When tracing ancestral lineage, many Americans set their sights on distant lands to compile family histories. That’s not the case for Mike Reiter, who needs only to look out the window to his Deer Park farm that’s been under family ownership for 100 years this year.
Four generations of Reiters have been tending the land. The latest in the lineage are siblings Mike Reiter and Jill Bray.
Reiter and Bray each own half of their generational 160-acre farmland. Reiter and his wife, Roberta, grow hay, alfalfa and oats to feed their 15 heads of cattle, more pets than product. Bray raises Black Angus with her husband, Phil, in addition to teaching piano lessons on her 80-acre half of the Reiter’s homestead. Reiter and Phil Bray work together to harvest and bail crops to feed their herds of cattle.
The sibling’s great-grandfather, Alois Reiter, purchased the land in 1923 and his son Louie toiled on the farm, raising seven children, including Mike’s father. Mike and his three siblings, Jill, Gail Ellis and Joel Reiter, grew up on the farm.
“Farm life is the best life, it really is,” Jill Bray said.
To ring in the century, Mike and Roberta Reiter hosted a celebration on Sunday with about 100 kin, friends and neighbors in attendance.
“Mike’s a great historian,” said a family member, flipping through a self-published book Reiter wrote in 2021 that details the story of the farm, pre- and post-Reiter. He plans to compile another book with updated information and photos from the centennial.
Throughout its time under the Reiter’s stewardship, the farm has become a “gathering place” for family and neighbors. Farmers on adjacent plots would flock to the Reiter’s patio to play cards and commiserate about their crops and cows.
Generations later and this reputation has persisted, with about a hundred partygoers in attendance to celebrate the farm’s endurance with barbecue, lawn games and sprinklers. Returning to the farm fills the siblings with memories of their childhood.
“Growing up, we were kind of isolated out here, so the four of us played together all the time,” Gail Ellis said. “We’d go swimming in the creek in the summertime; it was an idyllic kind of a summer.”
The Reiters have their manicured yard adorned with farming implements of days past: a buzzsaw Mike Reiter’s grandfather Louie would tow with his Dodge and cut cordwood for neighboring farmers, and a retired rotary rake Mike Reiter used in his fields.
“We just kind of like the memory to remind us how hard life was in the early days,” Roberta Reiter said. “You look at that and the steel wheel that’s pulled by horses and how hard farming was. It just helps us appreciate today and the advancements we’ve had.”
A born-and-bred farmer, Mike Reiter has seen firsthand the technological advancements of farming equipment that have improved efficiency, accuracy and safety of farm work.
He recalls his father using a horse-drawn pulley system to fill the barn with hay and using a primitive (by modern standards) baler to cut the hay.
“Now I can go out and cut this field right here faster than (Roberta) can mow the lawn,” Mike Reiter said.
Modern advancements include air conditioning, GPS and computerized technology that alerts farmers when they stray too far out of line when planting, for example.
While modern farming may seem luxurious compared to the conditions endured by the earlier Reiters, air conditioning and an enclosed cab may not be enough to entice future generations to pick up the hoe and follow footsteps.
The Reiters said they’d like to keep the farm in the family, if any of the grandchildren – currently knee-high, tumbling around on bails of hay and running through sprinklers – are keen to take the wheel of the tractor.
“I don’t know if it’s in the cards,” Gail Ellis said. “It would be nice to know that generations from now they could still come and play in the creek and do all those things we did.”
Regardless of an uncertain future, the siblings celebrate the present. Looking to the past, they agree Alois Reiter would be proud to see such a lively family tree.
“He’d love it, don’t you think? I think every farmer wants a legacy to leave to his descendants, so I think it would be great,” Jill Bray said. “I wish my dad was still around to see this, he would love it too.”