John Kroll, 88, of Long Prairie, and his great-grandchildren, Brennan and Margaret Murtha, skiing together through maple trees, with maple sap buckets hanging on the trees. Contributed photo
Retired Long Prairie dairy farmer John Kroll likes to see the various generations of his family ski together. John, who is 88, takes particular pride in being able to ski with his great-grandchildren.
“Brennan and Margaret are pretty good skiers,” he said of two of his beloved grandchildren.
Brennan and Margaret are the children of John’s granddaughter Leah (Kroll) Murtha.
“It was a pretty big deal for Brennan, Margaret, and Delaine to go out with him,” Leah said. “They went out to the farm. Opa (grandpa in German) and Oma (grandma) both have taken them out. They like to go as much as they can.”
“Brennan and Margaret are pretty good skiers,” said John Kroll, of two of his beloved grandchildren pictured above near Long Prairie. Contributed photo
Leah grew up on that farm herself. Her house, where John’s son Hans and his wife Lynn live, was just 100 feet from Opa John’s house.
John and his first wife Delaine (now deceased) bought Leah and her sister Jessica their first skis for Christmas one year.
“I think we were 5 or 6,” Leah said. “They taught us how. Skiing is just pretty much what we do at the Kroll house.”
Leah, like her Opa, believes intergenerational skiing is a big deal. She especially remembers a ski outing with her mother a few years ago. Lynn had a severe and intractable case of Lyme disease. It had gone on for a long and frightening time.
“Mom was better so we went out skiing,” Leah recalled. “Skiing with her was just lovely.”
The skiing bug bit the Kroll family over eight decades ago. The dairy barn had two ramps that allowed the farmer to drive a horse-drawn load of hay directly into the haymow. John and his brother Bill saw that ramp as a skiing opportunity.
“Bill made a form and steamed the ash wood and made his own skis,” John said. “He could strap those right onto his boots and ski down the haymow ramp.”
John got his first skis for Christmas when he was about 7 years old. He and Bill spent a lot of happy times skiing down those ramps.
“We even built some little ski jumps out of snow,” John said.
Bill was stationed in Italy, near Trieste, after WWII. While in Italy Bill had the opportunity to do some serious mountain skiing. That inspired John to get better skis.
“I went to St. Paul to visit my brother Bob who was at Concordia College,” John said. “Montgomery Ward was not far from Concordia so I went there and bought a pair of Norwegian-made skis with steel edges. The skis, boots, and poles cost $18.75. Ray Schultz, who was just starting his trucking company, hauled them to Long Prairie. I was one happy farmer.”
As John grew from a boy to a man, his heart turned toward romance. It was pretty second-grade teacher Delaine Schultz from Ottertail, Minn., who captured that heart.
“When we were courting I bought her skis like mine for Christmas,” he said. “That was 1949. We were married in 1950.”
Not surprisingly the newlyweds went skiing on their honeymoon. They went to some of those real mountains that John and Bill had been dreaming about.
“We went skiing in Winter Park, Colo. They were just getting started then,” John said. “Lift tickets and a room in the lodge cost only $165. They had t-bars for ski lifts.”
After Winter Park John and Delaine started their family and enjoyed their adventures a little closer to home. For example, even after most farms turned to tractors they kept a team of horses because they liked them. They used horses for some work around the farm, and in the sugar bush, they used them for entertainment.
“We were fortunate that Ben Sadlowsky and Ken Helgesen, of Clarissa, and a third friend, built a rope tow on Ben’s farm four miles east of our farm,” John said. “The tow so close to home gave us a chance to go skiing often and still be home to do farm chores. Delaine and I took the cutter (a one-horse sleigh) out there to go skiing once. The roads were just right for the sleigh. We tied the horse up and skied on Ben’s hill. The tow operated with a gas motor, and they ran it on weekends when there was snow. The tow is out at Eagle Mountain near Burtrum now.”
Skiing was often a social activity for the Krolls. With the help of friends like Bob Crandall, Harlan Faust, Carl Porscher, Wally Zastrow and many others, John created a series of ski trails through the farm’s sugar bush. Often the friends would come together and ski on those trails, especially as cross-country skiing gained in popularity. For many years the group went to the Maplelag resort, near Detroit Lakes, for a weekend of skiing and fellowship.
One of the big social events of the cross-country ski season in Minnesota are the Vasalopet races near Mora. The races are usually held in February. They can be competitive or simply an opportunity to ski with friends and family and socialize with other skiers. John has skied the Vasalopet with family members for many years.
“I skied the Vasalopet with my children and grandchildren,” John said. “You paid $10, and you could stay overnight with a family and have breakfast. We stayed with the Stan and Eldora Draheim family for years. My grandson Peter had his birthday around then, and they even made a birthday cake for him. We became very good friends with that family.”
John’s first wife – Oma Delaine to the grandchildren – passed away from ovarian cancer in 1988. Losing the love of your life seems like something that cannot be recovered from. But with support from family and a network of wonderful friends John did begin to heal and recover. Susan Bloch, a good friend of both Delaine and John, was very supportive. Eventually she and John fell in love and married in 1990. Their bond was strengthened by the fact that Susan was an avid skier. In fact, John and Susan went skiing on their honeymoon.
“We went to the end of the Gunflint Trail,” Susan said. “We were so close to the border we were able to ski in the U.S. and Canada.”
Nowadays John and Susan ski together, with friends and with grand and great-grandchildren.
“We’ve got lots of little skis around the house and on the farm,” Susan said. “They’ve been passed from grandchild to grandchild and then on to great-grandchildren.”
This photo, taken a few years ago, includes (L to R) Hans Kroll (John’s son), John Kroll, and Leah (Kroll) Murtha who is Hans’ daughter. In front is Margaret Murtha. Contributed photo
As Leah Murtha said, skiing is just something they do on the Kroll farm.
“I am fortunate to still be living on the farm that I was born on,” John said. “We are celebrating the 125th anniversary of the farm being in our family this year.”
John’s son Hans, and his wife Lynn, operate the dairy and commercial maple syrup production on the farm.
“We like to say that the cows have been milked twice a day for 125 years, even on the day in February 1938 when the barn burned,” John said.
John and Delaine’s other three children live within seven miles of the home farm. Tom is a forester at Saint John’s University. His wife Mary is also a forester. Tim is a professional sheep shearer and raises sheep and beef cattle. Kate, and her husband Tom Gray, also raise sheep and beef cattle. Gray is a professional ferrier. The Krolls have 12 grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren.
Authors note: John says he’d like to thank his family for giving him the freedom to enjoy his skiing adventures. Without their support and help with milking and farm chores it would not have been possible.