Mortality, especially for something more than 175 years old, cannot be escaped.
For families multiple generations deep into harvesting the same crops and raising the same livestock on the same land as their forefathers, there's always a question of what comes next.
Without somebody to take over, tradition becomes a memory.
Yet for some families, the burden has been a pleasure.
More than 5,000 farms in the state are recognized as Hoosier Homestead properties, meaning they've been in the same family for more than 100 years, consist of more than 20 acres and produce more than $1,000 in farming products each year. There are dozens of Hoosier Homesteads in Dubois, Spencer and Pike counties.
In a region of the state and country built on farming, agricultural history includes tall tales, hard work and the tug of emotion. Today, we explore three such groups — surnames: Kerstiens, Woebkenberg and Persohn — who have taken great pride in upholding tradition for the sake of the family name, the family farm and all that both of them stand for.
Kerstiens farm, Ferdinand, est. 1840
Edgar Kerstiens tried factory work.
Didn't last long.
The land called and Edgar answered. It was the spring of 1963 when Edgar and his wife, the former Ardella Wagner, got to raising turkeys on the family farm north of Ferdinand. The work was — and has never been — easy.
The first time they sold turkeys, a rainstorm made things messy. For a while, they raised range birds on the land along the sides of the lane that leads to their house; they planted sunflowers to shade the birds and things worked out. There were hogs, too. Sold about 60 a year. Cattle as well. Never too many. Maybe 20 and their offspring. Crops, likewise.
At one point, Edgar was renting property from several nearby families to keep his operation humming. Verkamp, Hoppenjans, Luebbehusen, a kaleidoscope of Dubois County German-rooted names.
"We went through a lot of experiences here," Edgar says. "Things have worked out OK."
He's 81 now and it's been a long time since he met Ardella at a dance at the old Palm Gardens during a leave from the National Guard. It was after the guard duty that he dabbled in life at a Ferdinand wood furniture manufacturing factory. He came back to the farm, where the land had been first planted by Gerhard Kerstiens in 1840. Edgar and Ardella sold the land in 2002 to their son, the late Pat and his wife, Debbie.
Edgar, the second-oldest among seven siblings, still has much of the paperwork that bridges he and Gerhard. Still living in a home built in 1899, the memories are thick and the future seems to be safe.
Edgar still mows much of the property — takes him six and a half hours — still walks 2.2 miles at 18th Street Park in Ferdinand most days at sunrise and roots hard for Indiana University basketball and St. Louis Cardinals baseball. He's sharp, witty, eager to joke. Ardella has Parkinson's but she still makes a mean homestyle bread pudding. Egdar says it's about time she made more with milk, raisins and cinnamon. Together, they raised Pat, Kathy, Debbie and Tammy. Edgar does the laundry now — calls himself "the wash man" — and wishes he could help more with the turkeys, but Debbie has him covered.
Pat died in 2012, but Debbie, like her father-in-law decades earlier, left factory work for the farm a while back. She runs the operation now because "I was determined to do it."
After her? Probably not her only child, Nicole. But maybe her 2-year-old grandson, Hudson Sitzman. He accompanies his mother and grandmother on the farm from time to time, wading through the younger turkeys. He calls them "bock-bocks."
"Farmers around here got old and some of their offspring didn't want to farm," Edgar says, recalling why he began farming nearby property. Then he points to Debbie. "I just hope her son ..."
Woebkenberg farm, Ferdinand, est. 1840
Her name was Catherine but everybody called her Katy, and she's the reason that, with the Woebkenberg family, the farm remains central in their lives.
Most members of the current generation of Woebkenbergs have full-time jobs. But the farm, it's still something, because quitting now would be like quitting on Katy. Her husband, Ben, died of typhoid fever when he was 35 and Katy had 10 kids to raise. She did it. That's why in a home south of Ferdinand, a house built in 1919 with property on either side of the industrial bypass that snakes through town a century later, there's a photo of Katy in the dining room.
"They are kind of how this all came about," says Anita Woebkenberg. "To have a family farm, you have to love it."
Anita married Gordon, a 57-year-old who remembers when his family raised 65 sows and 35 dairy cows and made a good living. Katy was his grandma and she lived there after Ben died. She herself died in that home. Likewise, Gordon has been in the house all his life. He drives a truck now, hauling steel every day from Hawesville, Ky., to Louisville. Afterward and on weekends, he's on the farm, usually with Jim Beier. That's his brother-in-law and he married Carol, Gordon's sister.
