Through Any Given Door

1.17 The Clemens Farm (part 1)

My grandparents were known for attending funerals. Relatives, close friends, acquaintances, people they barely knew: it didn’t matter. Barbara and Mathew went to all of them. It was their social center. If anyone wanted to visit them and a nearby funeral was happening, they knew Grandpa and Grandma would be in attendance. Sometimes friends and family from afar went to the funerals just to see them. The church was their other social center and the family attended Mass every Sunday at St. John’s. The Ten Commandments, common sense and good judgment directed their lives. All the surrounding farms and townspeople in the area were also Catholic, and all went to St. John’s. Only two families were Lutheran, and they rented.

Sons of Peter Clemens and Mary Reiland, all born in Luxembourg: Mathew, Nicholas, Peter, John, taken in 1890s

My grandfather was a year old when his family moved from Mazeppa into the new farmhouse on just west on the outskirts of Rochester in 1875. He grew up in this house, and when he married, their children were all born and raised in it too. It was on a 210-acre dairy farm that in the first white of winter was a Norman Rockwell picture of snow-covered paradise. Theirs was the first farm west of the outskirts of the city of Rochester in Olmsted County. The rolling prairie land was purchased in the early 1870s by my great-grandfather, Mathew Clemens. In 1874, he and one of his three brothers, Peter, both stonemasons from Luxembourg, built the original three-story, nine-bedroom stone house. It was four rooms square, built by rocks collected from nearby land that needed to be cleared. The stones layered like a jigsaw puzzle, stuccoed and pebble-dashed on the outside and plastered smooth on the inside, the walls thick enough for window seats. The 18-inch thick walls made it a deep freeze in the wintry Minnesota weather, so a huge woodburning stove heated the entire house day and night.

In the late afternoon of August 21, 1883, a tornado rolling upward to fantastic heights ripped through the area and ransacked rural Olmsted County. The funnel-shaped blackness demolished much of Rochester and the countryside around it. Striking the Clemens’ house, it tore off the entire gabled roof and part of the third floor, leaving the rest of the solid stone building standing. When the devastation was over and the town and farms began to rebuild, Matthew Clemens, Sr., my great-grandfather—who had suffered a broken leg in the tornado—removed the remainder of the third floor and re-roofed it to a two-story, five-bedroom structure. My grandfather was nine at the time.

Aloysius and Carl

Four generations of Clemens grew up within those stone walls, surrounded by cows, company, and Catholicism. You weren’t considered a good Catholic unless you had a child at least every other year. All the Clemens babies were baptized in the same white lace-collared dress made by their Aunt Lena Nigon. (The photo is of my Dad, Carl, in that same baptismal dress, with his older brother Aloysius standing next to him.)

In the spring of 1898 my grandparents, Mathew Sylvester Clemens, the youngest of his family and Barbara Nigon, the oldest of hers, were married in St. John’s Church in Rochester. Blessed with 10 living children, they raised crops, cows, and kids on the family farm for the next forty-some years.

Mathew Sylvester Clemens and Barbara Nigon, wedding photo Apr 19, 1898, Minnesota

Matt Sr. and Anna Clemens

The four boys shared a bedroom with two double beds; the six girls shared three to a room. My father’s grandparents Mathew and Anna Clemens occupied the fourth bedroom; the fifth room was reserved for company. It was always occupied. My great-grandparents lived with the family until my father was five, and Carl, at the time their youngest grandson, was their favorite. He stayed in their room and they took care of him when he was little. They spoke only German, which is why he spoke only German until he started school. From that point forward, he was only allowed to speak English.

The homestead was a milk farm with 30 Holstein cows, 30 replacement heifers and one bull, supplying milk for the Hall and Hicks (H&H) Dairy where it was bottled and made into cheese, ice cream, and butter. My grandparents milked the cows until the girls came along; the girls milked the cows until the boys came along. When Amelia and Elizabeth started work they purchased a milking machine with their first paychecks. Grandma could milk two cows to everyone’s one. She did a lot of the work until she moved into management, but either way she was always the same: in charge.

There were six workhorses, two driving-horses, Daisy and Dolly, Maude, an old brood mare with feet a foot-and-a half across, and Ked, the Shetland pony for Joe. Ked wasn’t really Joe’s; it belonged to Agnes. She cut the ad from the newspaper and knew her mother wouldn’t even consider letting her have a pony so she gave it to Joe to give to Grandma. Whenever any of the kids wanted something they sent Joe to ask their mother. They had a new German Shepherd every other year and they were all called Shep. The dogs were constantly chasing the cars on the two-lane gravel road and getting run over. There were 15 to 20 cats to keep down the rats that infested the cellar. The kids hated having to go down there, seeing beady little rodent eyes staring out at them from the musty darkness. When the cat population got too big from new litters, Grandpa and the boys would catch as many as they could, tie them into a gunnysack and drown them in the creek. The 1,200-pound cows would lie on the ones sleeping in the warm hay and that kept the population down too. Cats had only one life on a farm.

