Three farm families honored for 100 years of ownership
Every year since 1987, the Becker County Fair has held a special awards ceremony to honor the county’s century farms — those that have been in the continuous ownership of the same family for 100 years or more.
Since that time, a total of 87 farms in the county have been awarded century farm status — and this year, three more were added to the list, bringing the total to 90 overall.
Earlier this month, the farms of Ron and Betty Safar, Norman and Shirley Kangas, and the Vomacka family were honored at the 2013 Becker County Fair.
Safar family farm
Though semi-retired, Ron and Betty Safar are still actively involved in the operation of their family’s 480-acre farm in Spring Creek Township, 2½ miles west of Ogema.
“My grandparents, Matthew and Antonia Safar, were born in Czechoslovakia,” said Ron Safar. “They came to the U.S and ended up by Olivia, Minn. We don’t know the exact details of why, but in 1912 they moved up into the Ogema area. They bought 80 acres west of Ogema.
“It’s the same farm we’re on right now,” added Ron’s wife Betty.
Through the years, however, that farm has been expanded to 480 acres — mostly due to the efforts of Ron’s mother and father, Joseph and Lillian Safar.
“My parents bought the farm from (grandfather) Matt in 1938,” Ron said. “My folks had eight children, and expanded the farm from 80 to 480 acres.”
Ron and Betty purchased the property in 1973; none of his siblings were interested in running the family farm themselves, though two of his brothers now run farms of their own.
“We had two kids, Joel and Doreen,” Betty said. “Our son works in Hawley and lives in Fargo, and our daughter lives and works in Perham.”
The couple also has four grandchildren, two boys and two girls, who were all frequent visitors to the farm while growing up.
“They liked coming to Grandma and Grandpa’s farm,” Betty said. “Now we have two great-grandchildren also, a girl and a boy.”
“The little guy will be two in September, and he just loves coming out here and running around.”
Over the years, the Safar farm has included “everything from dairy to beef cattle to hogs, and then in the 1980s we sold the livestock and went into grain farming,” Ron said. “Now we raise corn and soybeans and wheat.”
“He’s semi-retired and farms just 80 acres,” Betty added. “We just have soybeans right now.”
The rest of the ag land is rented out to their nephew, Josh Safar.
Though he has curtailed his farming activities some, Ron admits he doesn’t think it’ll ever be out of his system.
“It’s in his blood,” laughed Betty.
“I think I just love the way of life,” Ron agreed — especially the fact that he gets to be his own boss.
The original farmhouse on the property was remodeled several times before Ron and Betty built a new home in 1979.
For the first time, “each of the kids had their own room,” Betty said. In the old home, they had to share a single room upstairs, adjacent to their parents’ room — just like their father and grandfather had.
“My dad said when he was young they slept upstairs and they could see the stars … through the cracks I imagine,” Ron said.
“It wasn’t until Joseph and Lillian bought the farm that they added on a bigger porch, bedroom and bathroom,” Betty said.
“I think around 1955 they added a bathroom and a bedroom,” Ron added. “Before that the bathroom was outside.”
Fortunately, one thing they always did have was running water, due to the fact that they were able to have naturally flowing wells that used no pumps to operate.
“We didn’t have to pump water for the livestock either,” Ron said.
“That’s where we still get our water from,” Betty added.
Though Norman and Shirley Kangas’s 240-acre farm on the shore of Wolf Lake has been in Norm’s family since 1894, the name on the deed hasn’t always read “Kangas.”
The original 128 acres were purchased by a Mr. Solomon Makinen, and came into the Kangas family when Norman’s grandfather, Jacob, married Ida Hendrickson.
The Hendricksons, in turn, had come into possession of the land through marriage as well.
In the 1940s, Norman lived on the farm with his mother, sister and two brothers. His father had simply left the farm one day and never returned. Because Norm was the oldest, at just 12 years of age, the majority of responsibility for the farm’s operation fell to him and his mother.
