I recently had the pleasure of meeting with brothers Fred and Martin Spielman to talk about their lives as Ellington farmers. The gentleness, contentment and incredible memories of the brothers shone through as they recalled events of their farming lives.
Spielman Family Arrives in Ellington
John and Lydia Spielman, grandparents to Fred and Martin, emigrated to Ellington from Switzerland in 1901 and a year later purchased a 50-acre farm on West Road (Rt. 83) from the estate of Lucy McKinstry for the purchase price of $3,137.50. Autumn Chase apartments are located on the property today. Like most farmers of that era, John and Lydia were subsistence farmers who grew potatoes, tobacco, raised chickens and kept a small herd of cows for milking. John Spielman died in his early 40’s, leaving Lydia and eight children: John, Emily, Elsie, Lucy, Fred, (born in 1907 and always called Fritz), Lydia, Arthur and Walter. Lydia remarried Walter Heiberer and together they continued to farm with the help of the oldest and youngest sons, John (Jr.) and Walter. Those boys took over the operation of the farm as their parents aged taking ownership after their deaths. Emily died in childhood and the other girls all married and moved to various towns in Connecticut with their husbands.
John Spielman Sr. 1906. Lydia and John with their eight children.
John Sr. peddling milk. Cow barn and milk house
Second Generation – Fritz Buys a Farm
On Sept. 13, 1930 at the age of 22, Fritz married Flora Mannel (from Vernon) and a year later purchased the farm across the street from his parents’ farm. (This is the farm on Rt. 83 where you see the beautiful chrysanthemums growing in the fall.) The farm consisted of 40 acres, a house, barn and three chicken coops. Fritz and Flora had five children: Fred (1931), Martin (1933), Roy (1937), Earl (1942) and Judy (1950). The oldest boys Fred and Martin were quickly called upon to help with the farm chores.
In the 1930’s the Spielmans raised chickens for both eggs and meat, milked nine cows and grew potatoes and tobacco for cash crops. Fred being the oldest son, began milking the cows by hand by the age of seven. Martin’s chores included feeding the chickens and collecting eggs. The brothers had a chuckle recalling Martin’s first memory of helping on the farm.
“Well you know when I was only this big (Martin indicated about 3 feet with his hands) I was going with my mother to water the chickens using big pails. I backed up and fell right into the bucket! My mother had to change both me and the chicken water!”
Fritz increased his landholdings by purchasing the neighboring farm from Stanley Dyjek in 1937. Ellington Travel is located in the farm house today. That farm consisted of about 50 acres, two tobacco barns and a barn that housed cows and hay. A year later the Great Hurricane of 1938 hit Connecticut in September, leveling three tobacco barns filled with drying tobacco. The crop was basically a complete loss as only a small amount of tobacco was salvageable from the disaster. Martin and Fred at the ages of five and seven can still recall watching out the windows of their farm house as tree after tree and then the barns were leveled from the wind.
Fred driving 1928 Farmall tractor, Martin is sitting on the wagon
Fred collecting eggs in 1943 a the age of 12.
Left to right: Earl, Roy, Martin and Fred sons of Fritz and Flora
Creating the Ellington Canals
In my opinion the most amazing part of the Spielman farm history is how Fritz worked for over 30 years to drain the wetlands on his property into useable farmland. A large part of Fritz’s land was swamp and he desperately needed more land for crops. In 1939 he purchased a pickup truck full of dynamite and began blasting to make canals into which the water on his land would drain. Martin and Fred recalled the excitement they felt as two young boys watching the dynamite blasts:
“First with a canoe the men would place sticks of dynamite about three feet apart and poke them down with a crowbar. They would attach a wire and detonator about 100 ft. away and boom! It sure was fun to watch!”
The explosions were so large that the debris was spread far and wide, leaving canals into which the water would drain. The trees in the surrounding area were cut down and Fritz hired Ernest Limberger to grade the land. This work continued every winter up until the early 1960’s. The canals remain today; I even recall catching my first small mouthed bass from one of those canals during my teenage years!