The Beiers live about 5 miles away in Duckville, but Jim has always known his way to the farm. He remembers his mother-in-law, Violet, looking out on land purchased by the Woebkenberg family from the government in May of 1840. If she needed something, she hollered.
He's retired from a job at DMI and acknowledges the farm is more hobby than job. But he and Gordon, they're the kind of team that can fix anything. Maybe even invent things? They couldn't afford a new planter so they customized their own. Often, they head for the scrap heap.
"It's in your blood," Jim says. "Ain't nothin' like comin' out here and gettin' on a tractor."
Tough folks, these Woebkenbergs.
Gordon broke his neck in a motorcycle wreck once but drove himself home before going to the hospital. Jim and Carol's daughter, Janelle Beck, once sliced her hand doing farm work. Wrapped a handkerchief around the wound and kept going. Got stitches later. She was 13 years old.
Gordon and Carol have two brothers but neither developed quite the same itch for the farm. So next up are probably Janelle, who lives with husband Jared in Ferdinand, and TJ, the youngest of Gordon and Anita's four children. TJ is 22 and likes the history and the animals, and though she's never driven a combine, she figures she can figure it out.
Katy figured it out.
So did the generation after her: Violet and Roman Woebkenberg.
Same with Gordon and Carol and their spouses.
It only stands to reason that the next in line can handle the farm — and like it.
"They know how important it is and what's involved with trying to keep it going," Anita says. "It's interesting because it's two girls. ... If TJ doesn't want to, she doesn't have to. But on the other hand, I think it's kind of expected. She says she can't see herself going anywhere else. It's the love of the land, the love of our family."
Persohn farm, St. Anthony, est. 1840
The barn is gone and the home is gone, but Georgina Sermersheim remembers the old days.
She was a Persohn and her great-great grandfather, a man named Phillip Persohn, acquired a farm from the government in 1840. It was on that land where Georgina grew up. The house wasn't new by the time she was born in 1934, but it was tidy, well-kept, with a barn down to the east. The barn was big, 90-some feet long and built in part of log beams.
"It's gone now," she says of the home. "It deteriorated like everything else."
"The barn burned down," her husband, Melvin says. "We think it was electrical. It was a windy night."
Now, there's a hog house, machine shed and grain bins. Melvin and Georgina's son Roger farms the land, becoming the second Sermersheim to do so. Before that, it was Persohns and Horneys in a line of descendants that followed girls, creating a twisted genealogy record.
There was Phillip Persohn. Then George Persohn. Then Susan Horney. Then Theodore Horney. From there, it went to Georgina and Melvin, the man from Ireland she married in 1958. Melvin and Georgina, both 81 years old now, built a house a bit north of the Dubois County 4-H Fairgrounds in 1968 but have been tied to the land since they wed. Melvin tried factory work, didn't like it and, having spent his childhood piddling on the four acres the family used to raise chickens and hogs on the side, decided agricultural life was his to have.
He's big into history.
When the barn burned down, he walked through the ashes and found nails. Saved a handful of those and also crafted a scale model of the barn because, well, he can't explain why except to say that he just felt like doing it. Another time, they razed a barn and he removed some tin and found "George Persohn. St. Anthony, Indiana" stamped under the section of roofing. He saved that, too. When they tore down the house years ago, he peeled back a piece of wood on the porch and spotted a name written in chalk. It said "Veronica Horny" (the surname has been spelled with and without the "e'' through the years). Careful not to smear the writing, he preserved the board behind glass and has it on display in Georgina's basement.
"That chalk is from 1906," he says. "I like to look for stuff, dates or anything."
Georgina likes to say there wasn't much special about her life, but she recalls that her father farmed with horses until they later upgraded to a tractor. They once raised sheep and cattle and tomatoes and strawberries, but Theodore's father died young and though his brother and three sisters helped with the farm work, Georgina got the feeling the work was hard since he had but one child.
"I helped him but what good is a little girl?" Georgina asks. "He put up with me."
She doesn't return to the home place all that often. Melvin, who calls himself retired but stays plenty busy, is there most days to help Roger. The couple has three other children — son Pat and daughters Diane and Pam. They're next.
"Roger will want it," Georgina says. "But he doesn't have any kids. We do have some grandkids. It would be nice if it did stay in the family."