Diedrich Wessels left Germany in 1881 with a vision to reach the freedom America offered. In 1905, he moved to York County. Twelve years later, on September 15, the union of his son Dick Wessels and Marie Amelia Blum brought David George into the rural home. Nearly 100 years later, a gift from the couple’s third son introduces the story of the American farmer to the world.
There were six children in the Wessels family. David was in the middle between older brothers Dick Herman and Edward Lewis. His younger siblings were Fannie Marie, Maxine Ruth, and Ralph Alfred. Maxine was the only surviving member of the family when this story was written. Though she was nearly a decade younger than her brother, Maxine had fond memories of the relationships that began on the farm south of York, Nebraska. “The family was close,” she said recalling her brother walking her home from school after a blizzard, “We had such a fun time.”
There was fun to be had on the farm, but plenty of work to be done. “You did your best in the Wessels family, my brothers and father never did anything half way. Dave carried that on throughout his life,” she said. After his parents retired in 1946, David and his brothers carried on their legacy of hard work and commitment. Those who remembered him spoke about a man who was a friend to all he met. He was proud of his heritage, most often seen wearing the humble suit of a dirt farmer with seed corn cap and bib overalls.
Photos of Wessels show a calm, determined demeanor that wasn’t without a broad smile in some scenes. Wessels kept up with the farming practices of the day. He is shown with Holly Miller setting up fertilizer demonstrations in conjunction with Miller Seed and Supply Company.
Miller described David as a “straight shooter” who “loved to have fun”, but who also was “a hard worker and honest above-board. He had a heart of gold.”
Wessels is also pictured with his strong arm leaning against a post upholding the sturdy shelter over an irrigation pump. Photos of his fields portray a lush, emerald green stand of corn with the gift of clear streams of irrigation water running between the solid stalks. When it came to equipment, Wessels was known to be conservative but progressive, keeping what he owned well cared for from season to season. He enjoyed modernizing as well through the years. And, he was committed to doing things right. One photo shows him planting seed riding over the Nebraska prairie on the open air tractor, with straight rows pressed into the black topsoil behind him.
Our Founder (continued)
He is also depicted as a devoted brother and friend as he holds his nieces and visits with neighbors on the farm. Maxine said he always had time for everyone, “He was enthused to share the farm with people. He could always take time to stop and visit. People were important to him.”
“Dave Wessels is probably one of the first guys that I ever met when I came to York back in 1976,” Jim remembers in this video oral history. “Neat guy, real neat guy! He learned a lot from what was going on. He would be very truthful with you. Farmers sometimes have a tendency to maybe stretch or BS as somebody would say it. But if you wanted information from Dave, you would get the factual. He knew what was going on. Good farmer. Did a good job.”
During World War II, Dave was drafted and sent to fight in the North African campaign. When he returned home, Maxine said he was silent about his service and simply returned to work in the fields. Wessels felt strongly about agriculture. He spoke about that commitment most through actions, not words. He left his final gift in that silent style but with a firm vision, to leave behind a “living story” about the importance of the American Farmer. He left the opportunity to tell a broader story too, reminding the world what the planting of those first pioneer seeds meant for the human race in the past, present, and beyond.
York Area Agriculture Hall of Fame
In August 2003, David Wessels was inducted into the York Area Agriculture Hall of Fame for his contributions to the business of agriculture. He was recognized for his roles as both a progressive farmer and a philanthropist. The York Area Ag Hall of Fame was established in 1999, a project of the York News-Times, and has inducted over 70 men and women. Plaques with the name of each honoree and a description of their contribution to ag make up the display.
Drawing on the philosophy of leaders like Thomas Jefferson, the directors of the Hall of Fame recognize individuals who have made a significant contribution to the growth, development, and prosperity of agriculture as a producer, operator, innovator or leader in a related agri-business.
The Hall of Fame was moved from the courthouse to Wessels in November of 2016 and displayed in the church over the Christmas season. In 2017, it was moved to a more permanent place on the farm- the south wall inside the new tractor building. The first Fall on the Farm took place on Oct. 8th, where the York News Times inducted two new members into the Hall of Fame, celebrated by over 100 guests. Fall on the Farm has become an annual event. It is free admission to the public- Wessels’ thank-you to the community- and is centered around a “Celebration of Agriculture”, featuring the York Area Ag Hall of Fame.
