The farming genes run deep in my blood. Generations of men and women on both sides of my family tree have had a strong connection to agriculture, especially dairy farming. The desire to know more prompted quick interview sessions with my two remaining grandparents, one from each side of the family. Grandpa Ike turned 92 this past week, and Grandma Monroe is 88. Every story they tell is another connection to a past so rich with history it makes me want to know more. Though they settled at opposite sides of the state, the Bohemian Mlsnas in the Cashton area and the German Freys in the Hartford area, my ancestors found ways to raise families and thrive with agriculture as their source of income.
    My great-great-grandma Josephine on my mother’s side was probably shaking her head every time my mom donned her kerchief and headed off to the barn to milk the cows when we were little ones. She probably scowled as my mom filled up our bottles straight from the cow to keep us content while she finished milking. Great-great-grandma had told her daughter, my great-grandma Armella, upon her pending marriage to farmer John Frey, that you should never go in the barn or you’ll never get out. Armella held onto this wisdom and never milked a cow, though her family did run a cheese factory. Her daughter, my grandma Marian, only milked a cow one time in her life and that was of pure necessity. With a giggle, she tells the story of making supper as a young girl and needing one quart of milk to complete her German pancake (stirrups as she calls them) recipe. With no men around to milk a cow for her, she brought one cow in the barn and milked a quart out of her then kicked her back outside without even finishing milking her.
    Great-grandpa John Frey farmed north of Hartford, Wis. His first farm was rented, then they purchased 160 acres in 1949. They milked 40 Holsteins, raised pigs, laying hens and also devoted acres to growing peas for the cannery. My grandma Marian recalls her dad planting white clover (expensive) and how as little children her and her siblings would take a nail to scratch the bag open and watch it run out. Boy, did they get a good scolding for their short-lived entertainment. As little children visiting their grandparents’ farm, my uncle mentioned the time they walked down the whole row of cows and stuck straw in their noses while Grandpa was trying to milk. Can you guess how that ended?
    John’s main barn burned in 1958. Not ready to retire, he rented a farm across the road while he rebuilt. Shortly thereafter his machine shed blew down in a storm. His son, my great-uncle Richie, farmed with him after he returned from a 18-month stint in Korea until his own family grew too much to be able to support two households on one farm’s income. That prompted great-grandpa John’s retirement in his 70s. Members of Richie’s family still farm in that area today.
    Across the state in the area known as Bohemian Valley, circa 1914, Tom and Mary Mlsna walked their herd of 35 Milking Shorthorns (chosen for beef and milk production) up the hill to establish the Mlsna farm outside of Cashton on the Monroe/Vernon county line. They started with 120 acres to feed their cattle and sheep herds. Due to Mary’s poor health, great-great grandpa Tom retired and moved to town at the age of 46 to dig sewer lines. His son and wife Ed and Magdalene, my great-grandparents, took over the responsibilities of the farm through some of the hardest years in agriculture – the Great Depression. With a smirk, Grandpa Ike remembers sleeping outside on a hay wagon because it was too hot to sleep in the house in those years. He also said, with pride in his voice, they never bought hay for their animals. Great-grandpa Ed was a college graduate who put his schooling to good use, being the first in the area to grow alfalfa. Some of his college buddies were men who learned how to put fields into contour strips, another connection that came in handy. Their farm also boasted the first milking machine in the area. The contraption allowed you to milk two cows at the same time into a milk can that held 80-85 pounds. His first year out of high school, Ike had the responsibility of the year’s lambs until they were sold. Grandpa sheared his lambs and sold the wool to be made into aviator jackets for WWII. That was the last time great-grandpa Ed ever did that. Grandpa Ike made more money that year than he did. The next year the lambs left on the train to Milwaukee.
    Great-grandpa Ed’s farm passed to his son, Tom, Grandpa Ike’s older brother. Five farming generations later, that farm is still in action as Mlsna East Towne Dairy. Grandpa and Grandma Ike started farming near Leon, then purchased the farm directly over the hill from Tom outside of Cashton in 1953. My uncle Jeff milked cows for years after my grandparents retired, then fitted the barn for chickens with heifers being raised nearby even still.
    I guess my great-great-grandma Josephine was right when she said you should never go in the barn or you’ll never get out. It seems I’ve been in the barn since my birth and haven’t left yet. I imagine her and all of my relatives watching down on me with smiles of approval, knowing there are still some of us weaving the fibers of agriculture into our family tree.
    Jacqui and her family milk 800 cows and run 1,200 acres of crops in the northeastern corner of Vernon County, Wis. Her children, Ira (11), Dane (9), Henry (4) and Cora (adventurous crawler), help her on the farm while her husband, Keith, works on a grain farm. If she’s not in the barn, she’s probably in the kitchen, trailing after little ones, or sharing her passion of reading with someone. Her life is best described as organized chaos – and if it wasn’t, she’d be bored.