St. Croix Valley company turns 150

The Stillwater Post-Messenger published a special issue in 1942 to celebrate German Farmers Mutual Fire Insurance reaching 75 years old. (Gazette staff photo by Alicia Lebens)
The Stillwater Post-Messenger published a special issue in 1942 to celebrate German Farmers Mutual Fire Insurance reaching 75 years old. (Gazette staff photo by Alicia Lebens)

In 1867, the German immigrants to the St. Croix Valley built their farms on the edge of the vast wilderness in the newly formed state of Minnesota. Held together in a tightly knit community of German-only speakers, the most valuable items these men and women owned were their homes and barns — the most devastating event would be to lose either in a fire.

“The big stock insurance companies in New York, Philadelphia or Boston would never write an insurance policy for a barn in rural Minnesota back then,” said Greg Parent. “These immigrants were smart men; they decided to form their own insurance company.”

On March 18, 1867, about 80 farmers gathered to plan a German Farmers Mutual Fire Insurance Company. The company is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year, and Parent continues to serve farmers in Washington County as the manager of the company. It is the second-oldest farmer’s mutual insurance company in Minnesota.

“Membership dues were 25 cents per person and 25 cents per $100 of coverage,” Parent said. “Back then, you would only insure your house or barn of $200 to $300. The board would come out and inspect the property if you wanted more than $500, just to see if it was worth it.”

Parent explained that German Farmers started as a company before there was any state department to oversee insurance companies.

“They had no regulation — they just made a company that worked for their needs,” Parent said.

As a mutual company, German Farmers was owned by the policy holders, who would vote about the direction of the company.

“The concept is similar to what the Amish do,” Parent said. “The Amish don’t insure their homes or barns because if there is a fire, the neighbors would pool their money and will build a barn. It was the community that would come together to take care of each other.”

The community, however, was strictly limited to those of German descent. For the first 30 years in business, all of the documents and transactions would be completed in the farmers’ native German.

“It was all Germans in the southern part of Washington County, from Hastings to Stillwater,” Parent said. “Some of the Swedes in the northern part of the county heard about the formation of the German Farmers Mutual and wanted to join. That wasn’t allowed, here or any part of the state back then.”

Parent said the Swedes decided to form the Chisago Lakes Mutual Fire Insurance Company about five months after the Germans organized. Today, Chisago Lakes Mutual is still in operation and is the third oldest mutual farm fire insurance company in the state. There are currently 92 mutual insurance companies in Minnesota.

The rules relaxed at the turn of the century and the company began to open to non-Germans, and documents were printed in English. Farming began to grow rapidly in the first half of the 20th century.

“At that time we had between 1,000 and 2,000 policy holders,” Parent said. “We have some families and farms on the books that started with us in the early 1900s.”

With a tradition of working with fellow local businesses, German Farmers was one of the first to open an account at Lake Elmo Bank in 1909, and is one of their oldest customers.

“We also started banking at the Bayport bank when they opened and at the Marine bank when they opened,” Parent said.

Farming in Washington County would begin to decline, however, in the 1970s as the farmers’ children left agriculture, and the farmers retired and sold their land for residential and commercial development.

“Today we have about 300 policy holders,” Parent said. “Like all things, there will be an end to it one day.”

German Farmers Mutual Fire Insurance will have its 150th annual company meeting 10 a.m. March 25 at Gorman’s in Lake Elmo. The company will celebrate 150 years by holding an open house luncheon noon to 2 p.m. June 17 at the Washington County Fairgrounds.

Contact Alicia Lebens at [email protected]