Historic silver fox farm back in founding family's hands

Keith Uhlig

HAMBURG - The historic Fromm brothers farm in northern Marathon County, once the center of high- fashion fox fur production and the nation's largest ginseng grower, has been sold.

The property is back in family hands once again; it was purchased a few weeks ago by Tom Neiman, owner of Fromm Family Pet Food in Mequon. The pet food business has its roots in a partnership with the Fromm Brothers Fur and Ginseng Farm in Hamburg. Tom Neiman's great-grandfather John Nieman and his grandfather Edwin Nieman founded Fromm Family Pet Food with Walter, Edward, John and Henry Fromm. The Fromm brothers' sister, Erna, was married to Edwin.

Nieman bought the property from Gary and Sue Mason, who had purchased the farm from Ned Tead, the grandson of Edward Fromm, in 1998.

Mason said the ownership change likely will result in a quicker restoration of buildings and the property, and also could mean the place will be more open to the public at some point in the future.

The farm property in Hamburg was both home and work for the four Fromm boys. In 1904 they began building a business empire when they ranged in ages from 16 to 11. The brothers formed what they called "The Company," and with the help of a knowledgeable neighbor, began to grow and sell ginseng in order to purchase and raise silver foxes. Both branches of The Company flourished for decades, making the Fromm brothers very wealthy indeed and the north central Wisconsin farm a destination for East Coast elites connected to high fashion. A family rift, coupled with changing societal tastes that swung away from fur clothing, led to the farm's decline.

The farm's backstory gives the property an emotional anchor in the Hamburg area.

"Once you get an understanding of the history, it just pulls you in," Gary Mason said. "I just love to share it."

Mason, 73, a retired wood products salesman, purchased the property with his wife as a place to live and hunt. He was not particularly knowledgeable about the Fromm brothers at the time, but neighbors began dropping by and telling him Fromm stories, and he found a book that outlined the history of the men and the place. The 265-acre parcel includes about 15 buildings, including the Fromm brothers' home, an auction house/warehouse and a clubhouse where the Fromm's entertained fur buyers and fashion leaders from New York and other urban centers. The clubhouse features a gleaming four-lane bowling alley.

Mason was so taken by the Fromms that he started a nonprofit organization, Fromm Bros. Historical Preservation Society, devoted to preserving the legacy. He and his wife, Sue, began to offer group tours of the property. The property was added to the National Register of Historic Places, which lists cultural resources worthy of preservation, in 2013.

Learn more about the Fromm brothers, their prize foxes and how they used ginseng to fund their operation this April at the Marathon County Historical Society.

The Masons also attempted to create a retreat center on the property, "but the economy was terrible, and it just didn't take," Gary Mason said.

The Masons and the Fromm Bros. Historical Preservation Society also have been trying to maintain and restore the buildings, but the nonprofit doesn't bring in enough money to cover those substantial costs.

Nieman plans to continue that preservation work, Mason said, and it's likely that the property will be even more open to the public under the new ownership. Nieman did not respond to voicemail requests to comment for this story.

"He also said that he'll use part of his business, promoting five generations of Niemans and Fromms," Mason said.

Gary and Sue Mason plan to move closer to Wausau, but Gary still plans to be involved in the nonprofit group, teaching people about the resourcefulness and hard work of the Fromms.

"Most of the people from around here, they have some connection with the brothers. Maybe their grandfathers used to work here. The farm helped bring a lot of money in during the Depression era. These people could work here and not lose their family farms," Mason said. "They have such a deep pride in the history here, to this day."