Celebrating 150 years down on the farm: Breidensteins to host sesquicentennial weekend

Posted August 7, 2013 at 3:12 pm

By KAREN PARKER | County Line Editor

It might surprise the Irish poet Thomas Moore to hear a retired Kickapoo Valley dairy farmer recite from memory the stanzas to “Oft in the Stilly Night,” a mournful poem on the creeping sadness and loss that haunts old age.

But if Bob Breidenstein is feeling sentimental, who could blame him? This year his farm in Cass Valley, near Wildcat Mountain State Park, will have been in the family 150 years, and Breidenstein, 75, has been on that farm for exactly one half of that time.

Many centennial farms can be found in the area, but one arriving at the sesquicentennial mark is a rarity.

This 1910 photo shows the Breidenstein farm as it appeared just after the house was built.

Anna Heinrich Breidenstein Breidung and her second husband John Breidung were the original homesteaders.

Brothers Alton, Bob (center) and Merrill Breidenstein will host a sesquicentennial celebration of the farm. They are sitting near relics from the farm. (Karen Parker photo)

Breidenstein’s great-grandmother, Anna Martha, arrived in Rockton with her second husband, John Breidung, along with her Breidenstein children from a prior marriage, including Bob’s grandfather, William.

Anna Martha had emigrated from Germany, coming first to New York and then to Fort Wayne, Ind. Relatively quickly, she was called back to Germany due to a family illness. She was unable to return for two years, and when she did, she found her husband had moved to Milwaukee and died. Family lore has it that he was a brewer by trade and was his own best customer, and that was how he met his end. Great-grandmother was forever after firmly in the temperance camp.

Within a year of her first husband’s death, she got remarried, to John Breidung, and the two moved to Rockton to pursue his interests in the lumber trade; however, within a short time they homesteaded the Cass Valley farm. The Civil War was at its peak, and it was just two decades since Esau Johnson became the first white settler in the area and only six years from Ontario’s incorporation as a village.

Bob thinks they might have found the forested hills appealing, but were unaware of the rocky ridges that would challenge their farming skills.

Perhaps farming was not all they had hoped, because in 1872 they sold the 80-acre plot to William Breidenstein, Anna’s son (born 1854), for $500. Bernard, William’s youngest son and Bob’s father, was born in 1896 and bought the farm in 1924. His first wife died at age 30, leaving him with three young children. Nine children were born to the second marriage, with Bob being fourth from the youngest. Just six of the second family remain.

Bernard died in 1982, and Bob’s mother died just two years ago, six months short of turning 101. Bob bought the farm in 1994.

Those first pioneers raised mostly wheat and shorthorn cattle. Over the years, the original 80 acres grew to 425. Bob has whittled it back to 300 acres by selling small tracts to interested family members. Over the 150-year span, the operation evolved from a general farm with cattle, hogs, chickens and even sheep on occasion to what it has been for many years — a dairy farm. The cows were sold in 2004, but Bob continues to do crops and raise some steers.

Bob’s brothers Merrill and Alton helped with the farm operation, which consisted of about 45 milking cows. Retirement from dairying has given Bob the time to enjoy activities to which he had never paid attention, such as watching and feeding the birds.

He is also occupied with wading through the living-history museum that is his home.

“Mother never threw anything away if it might have a use,” he said.

The house was built in 1910 and replaced a log home that might have burned. That’s over a century to accumulate stuff, and every nook and cranny in the old farmhouse hides a memory of days gone by, from the World War I letters his father wrote from Europe to the old kerosene lanterns that provided light before electricity.

“You’ve got to have one big party in your life,” Bob said.

And, indeed, he has gone all out with a potluck, which is set for Saturday at the Valley Community Center, and an open house on Sunday, with time to swap stories, browse through memorabilia and enjoy refreshments and a sing-a-long.

How many shall we expect?

Bob shrugs. “Could be seven; could be 700.”

It’s a huge family, and there are many old friends and neighbors as well.

Even total strangers are welcome, Bob said. Lovers of historical artifacts will see old tools; the original barn, which is held together with wooden pegs, as nails were not available; and plenty of kitchenware and memorabilia from days gone by. (Click here to see an advertisement for the event.)

Oh, yes, and about that poem. You might want to memorize a few lines to recite back to Bob in honor of his farm’s 150th birthday.

“Oft, in the Stilly Night”

Oft, in the stilly night,
Ere slumber’s chain has bound me,
Fond memory brings the light
Of other days around me;
The smiles, the tears,
Of boyhood’s years,
The words of love then spoken;
The eyes that shone,
Now dimm’d and gone,
The cheerful hearts now broken!
Thus, in the stilly night,
Ere slumber’s chain hath bound me,
Sad memory brings the light
Of other days around me.

When I remember all
The friends, so link’d together,
I’ve seen around me fall,
Like leaves in wintry weather;
I feel like one
Who treads alone
Some banquet-hall deserted,
Whose lights are fled,
Whose garlands dead,
And all but he departed!
Thus, in the stilly night,
Ere slumber’s chain has bound me,
Sad memory brings the light
Of other days around me.