Posted on Sun, Oct. 17, 2004
to herald unique suburb
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
The developers' grand vision of a new kind of suburb sounds like a long
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
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
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.
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
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
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
"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 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,
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
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?
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."
Shaw can be reached at email@example.com or 651-228-5433.
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