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Behmer family celebrates more than 150 years as ‘household name,’ area farm family with award, reunion

October 4, 2013

Lt. Governor Sue Ellspermann (right) and Indiana State Department of Agriculture Director Gina Sheets (left) present John and Anne Behmer with a Hoosier Homestead Award Aug. 7 at the Indiana State Fair in Indianapolis.

By Jeff Kenney, Citizen editor
The Behmer family of Culver may have been recognized in August for the second time by the State of Indiana (the first was in 1977, when the Behmer farm was honored with a Hoosier Homestead Award; the present award is the Hoosier Homestead Award, for which farms must be owned by the same family for more than 100 consecutive years), but in the Culver area, the Behmer name has been well-known all along. In fact, for many residents of past generations it was literally a household name.

That's due largely to the moniker given the main travel artery between Culver and Plymouth: the Behmer Road. That road, like many in the county identified by the families who early occupied them, or some other feature, has a far less interesting name today, that of 14B, and the bulk of travelers to Plymouth simply pass it by as they drive up State Road 17. But it wasn't always so.

The story of the Behmer family in Culver begins in 1855 with Daniel G. Behmer, according to Edwin Corwin's "One Township's Yesteryears" book. Daniel, the son of Henry and Mary Behmer, was born in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, moving to Akron, Ohio with his parents and in 1855 settling on his own in Marshall County.

He married Mary Jane Platt in 1856 and in 1862 they bought, from the Wabash and Erie Canal Company, 160 acres in the north of Union Township, the site of today's Behmer farm. The following year they built a log cabin, just east of the present farmhouse.

"This tract and the surrounding land were then covered with pri­meval forest," notes Corwin. "The roads were but trails."

Daniel G. Behmer died in 1903 and Mary Jane died in 1916.

Their great grandson, J. Richard Behmer, son of Harold E. and Jessie Behmer, was born in 1915 (he died in 1971), attended Culver High School, and spent his entire life on the homestead farm, which he expanded from the original 92 to 386 acres (it has since been reduced to around 180 acres). J. Richard married Marvoline Bollenbacher, and the couple had three children: Anne, Linda, and John. And while Linda and her husband Bill (of Pizza Bill's fame in Plymouth) moved to Las Vegas 16 years ago, John and Anne continue to live in the area.
John notes that his father's father was an only son, as was his own father Richard, and since John Behmer himself never married, this Behmer line "is dying."

Richard and family were members of the Hibbard Evangelical Church until it closed its doors in 1967, and Richard grew a herd of registered Guernsey dairy cows, his children carrying on their father's 4H tradition of showing them at the county and even the state fair.

"Daddy didn't go buy cattle for the fair," notes Anne. "He built the herd up. By the time John was graduating we had a grand champion. Daddy improved the herd that much over the years."

The original Behmer farmhouse, which replaced the old log cabin in 1895, burned down in 1961. Anne remembers the fire occurring the day before her Culver High School class' senior trip.

The current house was built on the same site the same year.

"Dad went and cut all the studs and plates from the woods here, from yellow poplar," explains John. "The rooms are all paneled in butternut, cherry and sassafras -- all of that wood came from the farm. You should have seen all the logs stacked here!"

One unusual aspect of the farm is its barn, which was built in 1947, the year John was born. The upper level -- or hayloft -- design, unlike most barns, has no support beams but instead is made of laminated rafters from Wisconsin (John believes their father got the idea from a visit to that state), making for a spacious and unusual-looking area of the building.

"To me that's one of the neatest things on the farm," he adds.
John recalls the family story that few houses in the area had refrigerators at the time of Anne's birth; when their parents ordered an electric refrigerator to accommodate little Anne's milk needs, their Montgomery Ward order was the first one.

The family had 25 milking cows at the most, John says ("You could never make it on that today"), and Anne remembers the family pasteurizing their own milk in long-neck milk bottles, which all the cream would rise to the top, "up to curve."

The Behmers had earlier sold their milk to the Pure Milk Association of Chicago, and later Dean’s dairies.

"Dad made enough off the milk to buy the food," John says. "It was good enough income to be worthwhile. We also raised crops: corn, soybeans, wheat, and oats."

At one time the farm included a small orchard with apple, pear, and cherry trees.

In addition, their father used to trap animals on the farm, selling the pelts of muskrat, mink, and even raccoons.

"We had registered coon dogs and dad did a lot of hunting," Anne says, adding wistfully, "I loved to go with him to do that. It was at night and the stars would be out and it would be crisp. I used to sing when we did it and Daddy said I'd scare every coon around!"

Anne also remembers the family eating pheasant and quail, squirrel and rabbit, all from the farmland.

"It was just the best life in the world, growing up. I'm not saying it wasn't hard. I couldn't go to the library in the summer because there was too much else to do, and that really upset me. I was a big reader."

After graduating from CHS, Anne attended Purdue with the intent of becoming a home economics teacher ("But there were too many science courses!"). After her divorce, she says she applied for a job in accounting while in Los Angeles. She says she "found my niche" in that field.

She stayed in accounting for 40 years, until her retirement.
Linda worked in the Marshall County auditor’s office for more than 15 years before she and Bill moved to Las Vegas. She also attended Purdue after graduation, planning to be a math teacher.

John served in the Air Force during the Vietnam War, which paid for his college (he's the only one of his siblings to graduate), earning his degree in Business Administration at Ball State.

He worked for 13 years for General Telephone in Elkhart before starting his own company, Fixaphone of Michiana, from which he retired.

He tried his hand at farming after their father died. His one year at it, he decided, was "all I was going to do!"

