Family legacy of farmland to become legacy of community health in Clark County
Small fingers picking black cap berries, hands turning purplish with berry stains, tummies filling up with half of the fruit gathered. These are some of the earliest memories the Brockmann siblings have of their family farm where they picked black raspberries in the 1960s with their mom to sell as an ingredient for dye.
“Probably my earliest memory was going with my mom, driving out, which back then seemed like a long ways. … We would pick these berries called black caps, and then we would take (them) to this cannery that wasn’t too far away from the farm,” said Kathie Brockmann, a lifelong Vancouver resident and the oldest of the siblings.
Her brother Bob recalled helping alongside them in the black caps field as a young boy, while her brother John remembers bicycling the 10 miles from their house in downtown Vancouver to the farm on the outskirts of the city.
After decades as a small family hobby farm — a dream of their father, George — the Brockmanns sold the property to the Department of Social and Health Services in 2021 to build a behavioral health residential treatment facility. The property was rezoned from residential to business use in the early 1990s.
The Brockmann siblings believe their father would have appreciated that the new facilities provide a community service. Yet the facilities would also most likely have a deeper, more personal meaning — their father struggled with depression throughout his life and participated in inpatient programs when he needed the extra care.
The early years
“The farm was always a part of our lives from a very young age. It was a work in progress. We didn’t know it at the time, but we were being taught to be self-motivated,” said Bob, the middle of the five Brockmann siblings: Kathie, Bruce, Bob, Ruth, and John. Ruth, a prominent Pacific Northwest glass artist who once worked with Dale Chihuly and David Schwartz, passed away in July 2013. Bruce passed on the same day.
After their parents bought the 20-acre farm for $14,000 in 1961 (with some help from their grandfather), all five children grew up helping to take care of the gardens, hay fields, and a few cows and sheep.
Although the dream was to move from their small home in Vancouver to the farm, it would be 16 years before George built a house on the farm and moved in.
While none of the children lived on the farm, working on it taught them all to be independent and value work, Kathie said.
“Every summer there was hay. No matter what you were doing, you had to drop what you were doing to be able to go to the farm and to get the hay in before it rained because if the hay is rained on, it ruins it,” she said.
The siblings reminisced over shared memories of the family farm from helping to bring in the hay and installing a fence to building a homemade raft for the small pond and playing with a basketball hoop in the barn.
For George, “the farm was an exercise in providing for the family,” said Bob. Both of their parents picked up their frugality from surviving the Depression era — habits that probably served them well with a family of seven in the 1960s. Everything from aluminum foil to leftover rope and burlap bags got saved, home-grown veggies were canned, and fruit from the farm got preserved.
However, the biggest exercise in providing for the family with frugality was the farm itself.
“I’m not sure (dad) was drawn to farming as much as I think it satisfied the need to facilitate supporting his family. It accomplished that goal,” said Bob. “It was something he could do and we could help him do to provide for the family.”
The long struggle
Less than a decade after they purchased the farm, though, everything changed for the Brockmann family. In the spring of 1968, their mother, Lillian, fell ill with cancer. Five months later, she was gone.
“It was very, very fast from beginning to end. I think that my dad, he couldn’t have been a better dad in terms of picking up the pieces and taking care of all of us and continuing to work full time. … It was just a real shock,” said Kathie.
“It was a real devastating blow,” Bob echoed. John, the youngest brother, was just 7.
There were several more deaths in the family in that time period. George fell deeper into depression.
“He struggled with it for a long, long time. I think a lot of it was triggered probably by our mom’s death, and I think he tried not to show it to us,” said Bob. At one point, George considered quitting his job at the Pacific Northwest Bell phone company (where he worked for 32 years) due to his mental health, but a family friend convinced him to keep working to avoid losing his retirement.
“He was in the hospital on several occasions that I can remember; he went to American Lake (Veterans Affairs hospital), and he was there for a few weeks, very, very depressed. It takes a while before medication starts to kick in,” said Kathie, a registered nurse. “Then there was another time when he was over at Oregon Health Sciences University hospital in Portland.”
The Brockmann siblings realized that depression runs in the family. “I think we all kind of dealt with some depression,” said Bob. “To one degree or another, it’s just how you deal with it,” John added. “It’s definitely in the family,” said Kathie.
For Kathie, caring for others with mental health needs became part of her professional career, and because of that, she saw firsthand the need for more community resources.
“One of the things that I feel really positive about is this behavioral center that they’re going to be building because I worked public health for 20 years in Clark County, and the clients that we worked with had various needs, one of which (was) mental health,” said Kathie. “The services just weren’t there sometimes, and especially those services when someone needs to be in a facility for a period of time to really get well to be able to go out and function independently in the community.”
The family believes their father would’ve appreciated that his old farm will now be used to meet a community need and help others with behavioral health struggles.
As for George, while he lived with depression all of his life, he found joy in his later years keeping up with the farm’s fruit trees and quarter-acre vegetable garden.
“He always had a passion for gardening,” said John.
At one point, he gave up on his rototiller and turned over all of the garden soil with just a shovel. “He would do this all by hand; and just a section maybe one day, and the next day he’d go out and do this other section. … It always impressed me that he did this by hand, and he did that all the way up until he was in his 80s,” said Kathie.
She recalls his love for fishing too. He would drop off salmon in her kitchen freezer after a good day’s catch, along with a note that he stopped by. Kathie kept the notes and placed them in her cookbook so that turning to a recipe recalls a memory of her father.
George passed in 2003, leaving behind another legacy as well: nine grandkids, 16 great grandkids, and two great-great grandkids.
“We were very fortunate to have him as a father,” Kathie said. “I don’t think there was anything I’d really change about him.”
“Our dad was a tremendous inspiration,” said Bob, “proving that when facing aversity, with dedication and hard work you can overcome any obstacle.”
(Story by Suzie Ovel)