INVESTIGATORS: Gave away the farm? - KMSP-TV

INVESTIGATORS: Gave away the farm?

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Did a local historical society trick a confused, elderly man into giving away a million-dollar farm? There's no question the Waconia farm is a historic treasure, but the plot surrounding the fight for the land is writing a dramatic new story of its own.

Don't let the sense of pastoral peace fool you -- the grip that history holds in the place is both awesome and crushing. In the county of Carver, there was a farm family, the Petersons, who left behind a precious legacy. Now, another farm family, the Holaseks, says they've been robbed of theirs.

"This is the Holasek farm, formerly the Peterson farm," Rick Holasek said.

Andrew Peterson came to the farm from Sweden by way of Iowa in the mid-1850s. It was part of a massive Swedish migration to America, and most ended up in Minnesota.

Peterson had 9 children, but they had none. Theirs was the final Peterson generation, leaving behind 5 beautiful original buildings and something that would become even more valuable.

Ward Holasek's family -- including his two sons -- came to the very same farm and the very same buildings in the mid-70s, moving from their own historic farm on the southern shore of Bryant Lake in Eden Prairie. Hennepin County took the land to make a park, and the new farm in Waconia thrived.

"I would be the 5th generation," Rick Holasek, Ward's son, said. "My kids would be the 6th."

They raised world-class Arabian horses. Movie stars boarded and bred horses there, and the main crop was hay.

"We made 100,000 plus bales of hay every summer all by hand," Holasek said.

At that pace, it doesn't take long for a place to imprint its history on a person.

"I can't count the number of times I watched the sunrise with my dad from the back of a hay wagon," Holasek said.

Ward Holasek's family said that at first, he was surprised and chagrined that his new farm was of prime historical value -- and when we say prime, we are not exaggerating. That's because Andrew Peterson did something no other farmer in the 1800s did that we know of -- he wrote journals every day of his life, never missing a day until the two before he died.

Those journals became an incredible source of information for most Swedes about what the old immigrants went through when they came to America. In fact, they became the basis for the Vilhelm Moberg's classic series, "The Emigrants," making Peterson and the farm so famous that visitors from Sweden came to call.

"They put a plaque up there, oldest house in Carver County," Ward's father in law, George Hill, said.

It's the kind of thing that makes historians drool, but the 94-year-old Hill once lived in the old Peterson farmstead. He built a new house for Ward Holasek and his family and new farm buildings in the mid-70s, and he said the Carver County Historical Society came around the old house and buildings from time to time.

"I would have them in and give them coffee and cookies," Hill recalled. "They went through the whole house."

But if you ask him about the way the Carver County Historical Society went about getting part of the old Peterson farm from Ward Holasek…

"I feel really bad that my grandchildren and great grandchildren might get screwed out of their property," Hill said.

Screwed is a strong word, but a suit filed by Ward Holasek's attorney against the Carver County Historical Society claims that the society and its executive director persuaded an ailing and confused Ward to literally give up the farm -- a charge the historical society denies.

"It was very apparent to me he did not understand what had happened," Howard Bard, the Holasek family attorney, told Fox 9 News. "When I explained the consequences of what had occurred from the transfer of the property, he appeared quite alarmed and distressed."

By 2010, the farm was already split in two. One part runs along Highway 5 and belongs to Ward Holasek's two sons. It's small, but it has the greatest historical value.

"The farm's front 20-acre piece my brother and I own," Rick Holasek said. "That has most -- four of the five -- historic buildings on it."

The rest of the farm, about 51 acres of valuable crop land with just one historic barn, remained in Ward Holasek's hands; however, he started to think seriously about the future in 2010.

"My dad asked me to be the executor of his will," Rick Holasek said.

Ward Holasek signed a will dividing the value of his estate, which was mostly his 51 acres. Three quarters went to his family and charities like his beloved rotary club and the 4-H. The remaining 25 percent went to the Carver County Historical Society.

"Then, 6 months later, he was influenced to change his will," Rick Holasek said.

Ward Holasek gave the Carver County Historical Society half of his estate.

"Generous by anyone's measure," Rick Holasek said.

A lawsuit claims the society director and some board members were with Ward Holasek when he signed the will. What's more? In the new will, Rick Holasek was no longer executor. Carver County Historical Society Executive Director Wendy Peterson-Bjorn was -- an arrangement the family's lawyer has never seen before.

"Was he close to her? No. Did he know her well? No. She wasn't a close family friend," Rick Holasek said. "I think they had been in with Ward trying to get his property."

It didn't end there.

"Half of it wasn't enough," Rick Holasek said. "They wanted it all."

According to court documents, Wendy Peterson-Bjorn convinced Wade Holasek to sign over the whole farm. The lawyer for the historical society denies that.

"What Ward did was give away the remaining interest in the farm, and what that meant was he had a right to live on the farm for the rest of his life," Bard said.

But, in what's called a living trust, the land would all go to the historical society when Ward Holasek died. In her annual report, Peterson-Bjorn wrote nothing would change for Ward Holasek while he was alive -- but the Holasek's attorney says that simply wasn't true. He'd lost his only tangible asset and no longer qualified for Medicaid. His will was basically nullified.

"He knew what he was doing," Sue McAllister said.

The Holasek family confirmed McAllister lived with Ward Holasek for 8 years as his caregiver.

"He wanted a legacy to live on," she said.

Yet, other friends and family say Ward Holasek was not himself, describing him as confused and vulnerable. The lawyer for the Carver County Historical Society says he hasn't proven that yet.

"He said he was confused when he was in these meetings with the attorneys and all these people," Rosemary Baskin, a friend of Ward Holasek, said.

According to the lawsuit, to make matters worse, the Carver County Historical Society used a lawyer who has represented Wade Holasek in the past. The Holasek family says that would have made Ward Holasek feel comfortable taking advice from him -- a bit, they say, like the fox giving advice to the hen I the henhouse.

According to documents obtained by the Fox 9 Investigators, when Ward Holasek learned what it all meant, he hired his own attorney to try to get his farm back.

"He shook his head and he put his and he put his hands into his face and bowed down," Sheri Wendling, a friend of Ward Holasek, recalled. "It still makes me cry now. He had tears streaming down his face."

There were lawsuits back and forth. When Ward Holasek's lawyer filed suit against the Carver County Historical Society last November, his client suffered a fatal stroke two days later at age 76. Offers back and forth to trade the land with historical buildings for the working farm have fallen apart.

The Fox 9 Investigators tried to talk Peterson-Bjorn and recorded the following audio:

"We will not take this into the media. That is not what Ward would have wanted. He was just a wonderful man who cared deeply for the history of that farm."

The trouble with history is that it is most often written by the victor. The final word on the legacies of Andrew Peterson and Ward Holasek has not been written -- a story that may not be one for the history books but for the law reviews.

The lawsuit to get the farm back basically died with Ward Holasek. Someone appointed by the probate court will decide if his estate should keep the suit going.

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