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Life on the family farm under an open heaven: Henry and the rattlesnakes

Tom Heck for Progressive Dairyman Published on 29 September 2017

Henry Hemminghaus, my great-grandfather, was born in Germany in May of 1858. Born to parents who made their living in agricultural work, Henry worked alongside them, learning all he could. He was a hard-working, industrious young man pursuing a big dream.

What was his big dream, you ask? To save up enough money to immigrate to America, the land of religious freedom and great opportunities; once here, to meet a godly young woman, marry her and have a family; to have his own small farm and not to have to work for others all his life.

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In 1888, at the age of 30, Henry finally arrived; he stepped off the ship onto America’s shores. From there, he headed for Ohio. He had heard there was a great need for farmworkers there. He worked there for six years, and while there he met a beautiful, young farm girl named Minnie. They were married in 1894. Things were working out well for Henry.

Henry and Minnie Now that he was married, he wanted his own farm to settle down on and call his own. Where he could work every day and literally eat the fruits of his labors. But the problem was: He just couldn’t afford to buy a farm in Ohio. He had heard, though, that way up in Wisconsin, farms were a lot cheaper.

Henry, having left his old family behind in Germany, and now Minnie leaving her old family behind in Ohio, struck out together on a big new adventure, moving to Wisconsin in 1894.

They bought a small, rough hunk of land about a mile inland from Lake Winnebago. From what I understand, it really wasn’t a farm. But that didn’t matter to Henry; it was what he could afford and, with a lot of sweat and hard work, he would turn it into a beautiful farm.

Things were working out well for Henry. Through patience, hard work and trusting in God, his big dream was becoming a reality.

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Henry’s land had a small house on it along with a lot of tree stumps and brush. He went to work full speed, clearing the brush and stumps, which was no easy task. As soon as he would get a small patch cleared, he’d plant it to something. Henry didn’t want to do anything around the house; he wanted to be outside working on his farm always, much to Minnie’s dismay.

Henry knew agriculture well; he learned it in Germany. He was exceptional in raising fruit trees: apple, cherry and plum. He also got chickens, hogs, horses and milk cows. He also did very well in building farm buildings on his farm for his livestock.

God also blessed them with children: The first, Augusta, who was my grandmother, was born in 1895, and two sons followed after that, Martin and Oscar. They were also blessed to have a church close by they attended every Sunday.

Every morning Henry would get up and go to work, taking care of his livestock, crops and clearing more land when he had time. He was really living the American Dream.

If things aren’t taken care of rightly though, that big American Dream can come crashing down and break into a million pieces. That can be very heartbreaking. And that was what was about to happen to Henry. What was Henry’s problem, you ask?

Well, Henry thought it was his wife, Minnie. But it really wasn’t Minnie, it was lots of rattlesnakes. Literally. You see, when Henry bought his place, it was real rough unbroken land, close to the lake, with lots of rattlesnakes on it.

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Now as Henry would tell you, “The snakes aren’t any problem; I go about my work every day; they don’t bother me, and I don’t bother them.” Now Henry wouldn’t take time to get rid of the snakes when he had a lot more important work to do. Even with Minnie nagging him constantly about it. The snakes were around the buildings and living under the house.

Minnie put up with them and with Henry’s stubbornness for a few years. She was scared, though, that someday one of her young children would get bitten by a rattlesnake and die. Finally, she put her foot down and told Henry, “Either you get rid of those snakes, or I’m going to take the children and go back to Ohio.” Henry knew when she said that, she would do it.

If she did that, his wonderful life would crash into a million pieces. So he finally consented and went to work and got rid of all the snakes. From what I heard, it was quite a few. And so Minnie was happy and the children were safe.

It is sad Henry didn’t heed Minnie’s pleas and do something a lot sooner. What if Henry would have lost one of his children or Minnie would have packed up her bags and left him? He would have been heartbroken. Sometimes, husbands would be very wise to listen to their wives when they know they’re right – and do what their wives want. It can sure lead to better homes and marriages. Henry found that out the hard way.

And how did it go for Henry and Minnie after that? Well, they raised their three children, built up a beautiful small farm, and both of them lived to be in their 90s, very happily married. But if Henry hadn’t got rid of the snakes, it wouldn’t have happened.

In this world today, there are many “snakes” that can get into marriages and families and destroy them. Sometimes the person that has them will say, like Henry, “They’re not hurting me at all; they’re OK.”

But they’re not; they’re just waiting to bite and destroy. Things like alcohol, drugs, pornography, gambling. Also parents not spending time with each other and their children. And of course, parents need to spend time in God’s word. Yes, that’s right: God’s word.

For without God’s word, you cannot build a strong home and marriage. So, like Henry, love your family and do what’s best for them and yourself. Put God first, get rid of the snakes and be blessed.  end mark

ILLUSTRATION: Henry and Minnie still happily married in the 1940s. Illustration by Kristen Phillips.

Tom Heck, his wife, Joanne, and their two children own and operate a 35-cow dairy farm in Wisconsin. Email Tom Heck or order his book at Life on the Family Farm.

Tom Heck, his wife, Joanne, and their two children own and operate a 35-cow dairy farm in Wisconsin. Contact him at or order his book at tomheckfarm.com

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