Hearing loss can't cloud Alto farmer's positive outlook on life

Colleen Kottke
Wisconsin State Farmer

ALTO - Despite a devastating diagnosis at the age of 16, Dayton TerBeest has never allowed the ensuing disability to keep him from living a productive life.

Dayton and his brother, David (center) are surrounded by family on the TerBeest family farm that was established 154 years ago by the TerBeest brother's great grandparents who emigrated to American from the Netherlands in the early 1860s.

TerBeest was born in 1924 on the family farm just west of the tiny burg of Alto. The 94 year old still lives on the family farmstead founded by his great grandparents 154 years ago, soon after they immigrated to the U.S. from the Netherlands.

Other families soon followed and TerBeest and his younger brother, David, attended the one-room school house in the Monroe School District with other farm children who traced their roots back to the Netherlands. 

"We often walked the mile and a half to school and back unless the snow was too deep, then father hitched up our work horses, Molly and Charlie, to the sleigh and gave us and the neighborhood children a ride to school," TerBeest said. "And if it was nice out, I would ride my bike with my brother on the handlebars."

Challenges ahead

Together the two brothers spent countless hours exploring their 130-plus acre farm, visiting the woods and playing in the small tributary of the Rock River, hunting for polywogs and fishing for bullheads and northern pike.

"One day while we were playing along the stream the rock I was standing on began to move," TerBeest said. "It was a large snapping turtle that had buried itself in the mud!"

Diagnosed with the onset of hereditary hearing loss at the age of 16, Dayton TerBeest has never let his disability cloud his positive outlook on life.

Around the time TerBeest turned 16 his father, Henry, noticed that his oldest son failed to respond when he spoke to him from a distance. Fearing there might be something wrong with his hearing, the TerBeest's sought medical advice.

"They tried removing my tonsils and adenoids hoping that might help, but it didn't," he said.

As the years passed, the hearing loss became more pronounced. Three different times doctors recommended hearing aids, each time resulting in little success. Finally doctors chalked up the hearing loss as being hereditary.

"Each of my mother Hattie's three sisters and eight brothers all wore hearing aids and my grandfather had profound hearing loss," TerBeest said. "It was hard to accept at first but I relied on my faith to get me through. You just do the best you can do."

TerBeest's hearing loss and work on the family farm kept him from being sent overseas during WWII. His brother, David, however, served three years in the Navy. Not interested in working on the family farm, soon after his discharge, David headed off to college and then on to seminary school.

Neighbor Lee Ellens helped paint Dayton TerBeest's Case 630 tractor, which he purchased new in the early 1960s.

TerBeest says that although the farm has remained in the family's name for over 154 years, the family actually moved off the farmstead following his grandfather's death.

"They moved into Alto for a few years, and in 1918, with the help of neighbors, my father returned to run the family farmstead" he said.

Early memories

As a young boy, TerBeest remembers sending the cream from family's milk cows to the Alto Dairy Cooperative to be made into butter. Founded in 1894, Alto Dairy was the oldest farmer owned cooperative in the state of Wisconsin.

Prior to the family's purchase of its first tractor in 1945, TerBeest said the field work was powered by the family's draft horses, a set of Percherons, Molly and Charlie, and later a team of Belgians, Frank and Bobby. As a side business, his father would sell colts.

"I remember my dad trading a horse to some brothers in Waupun to buy a manure spreader," TerBeest said. 

The horses continued to earn their keep even after the first Case tractor began working the soil.

Dayton TerBeest reminisces about the family's first Case tractor and his parents, Henry and Hattie and brother, David.

"My dad felt that the tractor should only be used for tillage. The planting and harvesting was still done with horse drawn equipment," TerBeest said.

In 1950, the TerBeests finally sold the horses, joining the millions of farmers who joined the historic wave in adopting gas-powered machinery to perform work on U.S. farms.

"I always enjoyed the hard-working horses but it was easier to do the work with tractors, and besides, you didn't have to harvest hay or oats to feed the horses," he said.

Years later, TerBeest took over the family farm and also began working in the field tiling business for Carl Hall in 1951. TerBeest and two other partners eventually took over the business.

"I stopped milking cows in 1976 and began raising beef cattle instead. It was just too much work," he said, adding that he finally retired from the tiling business after 51 years.

 Although the cows were gone, TerBeest continued to work the land, relishing in days spent on the tractor tilling, planting and harvesting corn and soybeans, and contracting out custom work to bring in the harvest of his cash crops - peas and sweet corn.

Today the farm is rented out by a relative that also bears the TerBeest name.

"Since I didn't have any children, it will be good to have the farm stay with the TerBeest name," he said. 

Just two years ago, at the age of 92, TerBeest worked up seven acres of crop land on his Case 630 tractor that was purchased new in 1962. In 2016, neighbor Lee Ellens repainted the older man's prized possession.

"I still enjoy sitting up there on the tractor," he said.

Good neighbors

Nowadays he uses his Gator to get around on the farm, cruising down the driveway lined with fruit trees on his daily jaunt to pick up the mail. On occasion he still drives to the neighboring communities of Waupun or Markesan, or takes a spin around the neighborhood to check on the condition of crops.

Lee's wife, Gini, and another neighbor, Teresa DeVries, stop in often to check on TerBeest and provide rides to doctor appointments or the grocery store.

"I don't bake cakes or pies but I can peel potatoes and vegetables and cook up some meat," he said.

Neighbor Gini Ellens stops in to check on Dayton TerBeest.

Up until 15 years ago, TerBeest said he was able to use his telephone to communicate with others.

"I was able to turn the volume up pretty loud so that I could hear," TerBeest said. "When I was farming I could still use the telephone to call over to Fairwater and order fertilizer while I was still farming or talk to my brother. Now, I can still hear voices but I can't pick out the words."

He still communicates with family members and friends using Mailbug™, a non-computer device that allows him to send and receive email without the internet. 

"I talk with my brother, David (who's now 91) every day this way, but I still like to write a letter every week," he said, "just sharing news of what's going on and this and that."

Secret for a long life? Live for and love God and be a good neighbor says Dayton TerBeest at his 90th birthday party four years ago.

Four years ago at his 90th birthday party, friends, family, neighbors and fellow church members dropped by the Alto Community Center to wish TerBeest well. 

In his 94 years on earth, TerBeest says he continually strives to love and live for God and maintain a positive attitude.

Gini Ellens who met TerBeest years ago at a gathering welcoming them into the neighborhood, says her neighbor from across the road is an inspiration to all who know him.

"He's a hard worker who is always positive and pleasant, and who has been blessed with an amazing memory," she said.

While some folks in life want to be remembered for great deeds and achievements, this humble farmer wants only to be known for one thing.

"That I was a good neighbor," he said simply.