was the end of kerosene lanterns and Aladdin lamps. You saw all the dark corners (in the house). It was wonderful."

Following August's death in 1975, the land was divided among the kids, with Zane getting the home place and 80 acres, Haller getting 80 acres of farmland and Kannengiesser getting an 80-acre parcel that adjoined on the south -- land purchased "somewhere along the line" by August and Lucinda.

With Zane Brunk settled on the home place, he and his wife, Ruth, raised their seven children -- today's heirs to the Brunk Century Farm -- on the Alba Township land.

"Dad had bees," said William. "He had oodles of beehives."

"He was a bee exterminator, too," added Gene.

"When dad was in his early 50s, we were helping him go get rid of bees," William shared. "He still had a couple nail kegs he'd have bees in, and you didn't mess with them. He was the early-day Plunkett or Eco-Lab guy at the time."

All seven of the Brunk kids had their assigned chores that had to be done before school, after school and on the weekends.

"We did a lot when we were five or 10 that some people haven't done yet in their 50s and 60s," said William.

As for livestock on the farm during that time, the brothers laughed and said there was just about everything.

"We didn't have ostriches and turkeys -- and llamas," said Gene.

"We even had a buffalo -- Buffalo Joe," quipped William. "We milked cows, had stock cows, fed calves, farrow to finish hogs, had ewes and fed out lambs. Mom raised 100-plus ducks every year that we ate and she sold at Thanksgiving to buy Christmas presents. (There were) geese, guineas and chickens we raised to eat and sold eggs."

"We never ate the same thing twice during the week," said Gene, adding that meals varied from duck to lamb, pork, beef, chicken and eggs.

Added to the protein was a healthy dose of carbohydrates.

"Mom baked 10 loaves of bread on Wednesdays and 10 loaves on Saturday and she was always out of bread," William said.

"You'd come home from school half-starved and there she was baking bread," Gene added. On the days the bread was baking, the kids would get a late start with chores because they had to have fresh bread with peanut butter or cheese slices after school.

In addition to baking bread, the brothers said their mom made kuchen, buns and "hot chocolate by the gallons."

It was the real hot chocolate, too -- 100 percent whole milk out of the cream can, mixed with cocoa, sugar and water, Gene said.

"You drank a cup of that and it stuck to the ribs," added William.

While the kids had their least favorite chores -- milking cows, hauling manure when it was 20-below or picking eggs -- for the most part, they enjoyed life on the farm.

"We played a lot of football between here (the house) and the barn," said William. "We played a lot of basketball in the upstairs of the barn."

One particular story that has been told and retold about life on the farm involved the chicken flock.

"There was a few of these darn Banty roosters and they were up in the tree," shared Gene. "We were trying to get them down because it was going to freeze."

One of the roosters was stubborn, however, and would not come out of the tree, so their dad took the .22 rifle and shot into the air a few times, thinking it would scare the rooster out of the tree.

"Mary said, 'Let me try,' and it was one shot through the head and it came down," Gene recalled. "Dad said, 'Go tell Ma to put the water on.' We had chicken soup the next day."

"She was a hell of a shot, that Mary," added William.

When their dad, Zane, died in 1981, the land was transferred to their mom, Ruth. Following her death in 1999, it transferred again to the seven kids. With the exception of Mary Poller, who resides in Storm Lake, Iowa, and James Brunk of Las Vegas, Nev., the heirs all live in the Brewster area.

William resides on the home place today with his wife, Jennifer.

"Everybody had a place to live and I had always lived here," said William. "Gene (and his wife Cathy) has always lived next door. There's always been a minimum of two houses on this ground. For a while, there was even three."

Gene and William have farmed the land in partnership since 1986, growing corn and soybeans on about 1,100 acres. They purchased the acreage from their five siblings which, in addition to containing the two houses, also serves as the base of operations for Brunk Brothers Seed. The business was started by their dad in 1962, raising Minnesota Public Seed.

In the near future, the Brunks plan to repaint the granary (shown above), and with that, they will reintroduce the farm's registered name, Shady Lawn Farm. The farm was registered with the state on May 9, 1913.

"We were born and raised here on this place and that's all we've ever done," said Gene. "All our brothers and sisters were very much involved."

To make it to this point -- their farm being recognized for more than 100 years of continuous family ownership -- is a feat not many families can boast about. For the Brunks, it's a matter of pride.

"It shows a lot of hard work and dedication to all family members from the previous generations -- sticking together through thick and thin, good and bad," said William. "Whether it was tornadoes or the Dirty '30s or the farm crisis of the '80s, here we are making a go of it and enjoying what we do."

Daily Globe Reporter Julie Buntjer may be reached at 376-7330.

Julie Buntjer

Julie Buntjer joined the Globe newsroom in December 2003, after working more than nine years for weekly newspapers. A native of Worthington, she has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism. Find more of her stories of farm life, family and various other tidbits at

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