50 Years a Farmer
Chester Szymanski looks back from age 91
The old-fashioned values of hard work and gratitude run deep for farmer Chester Szymanski, age 91, who farmed for 54 years in New Carlisle, Indiana. I spoke with Szymanski at his family home, a farmstead on 273 acres north of New Carlisle. With a history going back to 1835, the land was farmed by Szymanski and his wife, Virginia, for over a half-century, until she passed away in 2001. Szymanski lives in the original farmhouse on the property with his tomcat, Tom. Today, the farm, known as The Homestead 1835, is managed by Szymanski’s daughter, Lori Kimmel, and her husband, Dave, as a historic venue for weddings and other gatherings.
Tell me about how you got started farming.
When I got married in September of 1946, I lived on a 10-acre farm with my father-in-law just east of New Carlisle, on Strawberry Road. Before that, I was a city boy from South Bend. Then my wife, Virginia, and I bought 19 acres on U.S. 20 because my father-in-law said land is a good investment. There were no buildings whatsoever when we bought it. We built a chicken coop and a hog barn, a corncrib and a shed. We were there five years or so and then I found this place in 1955.
What did you farm?
We grew corn and wheat and beans. I had some pigs, a couple of steers, and we had chickens too. My wife worked and I worked, and then we’d come home and farm.
Where else did you work?
I worked at Studebaker to start with and I worked at Bendix, and I helped build the 31 Highway from Argos to Rochester, Indiana. My day over there was 12 hours. That’s 60 miles away. I’d go there and go back home and farm. I did that for three years.
After that, I had a welding and repair business for a while, and I farmed until I had to give it up in 1991. I think I was close to 70 years old when I quit everything and decided to collect my Social Security.
What were the best and worst things about farming?
Well, what I liked about it … it was interesting, trying to make it work for myself.
I really didn’t find anything that I disliked about it. Because I always figured it had to be done, and there’s no use arguing over it, just get it done and over with. That’s how we got ahead. We enjoyed ourselves. We went dancing once in a while and things like that.
You said you had pigs and steers. How much of the animals and produce that you raised here did you eat?
We’d kill a steer for ourselves and cut it all up into meat for hamburger and bring it all home and put in the freezer. For better than 15 years we never bought any lunch meat. One time I swapped my sandwich with one of the fellas at work and that was a big mistake.
We had a 20-cubic-foot freezer in the basement and we could have that clear full and that would last us near the whole year. And then we had chickens and roosters that we’d kill and eat on Sunday or so. And I had a garden out here and I would work the ground and my wife would take care of it.
You probably didn’t have a huge grocery bill.
My wife would bake her own bread and we sold it. Some of the fellas at work said, “Well, I’ve never had good homemade bread,” and I’d take it in and I’d sell it to them. And my mother made homemade donuts and I’d take them and I would charge them a quarter a piece.
Sounds like you really valued hard work.
When I lived on the highway I had an International tractor and one plow. And I would make about six rounds an evening with that after work. So it took forever, but I got it done.
Before our daughter, Lori, was born in 1968, my wife worked at Wilson Brothers, a shirt factory, and then at Raco Inc. in South Bend, and then we would come home and farm together. There were times we were out picking corn up until two—two o’clock in the morning—and then we’d get cleaned up, go to bed and get up to go to work. If you want to get ahead, you gotta work.
The “Marvel”-ous History of Farming in New Carlisle
In the 1950s when Chester Szymanski started farming, the New Carlisle area was coming out of a severe stint of unproductive, tired farmland. According to New Carlisle, The Story of Our Town 1835-1955 by Marguerite McCord Watt and Kathlyn V. Wade (provided by Historic New Carlisle, Inc.), a Mr. A.T. Marvel joined the Olive Township community in 1943 as an agriculture teacher at the local high school. After noting the poor health and the unproductive farmland of the area, Mr. Marvel organized the Adult Farmers Evening School, and worked to improve soil yields through “hard work and the right fertilizer.” By 1955, there was a growth of about 700% in grain products—making farming a lucrative option for young men like Chester Szymanski who were looking for a place to make their mark on the community.