Sixty-one years ago, amid the Pronto Pups and Machinery Hill at the Minnesota State Fair, people lined up to peer into a glass-walled room filled with toys, a swing set, cribs -- and four toddlers.
They were the Seifert quadruplets, the first quads known to have survived in Minnesota, who lived on the grounds for the run of the fair.
For 25 cents, fairgoers looked upon these biological marvels as they played, cried, napped and laughed. The kids balked, however, at eating under such scrutiny, moving into a back room for meals. The four were so much of a sensation they returned for the next two fairs. The fascination continued. Newspapers marked their progress through birthdays, baptisms, first communions, graduations and marriages.
"When we were born, there were only 10 other sets in the U.S.," said Marti (Seifert) Andersen, now 62, who lives in Albert Lea, Minn. She has no memories of living at the fair, but remembers her mother telling how people would come to their Sleepy Eye farm from across the country.
"They would just show up at the farm place and peek in the windows," she said.
Two years ago, on Sept. 28, 2010, another set of quadruplets was born in Minnesota -- the Broskoff kids of Geneva, a small town just south of Owatonna. Likely, you've never heard of them.
The world has changed over the past six decades, what with fertility drugs, shifting ideas about celebrity, and spectacles such as the California woman known as Octomom, who had octuplets using in vitro fertilization.
Multiple births, while still unusual, are more common. In 1980, 24 sets of triplets, quadruplets and quints were born in Minnesota, according to state records. In 2003, there were 157. That's an increase of 554 percent.
The Broskoff siblings are spontaneous quadruplets, meaning that they occurred naturally, something that happens only once in 729,000 conceptions.
They beat the odds.
One day at a time
In some ways, the Broskoff quartet hides in plain sight.
You might see them lunching at Trumble's in Albert Lea with their great-great-grandma, shopping for groceries at Sam's Club, or toddling around their camper at a local campground. Their mother, Ashley Broskoff, 26, whose photo should be next to any dictionary's definition of "unflappable," waves away the suggestion that she and her husband, Travis, are doing more than any parents would reasonably expect.
"For your kids not to learn how to behave in a store or in a restaurant, you're just making more work for yourself," she said. "And then they'll get older and they'll have to know how to get on in the world.
"You take it for what it is," she continued. "Take it one day at a time. That's what we do here They're as much work as one kid. You just get five of everything, five sand buckets, five shovels." The Broskoffs also have a daughter, Presley, who's 5.
If she's tired of anything, it's hearing, "You have what? Oh my god! How do you do that?" (The variation is hearing, from people whispering behind her, "Did you see that? Oh my god! How does she do that?")
While not at the State Fair like the Seiferts, "in all reality, we're still on display, but nobody pays to see us. People say, 'You should charge us for staring,' but no," she said, smiling. "I really just have this attitude that I could never let this stop us from living our lives."
Corporate booty for babies
Multiple births have increased for several reasons.
More mothers are older and the rates of multiple babies increase with the mother's age. Fertility drugs play a role, and medical advances keep more premature babies alive.
When the Seifert quads were born on May 3, 1950, the hospital in Sleepy Eye had to borrow an incubator from the New Ulm hospital. People and companies responded with donations. Carnation provided evaporated milk, Buster Brown sent shoes, Maytag gave them a washer and dryer, and a Boston company sent a stroller for four. The babies appeared in ads for Gerber, Dairy Queen and Del Monte.
A contest to name the babies sponsored by the New Ulm Daily Journal attracted 12,000 entries from around the world.
"It was unusual back then and people were interested in it, I guess," said Andersen, who has several fat scrapbooks of clippings. So do her siblings, since their mother, Delores, made sure there were four copies of everything. (Have we mentioned that she already had six kids at home, including twin sons?)
The Seiferts ended up choosing their babies' names: Martha (who became Marti), Marie, Monica and Michael. Three of the sibs still live in Minnesota and a sister lives in Colorado.
Arthur Seifert told a newspaper that the admission fees from the State Fair would go toward the kids' education. "I think it was just thrilling for them to do it, in a way," Andersen said. "Every once in a while, I meet someone who says, 'Oh wow, I came to see you at the State Fair.'"
About 10 years ago, Andersen's research turned up more than 20 sets of quadruplets in Minnesota. The Durst quads, born in 1993 in Buffalo, may have the highest profile, starring last year in an eight-episode reality TV show about their lives called "Four of a Kind" on the Lifetime channel.
The Broskoff quads weren't even the only such Minnesota family in 2010. Mike and Leah Synicyn of Taylors Falls also had four babies, and the two mothers have been in touch.
Mostly, though, the Broskoffs are raising their family with little regular help, much like most families. Their church held a diaper drive, which helped, "and we got some coupons from companies for Huggies and some onesies, but seriously, that was all," said Broskoff. "I know there are websites for mothers of multiples and companies who will help. But you need to provide all these records of proof that you really have four babies, and I found it rather insulting. There are many multiples now, it's just not that different."
Hattie, Raegan, Lia and Shay, however, couldn't be more different, with distinctive personalities and looks. On the brink of turning 2, they have mastered high-fives and spend as much time on the back-yard playset as possible, distracted only by the occasional appearance of a mother cat who turned up in the yard with her own brood, now housed safely under the deck.
How many kittens? Four, of course.
Kim Ode • 612-673-7185