Living off the land is more than a dalliance—it’s not glamorous or romantic. But the devotion invested in growing food and raising livestock is the engine of human endeavor. Ken and Minnie Apel nurtured their land and their family, caretakers of the acres passed on to them. An investment in the original American dream.
With the passage of over 100 years, the same family continuously worked this southwestern Minnesota farm. A large part of the original 480 acres, purchased from the railroad in 1888, is now leased to other farmers. But the family still tends a vegetable garden on the property while slowly emptying out the old homestead and out buildings. Like artifacts discovered in an historic excavation, the last days of Ken’s machine shop, the two houses that were once home to multi generations, and the barns, are giving up their nearly forgotten treasures. And unearthing long buried family stories brings the farm and its dreams alive again.
The current Maker Movement embraces independent inventors, designers, and tinkerers. Modern “makers” are admired in America; their craftsmanship, self-reliance, creativity, and unique production methods are the hallmarks of a renewed artisan aesthetic. But once the handmade skills learned and passed along by American farm families were commonplace, taken for granted as basic know-how. Our now DIY world harkens back to when DIY was the way of life, not a hobbyist’s past time. Anyone could build a house; anyone could repair a broken tool; anyone could plow a field and coax row upon row of life-sustaining food from the earth under uncertain, and often inhospitable, conditions.
A lifetime of tinkering...when questioned about his machine shed turned wood shop, Ken demurred, never elaborating on his enjoyment of wood working over the years.
After he retired from farming he crafted unique wooden toys of his own design. Minnie joined him, offering her own skills hand painting his creations. Together they shared their handiwork at local arts & crafts shows—a quiet expression of personal passions.
“Snow blocked many roads in the winter. So to get to school my dad fixed a Model “T” cab onto bobsled runners. The reins from the horses went through a slot in the dash and into the cab where Dad could drive the horses from inside. There was straw on the floor of the cab for us kids to sit on. Temps could get very cold, and snow was very deep. Those were the good old days in the little red school house which is still standing today.” Kenneth Apel
The mantra of reduce, reuse, and recycle is so familiar these days we often pay little heed. But the busy days and frugality of farm life took the concept to heart—a concept that was part of the fabric of living. The large barn on the farm was physically moved, using horses, from a neighboring farm to its current location years before Ken and Minnie began farming—why build a new one when a perfectly good one was available just across the road? Ken’s dad built the older farmhouse, while newlyweds Ken and Minnie moved into a smaller house that again already existed and was moved onto the farm, just next door. They started their family there, just footsteps away from loving grandparents. “When grandpa died, grandma moved into town,” Minnie shared. “Then we moved into the bigger house with you kids.” The older farmstead was filled with everything a family required—so many basic household goods remained in the “old” house left behind. Over the years it became an impromptu storage space, a place that held extra kitchen tools or tableware that were retrieved as needed.
A new generation of grandchildren, growing up as city kids, still love to visit the farm when they can. What were once just ordinary daily routines for a farm family are transformed into unique experiences, experiences that are fading away.
A bright, shiny bicycle was a beacon of the future and a symbol of freedom for the next generation.