Contemplating the changes in farming since their father's days, Anne and John point to major shifts in equipment used, but also in how much more diversified their father's farming was.

"We had chickens and sold eggs," says Anne, "and we butchered and ate them; we had pigs, though that was before our time. We were basically self-sufficient; we had milk, our crops, and a huge garden east of the house. I swore I would never garden again!

"The girls made all their clothes back then. I remember when I got married I told Mom I wanted a bought wedding dress because most of my clothes up `til that time we had made.

"I thought my grandfather Harold probably saw the greatest change any one generation will see," Anne notes. "He went from horse and buggies to a man landing on the moon!"

"They had a lot simpler life, but it was a hard life but a good life," adds John, seated in front of a family Bible dating back to the days of Daniel G. Behmer. "When you think of 150 years and think of the changes in the country over 150 years -- the only people on this land have been the Potawatomi Indians and the Behmers."

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BEHMER REUNION BRINGS OVER 100

The large family descended from Daniel G. Behmer's humble, log cabin beginnings at the 14B Road homestead gathers at the property every two to four years, a tradition which was carried on the first weekend of August this year.

Between 100 and 105 attended, with one of the sixth generation in attendance all the way from Dubai (Dawn Miller Aird and her family). The oldest direct descendant at the reunion was Julia Behmer Ward of Sacramento, who was born in 1925.

The first member of the eighth generation, Anne notes, will be born in November, a baby girl to Keirstien Cummings Smith, who happened to be the first born in the seventh generation.

The Behmer reunions, Anne points out, "have all been terrifically well attended."

Anne herself created the family trees and extensive genealogy documentation made available to family members, who wear color-coded name tags to distinguish which branch they come from.

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OTHER INTERESTING BEHMER TRIVIA:

-According to Corwin's 1934 "One Township's Yesteryears" book, one of the first discoveries of prehistoric animal remains was made on the Behmer farm in 1879.

"Clarence Behmer recalls seeing the bones of a large animal which were uncover­ed (during some) ditching be­ing done on what was then his father's farm and is still the Behmer farm, north of Hibbard.

"The bones were found about three feet down (and) belonged to an animal that must have been con­siderably larger than a cow...they were a puzzle to those who saw them, and the animal they belonged to, at some time or other, was nameless."

It seems likely the bones were of a mastodon, and its apparent Corwin's generation seemed largely unfamiliar with what today are well-known classifications of prehistoric animals.

-Frances Behmer, CHS class of 1927, was the very first graduate of the school whose parents -- Mr. H.E. Behmer (class of 1908) and Mrs. J. Jessie Grove Behmer (class of `07) -- were CHS alumni.

-Don Behmer (1905-1994), grandson of Daniel G. through Clarence Behmer, launched what has been the Culver Marina for decades, originally as the Behmer Boat Company at 600 South Shore Drive on Lake Maxinkuckee. He sold it to Jack Campbell in 1953 and it later became the Culver Marina.

-The Behmer Road -- today's 14B Road -- is mentioned by the Behmer name as far back as the 1870s, as the main route between Culver and Plymouth. The Culver Citizen noted the road was first paved in June, 1927.

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STATE GRANTS HOOSIER HOMESTEAD AWARD TO BEHMER FAMILY

By Lois Tomaszewski

August 7 wasn’t the first time that the Behmer family in Union Township has been honored by the state. The first time was in 1977, when the family farm was honored with a Hoosier Homestead Award.

For five generations, the Behmer family have been farmers or continued to own the original farm established in 1863 by Daniel G. Behmer, who settled in Marshall County from Lancaster, Penn.in 1855. In the Culver area, 160 acres was purchased in 1862 from the Wabash and Erie Canal Company by David G. Behmer and his wife Mary Jane Platt through a land grant.

Today it is Daniel’s great great grandchildren, John Behmer, Anne Behmer and Linda Behmer Bartlett who continue to hold onto the original plat of land, which now encompasses 175 acres.

On Aug. 7, Lt. Governor Sue Ellspermann and Indiana State Department of Agriculture Director Gina Sheets presented the Behmer family with a Hoosier Homestead Award in recognition of their more than 100-year commitment to Indiana agriculture. The farm was established in 1863.

“Today we celebrate the agricultural heritage of our farming families,” said Lt. Governor Ellspermann. “We salute their innovation, their determination, and their dedication which have allowed them to succeed for more than a century—here’s to at least 100 more successful years!”

To be named a Hoosier Homestead, farms must be owned by the same family for more than 100 consecutive years and consist of more than 20 acres or produce more than $1,000 of agricultural products per year.

For the Behmers the award marks 150 years of continued use as a farm. Although the Behmers do not actively farm the land themselves, it is leased and is planted in corn and soy beans today, John said.

“As the practices of agriculture continue to evolve, families like those honored at today’s ceremony remind us of the deep cultural roots farming has in our state,” Sheets said. “Although business and technology play a significant role in farming, the recipients of the Hoosier Homestead award show us that agriculture is ultimately about family and community.”

The Behmer family joins more than 5000 Hoosier Homestead farms. Annual recognition ceremonies are held in March (during National Ag Month) and August at the Indiana State Fair.

Forty-two families received centennial awards at the same time, while 14 families were recognized with sesquicentennial (150 year) awards, and two families celebrated more than 200 years of Hoosier farming.

“I am very pleased to see these two deserving families receive statewide recognition,” said Rep. Tim Harman (R-Bremen). “Their dedication to agriculture will leave a lasting legacy based on their diligence and hard work.”

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