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The story of Brandtjen Farm

To read about the sale and design of a development, GO TO ARTICLE 2. To read a delightful documentary about naming the development after the sale of the farm, GO TO ARTICLE 3.

http://www.twincities.com/mld/pioneerpress/9932338.htm
Posted on Sun, Oct. 17, 2004

Last harvest to herald unique suburb

Last week, Dave Doyle brought his tractor to a lurching halt. He opened the chute on a grain wagon, then watched a golden stream of soybeans fall into an auger, which rattled as it lifted the beans into a bin.

The soybeans were the last crop the land will ever produce. After more than 70 years as the legendary Brandtjen Farm, the land has been sold for a cutting-edge, 2,100-home development.

Doyle, who leases the land from the Brandtjen family, wiped his dusty hands on his jeans and said, "It's really too bad."

It was an epitaph to the Brandtjen Farm, which once stretched like a vast northern plantation across Dakota County, the largest farm in Minnesota and by many measures, the best.

Where Doyle was standing, the Brandtjens paid salaries and saved families in the depths of the Great Depression. In winter, galloping horses towed children on skis. There, 100 German POWs labored during World War II. There, the Brandtjens created a dynasty in agriculture.

The Brandtjen Farm legend has been gathering dust since the family moved away 40 years ago. But it's being revived by a Brandtjen-size dream - a $1 billion, 520-acre community that seeks to be as innovative as the Brandtjen Farm was in its day.

Starting today, the Pioneer Press will tell a story of how Minnesota's past is folding into its future, chronicling the evolution of a piece of land in western Dakota County. The series begins with a history of the farm, then shifts to the potentially risky effort to build what many consider an oxymoron: a unique suburb. The success or failure of that venture will be clear in spring 2006, when the series concludes with the arrival of moving vans, bringing the first homeowners to the new community.

The developers' grand vision of a new kind of suburb sounds like a long shot.

From coast to coast, suburbs look the same. They're spread-out anti-cities, built for cars instead of pedestrians, marked by garage doors, big-box malls and freeways.

But hometown developers, after watching copycat suburbs roll across central Minnesota, are gambling that the home-buying public is ready for something different.

They envision a future with a past. They are planning streets, waterways, houses and even alleys with one goal in mind - to make people feel closer to each other. The way they felt in the Brandtjen era.

To do that, in the coming months they must persuade more than 10 local, state and federal agencies to give their bureaucratic blessings. They must pick a name - will the public go for a name like "Brandtjen Farms?" They must wade through a flood of details - street widths, tree types, styles of lettering on mailboxes.

They will be doing this, on this land, because they say there's something special about it.

"Other farms were superlative in their day, but in the '30s, Brandtjen Farm became the superlative farm," said David Schreier, author of a history of the family and son of a Brandtjen housekeeper. "It was a case of exceptional people on an exceptional farm."

How did an ordinary corner of Dakota County become legendary? What values could be strong enough to inspire a standing ovation in a Rosemount gym last winter - three generations after the farm's heyday?

The answers come from the Dakota County Historical Society, historians, family friends and surviving Brandtjen family members.

BRANDTJEN FARM STOOD FOR THE AMERICAN DREAM


Henry A. Brandtjen Sr. was born in 1890, the son of German immigrants. He grew up in St. Paul and graduated from the University of Minnesota. He enlisted in the Army in 1917 and fought in France in World War I.

Brandtjen's father ran a small printing equipment company in St. Paul, which led to an invention that launched the family fortune.

At that time, printers had to rely on sticky gum to move pages during the printing process. It was a constant bother, because the gum quickly became covered with lint.

According to family lore, Brandtjen and two brothers, Abel and Eneval Kluge, were on a train to a trade show in Iowa when - eureka! They envisioned a hollow pipe with holes on one side that would suck air to grab a piece of paper and then quickly release it.

It was the first automatic printing press feeder. To make and sell them, they formed Brandtjen and Kluge in 1919. Within a few years, the devices were indispensable in printing plants around the world.

Money rolled in. Henry and his wife, Gladys, moved to 1936 Summit Ave. - the neighborhood of the rich and famous of the time.

The Brandtjens had two sons, John and Henry Jr., and began what they thought would be years of peaceful child-raising.

BRANDTJEN FARM STOOD FOR FAMILY

The farm was founded to protect the family.

In 1932, five blocks from the Brandtjen home, kidnappers stalked Haskell Bohn, the 20-year-old son of refrigerator magnate Gerhard Bohn.

They blindfolded him at gunpoint, tossed a ransom note for $35,000 to the horrified chauffeur, and roared away in a getaway car. They kept Bohn for a week, his eyes taped shut, near Wayzata.

