by Audrey Kletscher Helbling
See how one church in Minnesota celebrates Life Together with a little golf, sweet corn and a pasture full of cow pies.
On a perfect summer afternoon under a vast prairie sky swept by sporadic clouds, with a slight breeze and temperatures in the mid-80s, Glen Gunderman perches his lawn chair atop a ridge overlooking Jack Creek in the middle of his roughly 12-acre southwestern Minnesota cow pasture. He alternates between sitting and standing, scanning to the left and to the right and down below as golfers maneuver through his hilly pasture-turned-golf-course for a day.
This is the Cow Pie Open, an annual fundraiser and social gathering sponsored by St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in nearby Fulda, population 1,283. On the second Saturday in August, every year for the past 12, Gunderman and his wife, Kay, have hosted this event on their 125-year-old, third-generation family farm.
Initially held at a local golf course—minus the cow pies—the event was put out to pasture to cut costs and to add the cow pie element of fun. As Glen Gunderman tells the story, he and visiting relatives were knocking golf balls around the pasture when his sister-in-law hit one into a cow pie. He challenged her to pluck the ball from the pile without getting dirty. She succeeded.
“We had so much fun we thought, ‘Why not share this with others?’” Gunderman says.
Today, the Gundermans open their farm to about 160 guests, 50–70 of whom golf. St. Paul’s members and non-members—all are welcome—follow the township gravel road to the family homestead where 15 stock cows, kept specifically for the Open, graze. The Gundermans, who want dried cow pies, not fresh, moved the herd two weeks earlier from the golf-course pasture to one along the driveway. Here the scent of cow manure lingers.
Back in the cow-vacated pasture, golfers tee off, dodging dried cow pies in a onegolf- club “best ball” competition that recognizes players who lose the most balls and encounter the most cow pies in a 10-hole game. Attendees can also participate in a ping-pong ball race down the creek, miniature golf, volleyball, horseshoes and more in this jam-packed day. Yet, kids still have time to splash in the creek, hang from tree limbs, sway in a tire swing and scoot up into a tree house.
Says key organizer Dennis Dierks, Glen Gunderman’s cousin, who on this day is grilling pork burgers next to a weathered corn crib, “It’s a fund-raiser, but I apell it two ways: fund and fun.”
Through the years, the Cow Pie Open has generated $7,000–$19,000 annually for designated purposes like debt reduction, current expenses at the church and its parochial school, repairs, a building fund and more. Some donors have also earmarked their free-will offerings for missions and The Lutheran Hour.
But the Open’s goals reach beyond fund-raising. The event offers cross-generational interaction and the opportunity to serve, says Rev. D. H. Baumgarn, who claims to provide a bit of pasture humor with his once-a-year-golf swing.
Here generations gather between corn and soybean fields, many trekking to the pasture for a game that’s more about socializing than competing. “It’s the only time I golf. I’m a terrible golfer, but it’s fun,” laughs St. Paul’s Church secretary Sara Heintz, who grew up in suburban Detroit and moved to rural Minnesota 20-plus years ago when she married her farmer-husband. She enjoys the sunshine, the breeze, the cow trails and even “the hoof prints mushed in mud and dried,” she says.
Golfers banter back and forth. “Too much air,” one shouts. “That’s a keeper,” another judges. “We’re pros,” a golfer claims as he stoops to scoop an errant ball from the creek.
Back in the farmyard, young and old sit side by side at tree-shaded tables savoring a picnic-style meal of burgers, corn-on-the-cob, baked beans and more, including coveted orange rolls baked by St. Paul’s member Shirley Buschena. Others gather at tables inside a nearby machine shed emptied of farm equipment and transformed into a makeshift dining hall.
“It’s good fellowship. You can’t beat it on a day like today,” says Richard Gunderman, chief sweet corn cooker. Between cooking batches of unhusked corn inside burlap bags immersed in scalding water heated by an outdoor turkey cooker, the 82-year-old says the event is also a reunion. Many church members are related to each other; he’s Glen Gunderman’s cousin.
For college student Francis Olsem, the Cow Pie Open allows him to reconnect with long-time friends who attended St. Paul’s Lutheran School together. He’s drawn, he says, by the golf, food and fellowship.
“It kind of bridges the generations,” says St. Paul’s principal and seventh/eighth grade teacher Leah Olson as she catches up with her former students and others.
Among the oldest attendees is 94-year-old Verana Kopischke, hostess Kay Gunderman’s mother. She visits with friends and later pitches in by picking up folding chairs, but not without a scolding—“You’re not supposed to be doing that!”—from younger volunteers.
By mid-afternoon, the farmyard is nearly empty, leaving the Gundermans and their faithful crew to clean up. Already 56-year St. Paul’s member and long-time volunteer Juanita Gunderman is planning ahead. “We’ll do it until we’re too old,” she says, “or the crowd doesn’t come any more.”
About the Author: Audrey Kletscher Helbling is a writer from Faribault, Minn., and a member of Trinity Lutheran Church.
St. Paul’s Lutheran was chartered on March 28, 1886.