Agriculture is more than callused hands, early morning calving, and late evenings at harvest. It’s getting to know your neighbors like family. It’s the freedom to live as you wish. It’s a quiet moment where you get to breathe in the majesty that surrounds you.
Ask the Von Bergens, and they’ll confirm that the rewards are worth the effort. For more than a century their family has worked the land, developing a modest homestead plot at Moccasin into multiple, long-term farming operations. This hasn’t come without hardships, of course; the Von Bergens have endured market lows, meager harvests, and Mother Nature’s wrath (same as any Montana farmer), but family bonds and sheer grit have always pulled them through. They’re as strong in their convictions as they are resilient on the land. For five generations, they’ve been proud to serve their community and country, unwavering in their values and their commitment to keeping the world fed.
None of this would’ve been possible had John Henry Von Bergen not set foot in Montana in 1914. Born in Berlin in 1879, John Henry immigrated to America with his family around the turn of the century. By 1903, he was a naturalized U.S. citizen, farming in Greenfield, Iowa.
Six years later, the Enlarged Homestead Act was passed. Despite the incredible opportunity to farm 160 or 320 acres of “free” government land, farmers were hesitant to file their claims in Montana. Much of the land west of the 100th Meridian (through Nebraska) required dryland farming, which entailed vigilant attention to moisture, aggressive expense management, and careful planning for the inevitable bad years. This was less than appealing to most. But 1909 was a wet year, and Montana had a good harvest. The U.S. government sweetened the deal by reducing the “prove up” time from five years to three in 1912, and a surge of homesteaders rushed the state. Between 1912 and the early 1920s, more than 80,000 had claimed land in Montana.
John Henry Von Bergen was one of them.
In 1914, he and his father, Adde H., brought livestock out by freight car. His wife, Anna, and their children joined him, and they settled in a log cabin west of Hobson. In 1917, they relocated to a new home and took on additional acerage northwest of Moccasin.
By 1935, John Henry (like so many homesteaders) was ready to call it quits.
According to his granddaughter, Gay (Von Bergen) Johnson, it had been a tough go for John Henry at Moccasin, and he saw better potential in Texas. A nephew, David Von Bergen, related that John Henry was a moonshiner and that he may have seen more lucrative opportunities in the Lone Star State. Whatever the reason, John Henry and Anna made their way to San Antonio with most of the family in tow; however, their oldest, Louis Von Bergen, chose to stay in Moccasin. Even though he had to work multiple jobs to make ends meet, and even though he had to pay debt collectors in grain (they let him keep enough for the pigs and chickens), it was worth it having a place to call his own.
His wife and children felt the same way.
Tough Tots and Working Women
Of the estimated 300,000 homesteaders who settled Montana after 1862, at least 54,000 were strong, single women. Those who came with husbands weren’t frail either; “farm wives” were partners in this life out West, and though they might cook and clean, they were just as likely to be found haying or driving horses. There were no safety nets. It was all hands on deck. Everyone had to be tough to survive—including the children.
Gay was born at her maternal grandparents’ house and brought home on horseback in January 1932. From a young age, she and her older brother, Fay, worked the farm alongside their parents, herding cattle and picking arnica (a medicinal plant) which the family sold for additional income in Stanford.
Every penny helped, as did every sacrifice. The children wore shoes until they physically couldn’t anymore. All clothes were handmade. Imagination was the only entertainment in ample supply.
Of Louis and Vera Von Bergen’s five surviving children (one died in infancy), the third child, Keith, was the only one who was given oranges, and even that was a necessity, not an extravagance, as the boy suffered from rickets. Later, as a teenager, Keith took a pitchfork to the eye while pitching manure and had to have it removed. These hardships, however, never soured him. In fact, he was described as a “happy-go-lucky” kid.
Even when times were tough, family bonds were as strong as ever. Gay’s younger sister, Bev, remembers wintering with a family in town so that she could still attend school. It was expensive to call, so they communicated through letters. Louis even walked four miles through the snow to bring his daughter new clothes.
