While most Kansas State Fair visitors are still in bed, Jessica Thiessen wishes more knew her family's story.
It’s 6 a.m. and still dark out as she leads a milking shorthorn into the fair’s milking parlor - except for the lightning flashes across the sky. Her father, Merle, is up too, as well as her uncle Kelly - a family fair effort that has been ongoing since 1967.
“I’d love for people to learn more about the industry,” the 19-year-old 4-H’er said, later adding, “they know we milk cows but they don’t know how much work goes into it.”
Yet, for the Thiessen family, milking cows is part of a twice-a-day routine that spans more than eight decades. They milk 17 cows on their farm near Inman. It's not easy. But they can’t imagine another lifestyle. It’s a tradition so deep in their veins that they continue on as other small dairy operators slowly disappear.
“It’s a disease,” said Merle with a laugh. “It’s worse than drugs. They can throw you in jail for that and make you quit. But when you dairy, there is just something about it."
Now, nearly an hour before the sun rises over the state fairgrounds Saturday, the Thiessens are up, milking, washing cattle and cleaning pens - even beating out of bed some of the other dairy competitors - including a few that are sleeping in the barn.
They’ve only missed one state fair since 1967.
“This is our vacation to get away,” said Jessica.
Both Merle and his brother, Kelly, dairy is in between their day jobs. Merle has a shop in Inman. Kelly drives a truck. The dairy is at Merle’s farmstead and is managed by his family - wife, Karen; son, Seth, 23; and Jessica.
The passion goes back to 1937 when the family’s grandfather, Irvin Knackstedt, registered his first milking shorthorns under the name Sasnak Farm.
“His dad told him his cows were just as good, he didn’t have to pay for papers,” Merle said. “And when our grandad sold a cow, and a heifer calf and a bull at the Kansas State Fair sale, they had to be registered, and he sold those registered animals and made enough money to buy a brand new Pontiac and pay cash for it. When he drove it on the yard, his dad saw it and was very impressed.”
That was 1942. His dad began registering his own cattle shortly thereafter, Kelly said. And they still register their cattle under Sasnak Farms.
Showing cattle has been a big part of their lives, as well. The brothers’ mother, Helen, showed dairy in 4-H - even earning a trip to Waterloo, Iowa, for the National Dairy Congress back in the 1940s.
She married, but her husband, Vernon, favored sheep. Helen, however, stayed true to the shorthorn breed.
By the mid-1960s - there was one cow left. Their mother milked her by hand, Kelly said.
“She could milk a 3-gallon bucket just like that," Kelly said.
Kelly wanted to show dairy. His grandfather Irvin made him a deal.
“My grandad still had the one registered cow, and he always ran a registered bull," Kelly said. "He told me if she had a heifer, I could have her. She had a heifer.”
That was 1967, and Kelly was 12 at the time. Once again the family began to grow the herd.
Merle started showing dairy when he got old enough to enter 4-H. He recalled how his family once dropped him off at the fair in Topeka when he was just 13 or 14 with some of the shorthorns.
At the time, the family’s milking parlor was in what Merle called a “flat barn.” The one in Topeka had a raised floor.
“I told myself I’m going to milk in a barn like this someday,” Merle said. “If you stick with it long enough, you’ll milk in a barn like this. And I finally made it.”
In the mid-1980s, the Thiessens redid their grandfather’s barn. They got a permit to sell their milk in 1988, said Merle.
Merle still remembers the only state fair the family missed.
Their milking barn burned in October 1992. Their dad, Vernon, died in April 1993. Another dairy was taking care of their cattle while they considered their options.
Not showing at the 1993 Kansas State Fair, “that was a tough decision,” said Merle.
The hurdle didn't stop them.
“We had the opportunity to buy a farm with a milk barn on it, and we dived in feet first,” said Merle.
Early morning duties
Helen Thiessen’s love of the industry is still alive at the 2017 Kansas State Fair.
“She was the driving force,” Merle said of his mother.
“She was like the glue that held everything together,” said Jessica. “That’s why we would get together as a family all the time. We’ve been still trying to do that. And with the fair, we can still do that.”
The family arrived Wednesday with 13 head of milking shorthorns and Jessica’s single Brown Swiss. They all work together.
As the street sweeper brushed off the thoroughfares nearby on this Saturday morning, Jessica and Merle began the day’s milking chores. Kelly started cleaning stalls. Seth stayed at the farm to milk the herd there.
A few hours later, as fairgoers began to sprinkle onto the grounds, their work was done.
“I just might venture out to the fair today,” said Kelly.
After all, their show day was Friday - the stressful day of washing and trimming cattle and trying to keep them clean for the judges. The entire family showed, including Kelly’s wife, Gayleen.
Jessica had the grand and reserve champion milking shorthorns. Her Brown Swiss did the best - receiving honorable mention for that show, she said.
It is Jessica’s last year at the state fair as a 4-H’er.
It’s bittersweet, but she still plans to come back to the state fair every year to show alongside her family.
“It’s family tradition,” she said, adding, “I’m the only girl left involved in it and it was really important to my grandma. So I just want to keep doing that."
Then, she added with a smile, “Hopefully, someday, I’ll have my kids involved in it, too, and I’ll have to do all the work and Grandpa can sit back and watch.”
Kelly said his grandchildren are involved in 4-H, but he didn't know if they will show dairy someday. But the love of the industry has trickled to his stepson, Jarrod Blackburn, who is getting his master's in dairy nutrition and is the coach of the Kansas State University dairy judging team.
The family puts in a lot of work, both on the farm and at the fair. But overall, it's about family, Merle said.
“A lot of people think we are crazy for milking cows,” he said.
But it is a constant in their lives they don’t want to see disappear. “It's there every day. Every morning you walk up it's there and every night it is still there.”
“I just like milking cows,” Merle said.