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Washington Town Hall Corners: A great day

Aug. 26, 2014 | 0 comments

It's just a junction where Green County N and C cross, on top of a hill, three miles west of Monticello.

Chances are most folks traveling this way never give it a thought — except, maybe, that there are some long, steep hills in all four directions, and if you aren't going too fast you have a great view of Green County farm land.

Oh, you might wonder about the old cheese factory just a bit further up the hill or the big, red farm tractors sitting in the field under the Case IH sign at the northwest corner or even pause a moment to ponder the old-looking feed mill across the road.

If you were going slow enough toward or away from the stop sign on Highway N south, you would see a cluster of buildings, sort of hidden behind a row of trees — one with a sign "Washington Implement Co."

What you wouldn't see is the small, square, single story building just off the road that looks more like a farmhouse than a government building with a sign in front reading "Washington Town Hall, Built in 1922."

I always notice such off-the-beaten-track sites and wonder about them — their history, what are they and promising to stop and ask, someday.

The cheese factory

Actually, I've written about the cheese factory several times: when it was known as Town Hall Dairy, a small farmers' dairy cooperative; then as Prima Kasa, where cheesemaker Randy Kranenbuhl was inventing new cheeses; and recently about the now-named Edelweiss Creamery and how Bruce Workman is the one and only cheesemaker in the U.S. still making 200-pound Swiss cheese wheels.

Last week I finally spent some time visiting at that crossroads, which is unofficially, but locally and logically, known as "Washington Town Hall Corners."

45 years here

Gary Johnson, president of Washington Implement Co., has worked at that location since 1970, first as an employee then as owner. "I was an unemployed, 17-year-old dairy farm boy from 5 miles up the road in 1970 who stopped at the then Case farm equipment dealership to get a cold soft drink out of their outdoor pop machine," Anderson remembered. "One of the owners, Harvey Elmer, saw me standing there and asked if I needed a job. I said yes, and he said 'why not work for me?'"

"When should I start working," Anderson asked.

"Right now," Elmer said. "Follow me, we'll start you as a mechanic."

"After a couple of weeks I learned how to do some machinery repair work and it was fun," Anderson said.

A few years later, Anderson was invited to Elmer's home. "I wondered what I had done wrong as this wasn't a common thing to happen."

To his surprise, Mr. Elmer said that if Anderson kept working as hard as he had been doing, he would sell him half the business when he retired.

Becoming an owner

In 1981, "that time came," Anderson said. "He didn't even quote a price right away and said he would finance the transaction, and I became an owner. Every February, Elmer would come and check if I had paid the taxes and was doing things right. Five years later, I bought the other half of the business from Otto Graber."

Washington Implement Co. is very much a family business that includes Gary's wife Karen, vice president and in charge of the accounting; son Greg, service and advanced farming manager; daughter Connie, parts manager; and granddaughter Jessie, who runs the parts counter. There are 10 employees all told, with sales manager Greg Schwartzlow now in his 16th year with the company.

Many changes

A lot has happened in the 45 years the Andersons have been in the business. "There have been lots of long days and nights," Gary said. "The 16 percent interest rates in the early 1980s made business difficult, and we'll never forget the shocking letter we received in late 1985 that Case and International Harvester were merging."

"Yes, we are small but we use computers, the Internet and GPS guidance systems, and in 1987, we were the first implement dealer in the state to sell a big square baler — a Hesston made in France," he related with pride. "It's still working with its fifth owner."

Of course the farm equipment business has changed, Anderson said. "At one time, every dealer had 'their customers,' but consolidations and the Internet have changed that. There are still many farmers who value our service (I still do some mechanic work) and don't want to buy from the big volume dealers," he said. "Farmers know us, and we know them."

Anderson said he has no thoughts of ever retiring. He loves the business and the people who are customers and friends. What could be better?

A true country mill

Harvey Elmer and Otto Graber founded Washington Implement Co. in the basement of the feed mill kitty-corner across the intersection. The year was 1956, some six years after the Washington Mill was built, but they soon relocated across the road as the bigger farm equipment needed bigger facilities.

This was never a big feed mill — only three overhead bins and one mixer — but it served area farmers well for decades mostly under the ownership of Meryln Rufer from 1955 to 2000.

"I always worked with my dad," Richard Rufer said. "Dad died in 2000, and I've been here since."

The feed mill business changed when dairy herds got fewer and farmers went to commodity feeding with ingredients delivered in truckloads and mixed with forage as a total mixed ration, Rufer said.

Washington Mill does little grinding these days but sells milk replacers, animal health products and specialty products to a growing number of weekend and hobby farmers. "Our business in chicken feed has really grown," he said. "I guess chickens are coming back for the meat and eggs and as 4-H projects."

The forum

For many decades, area farmers came to Washington Mill every day at about 4 p.m. to have a soda pop, do a bit of talking and rest a bit before milking. Nowadays, the dairy herds are fewer and farther between, but a crowd still gathers every day in the small office at the mill.

Just after 3:30 last Thursday, there were five or six farmers, retired farmers and former farm kids in the tiny office when I walked in. In a half-hour, the group numbered about a dozen, most standing as there are only a half dozen chairs.

George Norton Jr., a former dairy farmer in Monroe but also a longtime welder and builder, volunteered that "we talk about anything and everything."

"Yes, and what is said at the mill stays at the mill," Rufer added.

Jim and Ron Rirtshard, brothers who raise heifers and crop farm respectively; Ralph and Jerry Pederson (a custom hay baler), another set of brothers; Randall Smith, a young dairyman with an 80-cow registered herd (Quad-R-Holsteins); and Kerry Karlen, who is downsizing his dairy, now at 30 cows and moving into beef, were a few of the "regulars" at the nightly talkfest who I got to meet.

"Are you the moderator," I asked Rufer.

"Nope, I just listen," he said. "I keep the old pop cooler full and have some snacks around. Everyone pays their own way."

"By the way," Rufer acknowledged, "I've been on the town board for a dozen years and chairman for 10 years. That's where I do my talking. We've had some houses, but by and large this is still a farming community."

I don't know if the daily farmers' discussion group has a name but the "Washington Mill Farmers Forum" seems appropriate.

I do know that my visit with the Anderson's at Washington Implement and Richard Rufer, his mill and the forum made for one of the most enjoyable afternoons I can remember. I plan to go back to Washington Town Hall Corners another day soon and take part in the forum — if they'll have me.

John F Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications, a Madison-based agricultural information and consulting company. He can be reached at 608-222-0624, or email him at jfodairy@chorus.net.

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