Sharing a view

Peichel’s Hill has hosted events for more than 60 years.

For Gerald “Jerry” Peichel, the view of the Minnesota River Valley from the bluffs at his rural Fairfax farmstead is something that’s been special for nearly his entire life. The retired 80-year-old farmer lives with his wife Janet next to his outdoor neighbors – whitetail deer, turkeys, pheasants, eagles and other wildlife – that roam the woodlands and ravines of his property. Together, they share a clearing which evolved into a unique gathering place in the countryside that was created over 60 years ago. Located about six miles south of Fairfax and not far from Ft. Ridgely State Park, Peichel’s Hill started around the mid-1940s when the local Knights of Columbus men wanted a place to hold a sweet corn roast for its members. Jerry’s dad, William “Bill” Peichel, invited the KC’s out to the hill and armed with chainsaws, they removed a few trees and brush to make enough room. “They lighted a fire to a pile of wood that night for the feed and I remember they used pitchforks to pull the roasted corn out of the coals…I think some of it was burned too badly to eat though,” Jerry recalled. From that experiment the KC’s returned next year and had more fun. “Every year they’d clear additional trees and brush to make more open space,” Jerry said. “We had cattle grazing out in that area too so we had to bring them up to the farm yard and lock them in the barn on corn feed night,” he added. Jerry joined the KC’s in 1951, served in the Army from 1953-55 and after marrying Janet in 1958, later moved onto his dad’s place. In 1960 he sold the herd of cattle and Peichel’s Hill started to become more useable. The four acre site started only with a refrigerator which stood next to a light pole for electricity before a 20×40 open-sided picnic shelter appeared. “It was a pole shed that was moved off my farm place on a semi-truck by the Fairfax Jaycees,” explained Jerry. “We sawed off the legs to the right height and lifted the building with four tractor loaders into the pre-measured ground holes that were dug. So now we only had a building with poles and roof but things were really getting started now,” he said. Next the Jaycees, Lutheran Brotherhood, KC’s and other groups donated labor and materials to close in one end of the shelter and pour the concrete slab. “It kind of became a community project, people recognized this could be a fun place to come to and hold events,” Peichel said. Over the years two grills, picnic tables, a lighted volleyball court and horseshoe pits were added along with rustic outdoor restrooms. Most recently, a wooden deck was donated to Peichel’s Hill which has been anchored to the hillside allowing visitors a sweeping, panoramic view of the Minnesota River Valley. From the nearby county road, Peichel’s Hill is not an obvious destination to find. You may only know it’s there once travelers go down the farm driveway before seeing an old sawmill blade painted green and gold, adorned with a flag and veterans display pointing the way to a narrow winding road which hugs the treeline next to some of Peichel’s 130 acres of CRP grassland. When breaking out into the tabletop clearing, visitors find themselves perched hundreds of feet above the river valley floor with an expansive view being the bonus of the day. Last year Peichel’s Hill had 17 scheduled events on the calendar for about 450 guests. Bookings are a good idea if you want to reserve space but often Peichel’s Hill has visitors show up unannounced. “A lot of times I have people out there I don’t know about but as long as the property is respected and kept clean, that’s all I ask,” he said. Still, visitors make free-will donations in appreciation for use of the facility. Down through the years, Easter Sunday sunrise church services, reunions, birthday parties, weddings, Boy and Girl Scouts outings, 4-H, FFA, pork producers, insurance companies, civic organizations and of course the KC’s all have been among the groups who have held activities at Peichel’s Hill. “When my daughter got married we pitched a big tent out there and held the reception and dance,” Jerry stated. “And there’s this German visitor who has been to Peichel’s Hill who asks if that guy with the refrigerator on the hill still has some German beer in it everytime he’s back in the area,” laughed Jerry. Peichel, who was recently honored in January by the Fairfax Civic and Commerce Association as the 2011 Fairfax Area Volunteer of the Year, said he cherishes visits to Peichel’s Hill by area group homes for the handicapped from Fairfax and New Ulm. Another fond memory for Peichel was when a local youth who was battling cancer stayed at the hill with her family in their Make-A-Wish Foundation donated camper trailer. “That was a high spot in her life at the time, she’s a survivor now and whenever we’ve passed one another on the street it doesn’t go without a greeting and the memory of that time of healing for her,” Jerry said. According to Jerry, camping on the hill can be a little nervous at night for those who hear the call of coyotes in the distance for the first time but for another group of men, it’s a good day to spend at Peichel’s Hill while their spouses go to area city-wide garage sales. Jerry even has had a local ultra-light enthusiast take off from the end of the bluff when the wind direction in right. Other visitors to Peichel’s Hill have been a former mayor of Minneapolis, the mayor from Ulm, Germany, New Ulm’s Concord Singers have performed and a bishop once brought out a group of young men entering the seminary. The Boy Scouts have helped clear some Cedar trees from the edge of the hillside to help promote growth of native wildflowers and prairie grasses. “The DNR has identified about 28 different varieties of wildflowers that grow here and there’s probably more, they come out every spring and spend time doing their catalog work,” Peichel said. “I’ve learned a lot being out here and sharing nature with others.” Bicyclists have also stopped by on various day trips and one year over 100 TRAM Bike Tour riders made a visit for lunch. “But most of them walked over to the hill, they didn’t like the idea of riding their expensive bikes on the gravel road so they left them out by the tar road.” Peichel says maintenance on the hill mainly involves mowing the grass and removing a few weeds. He’s been fortunate there has been very little damage done to hill facilities even though it’s isolated from view. “Once we had a boundary rock rolled down the hill but I retrieved it with my tractor. It rests next to our “kissing rock” where a lot of people stand to take pictures,” he explained. For a few years Peichel’s Hill was home to a four-ton WWI German 105mm artillery cannon that overlooked the valley. “The cannon was at Ft. Ridgely State Park for many years and then moved to the Fairfax Legion Club. It was put in storage for awhile and then came out here,” Peichel noted. “I think every wedding that was held here had some photos taken of the bride and groom next to that cannon.” The cannon has since been removed but Peichel said there is a WW II aviator living in Fairfax who remembers his bombing missions over the same German factory where the cannon was first built for WW I. “I’ve received many letters of thanks from people who’ve been to Peichel’s Hill over the years and it all goes back to my dad,” Jerry said. “He always felt this place was unique, only one of the few points where our land extended out of the woods… he believed this would be a good place to be with friends.” “That’s the privilege of being a caretaker for this place to keep it enjoyable for others,” commented Peichel. “It’s not really a lot of work, I want to be a good steward of the land and I like to think of this as a place where you can stop and rest a little and not let the world run you over.”

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