Farmsteads dot the land around the shores of Mille Lacs Lake, and in those acres are stored collective centuries of local history. For Sharon Moenkhaus and her husband, Patrick, their own farm has existed for exactly one of those centuries. In January of 2019, the farm at which they reside, right along the border of Mille Lacs and Aitkin counties to the north of Isle, turned 100 years old. Sharon was willing to share the history of how her grandfather first came to own the farm, as well as how she’s following in his footsteps.
Sharon’s great-grandfather, Franklin Reibestein, first bought the land in 1919. “He was speculating the land,” she said, “because land must have been cheap and he had a large family.”
Despite purchasing the land, Franklin never lived at the property. Rather, his son and Sharon’s grandfather, Arnold Reibestein, moved in with his wife, Lena. “This house was only a shell,” Sharon said. “There were no rooms.”
Arnold began his homestead by clearing out trees on the property. “They were pioneers of the area,” Sharon added, “but unfortunately, that’s all history. All the little farms now are getting ate up.”
She described her grandfather as “rich in life but not worldly goods.” While she said he might have had a simple life, she felt it was a life rich with friends and people. Arnold Reibestein had been a fiddler. She and her grandfather used to play music together at local nursing homes. “We really connected,” she reminisced.
After Arnold had owned the property, Sharon’s uncle Raymond inherited the property. In 1980, Sharon and her father purchased the property from him.
Arnold had been a beekeeper, a tradition that Sharon and her husband have continued at the property to this day. Her grandmother, she added, raised chickens and would use the eggs to barter and trade locally, along with the dairy farming her grandfather did.
“They basically lived off the land,” Sharon noted. While the family had been living on the farm during the Depression era, they had been able to subsist on the resources the farm provided them. “[My grandfather] was proud of that,” Moenkhaus said. “...since they had the stuff here, they didn’t get hurt like a lot of places did.”
In addition to her bees, Sharon now raises chickens for their meat, with around 90 birds currently at the property. Her husband has also constructed a sugar shack near the house that the Moenkhauses use for preparing maple syrup. Sharon added that she is a member of the International Maple Syrup Committee in Duluth. “I’m a small-timer,” she said, “but we tap about 100 taps.”
While the Moenkhauses don’t raise their own cattle, Sharon’s brother-in-law, Richard Bronson of Princeton, rents the pastures and brings his own cattle to the property during the summer months.
“It’s seasonal which is good,” she said. “It’s the rhythm of life, and we see things going on seasonally. I kind of like it. You’ve got the beautiful green of spring after the blah of winter. And then you’ve got the summer. It’s like life from beginning to end. Each year we get to see those cycles.”
Starting in 2005, work was begun on restoring the barn. “It’s like anything, any property you own, there’s maintenance,” Sharon said. In 2008, the Moenkhauses also began a house renovation. “Like all the old farmsteads, the woodchucks were burrowing down in the cellar, and there were bats in the attic,” she said. Working with local builder Neil Westerlund, they tripled the size of the home, redoing the interior with new paint, flooring and electrical work.
Looking to the future, Sharon said she would be happy to keep the land in use as a farm. She has written a conservation easement with Aitkin County on the property to keep it from being subdivided. She has considered donating the property to be used for a camp or by a non-profit, though she had not committed to any specific course. For the time being, she aimed to keep up the maintenance. She is currently looking at renovating the barn’s silo: putting in a spiral staircase and telescope to make the top a small planetarium.
“I don’t think people realize how much work goes into these [farms],” Sharon said. She named just a few of those hard workers: “My gramps, my grandma, and all of the pioneers in this area. Other people don’t realize how much blood and sweat goes in. It’s a work ethic, and we’ve put in a lot of sweat equity, because it gives us a lot of pride. And I think that’s what a lot of farmers had: a lot of pride in what they did. And they should. I hope the ones who are still farming continue because they should. It’s a way of life. It’s like my sister said, ‘preserving the past and embracing the future.’”
At the end of June, Sharon has a centennial celebration planned. Additionally, she will hold an open house barn social in the fall. This potluck will be open to the public next September and will serve as a donation drive for the local food shelf.
The Minnesota State Agricultural Society and the Minnesota Farm Bureau have now recognized the Moenkhaus farm for its legacy as a Century Farm. The Moenkhaus farm will also be recognized at this year’s Aitkin County Fair. With rewards or otherwise, however, Sharon has no shortage of pride for what her family has accomplished over the past 100 years, and even now, she continues the work to maintain it for years to come.