Historical Treat of Redwood County

Since 1994, the Farmfest show has been held on one of Redwood County’s historical treasures, the Gilfillan Estate. Show visitors have the unique opportunity to see the Future of agriculture at Farmfest and the History of agriculture at Gilfillan. The Gilfillan family played a significant role in the history of Redwood County and the State of Minnesota that reaches far beyond the agricultural story.

Since 1882 when C. D. Gilfillan sold his Ramsey County property and purchased 13,000 acres of land in Redwood County, the Gilfillan farm has been a site of agricultural progress. The Gilfillan farm was one of the largest in the county and was devoted to raising purebred stock. The fine grade of cattle in the quantities raised by Gilfillan had not been seen in this area before and the livestock brought top dollar at market. Gilfillan developed methods to improve the breeding of horses, fattening cattle and hogs and also developed a means to turn native prairies into lush pastures.

Gilfillan’s goal was to not only benefit himself, but also surrounding farmers and businessmen. He gathered information whenever he could and delighted in sharing his practices with others, encouraging them to improve their methods. The Gilfillan farm site was the scene of many great get togethers for Paxton Township residents. It is ironic that all these years later, Gilfillan is still hosting community gatherings and is still a site of agricultural progress.

When the Gilfillan estate was built in 1885, the farm included many, many outbuildings, all of which had running water by means of the miles of underground pipes. While this was indeed progressive for the day, it was not surprising given that Gilfillan is the man credited with establishing the water system for St. Paul before his move to Redwood County.

The original Gilfillan farm outbuildings also included an icehouse – at that time, only certain storekeepers and some farmers had icehouses, which were restocked each winter from the frozen area lakes. The original Gilfillan icehouse is still used today to store ice, mush as it was over a hundred years ago. Historically, the blocks of frozen lake water were a necessity for summertime food preservation. Today, however, the ice blocks have a more defined purpose at Gilfillan.

Unlike a hundred years ago, the Gilfillan Estate no longer has hired farm hands or a farm manager. There is a crew of volunteers called The Friends of Gilfillan who maintain the estate and preserve the integrity of the original Gilfillan operation-including the task of restocking the icehouse each winter.

During the coldest part of the Minnesota winter, when Lake Sleepy Eye has frozen to a depth of about 16 inches, a crew of the Friends of Gilfillan gather with ice cutting saws and tongs. Some 350 blocks of ice are pulled from the frozen lake, loaded onto wagons, and transported to the Gilfillan Estate, where they are packed into the icehouse. As was done at the turn of the century, sawdust is packed between the layers of blocks to serve as the only insulation to maintain the frozen cubes, even through the summer heat.

It’s not until several months later when, in preparation for Farmfest, a group of the Friends of Gilfillan gather early in the morning on a hot July day, to reap the benefits of the January ice harvest. Under the experienced direction of Richard Nolting, four volunteers are assigned to the state-approved kitchen for the task of mixing up some 20 batches of the now finely-tuned recipe for use in that day’s ice cream making mission. Two other crew members, recalling the January ice harvest, pull blocks of ice from the icehouse. The frozen blocks are put through the mechanized ice crusher in preparation for the process to come.

A batch of the ice cream mix (eggs, sugar and pure vanilla), together with milk and cream, is put into a 5 gallon can which is then set in the center of the wooden ice cream maker. Crushed ice and salt are combined in the ration of one part salt to 10 parts ice, a super cold result is achieved. The wooden paddle, called a dasher, is inserted in the can and attached to the rotary gears. The mixer turns at about 60 rpm and is powered by an electric motor. It takes about 20-25 minutes of churning for each batch.

During the churning, more ice and salt are added to keep the ice at an even temperature and the can as cold as possible. The crew recognizes that when the dasher slows down, the ice cream is ready for the next step. The can cover is removed and a stainless sleeve is inserted around the can to keep the can area free from ice as the just-churned can is removed and a can with the next batch is inserted and the dasher installed.

The completed batch is transferred to the crew’s custom-made “holder and tipper” unit, which allows the still-soft ice cream to be carefully spooned into four 5 quart sanitized pails. The pails are transferred to a freezer where the ice cream will freeze to the familiar firm form and be held until needed.

In preparation for the Farmfest Show, 90 to 100 gallons of ice cream are made by the Friends of Gilfillan ice cream making crew during just one of the several 10-hour days designated for this task. In total, approximately 500 gallons of the frozen confection are made each summer for Farmfest and other community events. Given that the average age of the ice cream making crew is somewhere over 70 years of age, this is no small undertaking, even given that they have mechanized some of the labor-intensive processes of ice cream making.

While a crew of 6 is required to manage the tasks for the ice cream making process, there are often as many as 15 volunteers on hand to help where needed and to enjoy what has become an annual festive ritual in its own right – at least among the Friends of Gilfillan.

The homemade ice cream is offered for sale in a cup or in root beer floats by the Friends of Gilfillan on the estate grounds only during Farmfest. It is no wonder the Friends of Gilfillan choose ice cream as the means to bridge the past with the present. The frozen confection was a special treat a hundred years ago….and it is still a special treat today!