David Wessels didn’t take his dedication to rural America with him after his death. The vision he left in his will opened the door to an array of opportunities in just a few simple phrases – “a certain amount of land and capital should be set aside to establish the ‘Wessels Living History Farm’.” When David Wessels wrote those phrases, he left an opportunity to send a living story to the world, a story about the spirit of American agriculture.
The story goes back to Native Americans who first cultivated these fields, through the first European immigrants staking out the prairie ground, through boom and bust cycles and through the incredible technological innovations of the 20th Century. It’s a story that will continue as long as the human race consumes food. The York Community Foundation, which administers David’s bequest, formed a committee in 1995 including business people and farmers to carry out Wessels’ vision of an the educational project.
Five years of research was completed, including studies by consultants with grandiose ideas about what truly defined a “living history farm.” Slowly that definition began to form. The site would consider the past, present, and future and attract large audiences. Then it was decided that not only would there be an actual farm located just south of I-80, but it would be shared digitally over the Internet to reach millions more. This decision was solidified when the York Community Foundation filed a lawsuit to make a legal definition of a “living history farm.”
The plans were approved and the building of both the on site and website began in cooperation with Nebraska Educational Television Network. NET completed the first section of the Web site, “Farming in the 1920s.” The next section of the Web site, “Farming in the 1930s,” was executed by The Ganzel Group Communications. The 145 acre physical site includes a house that David Wessels and his brother lived in for a period of time when they moved to town. It’s typical of farm architecture of the early 20th Century. The house was donated to the Living History Farm project by York College and moved to the physical site in 2002. You can see a video of the moving process above.
The site also includes a barn donated by Bill Peters of Shelby, Nebraska. The red, timber frame giant reflects barns typical of the 1920’s, the era chosen for the Living History Farm to interpret. There is also a granary, which belonged to Ralph Stuhr, which was moved to the site from a couple miles west of Bradshaw. The church was an unexpected gift from the congregation of the Zion Lutheran Church of Thayer, NE. It was set on it’s new foundation in November of 2013. In May of 2015, our little one room schoolhouse was moved from it’s place in Sutton, NE. The tank house, windmill, tractor building which belonged to Dave, cob house, Model T garage and outhouses- each have their own stories that begin in other locations.
A modern restroom building, shop building, and poultry house have all been erected on the site. The most recent addition- the 4000 sq. ft. steel building located south of Dave’s machine building- has just been completed in July of 2017. Reinke Manufacturing, Inc. matched $100,000 to make this building a reality. Local donors, including private donors as well as the York Community Foundation and the York Visitor’s Bureau, came together to reach our half of the $200,000 project. Inside the new building, tractors and other machinery will be on display and kept safe from the weather, as well as a feature display created by Reinke on the progression of irrigation.The next phase of the project includes a new office/admissions area and gift shop.
The physical site brings to life the history of agriculture for local visitors. The Web site spreads that message to the world. In the future, the farm could grow in numerous ways. The site is viewed by the Wessels Corporation as a “living project” on a “journey” reflecting the continuing role those involved with agriculture play as they provide nourishment to the world.
What is a Living History Museum?
Welcome to our farm! Would you be interested in a cornmeal cookie and a glass of lemonade? Come on in, we’ll tell you a story about Dave Wessels and his dream to preserve the simple life of a Nebraska farmer. While you’re here, you could help us shell some corn, feed the animals, and gather the eggs.
At Wessels Living History Farm, you won’t look at things from behind glass windows or barriers. We are a real, working farm, with chores to do every day and opportunities to do some hands-on learning! Would you like to help us in the garden? The tomato plants are overflowing, help yourselves!
People often ask us if we live here. No, this home is no longer lived in- not the way you think of a home being lived in- but the question is a testament to how “real” Wessels Living History Farm feels to our guests, and we take it as a compliment! Oh yes, we cook with the wood stove. And we churn our butter when we need to. We tend to the garden and tinker with the antique tractors. If you join us during a special event, we may even be doing a little blacksmith work, planting with the check row planter, or harvesting our oats!