The story of the Old Koschak Farm

by Val Beale Photos by Jim Beaty

by Val Beale
Photos by Jim Beaty
The Old Koschak Farm, on Hwy. 88 at the east end of Shagawa Lake is a DNR Wildlife Management Area that has lovely trails and varied terrain. There is a mixture of tree cover, areas of grassland and a couple of ponds that were once used for fish rearing. My husband and I have spent many happy hours walking the dog and watching the seasons change. As we walked we wondered who the Koschaks were, and what sort of farm it was. Over the past couple of months we, with the help of Ely Winton Historical Society and local contacts, have been able to find answers to some of the questions.

It turns out that the answers were closer than we realized. Betty Rhein, a friend from church, and Phyllis Olson, a former colleague from the school district, were both born on the farm when it was owned by their grandfather, John Koschak. Betty lived on the farm until fourth grade, when her family moved into town. She generously shared her memories of growing up there, along with the written accounts of family members Cindy Fink, and Marian Koschak. Most of this account comes from their shared information.

John Koschak emigrated from Slovenia in 1902 when he was 19 years old. At that time the town he grew up in, Znojile, was under Austrian rule. He most likely left the old country so he didn’t have to fight in the Austrian Army. His wife, Anna Zakrajsek, emigrated from Yugoslavia, in 1905. They were married at St. Anthony’s Catholic Church later in 1905, when John was 22 and Anna was 23. They had nine children, but only six survived childbirth.

John worked at the mine with his two brothers, Matt and Frank. They were fired because of “Matt’s socialist views and efforts to start a union among the miners.” John and Anna sold their house on Chapman Street and John purchased 80 acres of land on the east shore of Shagawa Lake. There was already a house on the land that had its own interesting history. The sellers were Daisy Redfield and George Harding, and they ran a “house of ill repute” there. Betty recalls the house had a lot of bedrooms on the top floor, each with a number on the door. When the Koschaks bought the house there were still slot machines left behind by the previous owners.

John and Anna Koschak and their sons ran the farm primarily as a dairy farm. The milk was pasteurized in a large stainless steel kettle, and was delivered to families in Ely. Along with the cows, they owned pigs and two work horses. Anna’s job was to look after the children and the animals. Much of the land was used for hay fields, and there was a large kitchen garden with rows and rows of turnips, potatoes, rutabagas, corn and cabbage. The whole family tended the garden and came together for the bigger tasks of hay making and cutting ice.

In the early days there were few modern conveniences. The house was heated with a wood stove, and they got water from an outdoor pump. Until electricity was installed in 1930 they used kerosene lamps for light. In the winter ice was cut on Shagawa Lake and hauled over to the farm. Flour and sugar were bought in 100 pound sacks. Mary recalled that moonshine was made in the basement and blood sausage was processed in the garage.

Those readers who have walked around the Koschak farm will be familiar with the stone walls that run through the property. When the plow churned up rocks in the fields they were thrown in the “stone boat”. This was “a flat device on runners that was pulled by a horse.” They dragged the stones to the edge of the field and formed them into a stone fence. Think how many hours of back-breaking labor it took to make those walls!

In time the children took over the running of the farm. Joe and his wife Mildred moved to town in 1945, and for a while John and Theresa continued to run the farm. In the late 1940s the farm was sold to the DNR.

Because of its position at the end of Shagawa Lake, the farm was an ideal spot for fish rearing ponds. The DNR created a series of dykes and ponds, and water was controlled by a pumping station. In the spring of each year water was pumped from Shagawa Lake and the ponds were stocked with walleye fry. In the fall, when the walleye had grown and were viable, they were removed to stock other area lakes. The DNR operated these fish rearing ponds for the next several decades. The farm buildings were used to house DNR staff. At one point the DNR moved its local headquarters from Winton to the farm location. However, around 1990 the pipe that ran water back and forth under Hwy. 88 failed. Local fish rearing moved to Burntside Lake.

Today the Old Koschak Farm is designated a Wildlife Management Area. As such the land is protected and managed to provide opportunities for hunting and wildlife watching. The forests are managed to provide cover and browse for the deer that spend the winter there. The grasslands are periodically mowed or controlled by prescribed burns. Wildlife includes deer, bear, small game, forest upland birds and waterfowl. There are numerous walking paths and a snowmobile trail along the eastern edge.

One one recent visit to the farm I joined an Ely naturalist group. We watched sandpipers on the pond and examined puffballs and toadstools on the trails. More recently I was walking the dog and met a grouse hunter from Texas. He was having a good time, but still hadn’t seen any grouse. This winter there will be snowshoes on the hiking trails and snowmobiles on the edge. The Old Koschak Farm is a wonderful example of land that is being well managed for the benefit of all of us.