BEAR RIVER- In 1906, Peter Flank, a 40-year-old Swedish immigrant, his wife, Anna, and their two young children, six-year-old Arthur and one-year-old Edith moved from their western Minnesota home of …
BEAR RIVER- In 1906, Peter Flank, a 40-year-old Swedish immigrant, his wife, Anna, and their two young children, six-year-old Arthur and one-year-old Edith moved from their western Minnesota home of Fertile to the lush countryside northeast of Bear River, establishing a farm in unincorporated Township 62, Range 21.
Two years later, Ruben and Fannie Dobson and their two young children became the Flanks’ neighbors, moving from Iowa to homestead a 160-acre tract just across the road to the southeast of Peter Flank’s land. The Dobsons owned the property free and clear when the government awarded them a serial land patent in 1913.
But it was difficult making a living on a farm that size, particularly since half of it was covered with forest, and by 1920 Ruben Dobson was working at and living with his family near the Dunwoody Mine in Chisholm.
Auburn-haired, blue-eyed Arthur Flank was by then a young man of 20, ready to strike out on his own, and when the opportunity presented itself the following year, Arthur bought the Dobsons’ 160-acre tract for $701, about $4.38 an acre.
That farm, located today on the northeast corner of Hwy. 5 and Leander Rd., about two miles north of the Viking Bar, has been in the Flank family ever since.
This spring, Arthur’s grandson, Craig Flank, and his wife Valerie, celebrated over a century of family farm ownership by being recognized as a 2022 Minnesota State Fair and Minnesota Farm Bureau Century Farm, the only such awardee in St. Louis County this year. Nearly 11,000 Minnesota farms have received the award since it was established in 1976, with 78 recognized this year across the state.
Craig said the farm his grandmother grew up on was previously recognized as a Century Farm, and a neighbor’s farm received the designation last year, so he was somewhat familiar with the designation when he saw it mentioned in a newspaper earlier this year.
He did a little calculating and figured his farm would certainly qualify. So, Valerie filled out the application documenting the farm’s family history and sent it in, and the Flanks were notified in March that the application had been approved.
Arthur Flank was single when he bought the farm in 1921, but on Aug. 20, 1925, he married Bessie Urdahl, about two-and-a-half months after his mother Anna passed away. Together they operated the farm until Arthur’s death in 1954.
Craig said his grandfather started out raising sheep.
“They used to have a hundred head of sheep here,” he said. “There were a lot of sheep farmers up here.”
And as with many farmers, Arthur had another job to make ends meet.
“My Grandpa Art drove a school bus for many, many, many years,” Craig said. He pointed toward one of the buildings on the property as he said, “That’s the bus garage where he did all his work on it. We’ve still got one old bus that they took the back off and took part of the cab off and they hauled loose hay with that.”
Arthur and Bessie had four children, daughters Dolores, Lois, and Sharon, and son Raymond, Craig’s father. The farm passed to Raymond in 1982, just before Bessie’s death in 1983, and he never lost the passion for farming he developed as a kid.
“He grew up here,” Craig said.
But Raymond left the farm after he graduated from Alango High School and was drafted by the Army, serving overseas in Germany and France. While he was still overseas in 1954, his father died, and when Raymond came back to the U.S., he took over his father’s bus route, driving school children to Bear River, Alango, and Cook schools until 1966.
Raymond married his wife Jeanette in 1955, and after having two daughters, Marla and Deanne, and two sons, Craig and Ross, the family moved from Bear River to Cook in 1966. Raymond went to work for Reserve Mining in Babbitt until 1986, and then for St. Louis County until his retirement in 1997. But Raymond was proof that while you could take a man out of the farm, you can never take the farm out of the man.
“Cook is all the further Mom got him away from the farm,” Craig laughed. “He still had that long drive to work, but we were up here at the farm every weekend.”
But when Craig graduated from Cook High School in 1979, a third generation of Flank Farm ownership didn’t seem to be in the cards.
“In the early 80s when the economy was so bad up here, I was working in the woods a little bit,” Craig said. “I’d worked at a grain elevator down in Hastings but they folded. And farming? A lot of farms were lost in the early 80s. Mining had pretty much kind of shut down.”
So, Craig and a couple of buddies headed to North Dakota to work in the oil fields, and then they moved on to Colorado, just north of Denver, for six years. And Craig found himself in a somewhat familiar environment.
“I was working on a dairy farm out there,” he said. “When I left, they were building apartment buildings right next door to that dairy farm.”
And when he left, where did he go next?
“This place,” he said. “I just wanted to get back home. There was never really anything that was ever said. Dad and I started going to auctions buying some equipment and we just started getting bigger and bigger and bigger.”
Craig took over ownership of the farm in 1990, and a year later he married Valerie, who was originally from Cook.
“She was in a wedding with my brother. That was the first time I met her,” Craig said. “A good friend of hers said we ought to get together, so we finally met one time and went out and ….”
Valerie cut in. “And that was it. He proposed three months later. We were engaged for a year, but he proposed in three months,” she said.
In the years since, the farm operation has shifted with the times. They started growing a lot of grain, but the prices weren’t very good, particularly for a small operation. Then they added 20-25 cattle.
“But then we started getting drought and we were getting less and less hay, and then last year was just a disaster,” Craig said. “So, I sold most of my cows, and now we’ll just rebuild again.”
But like those who came before them, the Flanks haven’t been solely dependent on the farm. Craig and Valerie have both worked other jobs, investing most of what they earn back into the property and its operation. Valarie has been a dental hygienist with Scenic Rivers Health Services in Cook since 2003. Craig just retired in May after 22 years with HibTac.
While many of the smaller original sheds and buildings remain, the Flanks replaced the old farmhouse with a new one in 2000, moving it a bit west for an even better view of the fields sloping gracefully to the south. The property is accented with various pieces of old equipment that was used in the early days of the farm, while some of the equipment Craig uses could also be considered vintage.
As the Flanks walked the property on Sunday, they shared dozens and dozens of personal memories and tidbits about the farm, but one in particular is a memory shared by many, many folks across the Iron Range.
The gleaming white barn with its beautiful huge loft and new roof was built in 1954, and for about the next decade it became the home for the locally famous Flank Farm Saturday night barn dances.
“When they built the barn, I don’t know if it was to raise money or what the deal was,” Craig said. “I heard they just liked music and that was the reason they had barn dances.”
Held in May and June, the dances drew people from near and far until they ended in the early 60s after a decade-long run.
“I’m a hygienist and I worked in Hibbing over 20 years ago,” Valerie said. “I had this older gentleman say ‘You’re too young for this, but when I was your age, I used to go up to Bear River to the Flanks for barn dances.’ I said, well, that’s where I live. To this day, people, when they find out we’re the Flanks, they say they remember coming up here to those barn dances. It was a big well-known thing.”
But the celebration in the barn Craig and Valerie will likely remember most is the wedding of their son Davis there last year, and it’s a story Davis and his wife will someday pass on to a fifth generation of Flanks who may someday inherit the farm It’s already a given that the fourth generation, Davis and his sister Gena, will take it over from Craig and Valerie when the time is right.
“It’s been a hundred years, so why not continue it,” Valarie said. “And hopefully one of our kids will have kids that will continue with it. But if not, oh well.”
But even if the farm should someday pass out of the hands of the Flank family, the legacy of a family farm started with a $700 investment and a dream a century ago will surely endure.
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