Oltjenbruns Farm is a historic agricultural property about two and a half miles southwest of Amherst in Phillips County. The 320 acres around the main farmstead, which lies on the west side of County Road 49 just north of Highway 23, was first claimed by the Berkes and Hanway families in the 1890s and 1900s. In 1917 August Welper united the two parcels into a single farm, where he grew wheat and had a small dairy operation. In 1939 he sold the farm to his daughter Amelia and her husband, Harry Oltjenbruns, and the property has remained in the Oltjenbruns family ever since.
Berkes and Hanway Property
Speculators and settlers flocked to Colorado’s Front Range and central mountains starting with the Colorado 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. The Cheyenne and Arapaho were relocated to an Oklahoma reservation. Cowboys started to graze cattle on the open grassland.
By the 1880s, as farmland farther east filled up, northeast Colorado began to draw migrants from Europe and the eastern United States. Settlement accelerated after the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad built a line through the area in 1887 and formed a land company that platted a series of towns along the route. As farmers flocked to the region, in 1889 the Colorado Legislature split Phillips County (and several others) from the originally huge Weld County.
What is now the historic Oltjenbruns Farm started as two adjacent 160-acre homesteads that were first acquired by different families. The northern half was settled by Jacob Berkes, who bought the land from the federal government in 1890. Over the next half-decade, however, Phillips County farms suffered, with the Panic of 1893 and a drought in 1894 driving many people away and pushing others to shift from crops to cattle. Berkes left his farm by 1900 but retained ownership until his death in 1914, when the property passed to his wife, Ella. The southern half of Oltjenbruns Farm was homesteaded by Anson Hanway in the early 1900s. Hanway gained title to the land in 1910.
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 well prepared by their previous experience growing winter wheat and other dryland crops in Nebraska. Many of the new farmers settled around Amherst, which had a German Lutheran Church and became a center of the local German community. The church held services in German until 1918, when it switched to English because of strong anti-German sentiment during World War I. But in other ways the war was a boon for local farmers because it boosted demand for Phillips County agricultural products.
One of the Germans who moved to the Amherst area during these years was August Welper. Born in Hanover in 1862, Welper worked as a brewer and farmworker before coming to the United States in 1881 to avoid service in the Prussian Army. He gradually made his way west to Nebraska, where he married Emma Riesche in 1892. Over the next twenty-five years, the Welpers had five children—Amelia, Mathilda, Herbert, Etta, and Irma—and moved from farm to farm before settling in Pierce County, Nebraska, where they lived near the Oltjenbruns.
In 1917 the Welpers came to Phillips County and acquired 320 acres of land southwest of Amherst: the former Berkes property, then owned by Michael Mahoney, and the former Hanway property, then owned by Robert and Anna Buchholz. The Buchholz farm included a house built in 1915. The rectangular, two-story frame house was on the east side of the farm, just west of County Road 49. Designed in the Dutch Colonial Revival style, it resembled a large barn with a gambrel roof.
The Welpers used the northern half of their farm as pasture for horses and cattle, and they planted the southern half in wheat and alfalfa. They added new work buildings along the south and west sides of the farmstead, including a wash house, barn, and chicken coop, and acquired more land, bringing the farm’s total acreage to 800. After Emma Welper died in 1924, Herbert Welper and his wife started managing the farm in partnership with his father. The Dust Bowl and the Great Depression made the 1930s difficult, but the family survived by selling dairy products around Amherst. In the middle of the decade, Herbert was diagnosed with diabetes and stopped working on the farm.
Back when the Welpers moved from Nebraska to Phillips County in 1917, they sold their Nebraska farm to the nearby Oltjenbruns family, and their oldest daughter, Amelia, married Harry Oltjenbruns. Harry and Amelia took over the old Oltjenbruns property, while the elder Oltjenbrunses moved onto the former Welper farm. Within two years, Harry and Amelia moved to Phillips County, where they settled on a farm owned by one of Harry’s relatives near Holyoke.
In 1939, after Amelia’s brother could no longer work the Welper farm, Harry and Amelia bought the farm for $15,000 because it had better land than their own farm. At their new home, they grew wheat and barley and raised chickens, hogs, and dairy cows. They also added a brooder house for the chickens and a granary for storage.
In 1947 Harry and Amelia Oltjenbruns retired from farming and moved to Amherst. Management of the farm passed to their twin sons Milton and Elton, with Elton working land east of County Road 49 and Milton working land west of the road—including the 320 acres that his grandfather, August Welper, acquired in 1917.
Milton Oltjenbruns and his wife, Leona, presided over the farm during a period of tremendous change. After World War II, as new machinery and other technologies transformed American agriculture, farms tended to grow larger, more mechanized, and more specialized. As part of this shift, many Phillips County farmers eliminated livestock entirely or focused only on cattle. At Oltjenbruns Farm, Milton and Leona ended their dairy operation in 1952 and shifted their livestock efforts primarily to feeder cattle. In 1953 they added a grain elevator to increase their grain storage capacity as they expanded the farm to more than 2,000 acres. In 1960 they relocated part of a building from Amherst to the farm for use as machine storage.
In 1965 Milton and Leona stopped their feeder cattle operation and shifted entirely to crops, focusing on winter wheat and other grains. In 1973 the farm was incorporated as M & L Oltjenbruns Farms, Inc., to make it easier to pass down to multiple descendants without having to split up the physical property.
In 1985 Milton and Leona Oltjenbruns turned management of the farm over to their son Kenneth, who had attended Colorado State University. They retired and moved to Holyoke the next year. Kenneth Oltjenbruns has continued to increase the farm’s size up to nearly 3,500 acres, which he usually plants in a mix of wheat, dryland corn, and irrigated corn.
In 2016 the 320-acre half-section of land around the farmstead was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The buildings on this part of the farm—including the original 1915 farmhouse—remain largely historic, with only a storage shed and machine shed added since the 1960s. The property has now been owned and worked by the same family for a century.