DUNDEE — The William Gehl family farm is located along a peaceful gravel road not far from Graham Lakes in northern Nobles County.
“This was a lot of lake country,” shared Loretta Gehl, who now calls the farm home. “There was a lake out here, I think it was Eagle Lake. The lake was drained, maybe in the early 1920s, and is now used for farmland.”
To corroborate her story, Loretta points to a painting on the wall done by former Worthington artist Jerry Raedeke. It depicts a knoll with water surrounding it.
“We knew that Native Americans lived here because when the lake was drained, we found arrowheads, scrapers and shards,” Loretta said, noting that each time the ground was cultivated, it would stir up more treasures. “Our children enjoyed these searches each year.”
The Gehl farm sits just a little northeast of that knoll. Purchased on March 25,1919 from Anna Leona Erie, a widow, Hans and Emma (Peters) Gehl paid $19,000 for the approximately 149-acre farm comprised of Lots 6 and 7 in the northeast quarter and southeast quarter of Section 4, Graham Lakes Township. At the time, Hans already owned a farm in a neighboring section. That farm was recognized for 100 years of continuous family ownership several years ago.
Hans Heinrich Gehl was born Oct. 16, 1868 in Lehe Schleswig-Holstein, Germany, the second of three sons born to Wilhelm Heinrich and Heinke (Leebens) Gehl. Hans was 17 when he and his brothers, Friedrich Nikolaus and William Henry, boarded the Westphalia, a passenger ship that took them from Hamburg, Germany to New York City, arriving on March 22, 1886.
The boys traveled to Fulda to stay with their grandparents until they could save up enough money. Friedrich continued on to the Nevada and California area and dabbled in meat processing and mining, while younger brother William Henry stayed in the Fulda area.
Hans wanted to farm, so he found work as a farmhand around Atlantic and Marnie, Iowa, and eventually met his wife, Emma, there. They were married Feb. 26, 1892, in Atlantic, Iowa, and farmed in the Atlantic area. After expanding their family to include three children (they ultimately had 11 children, but lost four sons either at or soon after birth), Hans and Emma moved to the Fulda area and eventually purchased the site that has now reached 100 years of continuous family ownership.
At the time the Gehls bought the property, there were several buildings on the farmstead, including a small house. A new home was built on the site — sometime between 1919 and 1936, notes Loretta — and that would be the home of William H. Gehl and his wife, Gertrude, following their marriage on July 12, 1929.
William H. and Gertrude raised four children on the farm — William D., Walter, Audrey and Duane.
“My husband was born upstairs and that remained his room for a long time,” Loretta shared.
He often told stories about growing up near Kinbrae, where he attended his early school years.
“Kinbrae was kind of an up-and-coming town in the early 1930s,” Loretta said. “There was a bank there, and as the children walked to and fro from all directions — there were no buses — the storekeepers would be real kind to them and would step out and give them a treat as they walked home.”
William continued his elementary years at St. Paul’s Lutheran School in Fulda, graduating from Fulda High School in 1948.
Loretta, a native of rural Lakefield, met William D. Gehl after she was hired to teach at St. Paul’s Lutheran School in Fulda, where she continues to play the organ and direct the choir during worship services. William D. was farming and attending the University of Minnesota during winter quarters to study agriculture.
“He enjoyed farming,” Loretta said. “He was very creative. We marvel at the things he thought of to do. He just loved to be busy all of the time.”
Among William’s inventions was a snowmobile — before the first snowmobiles were ever marketed.
“He took it out on the Fulda lake to see how it worked and the game warden said if you have a machine with a motor on it, you have to have a license,” she recalled.
William D. and Loretta married Dec. 27, 1951. On Feb. 13, 1952, his draft number was called, and he reported for military duty. He served in Korea, building the Kimpo Air Base for air landings. After his discharge, William and Loretta returned to settle on a farm south of his parents, as William H. and Gertrude were still living on the home place. William D.’s brother, Walter, was also drafted to serve in Japan during the Korean War.
“(William and Gertrude) lived here until March 1967 and then built a retirement home closer to the lake,” Loretta said. She and William then moved onto the Gehl homestead with their three children: Scott, Robin and Mark. Together, they farmed the land and raised pigs, chickens and cows.
“We had dairy cattle until our barn looked like maybe it wasn’t safe, then we purchased the next farm over and moved the dairy herd over there,” Loretta said, noting they operated the dairy until 1983.
William continued to farm, hiring their youngest son Mark to do the planting and harvest in later years. Since William’s death in December 2017, at age 87, Mark has farmed the land.
Mark’s son, William “Will,” graduated this spring and will use his Associate of Arts degree in heating and cooling to pursue a career in that field and agriculture. He helps his dad with the farming operation as well.
William D. and Loretta’s remaining two children, Scott and Robin, reside in the Twin Cities metro area. Robin is a music history professor at Concordia College, St. Paul. Scott and his two sons come each spring and fall to assist with planting and harvesting. William and Loretta have six grandchildren.
As for the future of the now 371-acre Gehl farm, Loretta said she wishes the best for it and hopes it will remain in the Gehl family for generations to come.
A tradition that began decades ago — the annual Gehl Family Fourth of July Picnic — brings everyone together each summer to reconnect and celebrate. The tradition was started by Elsie Prigge, daughter of Hans Gehl.
“Duane Gehl and his wife, Shari, really keep complete records and they contact everyone each year,” Loretta said. “A brief meeting is held reminding and reviewing the Gehl ancestry and sharing any correspondence. We are thankful that our ancestors chose this part of the world to continue their life journey. The picnic is still held in the pasture along Graham Lake shoreline, where cattle grazed in years past.”