At the end of a long road sits a place, a piece of Arbor Vitae’s history, that still lives in the memories of all those who have been there. Open fields adorned with weathered fence lines hold reminders of a time past when living was hard, but life was good. 
Those memories are now merely a whisper through the trees, telling tales of life on the Gross farm, and the only remnants of this bygone era are an old wooden gate, the chain still dangling like it’s waiting to be latched once again, and antique farm equipment lying dormant in the field.
Cindy Flanagan, who currently reside in the Wisconsin Rapids area with her husband Tom,  reminisced about coming to visit what was once one of the few working farms in the Lakeland area. 
“Joe and Florence Gross were my half-uncle and aunt,” Flanagan said. “They were unable to have children; therefore, they loved my two half-brothers and me like we were their own.” 
What many don’t know is the farmstead was originally the Blackburn Farm. Flanagan knew the Blackburn family because her biological mother married Florence (Gross)’s brother Louis Blackburn. That made Louis her stepfather and eventually Joe and Florence her uncle and aunt.
Before World War II, Joe Gross’s uncle owned Geiser’s potato chips and brought Joe, who was German, to Wisconsin from Germany. Joe acquired his citizenship and when the war broke out, became a U.S. Paratrooper and fought in WWII. At some point, he came back home and met Florence who was a “Rosie the Riveter” in one of the factories in Milwaukee. 
They soon married and lived in “Brew Town” for two to three years but would come up to visit the Blackburn Farm in the summertime. 
According to Flanagan, there was a point when Florence’s mother couldn’t handle the farm anymore after her husband passed away and wanted to give it to a family member to continue the farmstead. She thought of Joe first, because he loved the farm life he had experienced in Germany and asked him if he would take over the farm. 
After very little hesitation, he said, “yes, we will take it.” Joe and Florence Gross traveled north and took over the farm, and it was then known as the Gross Farm.

Remembering the farm
“It was shortly after the war in 1945. I was about seven years old at the time, and I was always up at the farm for Christmas and every summer when school was not in session.” Flanagan reminisced. 
At the time, the Blackburn/Gross farm was the only homestead in that area, except for one small cabin owned by the French family. These two homesteads sat on an unnamed road which was later christened Gross Road. 
“Not sure when the road got its name, maybe a few years after Joe and Florence took over the farm,” Flanagan said. “It probably should have been named Blackburn Road.” 
Joe and Florence had one Percheron draft horse and a few cows for milk. They had a chicken coop off the barn, another little barn and a pig pen. Beyond those buildings was another big barn where the kids would swing from the ropes and play in the hay. 
There was also an outhouse in the mix of buildings, because like most homes at the time, indoor plumbing was nonexistent. 
“In the old house there was a dirt basement where they had a separator that separated the milk from the cream,” Flanagan said. “I always loved to go in the basement. I wasn’t supposed to go down there because the basement steps were very rickety, but my aunt would say, ‘Come on Cindy, I’ll take you down there,’ and I would get to see the separator.”
“My most fond memories of the farm were getting eggs from the hen house, and I always wanted to go with them to the barn when it was time to milk the cows,” Flanagan said. “I would line up right alongside the kittens to get fresh milk squirted in my mouth. I also loved churning butter from cream and drinking the buttermilk. I remember feeling really bad when I saw the chickens getting butchered, but I learned a lot from all these experiences. 
“I remember many winter nights sleeping under a featherbed comforter, getting up to go potty at night when it was so cold,” she continued. “We had a pot in the house for that, and it was freezing, too.” 
In the winter, they would cut their own Christmas trees and use the draft horse to drag the tree to the house. Another fond memory Flanagan recalled was petting the wild deer that would come up to the porch. 
“Aunt Florence would say to me, ‘Cindy come here and sit with me,’” she said. “I would sit with her, and the deer would come right up to us so that I could pet them.”
“We had so much fun, I remember all the good things we did,” Flanagan told of a typical day on the farm. “We would always get up really early, and the coffee was always ready. We would go down to the barn, do our chores and then in the afternoon, after a big lunch, we would pick berries (watching for bears) and do other things, like kicking cow pies and stuff like that. 
“Then we would have a big supper and go down to the lake (now known as Little Musky Lake) to take a bath, or if it were winter, we’d bathe in a galvanized horse trough in the kitchen,” she continued. “We’d be in bed very early, pretty much when the sun was down. There was no TV or radio, so why was it so much fun? Because we were out doing things. I wish kids today could experience stuff like this.”
“We had a fella called Mr. Heart that used to camp on the property by the lake every summer,” Flanagan said. “He would catch bluegills and bring them to Florence and Joe. After a while, and after filleting and cooking so many bluegills, Aunt Florence would get tired of frying fish and threaten to throw them in the dump. He (Mr. Heart) never bothered anyone, just kept to himself, but he seemed to time it right and showed up for breakfast every morning.”
Joe Gross did well-drilling and plumbing along with the farm work and every day at lunchtime he would have two Rhinelander shorty beers. They knew how to celebrate significant events as well.
“My two cousins and I all had birthdays that fell on New Year’s Eve, so the Blackburn family would have a huge party at the farm,” Flanagan said. “There were probably 20 people in the house, and everyone would stay overnight. Uncle Joe would say, ‘I don’t care how old you are, everyone including the kids get a Rhinelander Shorty tonight!’ It was a German thing.
“Louis and my mother stayed married for a few more years,” she continued. “They had my half-brother Lawrence, and my half-brother Gareld, who was named after my uncle, Gareld Blackburn. Uncle Gareld was killed on the island of Cebu during WWII. He was engaged to be married on his return, but he obviously never made it back. The French’s boy, who lived down the road, was Gerald’s friend. He was in the Navy and somehow made it to the island of Cebu. There he found Gareld’s body and brought him back with him to the states.” 
According to Flanagan, Gareld Blackburn was supposed to have his name placed on a veteran’s monument in Minocqua, but it never was. “Perhaps it’s because they didn’t bring his body back in time.” 
 
Home away from home
On a final note, Flanagan commented on her personal life at the time. 
“My mother would send us up here every summer on the train from Milwaukee,” she said. “I don’t believe she ever wanted us, and Aunt Florence an Uncle Joe wanted to adopt my brothers and me. However, my mother wouldn’t have anything to do with that, saying, ‘I gave birth to them they are mine.’ I ended up running away from home at one point and went into foster care.” 
Life came full-circle as Flanagan’s foster parents were also the parents of her current husband, Tom. 
“Right before my first husband’s passing, he told me he hoped I would end up with Tom,” she recalled. “It was meant to be, as I’ve known him all my life.”
Her days spent at the Blackburn/Gross farm created memories that have lasted a lifetime. At 81 years young, Flanagan will never forget the joy she experienced during her visits to the farm. In fact, she loved it so much she would take a little bit of the farm with her every time she went home. 
“Every time I would go back to Milwaukee on the train, I would have a little box with me, and inside that box was a kitten from the farm,” she said. “I would take a kitten back every time.”
The Lakeland area is laden with a rich history, which makes it an exceptional and unique place to live. The next time you see an old cabin in the woods or an abandoned field with an old weathered fence, stop for a moment and contemplate the memories that surround it, and the life and times of those who were the first to homestead a place we now call home.
Kimberly Drake can be reached at kimberlydrake21@gmail.com.