In the Depression year of 1935 my grandparents, Leonard and Nettie Wigdahl and their 15 year old son Alden (my father) lost their farm due to foreclosure. They found a nearby farm in Silver Lake township for sale and somehow managed to scrape up a down payment at the present site of our farm. That terrible year of blizzards and droughts and Depression didn't stop Leonard from believing in the future of this farm as he planned his barn...34x64 with red clay tile along the bottom. The head carpenter was paid 50 cent/hr and his helpers received 35 cents. The barn was built for about $4000.
Leonard's two brothers, Carl and Sam, owned hardware stores in nearby Ruthven and Emmetsburg, and they contributed some unique ideas to the barn. There was a windmill on the place. Although there was no electricity available till 1939, they suggested a gasoline engine pump the well water across the yard up into a steel water tank in the barn's haymow,(20' wide and 8-9' deep with a wood cover. ) Gravity would give the toilet and shower "running water" in the basement of the house....quite a luxury then! One day when the tank was full, one of the center beams cracked with the weight of the full tank. It was quickly reinforced with a beam and the tank emptied.
Leonard milked 12 cows and the south side of the barn was dedicated to that process in the early years. Carl and Sam sold Surge milk machines. They set Leonard up with a gasoline motor to create a vacuum and my Dad and my Grandfather were able to use milk machines to milk their cows before electricity came. When Carl and Sam had a potential customer, they sent them to watch milking in this barn and they were amazed! In the early days, the barn housed the work horses on the north end. Flooring was wood, easier on the horses hooves. Later it was cemented and the entire barn converted to farrowing and feeding pigs.
The barn was built in the 1930’s, 34x64 feet, with red clay tile along the bottom, with a running water system and milk machines to milk the cows, all without electricity. Later the floor was cemented and the entire barn was converted to farrowing and feeding pigs.
Originally farmed by Leonard and Nettie Wigdahl, later by Alden and Elsie Wigdahl, (my parents)
Written by Diane Wigdahl Stribe. Submitted July 2020.
Meet my Dad, Alden Wigdahl. You will have to imagine him as a young man, about 14 years old. Dad’s father, Leonard, was the second of ten children born to Rev. L. O. Wigdahl. Pastor Wigdahl established Zion Lutheran Church in Ruthven, IA, pastored there 50 years, and together with his wife Anna raised a big family of 10 children. He was determined to give his children the best education possible...6 of 10 children went to college or special academies. But my Grandpa, Leonard, quit school in the 10th grade and wanted to farm. After homesteading several years in Montana, he married Nettie Knutsen and they settled in on the “Wigdahl Farm” that Rev. Wigdahl was purchasing. Now Leonard and Nettie took over the farm and the payments.
As the Depression years arrived, times were tough for everyone, with corn selling for 10 cents a bushel. There was a $16,000 mortgage acquired when money was borrowed against the farm for college expenses for Leonard’s brothers and sisters. It soon became evident that the bank would foreclose on Leonard. The young couple didn’t know what they were going to do.
About that time, Grandpa’s brother-in-law, John Osterhus, a very early automobile salesman, heard about another 160 acre farm in Silver Lake township coming up for sale. He told Leonard about this and offered to loan him $2000 as a down payment. Their bid of $6,000 was the highest bid! With the help of a Federal Land Bank loan of $4000, they had a new start!
There was a barn on the new farm, but it was kind of a shell of a building, quickly built, as cheap as possible. With some help they somehow moved the building about 200 feet to become a cattle shed. Despite summer drought, Leonard dreamed of building a new sturdy barn, capable of serving him and future generations. He made plans to begin construction on it in July, 1936.
They staked out the new barn...34’ wide and 64’ long and Leonard thought it would be the greatest thing yet! They hand dug a trench all the way around for the footing and of course all sawing was done with hand saws. The main carpenter, Carl Behrensen, received 50 cents an hour and his four workers each earned 35 cents an hour. At the carpenter’s suggestion they put red clay tile along the bottom to make the barn more durable. Of course rafters were put up by hand with scaffolding. My Dad was 15 years old and acted as a “gofer”, running errands for the men and fascinated at the progress, dreaming of the day he would be farming.
Dad believes the total cost of the barn was around $4000 because lumber was cheap back then. They brought in their own gravel, used sacks of cement, a cement mixer with a gas engine, took about 10 scoops of gravel and 2 scoops of cement and water accordingly, mixed it in the cement mixer and transported it to the work spot in wheelbarrows.
There was already a windmill on the farm. Leonard’s brothers, Sam and Carl, suggested a way to have running water without electricity. They installed a water tank, 20’ wide and 8’ deep with a wood cover in the haymow, bringing it in through the haymow door. A gas engine at the windmill pumped the water up into the tank. Because the tank was up so high, gravity furnished them running water for the toilet in the basement and the sink on the main floor. Thanks to this barn being built, they were some of the first in that area with running water with no electricity. It also provided running water for the cows and pigs in the milking area below. After several years Dad was working in the barn and noticed a menacing crack in the beam under the water tank. The tank was just too heavy and was quickly drained and removed through the haymow door.
Grandpa’s brothers, Sam and Carl, who owned Wigdahl Brothers Hardware stores in Ruthven and Emmetsburg helped design a system to run milking machines for Grandpa’s 10 cows. A gas engine was used to create a vacuum in the pipes to bring the milk from the cows back to the tank. Carl and Sam would send their customers out to watch milking in the evenings and often they would sell one of their Surge milk machines.
The barn was originally set up to milk 10 cows on the south side. The north part of the barn housed the horses. After the coming of tractors, the barn was converted into milking one cow for the family and farrowing and raising pigs. I can remember keeping Dad company on cold winter nights out in the barn as he farrowed. The sound of the contented sows with their pigs lined up at the milk bar, the sound of the radio, which Dad contended made for more calm sows, just watching “nature happen”...good memories.
The hay mow was a magical place. The west end held hay and the east end held straw for bedding. My sister and I would play house up there in the summer. We would follow the Mama cat up after she had obviously had her kittens and find them safely tucked back in a hole in the bales. I can still hear the pigeons cooing up on the hay track. It was a daily habit to consult the cow and horse high on the silver cupola to determine the wind direction.
My Dad served in the Army during WW2 and attended Iowa State University where he earned his degree in agronomy and met the love of his life, Elsie. Alden and Elsie were married in 1948 and lived and loved on this farm for their entire 67 year marriage, raising their 4 children, Diane, Barb, Susie and Jeff, who is currently farming the land. The barn is the symbol of all they loved about this way of life they chose. They were content to be together enjoying the beauty and quiet of their beautiful farm.
Dad’s gone now and his barn is quiet. But the memories are vivid...the sounds and sights and smells of the livestock, hard work, security, working side by side with Dad or just keeping him company in my younger days. Dad’s barn aged, just as he did, but thanks to the Iowa Barn Foundation, our family was able to restore this tired structure and make it strong and straight and proud once again! This year is a very special milestone as our family hopes to meet at the farm to celebrate and honor Dad on his 100th birthday May 24. Last fall it was my privilege to share the story of Dad’s Barn with the many visitors on the fall barn tour and I look forward to that again and again in future years.
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