Harms Farm is a historic agricultural property about two and a half miles north of Paoli in Phillips County. The 160-acre section around the main farmstead, which lies on the west side of County Road 21 between County Roads 30 and 32, was first claimed by John Nelson in 1894 and acquired by the Gansemer family in 1917. Since then, the related Gansemer and Harms families have farmed the land. They developed an extensive sheep and chicken operation in the middle of the twentieth century, but since then they have focused largely on dryland crops such as winter wheat and millet.
Speculators and settlers flocked to Colorado’s Front Range and central mountains starting with the Gold Rush of 1858–59, but settlement of the state’s Eastern Plains did not begin until a few decades later. In the meantime, the US Army removed Native Americans from the area through a campaign that culminated in the Medicine Lodge Treaty of 1867 and the Battle of Summit Springs in 1869, resulting in the relocation of Cheyenne and Arapaho groups to an Oklahoma reservation. Cowboys started to graze cattle on the open grassland.
By the 1880s, northeast Colorado began to draw settlers from Europe and the eastern United States as farmland farther east filled up. Sometime in the early 1880s, an immigrant named John Nelson became one of the first settlers in what is now Phillips County. He planned to stake a claim using the Timber Culture Act, which allowed settlers to claim up to 160 acres if they could plant trees on a certain portion of the land (originally forty acres, later ten).
In 1894 Nelson successfully claimed the title to his 160-acre parcel under the Timber Culture Act. At the time, however, Phillips County farms were suffering, with the Panic of 1893 and a drought in 1894 driving many people away and pushing others to shift from crops to cattle. Nelson remained on his land, but he suffered some setbacks. He failed to pay his taxes, and in 1905 Phillips County took his property. He seems to have satisfied the county and recovered the land, but he promptly sold it in 1907. Over the next eight years, the parcel passed through the hands of several land speculators.
By the 1910s, memories of earlier hardships had passed and a second wave of settlers swept into Phillips County. This group of largely German farmers was attracted to the area by its cheap, fertile land, and they were fortified by their previous experience growing winter wheat and other dryland crops in Nebraska. In 1915 the Aufrecht brothers from Nebraska bought the former Nelson property, and in 1917 they sold it for $3,360 to William Gansemer, also from Nebraska.
Gansemer had grown up on a farm in Gage County, Nebraska, as the son of a Prussian father and Swiss mother. In 1917 he moved to the former Nelson property in Phillips County with his brother Fred, Fred’s brother-in-law Henry Alberts, and a hired man named Lloyd Deitz. When they arrived, they immediately built a shed for shelter (later converted to a chicken coop), a barn, and dug a well. They planted the land with wheat and excavated a basement for a main house to be completed the next year. With those improvements in place, William sold the property to Fred for $4,800 and started his own farm nearby.
Born in 1875, Fred was a few years older than William and had already farmed land in Lancaster County, Nebraska, with his wife Johanna (Henry Alberts’s sister), and their two young daughters, Gladys and Irene. The rest of his family joined him in Phillips County in the spring of 1918, along with all their livestock and machinery. That year Fred started to build up the farmstead, including the one-and-a-half-story main house, which featured a square plan, cross-gabled roof, and full-width front porch facing east onto County Road 21. Other agricultural buildings stood just west of the house.
Fred Gansemer maintained a small but relatively diversified farming operation. He planted most of his land with crops such as wheat, millet, and corn, but he kept forty acres as pasture for eight dairy cows and six horses. The Gansemer family also raised several hogs, sheep, and chickens.
In the early 1920s, the Gansemers hired a farmworker named John Harms, who had moved to Phillips County from Nebraska in 1920. In 1925 he married Irene Gansemer, and that same year his brother Gade married Irene’s sister, Gladys. John and Irene Harms moved around on other farms in Phillips County, starting a family (they eventually had seven children) and raising a handful of horses, cows, hogs, and hens. When Fred and Johanna Gansemer returned to Nebraska in 1931 because of Johanna’s bad health, John and Irene Harms took over the Gansemer farm. Johanna died in 1933, and Fred moved back to the farm and worked it with his daughter and son-in-law until his death in 1940.
After struggling through the Dust Bowl and Great Depression of the 1930s, the Harms family slowly developed and expanded the farm to its current condition. During the 1940s and 1950s, as new machinery and other technologies transformed American agriculture, farms tended to grow larger, more mechanized, and more specialized. As part of this shift, after World War II many Phillips County farmers eliminated livestock entirely or focused only on cattle. In contrast, Harms expanded his livestock operation to raise sheep and chickens. From the 1950s to the early 1960s, he built new chicken facilities and added three sheep barns. At its peak, the farm was one of Phillips County’s largest producers of sheep and chickens, with about 1,000 lambs and 4,000 hens.
Harms gradually increased the farm’s size to a total of 1,440 acres. He tried to make improvements as cheaply and efficiently as possible, adapting old buildings and materials to new uses. One of the sheep barns, for example, was an old Methodist Church Tabernacle that he moved to the farm from Haxtun, and other facilities were made of reused windbreaks and recycled building materials. Most of these agricultural buildings were clustered on the west side of the farmstead.
Harms also added some new buildings—most notably a Quonset hut—to store the growing number of large tractors and other machines required for modern farming. Quonset huts were essentially large half-cylinders placed horizontally on the ground to form long storage sheds with a semicircular roof. They had been developed during World War II, when the military needed portable, prefabricated buildings that could be erected quickly, but they remained popular after the war for agricultural and industrial uses.
As his family’s farm prospered, John Harms became more involved in local civic and business affairs. He served on the boards of Co-op Oil and the Paoli grain elevator as well as the local school district. In addition, he and Irene both played an active role in the Methodist Church in Paoli and Haxtun.
In 1986 John and Irene Harms retired from the farm and moved about ten miles east to Haxtun. Management of the farm passed to their son Virgil, who had owned a nearby farm since 1948 and served as mayor of nearby Paoli since 1961. In 1987 Virgil’s son Duane moved to Harms Farm with his family to help run the property. Virgil and Duane Harms decided to stop raising livestock on the farm, choosing instead to focus on sunflowers and dryland grains such as winter wheat and millet.
In 2016 the 160-acre parcel of land around the Harms Farm homestead—which dates to John Nelson’s 1894 land claim—was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The main house has been altered somewhat since its construction in 1918, but it remains the oldest building on the farm and the only standing farmstead building constructed by Fred Gansemer. Today the farm continues to be worked by Duane Harms, Virgil Harms, and a few close relatives, who have kept the property in their family for a century.