My dad, Henry Ohlman, was born on a Western Michigan farm in 1902. He was one of six boys who often chafed under the stern discipline of their Prussian father, Henry, Sr., whom they felt carried the Protestant work ethic to the extreme. Perhaps identifying more closely with their Dutch mother, they sometimes referred to my walrus-mustachioed grandfather as “the Kaiser”—out of earshot, of course!
It appears that all the Ohlman boys in turn left their rich bottomland farm in Hudsonville as soon as they were men, never to return. I’ve often wondered about that. Was their decision the result of the grueling farm work, or was it more likely a consequence of the major shift of labor from the country to the city that accelerated rapidly from 1915 onward? The first two decades of the 20th century are called the Golden Age of American agriculture. By the beginning of the First World War, farm prices had risen to a historic high. And because Europe was at war, with millions of its farmers on the battlefields, America took up the slack. The US provided a large part of Europe’s food from 1915 to 1920. As a result, farmers profited more than ever.
The increased demand for farm products in those years was the likely reason their father required all but the youngest of the Ohlman boys to drop out of school and work the farm. As a result, my dad’s formal education ended with the eighth grade. During the Great War, farm production soared— setting up a major crisis at the end of the conflict. In the early 20s, with American young men back from the war, European men back home on their farms, and the rapid automation of farming, an agricultural depression was certain.
Within a few years, the elder Ohlmans found themselves virtually alone on the farm—all their homegrown farm hands settling into manufacturing and sales jobs or skilled trades in nearby Grand Rapids. The final blow came with the Great Depression. The bank foreclosed on the last of Henry and Denah Ohlman’s acreage, and they were compelled to live in a small place behind the much grander home of one of their sons, the town assessor. Apparently as a tribute, my uncle named several town plats after his father. Now the family name is attached to hundreds of deeds as Hudsonville, one of West Michigan’s most rapidly growing communities, scrapes off the rich farm topsoil and redistributes it to landscape small home lots now spreading into fields my father tended some 85 years ago.