When my great-great-grandparents, Franz and Fredricka Mueller, arrived in Nebraska, there was nothing here. Just prairie, stretching as far as the eye could see.
Their grandson — my grandfather, Andy — would tell the story often, as it is a treasured tale of the origin of my family and the farm that’s still in Mueller hands.
Andy said the couple and several children, arrived via covered wagon. As the story’s been told to me, Fredricka was very much with child and experiencing complications when they reached Antelope County. Their original plan was to go further west, but Franz and Fredricka decided to stay where they were.
They homesteaded about seven miles southwest of the town that is now Clearwater. They constructed a dug-out home, planted trees and started their lives.
“My father, August, said those giant trees down there,” Andy would say, pointing to the west to a massive cluster of cottonwoods, “were once just sticks he and his brothers stuck in the ground and kept covered with water. Look at them now. Ain’t that something?”
The farm was littered with artifacts from those early days — wooden wagon wheels, an oxen yoke, pieces of antique farm equipment. We’d often play among the memories and reenact the stories told to us by the old guy with the pipe. We’d build forts under the massive cottonwoods that our great-grandfather started as a boy. I’d marvel at how something planted by a person I never knew was a part of my life as a child. And I’d marvel that I, myself, was a product of that child who eventually grew up and took over the farm.
Andy said his aunts and uncles grew up and moved on. One of Fritz’s sons, August, stayed and married a girl down the road named Dora.
“Yep, those were my folks,” he’d say, as the old man led us on a tour of the “old place.” It was in the vicinity of the giant trees where only cattle now grazed. “The home place was right about there,” he’d motion to a pile of leftover bricks that had been part of the foundation of the first, original real house built on the homestead. “Then it got old and my dad built the main house.”
The “main house” was a little white, two-story structure with a weird basement that sported mostly dirt walls. “I was born in that house and I’ll die in that house,” Andy would say. “I’ve never lived anywhere else.”
Indeed, Grandpa and his only sibling, Hilda, were born there. His parents died there. And after he married my illustrious grandma, Onie, my father and his sister, Corrine, were born there, too.
The main house was a mixture of the 1800s and some ugly 1970s remodeling. My grandparents, who were the next in line to own it, still maintained “the sewing room,” which was an unheated place that held the antique sewing machine, fabric warehouse and doubled as a place to store perishable food during the winter. There was a place called “the den” that was locked at all times — it was a bit of a mystery, but the few peeks I got showed a vast firearm collection (I didn’t ask any questions).
There was the forbidden “wine closet” where Grandma’s homemade liquor concoctions would ferment and “the little kitchen” was a miniscule out-building for over-flow work during canning season.
They had a bathroom, but it came with strict rules. Onie wouldn’t allow more than a few inches of water in the tub at a time (I remember super cold baths). Onie also wouldn’t let Andy use it — he still had to go to the outhouse in the back yard. He would joke that “at least the old lady lets me use toilet paper, used to be Sears catalogs and corn cobs on bad days.”
Andy and Onie had separate bedrooms, too. He slept upstairs, she slept downstairs. Onie said it was because Andy snored, Andy said it was because Onie nagged. I thought it was because they couldn’t stop fighting. Some said they were just “hot-blooded Germans.” I never really knew, it was just the way it was.
How I loved those “farm tours” from the old guy, on warm summer evenings when the sun would allow us a little extra time. He’d show us the chicken coops that he built with his own hands, his first tractor and a beautiful old Model T car (both of which no longer ran and were parked in the trees). We spent hours playing on and in those vehicles, acting out all kinds of scenarios based on Grandpa’s tales.
My parents took over the farm as Andy and Onie aged. Even in his early 80s, Andy still ventured out to fix fence (although I think he mostly just relished the quiet and rolled his own cigarettes). He had a few Herefords and would complain that Dad’s Holsteins “were taking over the joint.” Andy could never really retire from his role — he had things to say and his watchful eye never closed.
Eventually my parents died, Onie died, and it was just Andy and us kids. “Yep, just the old man and this commotion,” he’d say, acting irritated while secretly loving that he was surrounded by so much youth. The boys would take care of his car, which only left the farm for church and an occasional card game. We girls would help him with his groceries and coach him through basic cooking. We buttoned his sweaters because his hands didn’t work right and he advised us on taxes while issuing warnings about the government.
It was an interesting dynamic — he was too old to physically do much, but his mind held a lot of information. Our minds were still young and learning, but our bodies could accomplish what needed to be done. I guess we became a team.
So the third and fifth generations of Muellers existed on that family farm, doing the best we could and offering something to the other when there were shortfalls.
“This is a good place,” he said to me once, as we sat in his hard, metal lawn chairs, with the cottonwood branches rustling in the breeze. “Make sure you kids keep it, no matter what. It’s been in this family for a long time and it should stay that way. Things will get tough, but they have before and everything worked out.”
I couldn’t make him any promises, but I said we’d try.
Andy planned on dying in his one and only house, but it didn’t work out that way. He had to go to the nursing home for a little while, after having a stroke. But his last coherent thoughts and memories were on that family farm he loved so much. That makes me happy.
One morning I saw a line of geese fly over and it reminded me of how Andy once said, “Those darn geese. You know, we’re just like ‘em. You can fly all over heck, back and forth, back and forth, but you still end up at the place you belong.”
I wonder if my brothers or their kids saw any of those darn geese that morning, while they worked on that family farm. If geese were flying over, I’m sure they were too busy to notice as they keep that promise to Grandpa. But I guess Andy was right — that farm in Antelope County was exactly where the Muellers belonged. And I’m glad the old guy was around to make us appreciate it.