Freddie Oesch didn’t get to show his steer at the Kent County Youth Fair in 1983. He didn’t go to school that fall either. He wouldn’t graduate from high school, take over the family farm or get married. That’s because, on July 8, 1983, Freddie was hit by a car in front of his house and died tragically at the age of 10.
While Freddie couldn’t be at the fair that summer, 35 years ago, his family and friends made sure his steer was. Freddie had intended to auction his steer – named Mr. T – and donate all the proceeds to help pay for what is now the current dairy barn on the fairgrounds.
In the wake of tragedy, the fair community rallied around the Oesch family and Freddie’s dream. Sixteen businesses and individuals purchased the steer during the auction, and while the exact amount has been lost in time, it is believed approximately $35,000 was raised toward the dairy barn construction. A memorial to Freddie remains in the barn to this day.
Last night, history repeated itself. Joanna Link, a niece whom Freddie never got the chance to meet, auctioned her steer – also named Mr. T – to raise money for the dairy barn planned for the new fairgrounds. However, Joanna didn’t only want to raise money for the barn. She was hoping the community would help her earn enough so the barn could be named after her Uncle Freddie.
The community didn’t disappoint.
Gone, but Never Forgotten
Joanna is 18-years old and a 2018 graduate of Lowell High School. She never met her Uncle Freddie, who would be 45 today, but she feels like she knows him. “I’ve heard my grandparents and my parents talk about him,” she says. Her mother, Annie Link, was Freddie’s younger sister.
It’s been 35 years since the accident, and the family continues to honor Freddie’s legacy and memory. “Every year on July 8th, we get together and have dinner,” Joanna says. She knows her uncle’s death is especially hard for her grandparents. “You really can’t recover from something like that.”
The Oesch family farm is SwissLane Dairy Farms in Alto, and Annie Link grew up doing a little bit of everything during her years as a participant in the Kent County Youth Fair – dairy steers, hogs, sheep and more. She calls the fair the “best week of the year.”
Joanna started in the 4-H Explorers program when she was five years old. Despite being a long-time participant, she’s never placed in showmanship – until this week. Annie can’t help but smile in wonder about the coincidence of her daughter reaching this achievement alongside a steer bearing the same name as Freddie’s entry for the fair.
Emotional Auction Exceeds Expectations
Joanna went into the auction optimistic but also realistic. After its conclusion, Annie told me she was sure they’d need a few more fundraisers to come up with the money needed to gain naming rights to the new dairy barn. However, 69 businesses and individuals stepped up to make sure those other fundraisers wouldn’t be necessary.
When it was time for Mr. T to be sold, auctioneer Jason Lamoreaux handed over the microphone to Joanna who explained, wiping away tears, what she planned to do with the proceeds from the sale. Then the auction started, and her steer garnered the highest per pound bid among the dairy steers that night. Caledonia Farmers Elevator was the winner, but the auction didn’t end there.
Despite paying top dollar, Caledonia Farmers Elevator said they wanted to resell the steer so additional money could be raised toward the barn naming effort. A second winning bid was made. After that, the floor was opened up for auction participants to make their own donations. With contributions ranging from $100 to $2,500, another 67 people in the audience raised their number. More than $61,000 was raised, ensuring that the dairy barn at the new fairgrounds can be named in Freddie Oesch’s honor.
When the last number had been recorded, the crowd rose for a standing ovation for Joanna and her dedication to ensuring Freddie’s name will never be forgotten.
For Annie Link, the auction was one more confirmation of the amazing spirit of the 4-H community. “It’s a unique story, but it isn’t,” she says. In other words, it’s not every day that people raise $61,000 to honor the memory of a boy many may never have met. And yet, it perfectly aligns with the values of 4-H and the Kent County Youth Fair. “It unites people,” Annie says.
It certainly united people 35 years ago as they grappled with the grief of losing a child far too young. And it united people last night as they supported an 18-year old girl who may never have met that lost child but had her life touched by him all the same.