As families gather around their Thanksgiving feast in rural Sand Creek Township this year, they are taking note of two empty chairs.
Mark Hentges, 53, and his son Travis, 25, were electrocuted in a tragic accident recently when their auger contacted a power line. They left behind wife and mother Renee Hentges, and four 20-something children and siblings who all grew up farming.
“This wasn’t supposed to happen,” Renee said recently over her kitchen table. “They both should be here.”
Two 8-by-10 framed photos of Mark and Travis sit on the kitchen table, bearing witness to her grief. Mark was her sweetheart, always affectionate. Travis had the broad shoulders of a former football player and wrestler.
“My heart can only take so much,” she said.
While this year’s harvesting on the Hentgeses’ 153-acre property is nearly done, hundreds of people in the nearby Jordan community contributed food, labor and money. The cornucopia of support began immediately after the Hentgeses died, and is still ongoing.
“Family has been awesome on texting and calling every day, on checking in,” Renee said. “At work, I might get a rub on the shoulder, a ‘thinking of you.’ ”
The Hentges family has kept up a stoic front since Mark and Travis were found unresponsive on their farm in mid-October. The week after they died, Shakopee farmer Gary Will — who didn’t even know the family — called out on Facebook for volunteers to help bring in their harvest.
“Farmers always help each other out,” Will wrote.
The posting drew hundreds of comments and shares.
The Hentges family — self-described “private people” — finally invited him over to help till this month.
“You could just tell by the way their attitude and look on their face was, they just didn’t want to talk about anything,” Will said. “That’s to be expected.”
In the haze of weeks since the accident, Renee Hentges has visited the cemetery around the corner from her home every day. Her brother Ken Pass helped dig the graves, which will be marked with a halved boulder from their backyard, Renee said, to “take a piece of the farm to them.”
After the men died, one of Travis’ former high school classmates started a GoFundMe page to help cover memorial expenses. Since then, three other online fundraisers have sprung up, raising more than $23,000.
“Over the last couple years, we’ve all gone our separate ways,” said Luke Simonson, a former classmate of Travis now living in Belle Plaine. Simonson said he didn’t want to forget an old friend in need, so he launched one of the funds to help the family.
Simonson’s father also was a farmer and so he understands the uncertainty that goes with it. From 2004 to 2014, more than 200 people died in farm-related accidents in Minnesota, according to a Star Tribune analysis. Five of those fatalities occurred in Scott County, which anchors the southwest corner of the Twin Cities metro area.
“Farming is just dangerous,” Simonson said. “You can never totally prepare for what kind of threats farming might bring.”
The Hentges family farm in Sand Creek originally was owned by Mark’s parents. Renee, who grew up a city gal, by comparison, in Shakopee, now works the farm between her jobs as a secretary at Jordan High School and as a teller at a local bank. The Hentges children grew up in Sand Creek, and three still live at home with their mother and help with the farm.
The Hentges family says Mark and Travis fell victim to a freak accident, and wants to leave it there. Talking about it won’t bring them back, Tim Hentges, 27, said.
The cattle need feeding. The land needs tilling. The beans need harvesting. Work goes on.
Soon enough, Tim Hentges will order the next round of seeds to plant corn, beans, alfalfa and oats next spring.
“That’s dad’s legacy,” he said. “They’re harvesting in heaven now, and hopefully, they’re done.”
More than 600 people attended the recent wake for Mark and Travis at St. John the Baptist Catholic Church, where Sam Hentges — daughter and sister to the deceased — delivered a moving eulogy. At the end, she recited “Close the Gate,” a poem written by Nancy Kraayenhof of Hills, Minn., which is often shared at farmers’ funerals.
“For these two farmers the worries are over, lie down and rest your heads,” Sam read. “Your time has been and struggles enough, put the tractor in the shed.”