The Brandtjens were aghast. They worried there was more to come. Indeed, over the next several years, kidnappers snatched the sons of St. Paul's elite - Leon Gleckman, William Hamm. Jr. and Edward Bremer - and reaped ransoms of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Brandtjen left one morning shortly after the Bohn kidnapping, his wife's instructions ringing in his ears: Buy lakeshore property outside St. Paul for a safe haven for the boys.

He returned that night with an announcement. He had bought a dairy farm. The citified printing millionaire who had never touched an udder in his life suddenly owned cattle, a milking barn and 200 acres of land, one hour's drive from their home.

Henry Jr. and John spent summers there, and lived there full-time starting in 1938 - commuting daily to St. Paul Academy.

In many ways, it was an idyllic childhood. Henry Brandtjen Jr., now 75, still recalls the rough feel of arrowheads he found in the fields, the tartness of the root beer made by housekeeper Gertrude Schwinghamer, the soft flapping of a yardfull of ducks waking quietly as the sun rose.

He remembers skiing behind galloping horses in the winter, like a water skier behind a boat.

It was fun, but at times it was lonely. "The kids were pulled out of society in St. Paul and sent to the boondocks," historian Schreier said.

And sometimes, it was dangerous. At 14, Henry Jr. was working with a feed grinder when it tore the finger tips off his left hand.

The boys worked hard, alongside the farm hands, at their father's insistence. "He was the strict German type - not a lot of partying," recalled granddaughter Julia Mitchell Fink.

BRANDTJEN FARM STOOD FOR INNOVATION

At the time, farming was cool. In the 1930s, America hadn't yet evolved from a rural nation to an urban one. Local food production was critical - the Twin Cities were fed with food from local farms, not produce trucked in from California.

Front pages of newspapers proclaimed news of certain breeds of animals producing the most eggs, milk or bacon, a competition that climaxed annually at the Minnesota State Fair. Gentlemen farmers hired workers for their hobby farms to breed cattle and horses to see their names publicized.

So when Henry Brandtjen Sr. bought the farm, society-watchers didn't expect much. They were wrong.

Brandtjen hired college-trained livestock managers from the University of Minnesota, at a time when most farms were operated by the uneducated. He built barns out of redwood, imported by rail from California. He demanded excellence from everyone.

Only 18 months after Brandtjen bought the farm, the Dakota County Tribune began carrying a standing column called "Brandtjen Stock Farm News" with the minutest detail - even the family's weekly commute from St. Paul.

For the next 30 years, the Brandtjen name dominated farm animal contests.

In 1934, the farm broke a record for egg production - 41,423 eggs from 375 laying hens in five months. In 1935, the farm won every available prize open to Guernsey cows at the Dakota County Fair.

In horses, too, the farm excelled, winning prize after prize for breeds such as Percherons and Saddlebreds. In 1949, Henry Jr. and a horse named Top Sergeant were featured in a Wheaties ad.

Students and 4-Hers flocked to the farm. "It was more of a school than anything else," Schreier said.

The farm's fame even spread internationally. Hari Krishna Mahtab, the minister of Industry and Commerce of India, marveled at Brandtjen's cows, which could produce 30 pounds of milk a day - almost four times the average in India.

He offered Brandtjen as much land and machinery as he wanted to run a demonstration farm in India. Brandtjen turned him down.

Brandtjen's dairy workers dressed in white overalls and milked by hand rather than by machine because it was easier on the cows.

He created the Brandtjen brand of milk, recommended by pediatricians and ferried to St. Paul's elite in Brandtjen Milk trucks. Sometimes Henry Jr. would act as a guide when carloads of fans of the milk would pull up wanting a tour.

Brandtjen loved new technology, although it sometimes came awkwardly to America as well as to the farm.

The farm was one of the first to have electricity - at least, some electricity. When the Brandtjens turned on one 3-foot-wide motor used for chores, it drained the power grid. "It stopped clocks in Rosemount," Henry Jr. said.

And the cows enjoyed another one of technology's fruits - the radio. From speakers in the barn, WCCO's soothing music specifically designed to help milking would wash over the Brandtjen stalls.

BRANDTJEN FARM STOOD FOR KINDNESS

In 1941, Brandtjen heard about the bombing of Pearl Harbor on the radio. The news hit like a thunderbolt.

Brandtjen dashed around the farm, telling every worker. "It was my idea to put the flag up," Henry Jr. said. They didn't know what else to do.

As the war dragged on, about 100 German prisoners were sent to live on the farm. Henry Brandtjen Sr. decided not to fence them in with barbed wire, but to treat them as other workers. Brandtjen even insisted they be fed a hot meal daily - a luxury for prisoners.

