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Boy who saved the farm

Kandiyohi man took over family farm at age 11 At one time he had the largest dairy herd in the county with 80 cows, a herd he built slowly over the 40 plus years he was in the dairy business. Jerry Thorp of rural Kandiyohi, who is now retired, reminisced about his life and how he actually took over his dad’s herd of ten cows when he was only 11 years old. Age 11 is a little young to be taking over anything; let alone a dairy operation. But his dad was sick, couldn’t do the work anymore and was talking about selling the farm. Young Thorp didn’t want his dad to sell the farm and stepped up to the plate, in this case a milking stool and a pail, and offered to take over that herd and get those cows fed and milked. Thorp said his dad’s heart was damaged by rheumatic fever when he was in high school, plus he had rheumatoid arthritis. Some days he felt good and could help in the barn and some days he couldn’t. “Then he was in the hospital for 72 days and they didn’t know if he would make it through. I was just 11 at the time. It was in 1952 when it was a real rough winter, much worse than this one.” Thorp remembers the snow storm was so bad it blocked the road past their farm for over a week. “Nobody could get to town. The snow blower came and opened the road but the drifts were so high the snow blower couldn’t make it through so the neighbors shoveled the snow down into the snow blower.” He said his dad was sick in bed and couldn’t help at all with clearing the snow. “They were going to quit farming and I didn’t want them to do that, I wanted to keep the farm so I took over and did the farming.” His parents agreed to keep the farm as long as he did the work. He said his dad worked with his brothers so a lot of the field work was done by them. Thorp said when he first started they were busy threshing, then in 1947 they got a combine so that made life a bit easier. “My dad bought the combine, one of his brothers bought a corn picker and another brother bought a silage chopper. That’s the way they farmed together. One of his brothers did the corn planting with a two row horse corn planter.” Thorp said he mainly worked with the cows, milking them by hand. He worked with both haystacks and loose hay. They had a hay loader behind the hayrack which filled the rack with the loose hay. They had three sets of ropes under the loose hay and when they came to the haymow, the horses would pull the hay up into the haymow using those slings. The horses were pretty big, he said, and he didn’t do much with them because he was too small. Next they purchased a tractor and put the horses out to pasture. Thorp recalled how they cleaned the barn out with a scoop and a shovel, and how he milked 10 to 12 cows by hand twice a day. In about 1955, before he graduated from high school, he earned $200 which he used to purchase two milking machines. “That made life a lot easier. Milking a dozen cows by hand is quite a job.” He said they separated the milk in a cream separator and when that broke down and they couldn’t buy a new one, they had to start selling the milk. “We stuck the milk cans in the back seat of our 1989 Dodge” and hauled the milk to town to sell. Until they were ready to sell the milk, he said, they cooled the milk in a cooler tank using water from the well. When Thorp’s father was in the hospital Thorp wasn’t allowed to visit him since he was too young. “Somebody snuck me in and then the nurses came and asked how old I was.” Thorp said he was almost 12, not quite old enough to be there. “My grandpa said ‘well, he’s the one that’s running the farm’ so they did let me stay that time.” Thorp said his mom helped a lot in the barn, except when his dad was very sick, and then she spent a lot of time in the hospital. Thorp said he knew he had to take over to keep the farm going. “The barn is 230 feet long and had a pretty big dairy at one time, and I wanted to make something of it since I had to do it anyway.” He said his grandfather told him he could get out of going to high school because he didn’t need a higher education to farm. “But I did finish high school.” Thorp said he was tired all the time. Thorp’s mom would wake him up at 5 a.m. each morning so he could get the milking done before he went to school. “I didn’t do any more in high school than I absolutely had to.” He was involved in FFA and took part in contests during the day but didn’t go to the evening meetings. With his busy life Thorp even found time for a little romancing. His sister was at Augsburg College studying to be a nurse and had a friend at college named Jeanie. There was a Billy Graham crusade going on, Thorp said, and his sister decided she was going to try talking him into taking her and her friend, who lived in Cannon Falls. “That’s how we met so if it wasn’t for Billy Graham we probably would never have met.” Thorp said he was busy farming so he didn’t have time for girlfriends and while they didn’t see each other often, they ended up getting married after knowing each other a year. Thorp said he went from 10 dairy cows to 80 without buying any of them, he just kept raising them and