ELLINWOOD — Vernon DeWerff has officially retired from the dairy business. Today, the farm where he raised award-winning cows that were the envy of major dairies around the country is quiet. The cows are gone, but the memories remain. We caught up with DeWerff and his wife, Marian, earlier this summer when their son Wayne DeWerff tipped us off he’ll be honored with the 2018 Kansas Dairy Leader Award at the Kansas State Fair in September.
Vernon has been milking cows since he was 5 years old. Back then, his father, Chester, raised hogs for market, and the family showed in open class at the fair. At the same time, they began building a dairy herd, buying their first registered cow from a farmer in Lorraine, and by the time Vernon turned 10, he was ready to transition.
That year at the fair, the family brought a grand champion boar and a grand champion sow, along with their first grand champion cow. They went out of the hog business when they were on top, he said, and it’s been dairy ever since for Vernon.
Over the next 20 years, he became a regular in the show ring at the fair, and developed a good eye for winning traits. He also learned the importance of getting to know what judges were looking for. Because of this, Vernon took a chance that many thought was outlandish, and he came out on top. That success was the turning point to a long and successful career.
First, skip back to 1963. Vernon and Marian had been married and raising a family for some time. Vernon showed a 2-year-old cow, Ken Ver Neil Count Sugar, that caught the eye of a judge at a district event.
“This guy really liked her,” he said. “I found out later that he was going to judge this show in Chicago the next fall.”
The show would be the International Livestock Exposition, featuring cows from all over the United States and Canada. He filed away that information.
Now, fast forward to 1964.
“My dad and my oldest brother went to watch the national show in Waterloo, Iowa,” he said. “Marian and I stayed home and took care of the cattle and that.”
Cows always need milking, so for dairy families, someone always has to stay behind. In addition to tending the herd, Vernon brought the cow to show at the Kansas State Fair.
“Well, my cow was dry at the time,” he said. “She didn’t even win her class, coming in second in the dry cow class. But, she was due to calve just right for the show in Chicago.”
Remembering what he’d learned earlier, Vernon made plans with another young breeder from Hays to attend the ILE.
He told his dad about his plans.
“My cow looks awful good,” he said. “Me and Doug made plans to go to Chicago for the international show.”
“Why, you can’t go that far,” his dad said. “Well, you’ve showed cattle in a lot of places, but I don’t think you’ve got any business going to Chicago. This is probably the dumbest one you’ve ever been to.”
Vernon disagreed. The two men were determined, planning to team up with a herd from Colorado. They loaded up, intending to meet that herd at Hays and continue to Chicago on a railroad car. That plan fell through.
“If the train stopped and added cattle, it was going to be double the price,” he said. “So we just took a tarp and the truck and we ended up driving the truck through a blizzard, clear to Chicago.”
At one point, the gas line froze on the truck, and they coasted into a town where they were able to get the line thawed. In Springfield, Ill., a state patrol officer stopped them.
“Where are you guys headed?” he asked.
“I said we were going to Chicago, and he said we’d never make it,” Vernon said. “I told him we’ve come this far so we’re not going back home.”
When they finally made it, they drove around for a while, lost in the city covered in snow, but eventually found the coliseum. The next morning it was near zero degrees, and he learned that was the first year they had ever closed the schools in Chicago because of a blizzard.
“When our cow won, it was not expected. We were the little guy down the road.”Vernon DeWerff
“We couldn’t’ even go out of the coliseum to get a bite to eat unless we had someone with us that knew the way,” he said.
It all paid off when his cow was named All American.
“When our cow won, it was not expected,” he said. “We were the little guy down the road.”
The judge had someone ring Chester on the telephone. Vernon, still holding the cow in the ring, told his dad when he answered the phone, “Dad, we’ve won it all!”
“After that, when I came home, I could go to any show if I thought I had a good enough cow,” Vernon said. “He never said a word.”
Other changes came as a result of the trip. Vernon’s reputation grew among dairy breeders, and the notoriety of having an All American designation brought visitors from out of state. They were amazed to find she was out with all the other cows in the field, instead of in a box stall, Vernon said. He didn’t believe in special privileges. That didn’t bother Count Sugar, who lived to be 15 years old, and continued to produce milk up until the end.
As Vernon finished his story, Marian appeared from the hallway of their rural Ellinwood home, a framed display with photos and certificates from the show. It included the telegram the family received from Holstein Friesian World magazine, congratulating them for their accomplishment.
According to Wayne DeWerff, Vernon’s and Marian’s son, Count Sugar was nominated for the All American award as a 2-year-old, honored as a 3, and nominated again as a 4-year-old.
Recognition for a life well-lived
Wayne DeWerff compiled his dad’s long history of accomplishments in the dairy business, including this and many other stories, and submitting them with his nomination of Vernon for the Kansas Dairy Leader Award for 2018.
“Vernon DeWerff is a contributor, a teacher, and a working advocate of the dairy industry,” he wrote. “At age 86, he is still involved in the Holstein industry and Kansas Holstein Association. Looking back in retrospect, his most enjoyable and memorable moments were always working with youth. The annual farm tour and milking demonstrations he and Marian put on to the third graders every year during a 25 plus year period for the Ellinwood School system and teachers was “tops!”
Vernon and Marian continue to be involved in their community and the Barton County Fair. Marion is the horticulture superintendent, and Vernon a regular exhibitor in open class woodworking. He spends many hours in his workshop, building toys, furniture and useful items for his children and grandchildren.
Earlier this summer, they had the milking parlor at the farm torn down, removed the doors to the bulk-tank shed and had the bulk-tank removed. They installed a new door to the shed and will keep the hand-painted sign with their farm name posted over it, a reminder of a rural legacy they’ve built over a lifetime together.
Vernon’s accomplishments are many. Eventually, health issues caught up with him, and he sold his registered herd in August, 1991. At that time, Ell-Bar had won the Premier Breeder banner at the Kansas State Fair 12 of 19 years, from 1971-1990. That wasn’t the end of Vernon’s show career though. He continued to show every year until his last in 2012.
“Even though the 2012 Kansas State Fair marked Ell-Bar’s last, Vernon’s show legacy at age 81, set a landmark that may live in infamy, being honored by the KSF for 70 years of exhibiting dairy at the fair,” Wayne wrote.
Letting go of the past is bittersweet for the DeWerffs but, as Marian says, life goes on. Their son summed it well when he wrote:
“In all honesty, Vernon and Marian are more unselfishly deserving of this award together – for that is how they’ve lived their lives – relying on each other; depending on each other; supporting each other; praising and celebrating each other; and living their 66 years of marriage dedicated to God, cows, family, and friends.”
Vernon will accept his award on Monday, Sept. 10, at the Kansas State Fair Holstein Dairy Show.