“It’s Our Way of Life”

The generational wheel at this Waldorf farmstead has continued to turn for more than a century
Writer: Tina Wagner

It is said that America was built by the hard labor of those who immigrated here.
Often coming with little but a dream, immigrants arrived with an eagerness to work hard to realize those dreams and to carve out a life for their families.
It has been no different for the Shlagel family of Waldorf, the proprietors of a popular springtime destination for strawberry pickers, who for 111 years, have faced tragedy and triumph on their Waldorf farmstead.
A visit there yields a step back in time and belies the hardships endured there, generation after generation, to make the farm what it is today.
Russell Shlagel, grandson of Otto Schwingenschlogl, who along with his brother Alois and sister Maria, immigrated from Germany to the U.S. in the early 20th century, seeking a better life. Russell so clearly tells the story of his family and the legacy of those who have come before him.

 

“Russell Shlagel and Joe “Rudy” Shlagel walk through one of the fields. Russell is the third generation of Shlagels to farm the land.


HARSH REALITIES
In 1911, the siblings purchased the 400-acre farm in north Waldorf from the German-American Colonization Land Co.
When they purchased it, Russell explains, “it was nothing but a wooded tract. There were no buildings, no fields. They set out to create three separate farmsteads for each family, and at some point, they ran out of money,” illustrating the hard realities for immigrants during this time.
“My grandfather Otto, with his pregnant wife and infant daughter, went to Gary, Indiana, to work in the steel mills to send money back home,” Russell says. “Once World War I broke out, he was shut out of the steel mills because of his heritage and he returned home to the farm. By 1921, three houses and three separate farms were set up, and the land was divided by drawing straws.” Never leaving the farm again, Otto and his wife Mary were “surviving,” Russell says. They cleared fields and planted tobacco.
Russell’s grandparents died in 1933. Otto was killed by a falling tree while clearing a cow pasture, and Mary died from a weak heart, “as best as anyone knows,” Russell says.
When Otto and Mary died, Russell’s father George, 12 at the time, was left “to become the farmer and to make a go of it with four siblings.” There were no agencies to care for the welfare of orphaned children at that time.
George told tales in his later years of the hardships that he and his siblings endured. He told of the winter of 1937 that followed a bad growing year, and how they survived on pickles that they had canned and coffee.
George stopped attending the one-room German schoolhouse after sixth grade to work on the farm where they were growing tobacco and produce and selling chickens, eggs and butter.

These pint-size pickers, Allison and Emersyn Shlagel, can attest that the best berries are the ones you pick yourself.

“Many of their customers came from Washington, D.C.,” Russell says.
George also set up and ran a small sawmill and sold lumber, eventually buying his siblings’ shares of the farm in 1942, before going to the South Pacific, though he could have stayed home on a farm deferment to grow food for the troops.
 
A STORIED HISTORY
When George came home after the war, he married Myra and they had four children, Steven, Joseph, Susan and Russell. Tragedy would visit the farm yet again, when Russell’s sister Susan died after being thrown from a horse.
At nearby St. Peter’s Church, where many Shlagel family members have faithfully attended through the years, there is a stained-glass window, depicting the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity, which remains today “in memory of Mary Susan and Joseph Ronald, daughter and son of George R. and Myra G. Shlagel.”
It is noteworthy that the same Joseph Shlagel, Russell’s brother, was the first student to be registered at nearby St. Peter’s School. Today, Russell’s grandchildren, Bailey, Kallie and Joseph continue the line of Shlagels who have attended the school. The Shlagel family has a long and storied history among the Southern Maryland community.
As the years passed, George raised tobacco, cows, chickens and hogs.

 
CHANGING WITH THE TIMES
“Fast forward to the ’80s, when tobacco was taking a downturn, and I was back on the farm with my dad,” Russell says. “We decided to go in a different direction. We started raising vegetables and selling them on the side of the road, then onto Florida Avenue in [Washington] D.C.”
Later, he explains, “We went to a farmers market, and we talked to the customers to figure out what they wanted.”
“The single best thing that happened to our business was when Giant Food began buying local produce in 1994, and we were lucky enough to have them notice us,” he says.
Today, Russell and wife Eileen carry on the legacy of Shlagel Farms as it continues to evolve.
“Now we still sell to Giant as well as a few others, and we go to nine farmers markets and have a Saturday market here on the farm,” he says. “We are still a family business and now that my five children are adults, I have three of them here with me full time. We raise our own beef, chickens and pork, and grow a large variety of fruits and vegetables.”
Russell’s sons Karl, Jake and Luke are on the farm full time, while son Casey and daughter Susan live close by. Russell’s oldest brother Steven, who is retired, returns frequently with his wife Pat to help with special projects.
 

FARM FAVORITES
Springtime in Southern Maryland means strawberries, for which Shlagel Farms has become quite well known.
“We open the farm in May for pick-your-own strawberries, and in October for pick-your-own pumpkins,” he says. “We are proud to say that we have 14 grandchildren with another on the way, and we love nothing more than to see them out in the fields and with the animals, playing and helping and learning. It’s our way of life. It’s physically demanding, always changing, and some years are just tough. But we love it, and we love to share it with the community.”
As the early dreams of siblings Otto, Alois and Maria Shlagel have already been realized, the generational wheel of the Shlagel family continues to turn.
Shlagel Farms is at 12850 Shlagel Farm Road in Waldorf. Learn more about spring pick-your-own opportunities at shlagelfarms.com or check the farm’s Facebook page for updates. •


Correction

In the Spring 2021 print edition Table of Contents, the number of generations that have farmed Shlagel Farms in Waldorf was incorrect. There have been five generations farming there for more than a century.