John Hoeft and Kate Clemens at marriage of Matt and Barbara

My paternal grandparents were tall, sturdy, farming stock. Grandma had a reputation as a relentless taskmaster and she was always thinking of something for her husband to do. He could never sit down. even in the middle of the winter. It would be after 7:30 at night and she’d chase him out to clean the chicken coop. She then chased the boys out to help, but the boys would hide behind the cows where it was warm and read western comics. You didn’t dare waste a minute until you went to bed. But Grandpa was easygoing and got along with everybody, including Grandma. Neither ever raised their voices.

The family did not go without, but they had little money for anything past the basic necessities. They rented out part of their land for pasture, sold the male calves for veal, and sold eggs in town. They sold milk to the creamery, delivering it every other day in 10-gallon milk cans kept cooled in cisterns of cold water. They raised pigs (there were five brood sows with 25 to 30 piglets), turkeys, chickens and two roosters. The eggs were kept in incubators for three weeks until they hatched. It was the kids’ job to turn them every morning. With two hundred chickens laying a hundred eggs a day, and eggs getting sixty cents a dozen, the eggs alone paid for the grocery bills for flour, salt, sugar, coffee, and tea, the only outside provisions they bought. They had summer Sunday and birthday chicken dinners. Grandpa, catching six to ten squawking chickens, grabbed them by their red legs and carried them all in one hand upside down out to the tree stump, wildly flapping, feathers flying. Then in his free hand held dinner one at a time across the stump so the boys could behead each with the ax, then the chickens all ran around with their heads cut off.

The soil was rich and the family grew wheat, barley, hay, flax, oats, and corn. The crops were rotated and at times sections of land were used for cattle, sheep, and horse pastures before the dairy farm was developed. There were a couple of acres of garden flourishing with sweet corn and cabbages, beets and broccoli, asparagus and onions, parsley and peas, rutabagas, radishes, and rhubarb. There was an acre of potatoes. The family lived off the garden and Grandma’s old-fashioned German fare: meat and potatoes, meat and potatoes, meat and potatoes. She was a good cook. My grandfather made wine cider from the apple orchard, plum trees, and grape vines. There was one crabapple tree that had enough apples for Grandma to make one pie a year. The cow yard was below the orchard, the pigpen was south of cow yard, and the row of mulberry trees were south of the pigpen. The fifty acres south of the mulberries were used for pasture and fields. Portions of the property were left as natural woods.

The farm was taken care of by Grandpa and his father until 1910. Then my great-grandparents moved into Rochester to live with their older son Peter until their deaths several years later. My grandparents purchased the farm from them, making yearly payments until the debt was paid.

to be continued …

Family of Mathew “Matt” Clemens and Anna Mary Reiland, 1884
standing: Catherine “Kate,” Margaret Elizabeth, Angeline “Annie,” Mathew Sylvester (abt age 10)
seated: mother Anna, Rose, father Mathew, Peter Daniel

Family of Nicholas Nigon and Barbara Leinen, circa 1905
standing: Margaret, Anne, John “Jack,” Nicholas, Lena, Frank
seated: Catherine, Barbara, Therese, Nicholas (father), Barbara (mother), Elizabeth “Jane,” Michael, Mary

© 2017. Catherine Sevenau.
All rights reserved.

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  1. Jim Chatfield says:

    Cathy, as always you do an outstanding job of describing life back in that time period. You always make a person feel that they are right there with the people you are talking about. My Great-Grandfather came from Germany but he was trained in woodworking by his father, a master Clogmaker. They were a strong people. Keep on writing these beautiful stories.

  2. Susan Lee Price-Jang says:

    This reminds me of the Price family dairy farm in southern Wisconsin where I spent my early years til about 2nd grade when my parents and my little brother and I moved to California (January 1955). The two story wooden house was built by either Samuel Price (my great-grandfather) or his father. In any event several generations were born and raised in that house. In the great post war midwestern migration to California, our family left the great American farming life for suburban America where no one raised their own food or built their own house. And they certainly did not kill any chickens for Sunday dinner (dinner on the farm was at noon; in the suburbs dinner was at 6 PM after Daddy got home from work). All chickens were bought frozen at the supermarket. Cathy—your writing is so engaging. This is bringing back so many memories. Thanks.

    • Thank you Suz. I’m never sure what pieces will call to those who aren’t family, forgetting that so many of us come from farming stock. I’m glad you liked it. I couldn’t figure out where to add the back story, and as I’m doing this a story at a time, it’s easier for me to rearrange and see where they fit. I decided not to add them when I published the whole book, and here I am adding them back in anyway. It’s all a work in progress!

  3. Ruth Finneman Christenson says:

    Having lived in Minnesota for most of my life, all of this history is very interesting. I’m pretty sure that my great-grand-parents had lives similar to these families. (Peter Finneman and Catherine Clemens)

  4. Does the stone house still stand Catherine? I am in Rochester often and would like to see it. They had to work so hard to make a go of it. Thank you for the vivid descriptions and inserting the personalities of the family. A fun read.

    • No, the farmhouse is gone. Its demise is in the next story. An apartment complex stands where it was. My brother and I went back and walked the grounds where it stood and picked up some stones that were part of the original house, so that’s all that remains.

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