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For Bruentrups, historic farm still feels like home during holidays
Growing up on his family’s farm, Bill Bruentrup milked cows twice a day. Even on Christmas.
“On Christmas Eve, we’d milk a little bit earlier than we normally did so we could come in, clean up, eat dinner, and then we would open our presents,” the 72-year-old said. “I remember getting ready for Christmas, because we tried to get as many things done as we could.
“We tried to get extra bedding in, get hay ready, and make sure they had feed ground, so we wouldn’t end up having to do those things on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day.”
The farm was established in 1891. For four generations, Bruentrup’s family gathered at the stately farmhouse for the holidays, until its desirable site along White Bear Avenue was sold to commercial developers. The Maplewood Area Historical Society moved the farmhouse, barn and outbuildings to their current Maplewood location, 2170 County Road D E., in 1999.
Bruentrup has watched the house where his father was born -- and where he died in 1981 -- become a community gathering place for weddings, events and educational projects. Around Christmas, the society, of which Bruentrup and his wife are active members, has hosted Santa breakfasts, open houses and, for the first time this year, a December church service in the barn.
“Even though it’s not my home anymore, it’s still home to me,” Bruentrup said. “The old buildings -- I grew up in the them. I could tell you where everything was; which cow was where.”
He welcomes the idea of others sharing the experience. “To see the joy that other people get involved in it, it’s really rewarding.”
The early years
One of Bruentrup’s first memories of Christmas at the farmhouse was one snowy Christmas Eve when he was 4 or 5. He heard a knock on the porch door.
“I looked out and it was Santa Claus,” he said, sitting in the farmhouse’s living room and pointing out the window nearly 70 years later. “Santa actually brought us a present in his bag.”
On Christmas Eve -- after milking -- the family traditionally opened all of their gifts. Highlights were homemade fudge, dried fruit from an aunt who lived in California and silver dollars from an aunt in Montana. Bruentrup said he usually received clothes and games, but his most treasured present was a Lionel model train. He stills sets it up for his grandson.
One year, he got a tool kit with a hammer, pliers and “all kinds of stuff in this beautiful leather case.” He said he made the mistake of bringing the gift to military basic training years later, and it was confiscated.
Christmas morning, the family milked the cows before attending Mass. After dinner with the extended family at noon, they’d skate on the pond in front of the house.
“After that, the kitchen would be full of wet clothes and skates,” Bruentrup said. “It was a mess. Then, we’d play board games.”
The kids yelled over one other trading cards or building their fortune in Monopoly, as traditional Christmas music played on the radio or a phonograph. Decorations were simple: electric candelabras in the windows and an adorned Christmas tree.
The smell of burning tobacco filled the house, as the men smoked cigarettes and pipes and sat around and talked. The women and older girls tended to food in the kitchen, whipping up a ham or a turkey, fruit cake without citrus (dad didn’t like citrus) and “all the usual things.” Bruentrup’s German grandmother always made apple kuchen, a kind of cake.
“When it came to cleanup, everybody pretty much pitched in,” Bruentrup said.
His wife Raydelle joined the family in the early 1960s. The first Christmas after Bill and Raydelle were engaged, she made him a blue cable-knit sweater.
“The body fit him perfect. The arms were like three times the size of his arm,” Raydelle, 71, said. “And then I bought him some pants that were too small. That was pretty funny.”
They married, and traditions changed.
They spent Christmas Eve at the farm. Christmas morning they visited Raydelle’s family, and then went to the homes of her aunts who cooked and baked an extensive spread of food and desserts, including “popcorn cake,” a bundt-shaped popcorn ball with peanuts, chocolate chips and M&M’s. Then everyone went to Bill and Raydelle’s for a meal.
The crowd of kids and parents aged and changed. Not long after Bill was married, his mother became sick with cancer, so Raydelle became the head cook.
Starting in the mid-1960s, his late sister Joan bought artificial “flocked” trees covered, as was the style, in fake snow. Andy Williams crooned Christmas tunes on the radio, and the family laughed about the silly songs of Alvin and the Chipmunks.
In 1998 -- the last Christmas at the farm -- the family pulled out old photographs and swapped stories about “all of the good times.”
“We were thinking of already selling, so, it was just kind of nostalgic,” Bill said.
Joan lived in the house until she died in 1994. Bill and his wife lived there just briefly, from 1998 until June 1999, when Bill decided to sell it.
Though the farm buildings themselves hadn’t changed much, their setting had undergone a radical transformation. Gone were the hills and ponds to the west; the farmhouse now faced Maplewood Mall and a constellation of surrounding businesses. To its north and south, shops and parking lots abutted its shady side yards.
Once-rural White Bear Avenue seemed to be ever-expanding, and the farm, pictured as one of the highlights seen from a nearby passenger train line, stood out from its surroundings in a different way.
The Bruentrups knew they couldn’t keep it, but giving it up was painful.
“The toughest decision I ever made was the decision to sell the property,” Bill said. “At that time, we thought it meant the buildings would be destroyed. We thought about moving the house someplace. Then the historical society got involved in it.”
Still feels like home
The historical society moved the house and other buildings to the County Road D site in 1999, in a mammoth undertaking that involved fundraising and state grants to gather the more than $200,000 needed to prepare the buildings, move them up White Bear Avenue and site them at their new location.
The Bruentrup’s own Christmases since then have been celebrated at their Stillwater home. Their three children -- Marianne, Ken and Joe -- and three grandchildren all live within about a 10-minute drive.
The old farmhouse’s guest list has expanded, but Bill and Raydelle are happy to still be “hosts” at the farm.
“We like the idea that people can come and enjoy it with us,” Raydelle said.
On Dec. 7, Raydelle was dressed as Mrs. Claus and Bill collected the ticket fees and welcomed guests to “Breakfast with Santa” at the farm. Hundreds of people filled the old house throughout the day, eating and taking pictures with the man in the red suit.
Many of the furnishings and Christmas decorations throughout the house are original, but it feels different to those who knew it when.
“I don’t know how to describe it,” Bill said. “It’s always fun to come back and I spend a lot of time here, but it doesn’t have the emotional part that it had when I had family living here.
“But it’s still very nostalgic, especially around the holidays.”
Kaitlyn Roby can be reached at 651-748-7814, firstname.lastname@example.org, and at twitter.com/KRobyNews.