Old meets new: Restoration begins on oldest farmhouse in the Red River Valley

MOORHEAD -- This year marks 150 years since Randolph Probstfield and his family made history as the first white settlers in Clay County. Upon their arrival, Probstfield -- who emigrated from Germany in the 1850s -- immediately started searching h...
Restoration begins on the Probstfield farmhouse, built in 1868 by Randolph Probstfield himself. Chelsey Ewen / The Arts Partnership

MOORHEAD - This year marks 150 years since Randolph Probstfield and his family made history as the first white settlers in Clay County.

Upon their arrival, Probstfield - who emigrated from Germany in the 1850s - immediately started searching his new homeland for sturdy logs to build a farmhouse for his wife, Catherine, and their children.

The house was built on land that later became Oakport Township, Minn., and sheltered generations of the Probstfield family until the 1980s.

Despite inevitable deterioration over time, the home still stands today as the oldest farmhouse in the Red River Valley south of the Canadian border. Now, after years of fundraising by dedicated board members of the Probstfield Farm nonprofit organization, restoration on the farmhouse has begun to breathe new life into an old house.

The first project on the long to-do list was the sagging roof.

Restoring a home this old is both a physical and a financial challenge. In addition to evicting the occasional critter, it requires patience and adherence to regulations set by the Minnesota Historical Society.

More importantly, any updates to the home must "keep faith" to how Randolph Probstfield would have completed them, according to Steve Martens, retired architecture professor and inaugural Probstfield Farm board president.

"It was essential to find contractors who had the patience to work with what was there," Martens says.

Martens and a team of current board members found what they were looking for in Kobiela Brothers Construction based in Fargo. Following recommendations made by Martens, who has helped rehabilitate more than 50 historic sites in the region, Kobiela Brothers searched the homestead and cut down thick logs to replace worn-out beams in the roof framework. The crew also installed new cedar shingles and crown molding.

There's still a lot of work to be done on the house, but Martens says that "the place looks much better" than when he first saw it in the 1990s.

After learning of the farm's historical significance from his former student, Probstfield descendent Matt Scheibe, Martens helped the family register as a nonprofit in 1995 and served as the first board president for eight years.

"As I've gotten involved again in recent years, I see my role as helping them implement recommendations that were put on record with the Minnesota Historical Society," Martens says.

Current board president Valeska Hermanson, a longtime neighbor of the farm, says the reason the farm still stands today is because of volunteers who are passionate about preserving Probstfield's legacy.

"They restored the barn, they mow the grass and they keep the machinery running. We wouldn't be able to pay someone to do the house restoration - which needs certain expertise - if we didn't have those volunteers keeping up the rest of it," says Hermanson, who took over as board president this spring.

Probstfield was a farmer who experimented with a range of crops to help prove the Red River Valley was viable farming land, Hermanson adds.

"While Probstfield wasn't the most profitable, he was willing to fail to let farmers know what grew here and what didn't," she says. "He sacrificed what could have been more income for him to make things better for everybody."

His grandson, Raymond Gesell, who learned how to farm at Randolph's knee, helped it grow into what it is today.

"(Probstfield Farm) is a great place to teach the value of making things last and appreciating the heritage that's been passed down to us," Martens says. "The buildings and the landscape become part of that inheritance, so maybe in two or three more generations, kids from north Moorhead will come to see this as part of their birthright - that somebody years ago did something here and it was important enough to do it well."

Now that the roof is complete, Probstfield Farm fundraising efforts will go toward renovating the rest of the home. The board hopes to turn it more into a historical museum in the coming years.

The next fundraiser for the project, the Probstfield Farm annual Sunday Supper, will take place Sept. 9. For more information, visit probstfieldfarm.org.