Family farm enters seventh generation
Four generations of the Kahl family are sitting on a lawn overlooking their barnyard on a midsummer morning. Helen, who recently moved out after nearly half a century, turns to her great grandson, Harrison, and asks: “Whose house is this?”
“It’s great-gammas house!” responds the child.
“No,” Helen corrects him, softly. “It’s yours now.”
This is how life has been here since 1898. Generation after generation of the same family following the next, making it their own, learning to walk, learning to work, learning to live and love together. Then, after all that, watching the same process start all over again. Helen represents the fourth generation of Kahl to oversee this place. John Kahl, Helen’s husband, died of a heart attack at the age of 71 while working in the barnyard two years ago, but for his family, he and everyone else who came before him are still part of this farm in Blue Mounds. Each generation that comes – and the little children playing on the lawn right now are the seventh – fully inhabits this place and makes it their own, before saying goodbye. The Kahl Farm on Blue Rock Road is where this family’s memories live, long after the people who made them are gone. It is a place where new memories are made each day.
Helen’s time here began on her prom night, in 1965. She came to rendezvous with her beau, John, a young teenage farmer who drove a 1957 Chevy with holes in the floorboards. (She says he drove his first tractor at the age of six.) His mother, Marion, wanted to see Helen’s prom dress. To Helen’s dismay, the hem on the garment had become unruly and wouldn’t stay put.
“So Marion got out her [ironing] board and fixed it on the porch of the farmhouse,” Helen says, gesturing toward the 117-year-old home.
“It was very special to meet her,” she continues. “She was a get ‘er done woman.”
It was June, and that meant it was milking time while this quiet romantic drama unfolded.
The dress was fixed, as was John and Helen’s course together. It would last for the rest of his life.
In those days, mothers, churches and cows were the glue that bound people together.
“Sundays were meant for gathering, you know,” says Helen. “Marion was a fantastic cook. She loved to entertain, and she was a very stylish woman.”
Helen had grown up on her own family’s farm in the nearby Town of Perry, and after living with John at a nearby piece of land, the two moved into the main Kahl farm in 1976. She called it “a monumental year,” including not just a move, but also an ice storm, a drought, and multiple children with broken bones.
“It was just mayhem,” Helen laughs.
But it was the mayhem in which families are forged.
“I had wanted to move here [from her and John’s initial home] because I didn’t see enough of my husband. The other farm was two miles away, and he was always working here,” she says.
Once they moved to the main farm, despite John’s busy work schedule, he was always present, always nearby, even if he was laboring away. When he came home at lunch, the children, Nancy, Cathy and brother Danny, climbed on him.
“It was good,” explains Helen. “It was just much better.”
One of those children was Nancy (Kahl) Balbach, who represents the fifth generation of Kahl to live on this land. The daughter of John and Helen, she remembers a youth spent doing chores, climbing the wild bluffs that overlook the fields, and making muffins and relish trays for 4H. “Oh, there were no ribbons,” she jokes.
The farm was always a dairy operation until 2012, and it still produces around 200 acres of corn, soybeans and hay.
“For me, when I was growing up, it was a working farm, so I was free labor,” Nancy jokes. But she is quick to add that the farm was also the heart of the family, a place where everyone gathered.
“We celebrated every birthday,” she says. “Every holiday.”
“Life is just different now,” Nancy adds matter-of-factly. “People are so busy with other things.”
When she was a baby, Nancy was sometimes watched by Marion, in addition to her mother. When she grew up, she had her own daughter, Amanda, who recently had two boys and is currently expecting a third. Amanda and her husband, Keith White moved to the farm with their growing family in April of this year.
“It will be different, but they will get to explore the same land we did,” Nancy says of her three young grandchildren.
“It feels just natural and wonderful,” Nancy continues. “I remember Amanda, as a teenager, saying she hoped that one day she could live on the farm.”
John died in the barnyard two years ago. He was, of course, working until his final moment. Friends and neighbors came together that fall to harvest John’s last crops, which he had sowed but would never reap, at least in the literal sense.
As the family walks into the barnyard and enters the old dairy barn today, where the last cow was milked in 2012 before the herd was sold, someone observes that it still smells like cows, to which Helen sniffs the air and replies wistfully: “It smells like John.”
Helen wanted to stay here, but in time she realized that after nearly 50 years she needed to move on.
“I was determined to stick it out here, but as 2021 came to a close, I was just getting lonely. It was a lot of work,” says Helen. She adds, “I was worried I would start to resent the farm if I stayed here.”
“I asked Amanda if she would ever want to live here, and she said she’d move in tomorrow,” she said. Kahl quickly found a condominium in Mount Horeb, and the 320-acre farm, its fertile fields now being rented out, changed hands again.
Amanda White, the sixth Kahl generation and daughter of Nancy and Craig Balbach, moved in with her husband, Keith White, an accountant who loves to play guitar. Their children, Harrison (3) and Theodore (15 months) White are the seventh generation, as is “Baby” White, who is due in November.
“It’s just been wonderful to see these kids running around,” observes Helen. “It’s a dream come true.”
“There’s a sense of stability,” she adds.
“This has always been such a stable thing,” agrees Amanda. “When the recession hit and dad lost his business, this was still here. This has always been a safe place to go.”
But her eyes soon well with tears as she thinks about the circumstances that brought her here.
“It was bittersweet because we wouldn’t be here if grandpa were still alive,” Amanda says. “I guess I have a little guilt because it feels like a strange thing to celebrate.”
“I think he’d be happy,” says Helen.
“We’re grateful to get to come here and make it our own,” Amanda says.
Like her mother, and her mother before her, Amanda loves to mow the big lawn, and her move felt like a homecoming.
“I walk in the house, and it’s like I’ve been here my entire life,” she muses.
“It’s so cool the way they made it their own,” says Helen.
What will the farm look like 10 years from now?
“Maybe some livestock,” says Amanda. “Maybe some chickens. Maybe goats to clean up the bluff. I’m always talking to grandma about planting fruit trees.” Across the county road, bees from Gentle Breeze Honey - owned by Cathy and her husband, Tim Woller - seem to buzz with delight at the prospect.
In the meantime, the latest Kahl family to call this farm home has plenty to do. Amanda works at Vortex Optics, Keith has his accounting work, and they have three young children to raise. They know they are not alone. After all, they are surrounded by family, and by friends.
It’s just after 8 a.m. on a Saturday morning, and a passing truck beeps amiably at the family on the lawn as it rolls by.
“Everyone honks, and now I’ve gotten back into the farmer wave,” chuckles Amanda. “Sometimes I catch myself doing it in town.”
As the morning wears on, the family looks out over a field, into a thick stand of trees. They talk about the times, in years past, when the cows would head up there, seeking shade. At the end of the day, Helen would head out and bellow to them: “Come, boss!” It’s an ancient call that everyone who grew up on a farm knows, and it often rings out in people’s memories, hollered in the voice of a mother or father. (The word, “Bos” is Latin for cow.) It is a universal sound, a call to come back, a call to return to the most important place on earth; a call to come home.