Roy Haake sits atop a bull. Ruth is at his side with two neighbors.
It is a story of the American family, of the courage that brought Alma and Frank Haake and their four children from Germany, across the Atlantic Ocean to Ellis Island, and then to the sloping hillsides of Winona County. Frank’s brother Paul had emigrated to Winona, and owned Haake Grocery Store on East Broadway. Paul wrote that he had found a farm overlooking West Burns Valley that would be perfect for Frank's young family.
Frank wanted to continue on to South America, a great place to raise sheep, he thought. But Alma put her foot down in Minnesota, and they bought the farm atop a lush ridge in Wilson Township. On the farm, the family grew to 12 children: Earhardt, the eldest, who helped establish the homestead, Otto, Linda, Dora, Erna, Elsie, Evelyn, Della, Frankie, Alfred, Roy and Ruth.
Roy Haake and Ruth (Haake) Bublitz, the two youngest of Frank and Alma's children, recently shared stories of growing up on the farm. They are stories of fun before radios and television, of hard work in the fields before gasoline engines and powered plows. They remember the old Haake farmsite that holds memories of more than 100 years. The farm has been transformed twice during their lifetime: it was used as the county landfill site for several decades, and now is the site of the largest county park and natural area in the county.
Life on the farm
The Haake family bought the Wilson Township farm in 1908, and like many farm families, produced a variety of products. They raised and sheared sheep, milked 32 dairy cows by hand, and planted and harvested potatoes, barley, oats, wheat, rye, corn and hay. Berries, apples and nuts grew all along the ridge top, and were picked by the Haake children—often eaten with sticky fingers before they even hit the bucket.
“We were never bored, always busy,” recounted Ruth, remembering collecting hickory nuts, walnuts, butternuts, and the blackberries used to make wine.
In those days, before gasoline engines eased the work, the entire family was a team on the farm. “Eighty years ago, we’d have to go into the pastures and hoe down the thistles, too,” remembered Ruth. “Can you imagine? Those big fields!”
They were big fields, and as the family grew, Frank purchased other neighboring farms until the Haakes owned about 400 acres.
The worst job, remembered Ruth and Roy, was rock-picking, a spring task that required a strong back, nimble fingers and more patience than Ruth could sometimes muster. “I would hide,” she laughed, when her dad Frank came to round up the kids to head to the fields for the spring work. She’d run upstairs in the farmhouse and try to wait him out, hoping he’d find enough of her siblings for a crew, hoping she could stay home with her mother and do other chores—“Anything but rock-picking!”
Harvest time meant that neighbors would pool together to help one another on the farm. One neighbor had a threshing machine, and all the men worked the fields until dark. During threshing season, the women milked the cows and worked hard to feed all the men. When the corn was harvested, neighbors all the way from Garvin Heights came to assist.
Frank planted 10 acres of potatoes, which the kids helped harvest. A horse-drawn digger would open the fields and the children followed, pulling up the potatoes that their dad would then cart to Winona to sell. Ruth remembers how difficult the work was (potatoes can be as hard to pick as rocks!), and that when the digger broke down, the kids would finally get a break, but only if they had kept pace behind the horse-drawn equipment.
A herd of 150 to 200 ewes kept Roy busy as he watched the flock. When sheep stray from their herd, they refuse to move, and the children had to round up the strays each morning. Roy kept watch over the flock at night, sleeping in an old farm house near the barn, where a remnant foundation still stands today.
Winters were harsh, and staying warm often meant keeping busy. Roy recalled chopping wood for the wood stove in winter months, and tending to the sheep and cows. After some prodding from family members during a recent event celebrating the family farm, Roy told the “cow pie” story. A neighbor boy couldn’t resist the steaming warmth during one icy winter day and hopped in to warm his frozen feet. Roy decided that he would opt for the warmth of his rat terrier at his feet.
“Those were hard times,” remembered Ruth. The Haake’s first house burned down one year, and the large family had to move into a much smaller farmhouse that had been part of the purchase of a neighboring farm. “We built a big barn during the Depression,” she recalled.
The Haakes always managed to have fun, even during the hard times—cards on winter nights, and outdoor games that sent ringing laughter across the hillsides.
The children walked one and a half miles to the schoolhouse in East Burns Valley, and walked eight miles to St. Martins Lutheran Church near Uncle Paul’s store to get confirmed. The creation of Highway 43 in West Burns Valley made getting to town easier in the ’30s, and Ruth would often stay with Uncle Paul in Winona to help babysit his children.
Every year before the hay was harvested, the Haakes hosted barn dances, and neighbors came from near and far for the festivities. “The next day we’d pick up all the quart jars from the moonshine,” remembered Roy. In those days, everyone made moonshine, made with berries and stored in cellars for those times when hardworking farm families could relax.
Ruth remembers how neighbors would get together on Saturday nights for music and dancing, before radios made music with the flip of a switch. Friends and family traveled from house to house for the gatherings. Those days, farmers had big families and big kitchens to feed them in. On Saturday nights, they’d move the table against the wall for a makeshift dance floor, and people brought instruments to the impromptu concerts accompanied by singing, and dancing—stomping boots and kicking heels. Folks traveled from one kitchen to the next, sharing the festivities with the whole neighborhood.
With 12 kids in the family, Ruth said they often wore hand-me-downs, but each Christmas every child received a new outfit. They wouldn’t get dozens of gifts, but each would receive one toy, a cherished present during those cold months.
In the 1930s, gasoline engines and powered farm equipment began to change the family farm. Earhardt bought a Model A Ford for $800. Roy stayed on the farm until it was sold in the 1970s to the Murphy family, and Frank and Alma moved to Winona’s East End.
The Haake children were an adventurous bunch. Ruth remembers her own travels during WWII. “I was Rosie the Riveter,” she laughs, telling how she left home when still a teenager to work and wait for her love, Norman Bublitz, to return home from the war. “I didn’t have a ring,” she says, but a promise from Norman was stronger than any platinum band.
Ruth worked in defense plants, first traveling to Colorado to work filling shells with powder at a Remington plant, then to Kansas---with a group of girlfriends---working on Boeing aircraft. She met her friend Dolly in Milwaukee, Wis., and visited her brother Frankie at his military training camp in Kansas. Frankie rode a glider plane into intense combat during the war that claimed his young life and broke the hearts of his family at home.
Ruth's brother Alfred attended Saint Mary’s University and was part of its football team; sister Erna traveled all the way to Alaska with her husband; and Elsie moved to California. Linda and her family farmed on the ridge near her parents’ farm, and is remembered for keeping a female bear as a pet. (The bear was thought of as rather friendly, for the most part, but visitors knew when the sow went into heat she would get a bit ornery!) Evelyn married James Bergler and worked hard on the farm, “as hard as the men,” Ruth remembered.
Ruth returned home after the war and married the love of her life, Norman. They raised a family of their own in Winona. Just about every valley and every corner of town holds a memory for the Haake family—memories of the farm, of a big family with big dreams, memories passed on to younger generations in faded photographs and yellowed newspaper clippings.
Each new generation of grandkids and great-grandkids listens intently to the stories of where the Haakes came from, of the strength and bravery in their Haake roots and their example of the tenacity of the American spirit.