Little House on the Prairie

The Grimm Farmhouse provides a window—and entire house—into 19th century Minnesota living.

Published in Southwest Metro Magazine, June 2011.

Imagine you are from 1857, you just traveled 4,000 miles with a six-month-old to settle in a remote area of the Minnesota wilderness. Now imagine what kind of house you would build 15 years later. In this scenario you are also an alfalfa farmer, you are German, and you have a predilection for yellow bricks.

If your imagination is not what it used to be, don’t worry. The very embodiment of this house—in fact, the exact house—and facts about the family who inhabited it, is a short drive or hike away.

The Grimm Farmhouse is maintained by the Three Rivers Park District, but it is not a “living history” house, where the staff acts as if they lived in the period they are representing, like Fort Snelling or The Landing in Shakopee. Rather, it is simply a well-preserved brick house on top of a hill in Victoria, that provides visitors with tours, interpretive exhibits, and a knowledgeable staff.

The house once belonged to Wendelin Grimm, who came to Minnesota in 1857 with his wife and their very young daughter. Once here, he began to farm alfalfa. Nearly 20 years later, around 1875, he built a magnificent brick house. “The design of the house is very typical of the design of houses from that era,” says Allison Neaton, the outdoor education supervisor at the Three Rivers Park District. This is not inherently astounding, but it becomes very interesting when you realize this is one of the only specimens of this style of architecture left in the area.

Grimm’s major contribution to agriculture—and the reason the house is on the historical registry—was the development of a superior strain of alfalfa. “The climate in Germany is a lot different from the climate here,” explains Neaton. “And the alfalfa—at the time—winter always killed.”

Grimm therefore developed what is known as “winter-hardy alfalfa.” Grimm saved the very few plants that did survive each winter, eventually breeding them together widely enough to produce entire crops that lasted between summers. Modern bioengineering has since produced better strains, but for nearly a century, Grimm’s alfalfa was king.

If you come to the farmhouse on the right Saturday, you may have the good fortune to see the nearby field of alfalfa fully grown—although the crop does get harvested a few times per summer, so you may mistake it for simply a well kept field if you come right after harvest. But even if you don’t get a chance to glimpse that field, the house features a display case with some alfalfa every Saturday.

Visiting the Grimm Farmhouse, you will get information about the house from a Three Rivers Park employee, a tour of the house, and will see various informative displays. Two of the rooms in the house are set up as recreations of period-appropriate room dressings, while two more rooms are filled with information and interactive, hands-on activities.

The activities in and around the house include period-appropriate chores and games, such as laundry—complete with washboards and tubs; farm implements, such as old corn planters; and games like marbles. “We try to be as period appropriate as we can and not just go for the oldy timey kind of thing,” Neaton says. “We are saying ‘These are things the Grimm family could have been doing.’ Of course we don’t really know for sure that they were doing those things.”

The staff does not know for sure because the Grimm family did not keep meticulous records of their daily chores and games. However, as a regular family living in America, the house accurately And, if the house does not satisfy your curiosity about Grimm, Neaton notes, “The Minnesota Historical Society does have in its possession the box that is purported to have carried the 50 pounds of alfalfa seeds that [Grimm] carried with him to America.”