Louis did whatever he could to make ends meet for his family. And because he worked supplementary jobs to keep the farm afloat, a lot of the farm’s daily operation was Vera’s responsibility to manage. Gay remembers helping raise her baby brother, Bruce, because Vera’s workload was so heavy. Like Louis, she did what she had to for the good of the family.
With time, the farm became more established and new equipment and techniques allowed for more efficient farming of the land; however, this presented a new problem. Operations were expanding in acreage but supporting fewer people. The Von Bergen farm was not going to be able to provide work for the whole family.
As the oldest child, Fay carved his own path. He had long helped a neighbor, George Logan, on the weekends, and the older man had become like a second father to him. Having no children of his own, George offered Fay the opportunity to buy his farm, and Fay took it.
Like Louis, Fay worked several jobs to keep the operation going, and his life was far from one of luxury.
“He didn’t start out with much. It was bare bones,” explains his eldest daughter, Faith. “We lived off pheasants, fish, elk, antelope, and deer. The first time we got beef was when we were older.”
“We didn’t buy stuff new. Dad paid for everything in cash,” adds Fay’s son, Bing. “We had what we needed. Our farms were about the same acreage as everyone else. It was a simple, but happy life.”
All three of Fay’s children (Faith, Bing, and Hope) admire their father for his determination and lack of materialism. And they are equally impressed by their mother, Marge, who gave up her life in metropolitan New Jersey to work in Moccasin, Montana.
Marjorie Roper had just accepted a job in Moccasin and was living in town with Ivan and Gunhild Kynett when Gay befriended her. The young and proper teacher was accustomed to a vastly different lifestyle but was nonetheless enamored with Montana. Gay introduced her to Fay, and she soon became smitten with him as well.
Fay and Marge began spending a lot of time with Gay and her boyfriend, Chet Johnson. The Johnson family lived just up the road from the Von Bergens, and Gay had started seeing Chet at sixteen. In October 1950, they were married. Two months later, Fay and Marge followed suit.
Gay remembers doing everything together. They’d play cards. They’d go on camping trips. They hunted, fished, and ice skated. Not only were the couples married the same year, but they each welcomed their first child in 1951.
They were an inseparable lot.
That is, with one exception: when the men went into
Farmers for Freedom
The Korean War threatened to explode into a widespread conflict with China’s intervention in 1950. Wanting to prevent a potential World War III (and communist imperialism), President Harry S. Truman declared a state of emergency in December of that year.
Fay and Chet were two among many Montana farmers to serve in Truman’s “arsenal of freedom,” though both were stationed outside the primary conflict. Chet spent the war at an Air Force base in Alaska. Fay, who had joined the Army, was stationed at the U.S. Occupation Zone in Germany (in the event of a Soviet attack).
“There were a lot of locals that were stationed in Germany at the time,” says Bing.
Coincidentally, Bing was ordered to Germany when he joined up in 1972. He’d been steeped in patriotism since childhood, having grown up on John Wayne movies and having experienced his community’s pride in American military firsthand. His dad and uncle, of course, had served—along with most of the older men in the area. And as other parts of the country saw anti-war protests in the 1960s, Moccasin residents staunchly supported America’s fighting forces in Vietnam.
Of the nine boys in Bing’s graduating class, five of them enlisted.
“It was a patriotic time and people in our area were patriotic,” he says.
American soil had served their families for generations.
They were honored to serve America in return.
Serve Thy Neighbor
The Von Bergens’ military service was but one contribution to their homeland. The communities of Judith Basin County benefited greatly from the family’s philanthropic efforts.
Prior to 1935, Anna called square dances in Moccasin, Benchland, and Hobson.
In 1939, Vera was a charter member of the Jolly Juniors, which made toys for children at Christmas and sent care packages to servicemen overseas (along with several other projects). She was also a charter member and Vice President of the Moccasin Garden Club in 1954, leading the way in local beautification projects, bird and flower studies, and fundraisers.