building the herd. “I was milking about 40 when we built the barn and we got married a year later. I was just out of high school.” Thorp said he supervised all the carpentry and masonry people involved in the building of the barn since his dad was sick, and he was sure they wondered about having a teenager bossing them. He said his plans were to have a 100-head dairy herd but he stopped at 80. “The barn was built to have 100 cows but then we would have had to have some other place to put the young stock, so we used all of it for young stock.” Thorp recalls when they built the barn, milk prices were at about $2.40 a hundred and, and they felt if they ever got to $5 a hundred they would never have to worry about money again. “It happened, but you did have to worry about money because everything else went up. When we quit farming it was $9 plus, and it wasn’t paying out. The banker told me to quit farming or my equity would disappear.” He said they borrowed the money to put the crop in and was not quite able to pay it all back. “There was enough equity in the farm so we could do that but the banker said ‘you’ve got to quit’, so I quit 11 years ago.” He said he rents the land out now. Thorp said one year they had bad crops and he had to earn some extra money so they could keep the cows. In order to do that he worked in the wintertime, then did the milking after he got home from work. He said they did have the milking machines at that time. They were really just buckets, he said, then after a while they got a pipeline and a step-saver. He chuckled quietly as he reminisced back to when his son was three years old and had to draw a picture of the Savior during a Sunday School class. “I thought ‘this picture sure looks funny,’” Thorp said of the picture his son drew. Then his son told him the picture was of a step-saver. Thorp went on to explain how the step saver is something he dumped the bucket of milk into and from there it went into the bulk tank, and when his son heard the word Savior that’s want came into his mind. Thorp said they had a 12 gallon electric cooler but they had 24 cans so they had to take the night’s milk out and put the morning’s milk in for a while before the truck came to pick it up. Being so young and running a farm had its occasional humorous moments. Thorp recalls a day when a neighbor saw this tractor coming down the field but couldn’t see anybody looking above the steering wheel. “He had to stop and watch that, but then when I got closer to the road he saw that I was driving it. The neighbors kind of kept an eye on me.” He also remembers a time when he was in the silo and somehow got a silage fork stuck in his knee. “They were too busy to take me to the doctor to get me a tetanus shot. Two days before I got lockjaw they took me to the doctor and had a lockjaw shot. It helped but I still got lockjaw.” He said they gave him penicillin. He then pulled out the doctor and hospital bill from that visit. “I was in the hospital for two days. It was $18.95 for two days in the hospital. The hospital stay was $4.95 for each day and the penicillin cost $3.80.” The penicillin saved his life, he said, but he’s allergic to penicillin now. He also recalled how one year everybody had a bad crop. “We had cows so we could salvage it. We chopped it up for silage. They also chopped the neighbor’s crops for silage as well. Thorp said his son was working for him at the time. To get into the neighbor’s field you had to drive off by the school house, he said, and his son couldn’t figure out where that was. “The school house was gone and my son couldn’t see it but my neighbor and I could because it had been there.” Thorp really didn’t have a childhood, all he knew was work. “I can’t remember milking my first cow, I don’t know how old I was but I was pretty young.” It was quite a feat, he said, to take that ten cow dairy herd and build it to 80 cows by the late 70s. Although Thorp has retired from farming he still puts in 30 hours a week working at two Divine Houses taking care of the residents there. And in the last four years he’s had three heart attacks. “When people had heart attacks in the old days they would have to stay in bed a long time. With my first heart attack it was three weeks before I could go to work. With the last one now it was two weeks I didn’t go to work.” With his second heart attack in April of last year they did a quadruple bypass. After that he felt so good he put a deck onto their house, then decided to put a cement floor in the old silo room and hauled160 bags of cement with a wheelbarrow and a hoe and that didn’t bother him at all. “I think it was good for me to get the exercise.” Then this past December the pain was back and doctors found three of his bypasses were plugged so they stinted them. He’s now back to working at the two Divine houses, and thinking about restoring a Cross Motor Case Model Number 1832 tractor that was built in 1927. “I bought this tractor because my uncle used to thresh with a Cross Motor Case and it’s the same model. If I get that running, I hope to have my cousin, who is my uncle’s son, drive it in a parade.”

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