As the crow flies, Tom and Elaine Trotman live about ¾ of a mile from the house he grew up in and the house that has been in his family for well over a hundred years, but in many ways they are even much closer than that.
The family farm, named one of two century farms in Steele County in 2018, sits on 300 acres in the Aurora Township, close to Bixby and about halfway between Blooming Prairie and Owatonna. There were no century farms in the county in 2019.
The size easily exceeds the 50-acre requirement to earn the century farm designation. And it also easily exceeds the other major requirement — to have been in continuous family ownership for at least 100 years.
The farm, in fact, has been in the Trotman family for 140 years, having originally been purchased in 1888 by Tom Trotman’s great-grandparents, William and Jane Trotman.
“When he was 18 years old, he came west, we think from England, though we’re not positive,” Tom Trotman said of his great-grandfather William.
“Gloucester, England,” added Elaine.
And, indeed, the family history bears her out.
“William Trotman was born December 11, 1852, in Gloucester, England,” the history reads. “Jane Farrell was born June 6, 1861, in Newry Township.”
In a history of the county, William Trotman is listed as a “liquor dealer” rather than a farmer, and it tells the route by which he came to Steele County.
“At the age of eighteen he came to New York City and for one year was in the employ of Kelly, once the Democratic leader of that city,” the county history reads. “After remaining in New York, a year he came farther west, and for some time was engaged upon the lakes, sailing out of Buffalo. After this he came to Detroit, Mich., where he made his home for three years. In 1877 he came to Blooming Prairie, Steele County, Minn. Here he has since resided, having been engaged in the liquor business. In 1884 Mr. Trotman was married to Jane Farrell. By this marriage they have two children.”
Exactly what brought either William or Jane to Blooming Prairie is absent from the family history and the county history. And those histories have scant information about the early years of their marriage other than their marriage date — June 22, 1884 — and the fact that while William owned two liquor stores — the one in Blooming Prairie and another in Kenyon — Jane owned a hat shop in Blooming Prairie.
“The story goes that since liquor could not be sold on Sunday, a bottle would be put under a hat at Jane’s shop, and the customer would be told what color hat it was under,” the family history says.
William Trotman was quite the entrepreneur, even beyond the liquor stores he owned, said Tom, owning several farms around Blooming Prairie and Kenyon.
Among the property that he purchased was 160 acres north of Blooming Prairie in 1888 — the land that would become the nucleus for the Trotman family farm — for Edwin, their older son, and another 160 acres for George, their younger son.
According to the family history, the house that sat on Edwin’s land was moved off its foundation and “set to the south.” The Trotmans then built a new house on the original foundation.
Of course, Edwin didn’t immediately move onto the land that his parents had purchased for him in 1888. He would’ve been a bit young since he was born in 1885, meaning he would have been just 3 years old when he became a landowner.
Instead, his parents rented out the land — as they did with George’s land south of town as well — with the idea that renters could stay there until the boys were out of college.
In addition to the 160 acres that William and Jane Trotman had purchased for Edwin, there was an additional 141 acres that sat directly adjacent to that land — between Edwin’s farm and the railroad — that was owned by Jane. That land together formed what is now the Trotman family’s century farm.
BACK ON THE FARM
There’s a little confusion in the Trotman family history about Ed Trotman, Tom Trotman’s grandfather. “Ed” — is it short for “Edwin” or “Edward”?
The answer, it seems, depends on where you look.
The earliest photos and documents list him as “Edwin,” but later documents — including the newspaper accounts of his gruesome death — call him “Edward” or in some cases just “Ed.”
After Ed Trotman graduated from high school, he went on to college — specifically, what was then St. Thomas College in St. Paul, Minnesota, where he studied accounting and business. He excelled in his studies and received an appointment to West Point.
His mother had other ideas,
“Grandma Jane was a rigid lady,” said Tom Trotman. “She said, ‘You’re on the farm.’”
And so, heeding his mother’s directive, Ed Trotman came home to farm. As for his brother George, who was barely a year younger than Ed, Tom Trotman just shrugs, not knowing exactly what happened to his great-uncle.
“He took off for the city,” Tom said.
After Ed’s and George’s father, William Trotman, died of a heart attack in September 1909, his wife, Jane, moved onto Ed’s farm. She stayed there until Ed married Margaret Tierney in 1913.
Though Edwin — or Edward — had wanted to attend West Point, his life on the farm and in the Steele County community was a successful one. In addition to his work on the farm, he served as secretary of the Oak Glen Creamery Association of Bixby for 15 years and as the manager of the Bixby Cooperative Livestock Selling Association for eight years. He also was involved with the Steele County Guernsey Breeders Association and the Steele County Association for Tax Justice.
He died tragically in 1935 after being gored and trampled by an enraged bull on his farm. The newspaper accounts of the day say that he had just gone into the barn after putting up a load of hay when the bull attacked. His son James, who was just 16 at the time, heard the commotion inside the barn, went inside and saw the bull attacking his father. James — who would later become Tom Trotman’s father — grabbed an iron bar, hit the bull on the head and drove the bull out.
Although medical personnel came to the scene, they discovered his right lung and his diaphragm had been pierced by the bull. He also had chest wounds, the newspapers reported.
According to Tom Trotman, his grandfather’s last words — spoken to his sons, James and William — were, “It looks like you boys will have to make the harvest this year.”
He was transported to the Owatonna Hospital where he died the next morning.
Six years later, when he was 22, James Trotman, Tom’s father, married Blanche Seykora. In 1949, they bought the farm, where they raised their four sons — Thomas, James Jr., Timothy and Terrance. James and Blanche Trotman, who had purchased the farm from James’ mother in 1949, stayed on the farm until they retired in 1989.
By 1982, the farm business was about to enter one of its most difficult eras.
“It was not pleasant,” said Tom Trotman. “You didn’t know from day to day how it was going to be.”
His brothers — Jim, Tim and Terry — decided it was time and got out of the business that year. But Tom, the oldest brother, stuck around, thankful that they had a “good herd of dairy cows” to see them through.
Tom and Elaine Trotman kept the dairy until 1988 when they sold the cows.
“With the price of milk, it was ridiculous to keep,” Tom said of the dairy business at that time.
The prices were dropping, the help was disappearing and it was becoming increasingly difficult. But it made them wonder what was next.
“Is there life after cows?” Elaine asked.
“Yes, there is,” Tom answered.
“A better life,” she echoed.
In 1989, just a bit more than a century after the Trotman family first purchased the land north of Blooming Prairie, Tom and Elaine purchased it and began a new life as crop farmers.
“Corn, soybeans, some oats, occasionally wheat, but no hay,” said Tom. “I’m so tired of making hay.”
They continued on the farm — with Elaine also working as the director of therapeutic recreation at Prairie Manor in Blooming Prairie — until 2008 when they retired after purchasing the farm 20 years before.
None of their children — they have three boys — have ever expressed interest in the life of a farmer, so for the time being they rent the land out.
“As of now, there’s no reason to sell it,” Tom Trotman said. “We plan on keeping it in the family, but things change. I’m not one to rule from the grave. I wouldn’t do that.”