Dark Secrets

The Strange Germans in the House On the Hill

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Kuerner Farm is listed as a National Historic Landmark but it is mostly important because it was the scene of so many Andrew Wyeth paintings.

The house itself, all white like a “block of snow ice” against the green hills, was originally called the Ring Farm, built by Caleb Ring in 1814. The land before that watched the American Revolution pass by across from where the road is now. There was most likely no fighting on the land but they did find some cannon balls and other remnants from the soldiers’ gunfire nearby. To the side of the house, just out of shot, are the train tracks where N.C. Wyeth was killed, which only adds to the darkness that Andy found so inspiring here.

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And we cannot forget the barn. The barn is one of only four left of its kind in the United States. It’s a pre-fab construction ordered right out of a Sears catalog! Embers from the railroad burned the last barn down sometime in the 1800s and so they shipped a new one out to the farm as a replacement, now it’s rare and valuable.

The entrance of the farm is framed by two pillars made from local pale green serpentine stone and built during WWII by German soldiers on loan from a POW camp near Philadelphia. The stones came from a burned out mansion nearby named Windtryst. The driveway is bordered by pines and trees planted by Karl Kuerner himself- in homage to the Black Forest he sorely missed.

Andrew Wyeth, who we talked about not long ago here, painted Kuerner’s Farm repeatedly. The Kuerner’s and their home represented some of his favorite themes of war, brutality and death. In his imagination, the farm was Germany.

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The German POWs also built this stone chimney.

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From The Black Forest

Karl Kuerner was born in 1898 in a small southern German village. During WWI he was a machine gunner but before that he was a sheepherder.

During the war he earned the Iron Cross for being wounded in the arm at the Battle of Verdun. But after the war Karl was sheepherding again and sometimes he ran into a local girl up in the mountain meadows. Her name was Anna Faulhaber. They would marry in 1921.

Soon a daughter came along: Louise, and then a son who passed away as an infant. Germany after the war was a tough place to live and the Kuerners felt the strain like so many.

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In 1923 Karl decided to leave his home behind for a new life in America. The story here follows all of the familiar lines. To afford the passage they sold all of their possessions and Karl arrived at Ellis Island with very little; just $25 leftover in his pocket.

An uncle in Philadelphia found him a job in a slaughterhouse. Two years later he’d saved enough money to bring Anna and Louise over.

Anna was miserable from the moment she landed on American soil. She would remain heartbroken and desperately homesick until the day she died. Eventually Karl found better pay by working as a machinist at a locomotive works but Anna insisted they move to the country; perhaps that would be a small balm to her homesickness for rural Germany.

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And so Karl secured work as a horse groom at a farm owned by the Governor outside the city in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. The next year they moved again, this time to their own farm where Karl worked off the rent by sheering sheep.

Every day after work Karl stalked the perimeter of his property with a Winchester 70 rifle and shot at crows, groundhogs, possums and skunks. To keep track of his kills he nailed groundhog tails to the woodshed as an informal tally.

Guns and hunting were Karl’s sole hobby. His collection of high-powered rifles hung from pegs in the house and his farm “rang with gunfire.” Sometimes he would choose a gun, walk out onto the porch and quickly shoot the heads off a few chickens. Then he would hang up his gun and yell for his wife to go collect the dead birds.

“Killing is what we like and the city people, they think meat comes in a package,” Karl said.

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German Roots

Hard work on the farm extended to Karl and Anna’s five children now too. Louise, Karl Jr., Clara, Lydia and Elizabeth all worked like adult farmhands as soon as possible. Karl ruled with an iron fist and occasionally physical violence, sometimes he just hit them to release his frustrations over the farm.

His daughter Lydia remembered: “If the cows did something wrong, we got it. The beatings I got – going to school with my thumb all bandaged up and I had to lie and tell the teacher that I hurt it, when he had actually done it. Well, I have forgiven [him]. But I haven’t forgotten.”

The punishments he doled out were even worse when he was drunk. When inebriated he favored the strap and whipped their legs, but his favored punishment for Karl Jr. was forcing him to milk the cows without the restraints that stopped them from kicking the milker.

With all their responsibilities, Andy Wyeth never had the opportunity to paint any of the children on the farm but his presence left a lasting impression on them anyway.

