Their day jobs were in the fields and farms of northern Ozaukee County, but they took on secondary careers delighting audiences with their songs
Gerry Weiland and the Holy Cross Valentine’s Day Party Committee were in a pickle.
They had no entertainment for their upcoming party and no money to hire any.
The longtime Fredonia resident came up with a plan. Weiland would record music ahead of time and hand everyone a raffle ticket at the entrance. Numbers selected got to sing for the group.
“They were scared,” Weiland said. “They didn’t know it was rigged.”
Weiland had rehearsed with singing partners ahead of time and called their numbers. The group performed and the Valentine’s Day party entertainment vacancy was filled.
That was 35 years ago.
“We thought it was one show, that was it,” Skip Bichler said.
The group that has come to be known as the Singing Farmers has performed hundreds of times since from Sheboygan to Milwaukee.
“I never in my wildest dreams imagined it would go like this,” Weiland said.
Members have come and gone, but three originals remain: Weiland, the group’s leader, Bichler of the Town of Belgium and Gordon Thill of Fredonia. Originals Ron Schueller and Art Buser have died and Francis Ansay has retired.
Others now with the group include George Brookins of Fredonia, Ken Nett of Holy Cross and Dennis Dimmer of Dacada.
Everyone’s a farmer except for Nett, and even he had a connection to agriculture.
“I was a cheesemaker,” he said. “I took that milk and I made cheese with it.”
The Singing Farmers likes to sing at senior care homes. The group performs at Harbor Club in Port Washington every two months and hands out music encouraging people to sing along.
While some capacities of residents may have diminished, music sticks with them.
“They can’t find their room but they can sing these songs,” Weiland said. “It’s so rewarding to go entertain people who don’t have the greatest life anymore.”
A common response is: “When are you coming back?” Reactions do vary. Bichler remembered singing at Lasata Care Center once. “I don’t know if we sang that bad or that good, but a woman got up and walked out of her wheelchair. “We could be a healing group.”
The group’s banter with one another is as charming as its program. The Singing Farmers usually starts with “Let’s Have a Party,” followed by polkas and waltzes.
Then come country music classics, followed by gospel songs and the closing of patriotic songs.
Weiland has a few outfits to fit the program’s bill, including a white sport coat and a pink carnation for the Marty Robbins’ song of the same title and a blue shirt for the “Blue Shirt Waltz.”
Concerts usually last about 45 minutes and include 13 to 14 songs.
The final song is often “This Land is Your Land,” and it includes a customized stanza to close:
We’re the Singing Farmers
We’re from Fredonia
We hope you liked us
That’s not bologna
Tell your friends and neighbors about our program
So long, farewell, toodledo.
The group has 100 songs in its repertoire, but not a collective favorite. Bichler said he likes “Green, Green Grass of Home.”
“I hate that song,” Dimmer said. “We’ve got to find something that’s zippier.”
Weiland records organ music for every song the group sings.
Self-taught, he started with the piano when his daughter learned the instrument years ago from a private teacher.
“I did her lessons,” he said. “We got our money’s worth. Two of us learned.”
Weiland later switched to organ and is always on the hunt for new songs.
None of the other members have formal music training, either, though all have sung or are singing in their church’s choirs.
Weiland, Thill and Bichler all used to sing for Holy Cross’ choir. Bichler was introduced at an early age.
“My mom took me to choir practice,” Bichler said. “She probably figured I wouldn’t behave at home.”
Nett sings at St. Rose of Lima, now Divine Savior. Brookins used to sing at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Fredonia.
Dimmer sings in St. Nicholas Catholic Church Choir in Dacada, at New Horizon United Church of Christ in Kewaskum and in the Pine Haven Men’s Chorus in Sheboygan County.
The singers gather at Weiland’s home in Fredonia an hour before each performance to practice. They request no money for performing.
“We do it for smiles,” Weiland said. “Smiles are priceless.”
“We all work for the same price,” Brookins said.
They often work the same place. They’ve been singing at the Christmas party for Portal Inc. in Grafton since they started. The organization connects those with developmental disabilities to employment, and at first Dimmer said he was afraid of the reaction of the clients. Some got up and joined the choir.
“Now, when we’re done with the Portal, that’s Christmas,” he said. “You recognize the faces.”
The Singing Farmers perform about 30 to 35 times per year. Christmas and summers are the busiest times, they said. Once, they received four calls in one day.
“When the price is right, word travels,” Weiland said.
Weiland’s wife, Carol, prints out all the sheet music for the audience for each performance.
“She’s the godsend,” he said.
The group gathers as many people as it can for each gig, but usually doesn’t like to sing with less than four.
“If it wouldn’t be for these guys’ commitment, there we be no group,” Weiland said.
“You don’t want to be a solo?” Dimmer said.
“I don’t want to be a solo,” said Weiland.
When it comes to their personal lives, none have been soloists for decades. If they’ve done anything for longer than they’ve sung or farmed, it’s be husbands.
Thill, the eldest member of the group who turns 86 this month, has been married 59 years. Bichler is at 56 years, Weiland and Brookins 55, Nett 50 and Dimmer 38. He’s the baby of the group at 58 years old.
While Weiland and crew never thought they’d be singing for this long, now they have no plans to stop.
“As long as there are people to listen,’ we’re going to keep doing it,” Dimmer said.
“Good Lord willing, we want to do it another 35,” Weiland said.
Image Information: The Singing Farmers, assembled in a northern Ozaukee County corn field, are (from left) Ken Nett, Holy Cross; Gordon Thill, Fredonia; Dennis Dimmer, Dacada; Gerry Weiland and George Brookins, Fredonia; and Skip Bichler, Town of Belgium. Photo by Sam Arendt