"You could park the POWs on a farm in the Midwest, with nothing for 3,000 miles in any direction. Where would they go?" said Robert Brandtjen, Henry Sr.'s grandson.

In return for their humane treatment, the prisoners worked hard. In 1943, in addition to their farming duties, the POWs dug an underground water line to five houses Brandtjen had built for his workers.

The Brandtjen boys weren't supposed to talk with the prisoners. But the war stories were irresistible - the prisoners were tank commanders and drivers under Gen. Erwin Rommel, the infamous "Desert Fox."

Then there were the Japanese. During the war, several American groups tried to find alternatives for Japanese-Americans who were stuck in internment camps.

Working with one such group, Brandtjen invited Frank and Ann Kawakami to move to the farm from their camp in California.

Kawakami's father, who was held in a camp in Nevada, sent watercolor paintings of the camp, which the Brandtjen family still has.

In a nation reeking of racism, Brandtjen hired an African-American, Branch K. Bruce, to train his horses. Brandtjen was appalled when Bruce's children weren't allowed to attend high school in Farmington.

But after a visit by Brandtjen to the school, the children were sitting in the classroom.

In the 1950s, Bruce lost a hand in a piece of farm machinery. Brandtjen had two hands made for him - a "utility hand" with a hook and a "dress hand" that looked more realistic, with darker skin color.

BRANDTJEN FARM STOOD FOR COMMUNITY

In the Great Depression, hunger stalked the countryside. Even wealthy families noticed. Henry Jr. recalls as a boy seeing a homeless man shuffling down a dirt road, pulling all his possessions in a child's wagon.

Across the country, family farms were going bankrupt. The Brandtjen farm never made a dime, but it didn't need to. It was supported by the printing equipment business.

Brandtjen quietly bought neighboring farms as they collapsed.

Instead of razing the small farmhouses, he let the families remain and work for him.

On the surface, nothing had changed. But local people knew what Brandtjen had done.

"He and his father felt that America had been good to them, and this was his way of paying back," Robert Brandtjen said.

As the farm expanded, Brandtjen built a row of houses for his workers along 170th Street. About 100 men worked there during harvest time.

"It was his own WPA project, is what it amounts to," said Robert Brandtjen, referring to the Depression-era employment program.

During the Armistice Day Blizzard of Nov. 11, 1940, Henry Jr. recalled seeing snowflakes the size of teacups blasting into his father's windshield as they came home from school. About 2 feet of snow fell, with drifts up to 20 feet.

The Brandtjens tied ropes between farm buildings to guide them through the blinding storm.

Afterward, the Brandtjens harnessed horses to pull cars out of ditches.

THE BRANDTJEN FARM STOOD FOR LEGACY


Robert Brandtjen recalls sitting on the front porch with his grandfather, just talking. He remembers the butler bringing him milkshakes or pie.

"It was no different than when you go to your grandfather's," said Robert Brandjten. "Only bigger."

But Minnesota had changed by the 1950s. Breeding stock wasn't front-page news any more. Brandtjen was getting old, and his sons had little interest in farming.

In 1959, he sold off his 125 dairy cattle. The first cow sold was named "Brandtjen's R. Ultimate," but the auction was too painful for him to watch. There was no more need for alfalfa or feed grain for the cows, so the land was turned over to corn and soybeans.

Henry Brandtjen Sr. died on the farm in 1962.

Without his careful attention, the golden era of the farm was over. The family trust began to rent out fields to neighboring farmers.

Through the 1970s, the only person on the farm with a family connection was the caretaker - a German POW who never returned to his homeland.

One son, John, pursued his own business interests and moved to Oregon. The other, Henry Brandtjen III, is the fourth generation owner of the printing business, Brandtjen and Kluge, now based in St. Croix Falls, Wis.

The core of the farm - the 200-acre parcel that includes the farmstead - was sold earlier this year. Family members who control the family trust were thrilled at the reincarnation of the farm as a first-class development.

But grandson Robert, who hadn't been part of the planning process, took the news differently.

"It's heartbreaking," he said, after hearing about the sale last summer. "One of the neighbors asked me why I looked so down. I said, 'I am saying goodbye.' "

BRANDTJEN FARM STANDS FOR VALUES THAT ENDURE


Robert Brandtjen was watching when his son's wrestling team visited Rosemount last winter. When the boy stepped onto the mat, the crowd recognized the name spoken by the announcer. It was a name of a legendary man who, four generations earlier, had stood for the community in so many ways. How would the community thank him?

They stood.

On their feet, the crowd cheered for the visiting wrestler, based on nothing but his name. His dad sat, stunned, in the stands.

"It was for what grandfather did for the community," he said. "It was overwhelming."
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Bob Shaw can be reached at bshaw@pioneerpress.com or 651-228-5433.
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