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Life With the Great American Painter

Andy was chiefly drawn to painting Karl and the farm because they were so isolated, and also they were so close to his own home. The community thought they were too German, too hard on their kids and during the war that they were Nazi sympathizers…it really didn’t help that Karl had German POWs working for him on the farm.

When Karl died, Andy said the boys that hung out at the corner gas station said, “That’s the best fucking thing that has happened to him ever.”

Karl wasn’t always cold. His love for Christmas thrilled his children as he played German carols on the Victrola and sang along with them. He built them a pond for the hot summers when he found their poor attempt at a makeshift swimming hole and by the time he had grandkids he was a more mellow man, always sweet to them.

Andy Wyeth worked for a month on his portrait of Karl which would become famous {you can see it here}. He painted him in a room with meat hooks dotting the ceiling. He loved the brutality of it and also because it was where it was rumored Karl had raped a woman, though there’s no evidence of this.

kuerner-farm-bell-doorAnna would ring the bell to signify that supper was on the table, if you came more than 10 minutes after that announcement she’d already cleared your plate. No food for you.

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ANNA

While Karl’s Germanic ways drew Andy Wyeth to the Kuerner farm initially it was Anna who was the center of all things. Usually when Andy was there Anna would ignore him when he spoke to her, especially when he would ask her to pose for him. He contented himself with painting the things around her like her blankets, her kitchen and the huge wardrobe upstairs that she once locked herself in in a fit of madness.

She perpetually kept her head wrapped in a kerchief to contain her pounding headaches while she spent every moment cleaning something, anything. Her obsessive work ethic was a coping mechanism, a distraction from a homesickness that never subsided.

Anna’s domestic chores only hid her mental instability to an extent. From the day she had arrived in America she had been intensely homesick and lonely. Their poverty, of course, did not make things any easier. Heavy, tiring farm work and bearing four children in five years was too much for Anna’s weakened mental state. In the early 1930s she could no longer control her moods.

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Though they were now making more money Anna was still forced to beg for money from Karl for the children’s Easter and Christmas gifts. His tightfistedness wore on Anna who already had focused her anger on him for forcing her to leave Germany. When Karl did not return on time from a moose hunt Anna took a pistol and shot herself in the head in a tantrum, grazing her skull.

At a breaking point Karl had her taken, screaming and fighting, to the state hospital. Anna spent the next decade in and out of the hospital, so much so that their youngest, Elizabeth, was born there in the mental hospital. Sometimes when they would visit, Anna wouldn’t recognize them so when she came home permanently the housekeepers Karl had hired stayed on and as did Anna’s sister Matilda to care for her.

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When Andy Wyeth was nearly finished with his portrait of Karl, Anna woke up in the middle of the night and carried it away. Karl heard her footsteps and found her angrily talking to the painting; she was headed to the woodshed. “I’m going to chop you up!” she told him.

In 1970 Anna unexpectedly agreed to finally pose for the famous artist who spent so much time at the Kuerner Farm that he had his own key and came and went as he pleased. She only sat briefly for one day before becoming angry with his slow method and her portrayal, Andy was forced to paint the rest from memory. When he was finished she said she didn’t like it {see it here}.

Andrew Wyeth also completed The Kuerners from memory which captured their frequent warring personalities, especially when he witnessed Anna walking into the line of fire from Karl’s rifle. You can see it here.

kuerner-farm-heaterThe portrait on the heater is of Karl, above right is Anna, both by Andy Wyeth.

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In the late 1970s Karl was diagnosed with leukemia. He insisted on staying at the farm with his wife so two nurses were hired to help their housekeeper care for him. One night he woke up suddenly to find Andy Wyeth sitting vigil at his bed. He thought he had heard a snapping noise. Andy explained that the noises he was hearing were just memories from WWI, his favorite story actually. A story Andrew loved to retell:

During the war Karl heard a clicking sound one night. Without asking for orders, permission, or thinking much about it he unloaded his machine gun into the pitch black night. Initially he was in trouble with his commanding officer…that was until they found quite a few French soldiers dead on the wire. The noise he’d heard had been the sound of barbed wire being cut.

Karl Kuerner died in 1979. Anna survived him by 18 years, passing in 1997. She is buried in Pennsylvania. Karl Jr.’s son would become an artist, just like Andy Wyeth.

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Sources: 1, “Andrew Wyeth” by Richard Merryman, tour guide from Brandywine River Museum {tours of the Kuerner Farm are available through the Museum except in the winter months}