Ten years shy of being a century old, Betty Hammell has seen it all.
She loves coffee, her giant family and her small town of Caledonia, Minnesota. Though the Hammell name now dots businesses and farms in southeastern Minnesota, Betty is a Caledonia transplant.
In 1969, Betty and her husband, Walter, bought a farm in Caledonia. Aside from a few original structures, the Hammell farm today has completely changed. Technological advancements affected everything from the way the family runs the farm to the way it looks.
“We raised cattle and pigs and crops,” Walter said, “[and] kids.”
Family farms like Betty’s are the backbone of American farming. They account for 97% of the farms and 84% of agriculture sales in the U.S.– according to a 2012 USDA census.
Nowadays, Betty’s son and grandson run the farm operations. Though things are certainly different now, Betty’s traditions and lessons remain.
Back in 1926, Betty was born in Hanover, a little town in the northeast corner of Iowa to a family of farmers.
Rural life in the early 20th century was difficult. According to the 1925 census, Greene County, a rural Iowa county southwest of Hanover Township, only 13 percent of farms had electric lights, heat and indoor toilets.
Betty grew up on one of those farms that didn’t have electricity. That meant they were creative with how they kept things fresh.
“Well in your cellar,” Betty said. “It was dirt and you could have a spot in there, if you dug it deep, and then you could put your butter– you churned your own butter. You could cover it and put it there and it’d stay fresh.”
As she grew up, she attended the local country school. The school had one room, one teacher and all the local kids from first to eighth grade.
When kids graduated eighth grade they had to choose whether or not they wanted to attend high school. High school classes were mostly filled by girls.
“It was a farming community and the boys stayed home to help out,” Betty said. “Farming tools aren’t what they are now.”
Betty loved school so she decided that when she graduated, she wanted to become a teacher.
“I graduated in June and the next morning I was in Decorah, Iowa at Luther College,” she said. “I was already one week late for college. Normal training they called it, and that’s where you get a teacher certificate, so its called normal training. I went there for 12 weeks, took a state test, and passed, and got my teacher’s certificate, and I had a week’s vacation and then I started teaching school, country school.”
As a teacher, Betty stayed with farm families who lived near her school. Sometimes she’d be staying upwards of three miles from school. And even in the frigid Iowa wintertime, she always had to walk.
On the winter mornings, she’d light the furnace in the school’s basement and then spend the day teaching her students in a wide range of grades. She thought she’d be a teacher forever.
But then she fell in love.
“If you were married, you didn’t teach,” Betty said. “It was custom. It wasn’t law, it was custom.”
So when Betty met Walter Hammell, she stopped teaching.
They were married on a Tuesday morning at 8:30 a.m. which Betty said was always the tradition.
“Then we came back home to the farm to my folks where I live and we had three course [lunch] on the farm. And my mother’s two sisters made the dinner and made it cooked, mashed potatoes and ham and chicken and a vegetable and that,” Betty said. “The first course was tomato juice, it wasn’t wine, it was a little glass of tomato juice.”
In the afternoon, many of their wedding guests went back to work on their farms. But at 8 p.m. everyone got back together for a dance.
“When they come into the wedding dance there’s always somebody sitting at the door, some family member sitting at the door,” Betty said. “And they give a donation: 10 cents, 25 cents, maybe 35 cents…I mean even a nickel was good then.”
At the dance, Betty wore a blue dress and everyone danced until one in the morning. Once they were married, Betty moved to Walter’s family farm in a place the locals jokingly call, “sand cove” because of the sandy soil.
“You had to go up a hill [to get to the farm],” Betty said. “We had company from Illinois one time and she was scared coming up there. And I said, ‘Come back again we enjoyed your visit,’ and she said, ‘Well I’ll go by this place when I go to heaven.”
On the farm, Betty and Walter raised cows, pigs, chicken as well as a number of grain and vegetable crops. But the sandy soil made it difficult for things to grow.
“Because of the farming conditions, our farm in Iowa was really rough,” Betty said. So they decided to find better land and moved to Caledonia in 1969.
The first thing Walter did when they moved into their new farm house was build Betty a kitchen.
“The first one he built was really the nicest one I’ve had. It had drawers that held 50 pounds of flour. You needed it you know,” Betty said while pointing to the photos of her 9 kids on the wall.
The farm was a lot of work, but they also had a lot of fun.
“You know there was no such a thing as TV, so it was home entertainment,” Betty said. “On Sundays a bunch of cousins came and played ball or whatever. You always ate. It might be homemade bread and sliced pork, roasted pork, and dill pickles, cookies maybe cake, milk.”
And when it came time to harvest crops, the community of farmers in Caledonia always helped each other out. The women would always get together and make big lunches and pots of coffee to take out to the men in the fields.
Betty loved life on the farm. But there was one moment where Walter and their son Tony challenged her love.
“Truthfully, I think it was the only time I got upset– it’s stuck in my mind,” Betty said. “The ladies had a get together once a month. When it was my turn, they decided to clean the barn. Tony and Walter, and wouldn’t you know, they drive by the house. Can you imagine in the summertime, you just don’t have the air conditioning you know, and here they drive by with this load of manure? They had four hundred acres to spread that out a long ways away from the house and here they have to do it right in front.”
But other than that one afternoon, Betty never wanted to be anywhere else. Over time, Tony began to take more and more charge of the farm. And when he got married, Betty decided it was time for her and Walter to move off the farm.
“I never thought it was fair because it was farming community and it happened a lot, but the son would get married and take his bride and have another trailer house or something on the farm,” Betty said.
So they moved to town and took up traveling. Betty and Walter have been to nearly every state in the country, and they have a full souvenir cabinet to prove it. But what’s her favorite state? “Oh, must’ve been Minnesota,” she smiled.
Now the Hammell farm is run by Tony and his son Drew who stops by daily to visit his grandparents. The farm is now focused solely on raising dairy cows and producing milk which gets picked up every day by a truck and turned into cheese at the nearby creamery.
A lot has changed since Betty was a young girl. “The biggest differences are electricity and the internet,” Betty said. But the importance of family has never waned. And Betty and Walter are excited for the future of their farm.
Walter joked, “Oh yeah really excited about it, wondered if it’d still be there after a while.” And Betty simply said, “We are proud of Drew, that’s for sure.”
See what the Hammell farm looks like today:
By | Hannah Doksanksy and Samantha Harrington. Clay Harrington contributed reporting.