A history lesson on Columbia’s farm in the city

The Reichert Farm on North Main Street in Columbia as it appears today. (Andrea Degenhart photo)

As drivers pass by the Reichert Farm on North Main Street in Columbia each day, few realize what the farm symbolizes. Some may notice it, nestled among subdivisions and modern homes, seeming a bit out of place in the middle of town.

The farm is not unlike several other ancestral farms in the area. It has no historical marker and has not been designated as a landmark. Tours of the farm are not conducted, nor do local historians flock there for study or archival research.

Still, when one learns the history of the land and the buildings, it soon becomes evident the Reichert Farm represents a different time in our nation’s history. It harkens back to a time when the hard work of having a farm, enabling one to be self-sufficient, was the norm. Simply walking through the buildings and around the grounds can provide visitors insight into the lives of pioneers and numerous lessons left to learn of those days gone by.

When Lenard and Marguerite Neff Petri moved to the land in 1838, they had lived in America for only a short time, having emigrated from Germany and living briefly in Sugar Loaf Township in St. Clair County.

Mr. Petri, born in 1797, undoubtedly came to America, along with countless other immigrants, to escape the hardships in his native country. By the late 18th century, Germany had experienced agricultural reform, the collapse of the Industrial Revolution, crop failure, and political and religious turmoil, among other things.

German farmers found things particularly difficult when investors began turning their attentions toward profitable endeavors such as railroad building or artisan work. Farmers could not secure loans and many were forced to sell their land and start new lives in America.

Soon after the Petris purchased the Monroe County property, the family began the long and arduous task of clearing the land and making the place into a viable farm.

Knowing only their native language, the Petris were forced to communicate with their English neighbors by making hand signals and gestures. One of the first things they pantomimed to neighbors was the need to borrow a clap-board knife, which was a tool used in those days for splitting trees into rough planks.

The first building completed was a primitive cabin. It was comprised of one small room to serve all the family’s needs. A fire burned outside in warm months and inside when the weather grew cooler. The cabin was furnished with a few rough-hewn pieces, along with mattresses made of cloth and stuffed with straw.

Perhaps the most important building was constructed next: a large barn used for storing hay and housing animals. Numerous other buildings would eventually be added, all constructed using wooden pegs — not one nail was used.

The evidence of attention to detail can be observed all over the farm. Placement of trees and buildings are strategic, meticulous craftsmanship evidenced by the ages of many of the buildings. One of the large barns, constructed in the early 1850s, stood for more than 100 years on the property; it was eventually torn down by the most recent owners, the Reichert family. Most, if not all, of the original buildings, including the Petris’ one-room cabin, have long since been torn down.

After Lenard Petri’s death in 1861, ownership of the farm was passed to the couple’s daughters, Elizabeth and Mary. Mary became the bride of Joseph Weilbacher in 1864, and with her husband eventually took full ownership of the farm. Mary continued “keeping house,” much as her mother had done on the same farm where she was born and raised, and her husband Joseph continued to improve the land, adding acreage spreading out in all directions from the farmhouse.

Six children were born and raised on the farm, with son Bernhardt “Ben” Weilbacher taking over ownership after the death of his father in 1916. Ben and his wife, Ida Wecker Weilbacher, raised a family there that included their three grandsons, who now own the property.

Although it is not known if a larger and more modern structure replaced the original log cabin while the Petris still lived there, a carving on a wood post indicates the current white frame house was constructed by Joseph Weilbacher in 1893, with the sturdy summer kitchen added four years later.

The house is simple and was built to serve the needs of the family. On close inspection of the attic area, expert craftsmanship is evident. The house was “stick-built,” meaning it was constructed piece by piece and with great care.

Long ago when the existing trees were little more than sap- lings, “hog houses” dotted the lot to the northeast, and a little further down the hill is where the cows hurried in for their meal while family members and farm hands did the daily milking.

A pear tree that still produces pears stands to the north of the farmhouse. There were, at one time, grape arbors, apple trees and apricot trees dotting the landscape. Garden vegetables were used for cooking, canning, and sharing with neighbors. Small plant starts were raised and sold to passersby to purchase and use in their own gardens.

There have been many beautiful flowers and decorative bushes grown on the farm over the years, but the lilac bush to the south of the driveway holds special significance.

In the days when doctors traveled through small towns, a chiropractor from St. Louis would routinely come through Columbia via Rural Route 2, which was what northern Main Street was called in the early-to mid-1900s.

On days when “Grandma Weilbacher” wanted the doctor to stop at the farm, she would tie a white handkerchief to the lilac bush. When no white handkerchief fluttered in the breeze, the doctor knew to pass on by the house.

The farm operated with the help of farmhands who were paid $3 a week plus room and board. They slept upstairs in the farmhouse, and when they finished up their weekend chores they might travel home to a nearby town to visit family.

There would have been activity all over the farm: stacking or retrieving hay from the big barn, getting coal from the coal bin, unloading corn in the corn crib, or teaching a mean, biting gander a lesson by giving him a good toss against the barn door.

Over the years, acreage has been sold to developers and the town of Columbia has “grown up” around the farm itself.

No, this farm was probably not anything particularly unusual. However, passersby today can be certain that within the parameters of the property, the visions and voices of the past and the joys of ordinary farm life and hard work can still be seen and heard.

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