Hienemans have lived and farmed on Coal Branch since the 1860s, passing their land and agricultural heritage through five generations.
The Hieneman Family Farm was founded by brothers George and Bill Hieneman in 1892. It is owned today by George’s great-grandson Curtis Hieneman, 65, and his wife Janet, 60, and their son George Hieneman and his wife Linda, both 30. George and Linda have a 2-year-old son named George.
The modern Hienemans raise beef cattle, but their ancestors once ran a thriving, diverse operation that fed their own families and many others in surrounding towns and cities.
The first Hieneman to settle on Coal Branch was George Hieneman; his sons would later found the Hieneman Family Farm. George emigrated from Frankfurt, Germany, in 1866, leaving behind a prosperous blacksmith shop, vineyard and hardware store.
He sailed to New Orleans then rode a steamboat up the Mississippi River to Cincinnati, Ohio, where he married his wife, Mary Keebler. The couple then settled on 35 acres along Coal Branch, known then as Greenslatelynn Road. They had five children but their two daughters died during childhood. Their three surviving sons were: George, Bill and Albert “Buck.”
Curtis Hieneman, the Hieneman family’s de facto historian, was able to learn about his family’s early life in America because of his foresight, at age 11, to save George’s old memoir book, legal correspondences, and letters. Curtis acquired the documents when Buck died and his relatives had piled up the documents, written in old German, in order to throw them out.
“Our heritage, the treasure, was right there. I picked up all I could and brought them in the house,” Curtis recalled, saying his mother initially fussed at him over it. But, he added, “They have just been a treasure now.”
Buck never left his parent’s home place, but George and Bill established the 400-acre Hieneman Family Farm on land around the next curve in the road.
The pair got their start clearing 60 acres of land for “Old Man Patton” in exchange for a team of harnessed mules, according to Curtis. The brothers bought the farm together but later split it right down the middle. In some cases the property line runs through the middle of the barns they constructed together, which remain in use today.
The brothers also built side-by-side homes on the front of the property, which stretches back between two ridges. George built his in 1906 and Bill followed in 1908.
Curtis and Janet live in the 1906 home, which Curtis grew up in while George and Linda own the 1908 home, which they purchased from Bill’s heirs in 2007.
“I own the left side and Dad owns the right,” chuckled George Hieneman.
The brothers early farm life is vividly depicted in letters the elder George wrote to his sister Albatina.
“My (great) granddad would write to Germany and brag about his sons and what they were doing, saying they had sorghum patches and 50 fattening steers. They had six teams of mules plus their buggy horses,” said Curtis, adding “They cleared off all these old hillsides. I could go around and show you where they had sorghum patches and corn patches and peach orchards and melon patches. It was unbelievable all the work they did.”
Curtis’ father, Andrew Fred “Boots” was one of George’s eight children and would also tell his son about life on the farm during his childhood.
“My dad said they would leave here on the express wagon loaded down with produce at 1 a.m. in the morning to go into Russell. He said they wouldn’t get back here until after dark. They would take whatever they had in season, like if it was honey season, or bean season, corn season or fryers and turkeys.
“One year, they had grown enough sugar cane, that they cooked 200 barrels of sorghum. They wagoned it to Greenup and loaded it on a barge and sent it down to Cincinnati and sold it. The price they got was 15 cents a gallon. They said they cooked sorghum from September all the way to December,” said Curtis, recounting one of his favorite pieces of family lore.
Curtis was five when Boots purchased George’s share of the farm upon his death.
“I never will forget this: They had Big Rock and Little Rock, the last of my Granddad’s mules,” Curtis recalls. “They went into the barn and got Big Rock, and he lumbered out. He was getting old and crippled up, he was about 35 years-old. He just walked up into the trailer without any problem at all.
“Then they went into the barn to get that Little Rock mule, and he came out a-bucking, he brayed, he laid down, he fell into the garden fence! Finally, they whipped him so hard he had to get into the truck. And I never will forget when they took him away; he kept looking behind all the time. I think that mule knew it was the end of an era for him. He didn’t want to leave but he had to.”
Boots raised a small cattle herd, grew tobacco and corn and worked a full-time job at Armco Steel for more than 40 years.
When Curtis became an adult, he and Janet bought their own farm but continued to work the land on Coal Branch with Boots. They also bought the old home place, where they lived for the first 35 years of their marriage and raised their children, George, and daughters, Mary Hieneman Howard, 38, and Dr. Carrie Hieneman Connette, 33. The children spent their childhood farming, too.
The Hienemans ran a Pick-Your-Own Strawberry Field for 26 years and is still well-known throughout the community because of it, said Janet. The family stopped growing strawberries more than a decade ago, but someone calls looking for berries every year, she added.
The family also grew watermelons and pumpkins and had a flock of sheep, while their children were young. Janet laughed as she recalled Mary’s efforts to convince the 4-H agent to include lambs in the Greenup County Fair.
“He kept telling her, ‘We don’t have lambs in this fair. We’re a cattle community. Nobody has lambs. We don’t have room for them.’ She said, ‘You can make room for them.’ Finally, after I don’t know how long, she talked him into it.”
The family soon began raising hogs and Mary tried to get them included, too, but was unsuccessful at that time, Janet added.
Boots and Curtis also grew approximately 20,000 to 25,000 lbs. of tobacco annually. Their last crop was grown in 2004, when they decided to participate in the tobacco settlement programs and transition into a larger beef operation.
The Hienemans have continued to expand and refine their cattle operation. They now have about 75 cows but plan to expand to 100 soon. They also cut hay from about 125 acres, which feeds their herd.
This summer, they plan to return to raising corn for silage due to a recent spike in prices. The biggest challenge in recent years, however, has been flooding and wet weather, according to George. He said the family has tried to breed their animals to calve later in spring in order to avoid the cold winters and wet early spring.
Farmers have to be flexible, and adapt to changes in technology, demand and even the cycle of their own families lives.
“You adapt your life and your role on the farm to whatever stage your family is in,” explained Janet.
Curtis and Janet are now both retired after 40-plus year careers at the Greenup County Health Department and United States Enrichment Corporation, respectively, but George and Linda work full-time. George is a security technician at Kings Daughter’s Medical Center and Linda is Greenup County’s agriculture extension agent. The couple’s second child, Stella, is due to arrive this spring. (She will be named after George’s great-grandmother).
Farming for the family is simply a way of life. It is what Hieneman’s have always done. A labor of love, that yields a small monetary profit but a lot of intangible satisfaction.
“At the end of the day it’s just something that we do,” said George, his father nodding in agreement, “I wouldn’t know any other way.”
“We’ve been here 100 years and I’m going to try to get all my people to keep it another 100 years. I hope they have that mindset,” said Curtis. “It’s just part of the family.”
Right now, all signs indicate the sixth generation will be ready and willing to carry on the Hieneman legacy when the time comes.
While his parents and grandparents have been telling his heritage, little George played at their feet with toy tractors and cows. According to Janet and Curtis, his older cousin, Matthew Howard, a freshman at Green High School, has also expressed interest in farming. Howard spends his summers on the farm and is old enough this year to drive the tractor.