All hands work together to make annual holiday meals happen
by Jennie Zeitler, Staff Writer
The Don and Rita Wensmann family of rural Elmdale grew up strong with 17 siblings. Now with 53 grandchildren and 37 great-grandchildren, the crowd is huge at holiday time.
The year that the Elmdale Community Center was built, the Wensmanns began holding their family gatherings there. They meet at the Center three times a year — for Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas Day.
“The kitchen is big enough that everyone can work together,” said Cindy Wensmann. “Everyone brings something to share. There is room for everybody to sit at the table at one time.”
Don is a Korean War veteran. Rita’s brother was in Don’s unit and introduced them.
The Wensmann family was established in 1953 when they married and purchased a 160-acre dairy farm near Elmdale with 10 milking cows and three brood sows.
Don used a gas-powered milker while growing up near Freeport. Milking was done by hand for the first few months in Elmdale before they got an electric milker.
“Our first cream check was $90,” Don said. “We had a $500 mortgage payment every six months.”
“Mom cried and wondered what they were going to do,” Cindy said.
“I told her, ‘We have to trust in the Lord,’” said Don.
Soon, they started selling milk too and the checks got bigger. They were never late with a mortgage payment.
Those first three brood sows provided 38 little pigs, which were sold for $5 each.
“That was bigger than the milk check,” Don said.
But 1958 came along — a dry year. When Don was afraid they might lose the farm, he got a job with Frigidaire in St. Cloud. He worked there for three years while farming at the same time.
“I was laid off during the summer,” he said. “Then there was more time for farming.”
In 1964, they acquired a bulk milk tank.
“After that, things started to turn around pretty good,” said Don.
In 1969, a Jack Frost 15,000-chicken barn was built. An addition was made to the dairy barn in 1979.
The farm was taken over by Greg in 1991 and has grown to 347 acres. with 295 acres tillable.
Rita died in 2002, about the time the Elmdale Community Center was built. With the family continuing to grow, it just made sense to move the festivities there. There are 13 siblings still living.
To prepare for the Christmas event, Brenda Wensmann Yorek started hosting a popcorn ball-making party at her home three years ago.
“This year, we made up 96 gift bags for Dad to give to the grandkids and great-grandkids,” she said. “Dad came too, to supervise and taste test.
Family members are very pleased that everyone gets along so well and nearly everyone makes the effort to be at the gatherings.
“It’s good seeing everyone get together — that makes me happy” Don said.
“Dad’s just so proud of how everyone gets along,” said Cindy. “Growing up, we never got along as good as we do now.”
“It’s been a lot of fun getting together,” said Greg. “It’s amazing how we all get along.”
The Wensmanns get together other times of the year as well, with the girls having “sister gatherings” and the boys going whitewater rafting or four-wheeling together.
Granddaughter Wendy Fischer started a Wensmann family Facebook page where family members can share stories and photos.
It all points to what makes Don happiest — seeing “all hands working together.”
Perhaps one of the best examples of the family working together happened in February 1973, when Marvin stopped breathing one night.
The incident was put down on paper by Rita, something that just came to light recently when a page in her handwriting was found.
While Don and Rita were gone one evening, Marvin was coughing and suddenly stopped breathing. Mark, who shared a bedroom with him, started screaming for help. Marvin was taken downstairs where Ken performed CPR and Wayne did mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.
“Doris (called) the ambulance,” wrote Rita. “They were asking too many question to suit her, so she told them to forget it and they (would) bring him in themselves. The (other) kids were still screaming so she told them, ‘Instead of screaming, get in the bedroom and start praying.’”
About halfway to town Marvin began breathing again and recovered fully.
“Our children need to be recognized for a wonderful good job they did in a very frightening situation,” Rita wrote.