Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

A sweet surprise: An old sorghum mill on a southern Minnesota elk farm & more August 10, 2012

HOW MANY TIMES HAS MY FAMILY driven Minnesota Highway 60 east of Elysian, unaware of Okaman Elk Farm to the south not far from the highway? Too many.

My husband Randy and I almost missed Okaman’s again last Sunday as we traveled along Waseca County Roads 3 and 5. If not for the colorful miniature train transporting kids and adults along the shoulder of the road, we likely would have passed right by.

Passing by the Okaman Elk Express in our car on a Sunday afternoon.

But that train stopped us in our tracks and caused us to turn around and drive back to the farm.

There we discovered much more than a plain old elk farm. We also found family-friendly activities, a farmers’ market, art, animals and history.

The historic Seha Sorghum Mill.

In 1991, Don and Joyce Kaplan bought this historic place to raise elk and then sell the meat. Their business sits on the site of Okaman, a town established in 1855 between Lake Elysian and Lily Lake. Here, according to a posted sign, several hotels, a theater, the Buckout Flour Mill, the Okaman School and the Seha Sorghum Mill were located.

Inside the sorghum mill.

It is that 1895 sorghum mill, which produced and sold sorghum syrup until 1953, that most interested me. Randy and I poked our way through and around the old mill trying to determine how the whole operation worked. I think he understood the process much better than me.

Apparently wagons of sorghum were unloaded atop the hill behind the mill where the canes were crushed and the juice then flowed into steam-heated cookers, or something like that.

The original steam boiler stands behind the sorghum mill.

According to the Waseca County Historical Society website, Cornelius L. Seha built the mill, today the only known historical sorghum mill remaining in Minnesota and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1979.

Because the mill today is basically an old building and steam boiler with weeds and brush growing around the holding tanks, equipment and structures, everything is left open to self-interpretation. Perhaps someday this historic site can be restored and specific educational information posted.

Cats roam the farm.

Then, perhaps, the younger farm visitors will be more interested in the historic buildings. They are, for now, focused on  the donkeys and alpacas, the goats and elk and dog, and especially, the cats and kittens. Or perhaps the playground equipment.

Visitors are free to wander the pasture with the alpacas, donkeys and goats.

Loved this sign at the petting zoo telling visitors that the animals are fed daily.

The farm is open seven days a week to the 3,000 – 4,000 visitors who stop by annually, says Joyce Kaplan. The Kaplans may not always be around, but guests are invited to peruse the place on their own. Just follow a few rules like:

You can enter the petting zoo pens or pastures at your own risk. Please don’t allow children to chase the animals and no dogs allowed. Close gates behind you.

Veggies from R & C Produce of Otisco.

Canned mixed veggies from Val’s Yard ‘N Gardens (Joe & Val Zimprich of Le Center).

Reusable price stickers in the back of the Zimprichs’ truck.

While the farm is always open, on Sundays from 1 p.m. – 4 p.m. during the summertime harvest and into October, farmers’ market vendors set up in the farmyard peddling their garden fresh produce and other products.

An art gallery is housed in an old barn.

That beautiful old barn, with an art gallery and studio in the haymow.

Antler art, including chandeliers, inside the art gallery with Paul Ristau’s art studio behind the windows pictured here.

Inside the gift shop and adjacent art gallery, you’ll find gifts anytime and the creations of artist and craftsman Paul Ristau, who renovates homes and businesses and is a mason specializing in stone fireplaces. He was doing some tile work for the Kaplans and ended up as their in-house artist focusing on the creation of antler art. He has a workshop in the haymow-turned-art-gallery where his elk antler chandeliers are a focal point.

A Native American influence on art hung in Paul Ristau’s studio.

A Native American influence is visible in Ristau’s art given his interaction with those living on the White Earth Indian Reservation where he once drove bus.

Of course, the farm also sells elk meat, inside the original 1893 homestead. The farm is now down to 23 elk, according to Joyce Kaplan who says she grew up on a farm and has been cleaning barns all her life and maybe it’s time soon to stop cleaning barns.

The final activity of the day, feeding apples to the elk.

On the Sunday I visited, her husband was handing out apples so the kids could feed the elk.

And the Okaman Elk Express was chugging along the shoulder of the roadway, thrilling the kids and, bonus, drawing in visitors like my husband and me.

You’ll find binoculars in the barn to view the elk in the pasture.

FYI: To find Okaman Elk Farm, take Minnesota Highway 60 east of Elysian 1 ½ miles and then turn south to the intersections of Waseca County roads 3 and 5. The farm is open year-round. Click here to reach the farm’s website.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling