“It’s been a wonderful life.”
While there’s semblance to a most popular movie title, Leo Hultgren’s comment is sparked with heartfelt reflection.
The retired White City farmer excitedly remembered growing up in the country and many good times especially with his family.
“Oh we’ve had our ups and downs, worked through them and enjoyed it all really,” Hultgren insisted.
Never being far at least in heart from his Morris County roots, the 87-year-old farmer anxiously affectionately credits his wife Nellie.
“She took care of the home and our family while I was busy looking after the farm,” Hultgren acknowledged.
Becoming engaged while Nellie was still attending high school in Sedgwick County, the couple married soon after her graduation. “She’s eight years younger than I am, but we’ve been married 61 years,” he counted proudly.
Serving in the Navy, and then working at Boeing, Leo returned with Nellie to the farm to raise seven children.
“They’re really what kept us going,” he admitted. “That is the kids, their spouses, 13 grandchildren and 17 great grandchildren.”
In order of birth, Hultgren readily named all of the children oldest to youngest, their professions and present hometowns. They include Sheila, Wayne, Teresa, Kevin, Gaylene, Connie and Brice.
Remembering names of the grandchildren and great grandchildren didn’t flow that easy. “I have to depend on Nellie to get that right,” Grandpa confessed.
His mother and father George and Lillian Hultgren were married in 1926 raising six children on the 160-acre dairy farm. It’s the same place where Leo and Nellie raised their seven children.
“Dad bought the quarter section with a government loan in 1941. He kept precise records and had it paid off in five years, faster than the lenders thought possible,” Hultgren admired.
“All of us kids, three boys and three girls, had to work too. I started milking cows when I was just six,” he added. Only Leo, the third oldest child, and two siblings, a brother and a sister, are alive today.
Of course farming was originally done with horsepower although Hultgren doesn’t remember the exact year tractors came to the farm. “Dad had a Fordson first, then a 620 International, and we got an M Farmall when equipment advanced,” Hultgren said.
With Leo’s parents approaching retirement, he and Nellie took the opportunity to partner with them on the farm.
“We had a grade-A dairy,” he said. “I paid a third of the expenses and got a third of the milk check.”
Taking over operations in 1966, Leo and Nellie moved their then family of five north of the home place.
“We bought Dad out, continued milking cows and added some land,” Hultgren said.
“Our children all helped with farm chores, but were still involved in many school and community activities,” Hultgren noted.
“During the school year, I never saw them at breakfast or supper because the cows had to be milked,” he said. “But, during the summer, breakfast was for planning the day’s activities. The family would gather around the dinner table enjoying fried chicken, potatoes with gravy and other ‘fixens’ from Nellie’s garden.”
With their family raised, the Holstein herd was dispersed at auction in 1995. “I milked cows for 38 years and hired very little outside help,” Hultgren said.
Land acquisitions have also been reduced from a half section to about 170 acres now. “The dairy herd and the land sold quite well. We got out of both at about the right time,” Hultgren said. “I’m fortunate to have three good renters of the land we have left.”
Strong in their faith, the Hultgren family has always been active in the Methodist Church. “Nellie made sure the children were in Sunday school, church, choir and other activities,” Hultgren verified.
The entire family was involved in community leadership. “I’ve helped with several major American Legion projects and was recently honored for 50 years of service,” Hultgren said.
Following in his Dad’s leadership roles, Hultgren served several terms on the board of what is now the Farm Service Agency.
It was a special time for Hultgren six years ago when he participated in the Veteran’s Honor Flight to Washington, D.C. “That was an opportunity of a lifetime,” he admitted. “My daughter wheeled me around in a wheelchair but still took more than 400 pictures.”
Photos are important to Hultgren who is proud of the family albums filled with lifetime memories. Hultgren has written a book about his family’s experiences and intends to have it printed to give to them.
Holidays are happy occasions for the Hultgren family. “Not everyone usually makes it, but we’ve had more than 50 here in our home,” he said.
“That was a houseful, but still less than one of the last family Thanksgiving celebrations at my parents’ home. They squeezed 82 family members into their little house in White City.”
During one of the gatherings, decision was made to develop a family park.
“Next thing you know we had a crew ready to work. We just started sawing trees, seven chain saws, two log splitters, and cleared out about an acre,” Hultgren said.
“I didn’t see how I could keep the weeds and brush down. We went in disked it up, sowed grass and now there’s about an acre and a half. It’s a wonderful park,” he contended.
“We just gas up the mowers, drive them over and it’s really not that much work to mow,” Hultgren insisted.
An overhead entrance sign made by oldest son Wayne identifies the park “The Lucky Seven,” named after the seven siblings.
“Appropriately honoring our country, an American flag can often be seen flying on the tall corner post,” Hultgren smiled. “It really stands out.”
The park is for family and community gatherings. “We have a community hog roast in the fall. The first year 144 came, the next year there were 133,” Hultgren counted. “We buy a hog, the boys roast it in the pit overnight, and the girls bring all of the trimmings.
“The kids enjoy the opportunity to get together,” he recognized. “It provides fellowship and food to a community that means so much to each one of them.”
Others are always welcome to have picnics and gatherings at the park. “I’m so excited about the place. Everybody can use it, but we ask them to leave it like they found it,” Hultgren said.
While health issues have been a couple setbacks for Leo and Nellie, they are now well looking to the future.
“I’m fortunate to have a wife who’s taken care of me and our family all of these years,” Hultgren appreciated. “Nellie is still looking after me. We are both so proud of our family.
”I’m going to live day to day. I’m happy when I wake up in the morning excited for another day,” Hultgren declared.