Chickens, Potatoes and Tobacco
After the hurricane, an additional nine milking stalls built by John Zahner were added to the main cow barn and by the middle of the 1940’s the Spielmans’ chicken flock had grown to about 5,000. The neighboring farmhouse purchased with the Dyjek farm was rented out and in 1944 the disgruntled and mentally ill daughter of the tenant set fire to the cow barn on that property. The barn was a total loss. At the end of WWII in 1945, with many soldiers returning to their family farms, the price of chicken and eggs dropped dramatically. The Spielmans reduced their chicken flock and concentrated on growing potatoes and tobacco and in 1947 rebuilt one of the lost tobacco sheds. They rented additional tobacco barns from neighboring farms. Martin at eleven years old was now working with Fred milking and taking care of the cows along with doing field work. Younger brothers Roy and Earl helped out with chores on their grandparents’ farm.
Fred (left) and Fritz harvesting potatoes. Fred (driving) Martin (left) and Fritz spraying the potato field.
Harvesting broad leaf tobacco on the Spielman farm in the early 1950’s
In 1950 Fritz purchased the John Schneider farm, consisting of about 45 acres. It is the site of Homestead Fuel today. During the early 1950’s the price of tobacco began to decline. In 1952 Fritz decided to increase his milking herd and built a new barn which contained 48 milking stalls. By 1955 they were out of tobacco farming but continued to grow up to fifty acres of potatoes. The potatoes were mostly sold to a broker at the Hartford Regional Market who would contract the major sales to grocery stores. Fred and Martin recalled delivering potatoes to stores throughout Connecticut, including the IGA in Torrington and Andy’s in Glastonbury. They would load up the truck the night before and take off in the morning to deliver the 50 lb. bags. They also had many customers who would buy their year’s supply of potatoes directly from the farm. After high school Martin attended UConn School of Agriculture on the advice of his lifelong friend Gardner Chapman.
“Gardner’s mother was a teacher and Gardner was enrolled in UConn School of Agriculture. He told me they had a lot of fun up there and I should enroll, so I did. Well, I finished my two years but Gardner never did.”
When asked if the education helped in his farming career, Martin stated:
“Not much, but you don’t know everything. I knew more about farming than most of the teachers, but it was great to meet people and get contacts; I don’t regret it.”
Martin married Marylyn Miller from Vernon in 1956. They lived in a ranch house on Route 83 built for them by Marylyn’s father. Their daughter Lori was born in 1959
Fritz had a new cow barn built in 1952 by John Gottier
Dairy Farming Prevails
By 1965 the Spielmans were out of potato farming. They had held out longer than most potato farmers in the area, but the constant fluctuation in prices led Fritz to the decision to concentrate on dairy farming. They now had two milking parlors, turned the tobacco barns into cow barns, were milking about 80 cows and raised heifers to build the herd. Fred married Margaret Lehmann (from Switzerland) in 1964. They lived in an apartment in the farmhouse until 1968 when Fritz, Fred and Martin together purchased the original Spielman farm from John and Walter (brothers to Fritz and uncles to Fred and Martin). As neither John nor Walter married, they had remained on their parents’ farm. Fred and Margaret moved into that farmhouse and the heifers were transferred to that farm. They later purchased an additional 12 acres of land behind the farm extending all the way up to Ellington Avenue. Fred and Margaret also raised two children, Erika and Fred Ronald.
Fritz and Flora Spielman, 1970’s
The three Spielman men continued to increase their milk production and were milking about 150 cows daily by the mid 1970’s. Fritz worked the farm and made all the major farm decisions until a few months before he died of lung disease in 1971. Fred and Martin then purchased a 71 acre farm on Middle Road in 1981 for the purpose of growing corn and hay for feed. By the late 1980’s Fred and Martin were milking about 260 cows a day, and things were going smoothly. They had passed on the opportunity to participate in the government buyout of dairy farms in 1987 because they felt they were too young to stop working and did not know any other kind of work.
