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Published September 17, 2009, 12:00 AM

Generations of farming and faith

Strubbe-Kuehl Century Farm is located near Melvin, Iowa
SIBLEY, Iowa — They left their native homeland of Germany with four children — between the ages of 2 to 8 — and a fifth child on the way to strike out on a dream in America at the turn of the 20th century.

By: Julie Buntjer, Worthington Daily Globe

SIBLEY, Iowa — They left their native homeland of Germany with four children — between the ages of 2 to 8 — and a fifth child on the way to strike out on a dream in America at the turn of the 20th century.

Henry and Catherine Strubbe envisioned a farm on the rich, black soil of northwest Iowa, joining Catherine’s sister who had already settled in the region.

But building their American dream would take time.

The family arrived in Melvin, Iowa, in 1900, finding a farm site to rent from the Wachtel family for those first nine years before they had enough money saved to purchase a farm of their own.

On Sept. 7, 1909, the couple paid $8,000 for a quarter section of land in Section 33 of Baker Township, Osceola County. The farm still exists today, although the land is rented out and the 5-acre homestead was sold to Gary and Jayne Vander Lee 20 years ago.

Elsie Kuehl, granddaughter of Henry and Catherine Strubbe, is the farm’s owner today. At age 83, she’s quite proud of her family’s history on the land, but hesitant about the fate of the farm that has been in her family’s name for the past 100 years.

Kuehl now resides in Sibley after spending more than half a century on the family farm. She said the place doesn’t look much like it did back when she was growing up.

The original farm house has since been replaced, and the barn she remembers has been updated by the farmstead’s new owners.

When Henry and Catherine Strubbe first purchased the property, the home on the site consisted of two rooms downstairs and one room upstairs — far too small for the couple and their five children.

They added onto the home in two directions — creating a living room and bedroom on the south, and a kitchen, pantry and entry on the north. During those early years, Henry and Catherine also added three more children — all sons — to their family.

Henry’s brother, Carl Strubbe, also lived with them on the farm for many years.

Early struggles

Six years after the Strubbes purchased the farm south and east of Melvin, the family faced one of its biggest setbacks. On June 4, 1916, a tornado ripped through the area and took the family’s barn.

An article in the June 11, 1914 issue of the Sibley Gazette read: “The worst tornado in the history of Osceola County visited Melvin and vicinity last Friday evening, shortly after 6:30 p.m., destroying business houses, completely wiping out farm buildings in its path; causing heavy damage to crops; wrecking telephone poles, fences and groves.”

The Strubbes rebuilt the barn, which remains standing on the farm today. Back then, it primarily housed the milk cows on the west side and horse stalls and feed sheds on the east. Additional outbuildings included a smaller barn that housed hogs, two hen houses, a corn crib and a machine shed.

Kuehl said her grandparents didn’t have much in terms of money, but one story passed down through the generations tells of how Henry and Catherine loaned money to their two oldest daughters to help start a Lutheran church in Aurora, S.D.

“We think whatever they had, they were willing to share,” Kuehl said.

The Lutheran faith was important to the Strubbes and their descendants. Kuehl has records from the American Lutheran Church in Melvin that served five generations of the family over the last century.

The family celebrated 39 baptisms, 36 confirmations and 11 weddings in the church, while the funerals for 14 family members were conducted there. Several of Henry and Catherine’s children had lifetime involvement in the church, and Kuehl said she is the last active participant from the Strubbe family tree.

The second generation

Of the eight children born to Henry and Catherine Strubbe, it was their third child and oldest son, Ernest, who became the next owner of the farm site. He bought out his siblings’ shares after the death of their parents, and moved with his wife, Grace, to the farm in 1920.

Kuehl was the oldest of four children born to Ernest and Grace. She had one sister and two brothers. When their mother died of cancer at age 41, Kuehl was just 12 years old, while the youngest in the family was five.

“We had hired girls,” Kuehl recalled, adding that they did the housework, cooked the meals and washed the clothes for the family.

Kuehl and her sister convinced their dad to let the helpers go after just a couple of years.

“In reality, it was good for us,” she said. “We learned how to clean house and cook.”

In addition to keeping house, Kuehl attended consolidated school in Melvin and helped her dad with work on the farm.

“We had a little of everything — crops, livestock, pigs, chickens,” she said. “I remember picking up cobs from the hog yard and bringing ... them in for the stove, reservoirs on the cook stove and coal burners, ice water and cold mornings and all that good stuff.”

Kuehl also has not-so-happy memories about “that stupid separator” that had to be cleaned out every day after the milking was done.

Kuehl’s father used horses for farming during those early years, but she remembers the family’s first tractor. Her younger brother will never forget it either — he got his finger nipped off in the flywheel because he reached out to touch it as his father was trying to get the tractor started one day.

After graduating from high school, Kuehl helped out at the Strubbe grocery store in Melvin for a time before heading off to California to work in a rubber plant during World War II. Her job there was to help make gas tanks for airplanes.

“I was only out there a few months,” she said. “I knew my dad and brothers were alone — my sister had left to go to nursing school.”

Kuehl returned to the family farm and took care of the housekeeping until she married her husband, Allen, in 1947. The two had met at a dance in Hartley, Iowa.

It was a time of change on the rural northwest Iowa homestead.

With the arrival of indoor plumbing at the farm in the early 1950s, Kuehl’s father had the farmhouse raised so that a basement could be built underneath it. Once that was completed, the home was remodeled with the pantry transformed into a bathroom, the kitchen refurbished, the porches eliminated and plumbing and a furnace installed.

Passing on the farm

Newlyweds Allen and Elsie Kuehl settled on a farm in Clay County for a brief time, and later rented the same Wachtel farm her grandparents had lived on after emigrating to the U.S. The Kuehls lived there for a dozen years when, like her grandparents, they too would move to the farm in Section 33 of Baker Township.

Following Ernest Strubbe’s death, the Kuehls purchased the shares willed to her siblings and moved to the homestead with their three children in 1960. They continued to raise crops and cattle for many years, she said.

“It has my childhood memories and the childhood memories of my kids,” said Kuehl of the farm. She and her husband also raised son Dave and daughters Diane and Lynette on the farm.

Dave lives in Sibley with his wife Arlene, while Diane and her husband Jim Lechman reside in St. Croix Falls, Wis., and Lynette and husband Mike Doyle live in Council Bluffs, Iowa.

“I’m not sure what will happen (to the farm) when I die,” said Kuehl. “I can’t believe that my kids will ever live out there. I have a feeling they’ll sell the land, and that’s alright.”

Kuehl has six grandchildren and nine grandchildren.