By Jim Offner, Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier
A slice of northeast Iowa's cultural history will disappear under an auctioneer's gavel when Heritage Farm goes on the block July 25.
The 80-acre property served as a destination for families, church groups and busloads of schoolchildren since its opening in 1980, the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier reported.
It's perhaps best-known for Breakfast with Santa — a holiday tradition for hundreds of wide-eyed children who converged on the farm each Saturday in December to pet goats, donkeys and sheep in a Nativity-style zoo. Then, at the ring of a bell, they were whisked off by horse-drawn sleigh or wagon to a cabin in the nearby woods, where Santa and Mrs. Claus greeted them with warm cinnamon rolls and hot cocoa.
"He really thought he was Santa Claus," owner Marie Brown said of one of an area resident who sported a bushy white beard and donned the Father Christmas suit for years.
There was also a Bunny Brunch during the pre-Easter season, a fall fest with hayrides and other activities during the autumn and regular bus tours.
Heritage Farm also hosted weddings, parties and other social gatherings at the old cabin, brought its horse-drawn, hay-strewn wagons to area festivals and parades and, on occasion, even brought out an 1870-vintage hearse to participate in funerals.
Mostly, Heritage was in the business of entertainment, "anything to do with a horse," Brown said.
"We'd hook up six ponies or horses on a pony-go-round and give rides — anything to do with the old-style farm," Brown said. "We had a hayloft to play in, hay bales to play in."
The farm has a carriage barn loaded with antique trolleys and cutters, a buggy and Santa's sleigh. Group tours and wedding parties were regular bookings, Brown said.
Dick and Marie Brown purchased the property, which then featured a tree farm, in 1980.
"We couldn't even walk through the timber when we moved here, and we had stock cows until last year," Marie said.
There was never any doubt what they would do with the property when they bought it, Marie said.
"Dick's lifelong passion was horses," Marie said. "He rode horses from the time he was a kid. Horses were his life, you might say."
And, horses became the heart of Heritage Farm and probably served as its biggest draw, Marie said.
Dick Brown ran a plumbing business for years in his native Hudson before he and Marie bought their farm.
Dick plunged head-long into the operation, Marie said.
"Dick was the person that did the horses," Marie said. "Years ago, I would run the cabin and he'd run everything up here. Every 45 minutes, people could come ahead of time and play up here and their time would come and they'd get on the sleds or wagons and go to the cabin where Santa was and have homemade cinnamon rolls, hot coffee or cocoa."
In 2009 Dick died at age 73 after a years-long fight with blood cancer. His wife of 39 years soldiered on alone with the operation. Then, her own physical limitations set in and told her it was time to move on.
"So, I thought I could continue doing this, but now, it's too much work and I'm getting older, said Marie, 71. "I've tried my darnedest to keep it going. A lot of friends have died that were willing to lend a hand. I'm still doing chores now, but I've got back problems. I've had three back surgeries. I need to enjoy life."
The couple has children, but they have their own lives and careers. There's nothing left to do but sell the place, Marie said. "There's going to be a void here, for sure," she said.
She asked her friend, auctioneer Dave White of Shell Rock, to put together an auction.
Interest already is building, White said. "We've had calls as far as Florida and Indiana already," he said. There will be no online component to the auction, White said. "You can just show up and bid," he said, noting the proceedings likely will last into the mid-afternoon.
Marie said she'll be at the auction. She expects to experience "a lot of emotion" at the last big event at Heritage Farm.
Afterward, Marie will move to St. Joseph, Mo., where her daughter, Jodie Roettger, took a job as an accountant at a local hospital. "She moved there six weeks ago, and she knew I was hurting," Marie said.
Marie also has family in the Kansas City, Mo., area. "I'll probably find someplace halfway between," she said.