Aerial view of farm. Martin and Fred were milking 260 cows in the 1980’s. Another view of the farm.
The End of an Era
In the early 1990’s milk prices dropped below the cost of producing milk and the Spielman brothers had major decisions to make. By 1996 the farm had lost money for three consecutive years, their milking equipment needed major updating and they were working too many hours. At ages 63 and 65 Fred and Martin decided to stop farming and sell out.
The brothers contacted a buyer for the cows who was recommended to them by their friend, Bill Klee. The heifers were sold first and were priced according to size. The best dairy cows were sold to a farm in northern Vermont and about 25-50 of the lesser milk producers were sold for meat. The last of the cows were loaded into three tractor trailers on May 12, 1996. Martin’s sense of humor came through when I asked what they were thinking when watching the last of the cows leave the farm.
“Good bye!” (laughs) They were dumb things but we were used to them; I guess we were the dumb things… we did the work.”
With the help of Martin’s daughter Lori, and dear friend David Nielson, they arranged the sale of the farm equipment. Quite a bit of the equipment went to Martha’s Vineyard. A friend of Harris Cohen’s from Vermont bought the corn chopper, tractor, corn planter and fertilizer spreader. The milking equipment was not sell-able as it was too old and out of date. Trailer loads of tires from the silage pile where hauled for disposal with Scott Stanton’s help. In the end only six minor pieces of equipment were left unsold and each brother kept a tractor.
The original Spielman farm (Fred and Martin’s grandparents) was sold to Gardner Chapman who developed the land into Autumn Chase apartments. The land on the other farm was leased to the Cohen farm until the death of their mother, Flora Spielman, in 1998 at the age of 88. Flora had maintained sole ownership of the farm property and wanted the proceeds to be split among her five children. The farm was purchased by the Cohen farm and continues to be farmed today. Flora had previously sold a separate five acre piece to Homestead Fuel.
The Spielman Family Today
After retirement from farming Fred and Margaret moved to Paris Maine, near Sunday River, the ski mountain they frequented. They returned to Somers about three years ago and live next to their son Fred who is an engineer for Otis Elevator. Martin and Marylyn live next to their daughter Lori in a house they built in 1988 on Abbott road. Martin began working for his daughter Lori, owner of Spielman Landscaping, immediately after he stopped farming. Lori began the business at the age of 17 when she bought her first Ford tractor which she quickly traded for a D8 caterpillar as the Ford was “just not big enough.” Her business has grown to be one of the most respected landscaping businesses in Connecticut.
Not all the Spielmans are out of farming, as Fred’s daughter Erika owns a dairy farm with her husband Nick Wood, (originally from Somers) in upstate New York. They milk 30 Jersey cows, known for their high butter fat, and are certified organic milk producers. Fred and Martin’s brother Earl dabbles in a bit of farming, raising beef cattle and pigs for consumption by family and friends. He and his wife Gail own and operate Cabin Hill Greenhouses
Martin (left) and Fred (right) 2015 Fritz and Flora’s homestead as it stands today, now owned by Cohen Farm
Ariel view of the farm ( 1981 ) that was purchased by Lydia and John Spielman in 1902
The home and a barn remain today at the entrance of Autumn Chase Apartments
When I asked Fred and Martin if they had anything else to add to their story they both told me that they have weird dreams nightly about the things on the farm. Martin has dreams about chopping corn, baling hay and tipping a bale over and watching it roll into a pond. Fred often dreams about old neighbors like Rudy Moser on the farm next door. They both agreed they have no regrets about the life they have lead. They stated they were glad to have been farmers, as it was very interesting with something different to do every day. They formed close relationships with other farmers as everyone pitched in and helped each other if needed. They would not want to have changed a thing.
It was such a pleasure meeting and hearing the life stories these two wonderfully gentle souls. The Spielman family holds an important place in Ellington’s incredibly rich agricultural history.
Written by Dianne Trueb 2015