After homesteading near Barrhead, north of Edmonton in 1911, the generations of the Messmer family are still running the mixed farming operation today
It was a three-country, two-continent journey that started in Germany in the mid-1800s before the Messmer family finally set roots in the somewhat isolated parkland region of north-central Alberta. This past summer they joined the ranks of an exclusive group of farm families receiving the Alberta Century Farm and Ranch Award.
In mid-August 2012, the Messmer family and friends celebrated 100 years of Messmer Farms along with Eugene Messmer’s 80th birthday. The event took place at the Naples Hall, 10 miles northeast of Barrhead, Alta., a hall Eugene’s relatives helped build and support over the years.
Eugene’s father Oscar and uncle Peter Messmer first came to the Barrhead area early in the 1900s. Since Oscar was too young at the time it was “Uncle Peter” who actually held the first claim on Messmer land, which continues to be farmed by Eugene’s son, Tim and his family today.
Present for the August celebrations were Eugene and his wife Grace, their three sons, Laurie, Tim, and Kevin, along with their wives and offspring. Visiting, displays of old photos, maps, clippings, and memorabilia helped family and guests relive the past. Also exhibited was the bronze plaque from the Alberta government commemorating 100 years on the family farm.
Started in Germany
During the afternoon, Eugene narrated an old-fashioned slide show and daughter-in-law Kim read the family history, starting with Peter (senior) and Meria Messmer born in Germany during the mid-1800s. From Germany, Peter and Meria and their then eight children moved to Zurich, Switzerland where two more children, Frida and Oscar were born.
From Switzerland, the family emigrated to the United States, where they operated a dairy farm near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Selling milk to city residents went fine until a downturn in the country’s economy downsized their income.
In 1911, three Messmer men ventured to Alberta to investigate homestead country. Recognizing potential in the land northwest of Edmonton, they staked claims in the area now called Naples. The rest of the family, except one son who stayed behind in the U.S., followed in the spring of 1912. Travel by train ended at Clyde, Alta.
Oscar, Eugene’s father, then 12 years old, was too young to stake claim. Oscar’s brother, Pete Jr. made his claim in 1911, which is significant to the 100-year status.
Pete Jr. continued improving his homestead while living with his parents until 1917. A bachelor of 32 years, Pete then moved into a small house he had built on his own quarter, which later became part of Eugene’s farming operation and is part of Tim’s farm today. Uncle Pete’s quarter, as the family refers to it, is kitty-corner from what became Oscar’s quarter. This quarter section has been passed down from Oscar to Eugene and is now farmed by Tim.
Grain farming was Uncle Pete’s specialty. While his brothers preferred modern machines for fieldwork, Pete used only horses. Perhaps Pete’s slower pace kept him going longer, as he farmed until his death in 1962. At age 75, Pete died while loading small bales onto his wagon.
Farming and lumber
In 1931, Oscar married India Properzi, an Italian neighbour. Shortly after their marriage, Oscar and India moved to what is now the home quarter of the Messmer Farms.
During the early ’40s, Oscar ran his own sawmill and stockpiled lumber for a new house, outbuildings, and fences. Eugene recalled, “There were always piles of lumber in the yard.” Eugene grew up working with his father. Eugene’s only sibling, Marie, married a local farmer, Rudy Glessman.
While still farming at home, Eugene met Grace Roberts, a farm girl from the Layton district east of Barrhead. Married in 1956, Eugene and Grace lived with his parents in “the big house,” the one built from home-sawn lumber.
After three years of sharing the big house, Oscar built a small house in the same yard for him and India, leaving the larger house for Eugene and Grace’s growing family. Raising their four sons on the farm made Laurie, Brian, Tim, and Kevin all farmers at heart. Horseback riding, 4-H, and raising prize-winning Herefords ran in their blood.
Grace inherited the chicken business from her mother-in-law. Selling chickens and eggs added to the family income. With the boys growing like poplars, Grace found it economical to sew their clothes, including jeans and jackets.
Relatives and friends loved to visit the farm. Grace and Eugene welcomed them all. With the house often bursting its walls, Eugene and Grace eventually added on.
In 1980, Grace and Eugene’s son Tim married Kim Mitchell, another local farm girl. The young couple lived in Barrhead, where Tim worked for Walden Tire. When their children, Brandon and Melissa, were school age, Tim and Kim talked to his folks about moving their mobile home onto Pete’s quarter.
Living near the home place made it easier for Tim to help his dad. Making Pete’s quarter home for 14 years meant raising their kids in the country. When Eugene and Grace retired to Barrhead in 2000, Kim and Tim renovated the main house, again adding on, before moving in.
Today, on 600 acres, Tim produces hay and grain for his herd of about 90 cow-calf pairs. Kim, who supervises a pre-school program in Barrhead, is the first wife of the family to work off the farm. Eugene still helps Tim out with some jobs, but Tim also works closely with neighbours when more hands are needed.
Successive generations of Messmers have upheld the tradition of being industrious, honest, and financially stable. They have all been community-minded. Like preceding couples, Kim and Tim continue to be leaders in the Naples Community. †