In 1952, Marge was the architect behind Cabaret Capers, a variety show that raised money for Moccasin area students for more than twenty years. Hope has mirrored her mother in this regard. She’s been the driving force behind numerous community fundraisers and is the architect of Collectibles for Cancer and Breast Cancer Awareness in central Montana.
In addition to being an active fund raiser, Marge was a teacher and librarian in Judith Basin County. Faith took on her mother’s mantle as an educator for many years, then continued following in her footsteps as a partner in the farm with her husband, Ken.
“You have to find your niche and embrace your community,” she advises.
Her brother demonstrates that these are words to live by. He and his friend, Steve Grove, imagined how helpful it would be to area farmers if one of their neighbors established a seed plant. After some reflection, they realized they could be the neighbors with a seed plant.
“There was a need in the area for this,” Bing explains. “If it benefitted us, it would benefit everybody.”
Similarly, Bing saw that he could make a difference for area farmers through Montana Grain Growers Association. He served as president of the organization for a time and was later appointed President of the National Association of Wheat Growers, working with agricultural leaders and senators to discuss the legislative interests of America’s agricultural sector. It was an important position. It was also volunteer work.
“In small communities, people step up because they are committed to helping the community. This is just an extension of that,” he says.
In his humility, he undersells the sacrifice of this commitment; he took time away from his own farm so that agriculturists as a whole might have support and success. Bing believes that farmers have an obligation to keep the world fed—now, and for future generations.
When it came time for Louis and Vera to turn over the family farm, Fay and Marge were already running George Logan’s place, and Gay was working Chet’s farm with him. Keith had established a career elsewhere in the state, as had Bev. Bruce had been on the farm his whole life, and his wife, Pam, had worked it with him the last four years. So, Bruce was given an opportunity rarely afforded the youngest child; he got to take over the family business.
Bruce and Pam diligently worked the farm until 2004, when Bruce became too ill to work. He passed away in 2018. Today, the Von Bergen farm is leased to a new family, providing them the opportunity to make a living on the land.
Nearby, Fay and Gay’s operations have stayed in the family.
After getting out of the Army in 1975, Bing went to Montana State University. Around this time Fay had acquired a large lease which enabled Bing and his wife, Lois, to work the land with him. Then came the opportunity of a lifetime.
“We had already made the plunge and bought some other land. I was in debt up to my eyeballs when Gay and Chet offered me their operation,” says Bing. “That guaranteed my position in ag.”
Marge passed away in 1993, and in 1997, Faith moved back to the farm with her husband, Ken. They assisted Fay with his operation and expanded it with additional lease land.
“It’s unique that we were able to come back and help dad after he semiretired,” says Faith. “We’ve been fortunate.”
When it came time for Fay to retire, Fay decided to split the property between his children. Hope, who had established a media career in Great Falls, got the house so that she could visit the place she’d grown up. Bing and Faith both received a portion of the acreage to work with their families. Today, Faith and Bing are preparing to give the next generation a turn on the land. Faith’s daughter, Jamie, and her husband, Chad, left careers in the city to learn from Faith and Ken. Bing’s son, Tyler, left a job as a mechanical engineer to move back home, as this was an opportunity too golden to turn down.
“The only way to get in to ag today is to have an ‘in.’ The sheer cost of equipment is mind-boggling,” Bing explains, “but this is the best time ever to be in ag in Montana. Since Tyler is interested, I’m happy for him. He should have a good, successful life.”
Agriculture still has its good years and bad years. Markets and methods change with the times, but the fundamental challenges remain. How do you produce the highest quality of food for the highest quantity of people? And how do you earn a living doing it?
The short answer: you work hard.
“Farming and ranching is a lot of work, it’s a gamble, and it can be scary,” says Faith, “but I wouldn’t trade for anything the peace I feel at the end of every day.”
“It’s rewarding to see a job well done,” says Bing. “Making something from nothing is magic.”