EAST COUNTY — Donald James Hunsader often got lost in his work, even in retirement.
Late in life, in his 80s, “Jim,” as he was known, would wander into the squash plants on the farm he created — but no longer owned — driving a golf cart.
The cart, with “Grandpa’s Cart” written on a white place card hung atop it, was his, and it even came attached with a horn he could honk when he got lost in the squash.
His wife, Connie, bought the horn to serve as Hunsader’s voice box after a scare during which he went missing for four-and-a-half hours; at that point, he could no longer walk or talk.
Hunsader, true to his nature, would never use the horn, reluctant to draw attention to himself. He was too focused on the farm, searching for white rot on otherwise red strawberries.
The farm, the East County staple called Hunsader Farms, was no longer his, after his sons, Mike and David, took it over in 1990 and transformed it into the public’s farm, with a market, petting zoo and the renowned pumpkin festival.
But, even when he let go of the farm — the one he and his two late brothers, Paul and Robert, cleared by hand in 1967, trading in the 24/7 work of milking cows in Wisconsin for planting tomatoes in Bradenton — he never really did.
Hunsader, 85, died Aug. 17, at home with is family, a month before Mike and David Hunsader and their wives, Trish and Kim, and some of 14 grandchildren will open the farm for its 47th season.
“It sucks he’s not here,” said David Hunsader, motioning with dirt-covered hands to the 1,000 acres of land behind him. “Because he was always here. We’ll just have to keep doing it. We’ll have to work harder.”
One of 10 children, Hunsader, a son of dairy farmers, and his brothers sold their Wisconsin Dairy Farm in 1967 when the Manitowoc Airport bought the land.
In search of a warm climate to grow vegetables, which would require a less-demanding lifestyle, they thought, the brothers first went to Texas.
“He was sick of milking cows three times a day, seven days a week,” David said.
The brothers did have some experience growing vegetables, after having experimented with sugar beets and corn in Manitowoc.
They came to Bradenton and met with Dr. Geraldson, a man they knew from Manitowoc and the founder of Geraldson Community Farm.
The Hunsaders bought land on County Road 675 in 10-acre chunks from Robert Manley, a businessman and owner of much of the land on the road.
They cleared the trees and grew tomatoes. Rain often washed the fertilizer away.
Hunsader learned to be resourceful from his two years he served as a helicopter mechanic in the Marines, during the Korean War.
When Hunsader left the Marines, he hitchhiked from California to Wisconsin to get home.
Up until the last two years of his life, when he battled with Parkinson’s disease and the remnants of a stroke he suffered in January 2011, Hunsader made sure the farm ran smoothly, even from a distance.
Every Pumpkin Festival in October, he’d steer his golf cart along the side of a stage his sons built, where country musicians perform during the Pumpkin Festival.
Hunsader silently danced, alone in the cart.
“He did have rhythm,” said David Hunsader’s wife, Kim Hunsader, who helps run the farm market. “My in-laws think he was the cutest little thing. He was known as being a cute, old man.”
One year, the singer on stage acknowledged Hunsader by shouting to the crowd, “Say hi to Mr. Jim Hunsader, on the golf cart!”
When he got the urge to dance, he’d leave the golf cart, drag Connie Hunsader from the Eat Shack, where she prepared pies, and dance with his wife.
During u-pick season, a phenomenon he and his brothers started in which the public can pick their own fruits and veggies, often in mass amounts, Hunsader picked strawberries.
He chose selectively.
He did not pick strawberries tainted by the tiniest bit of white.
“He only picked the perfect strawberry,” Kim Hunsader said.
After a machine ripped peas from the earth, Hunsader would shell them and separate the weeds from the good stuff.
In his last two years of life, Hunsader appeared at the farm less often.
But, his presence still lingers on the farm that was once only 80 acres, filled with trees.
Scarecrows, the product of Hunsader’s late-life hobby, greet farm-goers throughout; one sits behind a wheel of a tractor and another, clothed with a plaid long-sleeve shirt and stuffed with hay, hangs by the pumpkins.
Hunsader and his wife made the scarecrows from scratch, framing them with wood, tying them with strings, filling them with hay and nailing a hat atop their heads.
Connie Hunsader scoured Goodwill stores each year for the components of the scarecrows’ fresh outfits.
Hunsader was handy, and David Hunsader often sent him to the hardware store at a moment’s notice, to keep the farm running.
David Hunsader knows how to run a farm, because his dad taught him.
Today, Mike and David Hunsader line the dirt with plastic, which holds moisture to the crop.
David Hunsader was the only one of Jim Hunsader’s five children to be born in Bradenton, and he grew up on the farm, just as his children, Rachel, Alex and Austin, have.
“We just love being here,” says David Hunsader, his shirt soaked in sweat after toiling in the sun, replacing a trailer’s tires. “It’s fun most days.”
On this day, the first week of September, Kim and Rachel Hunsader, 21, are preparing for the season.
They sweep the dusty floor of the produce market and paint a fresh coat of red onto the food cartons.
Mike, David and Alex, 20, work in the fields, far away.
As a child on the farm, Rachel Hunsader remembers trying to build a farm of her own, with her cousins, using spare plants.
“I love the farm so much,” Rachel Hunsader says. “It’s my favorite place. It will be weird not having Papa here. It’s cool to say he started this. It’s a family thing.”
Soon, the Hunsaders will bring another Pumpkin Fest to the community.
Family will come from out of state to work there.
The scarecrows will dot the farm in new outfits.
The corn maze will twist and turn to spell out, “Rest in peace, Papa.”
The golf cart will be parked nearby — ready to take a turn around the farm.
Contact Josh Siegel at [email protected].