“We had cattle, sheep, pigs, about 58 animals — 20 of which were milking cows,” he said. “My mother and I did all of the milking. I was the oldest and the youngest was five.”
Though he and his mother knew little of farming at the time, through the generosity of his neighbors, Paul Aho and his brothers, as well as “Mr. Olav Skoog and his boys,” Norm eventually learned the ropes for himself.
But farming took a back seat, first to a brief stint in the Army — “I was drafted,” Kangas said — and then to the ministry.
In 1973, he received his first call to ministry, in Ironwood, Mich., and he and Shirley made the move out there.
“But the farm remained in my care, owned by myself and my siblings,” Norm said.
In 1994, he and Shirley moved back to the Wolf Lake farm, and the pair slowly began the process of rehabilitating the property, which had slowly fallen into disrepair over the years.
“I have continued to live in Ironwood, maybe two or three months out of the year,” Kangas said.
When they’re home, the Kangases work on “building up the house, the horse barn and the sauna,” he said. “We’re putting a roof on the house now, with shingles that me, my wife and a good friend of mine named Marvin made … it’s almost done.”
Next step is repainting the house’s exterior. Originally, the buildings on the property were in such disrepair that “I couldn’t even get a carpenter out here to help me, because he thought it was too far gone,” Kangas said.
About nine months later, the carpenter came back out to the farm to check on how things were going, and was amazed by what he saw.
“He said he had come out here to ask me, ‘Are you ready to take my advice?’” Kangas said. “But instead, he said, ‘I will help you.’”
Kangas also said that even though a lot of people might have simply given up, razed the buildings and started fresh, he couldn’t bring himself to do it.
“There are good memories here and bad memories here, but the good ones outweigh the bad,” he said. “
Some of the strongest memories are tied to when Dr. Saarnivara, his dean at the Inter-Lutheran Seminary, came out to the farm to visit him, and would help him with the shingling of the roof and harvesting the potato crop.
“He was a very special person,” Kangas said.
He was also lured back by the strong relationships he had formed with his fellow farmers, like the Aho brothers.
“It’s the people around here who have been so very loyal and supportive and encouraging to whom I attribute our coming back to the farm,” Kangas said.
The Vomacka farm was established in 1908, when John and Barbara Vomacka moved with their five children from the Rose Bud Indian Reservation in South Dakota to a new farm one mile north of Ogema.
“At the time, the Clapp Act had passed (in 1906), which allowed Native Americans to sell their land allotments, and so through the Fargo and Baker Land office in Ogema, John bought 160 acres of land,” said his granddaughter, Carol Fabre.
“They built a house and other farm buildings, purchased a team of horses, a cow and chickens, and set up farming. John also did well drilling, bought a steam engine and threshing machine, was an auctioneer and was keenly interested in politics. They also added four more children to their family. As time went on, he purchased more land.”
Carol’s father, Henry — better known as Hank — and his sister, Ema (Vomacka) Erion, were the only ones to remain in the area, as the rest of their siblings left the area after reaching adulthood.
Hank took over the farm in the late 1930s. He purchased a 1939 John Deere tractor for the farm work, “which was his pride and joy,” Carol said.
He married Gladys Nagel of Callaway in 1940 and they had two daughters, Mary and Carol. They farmed the land, raised pigs, cows and chickens, and “our mother had a big garden and canned vegetables, meat and fruit as well as helping out on the farm as much as possible,” Carol said.
When Hank retired, he rented out the farmland, but remained on the farm. He passed away in December of 1983, and Gladys remained on the farm until her death in February 1997.
The farm’s ownership passed down to Hank and Gladys’ two daughters, Carol and Mary, who by this time were both married.
Carol and her husband, Doug Fabre, have three sons and one daughter, while Mary and her husband, Mel Walk, have two daughters.
Doug and Carol built a new house to the north of the original buildings, and later their son Jack razed the original farmhouse and built a new one at the same location.
The farmland is jointly owned by Carol and Mary and their spouses, and is rented out to other operators.
One of the renters is Danny Steffl, who is married to Mel and Mary’s daughter, Sherry.