160 years and four generations

John Oncken

Dennis and Mary Cummings bought the 160-acre farm in Section 10, Township of Bear Creek in Sauk County from the U.S. government March 15, 1856, because it had hills, valleys, water and was green — just like the land in Ireland that Dennis' father had left some years prior.

The farmhouse is at least 140 years old.

It's now 160 years later, in 2016, and that original farmland is still owned by descendants of that family who moved from New Jersey to Wisconsin to seek a new life.

To celebrate the event, the four children of Catherine (Cummings) Ramsden, the granddaughter of the original farm owners (Dennis and Mary Cummings), hosted a party on the farmstead last Sunday, and about 200 people, relations, friends and neighbors showed up to celebrate.

Sustainable? Yes

Sustainability is the watchword among environmentalists when they discuss farming and farming methods. It would seem this small farm situated in the hills between Plain, Bear Valley, Lone Rock and Spring Green that has grown crops for that many years has certainly met the description of sustainability.

Today, the four children of Catherine Cummings Ramsden own the property, 40 acres each. They children are Andrew Ringelstetter, Spring Green; Mary (Ringelstteter) Neefe; Pat Ringelstetter, Platteville; and Sally (Ramsden) Walker, Eagle River.

Surprisingly, there have been only four generations of owners since the farm came into being. It seems that stability and a strong determination to remain on the land would explain.

The barn and red granary (and the house) are the old buildings remaining on the farm.

No potatoes, no food

The book “Herkimers, Holsteins & Cheese,” a brief history of Bear Valley, Wisconsin says, “The wave of emigration from Ireland to the United States was brought about by the potato famine in Ireland. Conditions in Ireland were abominable, and the only hope for millions of Irish was to scrape together enough money to come to America. The Irish families who settled in Bear Valley had usually been in America for a few years before they came to Wisconsin. Many fought in the Civil war.

That pretty well describes the early history of the Cummings family in Wisconsin — how Thomas came from Ireland to New Jersey and his son Dennis found his way to a Sauk county farm and served in the 3rd Regiment, Wisconsin Infantry in 1864 and 1865 (it's not known who ran the farm during his absence).

The family

Dennis and Mary Cummings had six children, one who (Dennis Jr. with his wife Annie) became the next owners of the farm.

The original 160-acre farm greatly expanded in size when Anna, Dennis Jr.'s sister, married Fred Scholl, and they purchased the adjoining farm and for a period of time had title to the entire property. The original 160 acres grew to over 700 acres of farmland, trees, pasture and recreational land over the years.

Dennis Cummings Jr. and Annie had five sons and two daughters, one of which, Catherine, was born in 1920 and ultimately became the owner of the original Cummings farm with husbands Fred Ringelstetter and Delbert Ramsden until her death in December 2013.

The four current owners of the Cummings farm have many fond memories of growing up on the historic farm. (Actually, they lived on the adjoining “Scholl farm,” which at the time was considered part of the Cummings property and operated as one farm.)

Andy Ringelstetter remembers riding a horse to get the cows from a pasture across from the Cummings farmstead and stopping at the farmhouse where his great aunt Annie always gave him cookies. The farm always had cows, sheep, pigs and horses – “always horses,” Sally Walker added.

The four children agree their mother Catherine was “hard as nails” and always worked hard. "We all (and our kids) always navigated back to the farm, but we had to work doing chores or whatever, and then we got a meal."

Pictured with Catherine’s Farmall ‘B” (her 4-wheeler) are her daughter, Sally, and husband, Chuck Walker, who own the 40 acres containing the farmstead.

This old house

The foursome and I sat at the kitchen table in the farmhouse on the Cummings farm while I was hearing the farm history. “You know we're sitting in a log cabin right now,” Mary Neefe said. “This house started as a log cabin and has been expanded many times over the years.”

This house is at least 140 years old (or older), another family member added. It (the log cabin) may be the original house that Dennis and Mary Cummings lived in when they started farming so long ago.

In 1971, the Scholl farm was sold, and the original Cummings farm again became the 160 acres bought in 1856. Today, the farmhouse, barn (used for beef cattle, not dairy cows, for many decades) and the granary remain on the farm.

Then there is the pond just across the driveway from the house. In its original state, it was a spring covered by a spring house that in recent years was expanded to form a beautiful pond. The farm is the home of some 23 springs, according to the foursome. The farmstead is also located on a flat spot, perhaps halfway down a steep hill.

If Dennis Cummings was truly looking for a farm with “hills, valleys, water and was green, just like the land in Ireland” back in 1856, he certainly found it, and it has remained so for 160 years.

A long time, but

Yes, 160 years is a long time for a farm to remain within the same family, but it is not unheard of. In fact, over 800 such farms in the state have been honored since 1995 when the Wisconsin Sesquicentennial Farm and Home Award was established. The Century Farm program goes back to 1948, and since then, near 10,000 such farms have been honored. The question: How many of these old family farms are still in business today? The answer: no one knows.

One of the most exciting events for many farm families attending the Wisconsin State Fair is the annual Sesquicentennial and Century Farm awards programs and breakfast.

A Century Farm or Sesquicentennial Farm Centennial Farm in Wisconsin is a farm that has remained in the same family continuously for 100 or 150 years or more and continues to be a working farm or ranch. Both are a partnership between the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection and Wisconsin State Fair.

No, the four children of Catherine Cummings do not think she or anyone in the family ever applied for either of the two award programs.

Farming in 1856 when the Cummings farm began was already a rather common endeavor with small towns, feed mills and general stores in the area. But, it was a profession based on a cow or two, a few chickens and pigs and a lot of hard physical work that included clearing land and building buildings.

Hard to believe

It's hard to believe that people got on a ship in Europe, traveled to America over a several week's time, landed in New York speaking no English with no money, knowing little or nothing about farming, and traveling by train and wagon with young children to a piece of bare land to begin farming. My family came from Germany in 1862 and owned a 200-acre farm two years later; part of the farm remained in the Oncken name for 144 years.

Consider also: there were no barns, no phones, no electricity, no powered vehicles, no radio and not much of anything except for maybe a hoe, an ax, a handsaw, a horse or ox, a wagon, a hammer, some needles and thread. But there was a lot of ambition, willingness to work and common sense.

The Cummings Farm in Sauk County has made it all work for 160 years and still going — would you believe? Yes, I saw the abstract and met the owners. Their pride in the farm and love of the land and family is most evident. Hurray for them!

John F. Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications,  He can be reached at 608-222-0624, or email him at