Martin County will not forget ‘colorful’ Rex

CEYLON – Madeline Martin of Ceylon, who became a close friend of Rex Oberhelman in the final years of his life, sums him up best:

“Everyone who came into contact with Rex was affected by him,” she said. “I got him this T-shirt once that said, ‘If you don’t know who I am, then you’re not from around here.'”

It’s an assessment most people in Martin County – friend or adversary – can agree upon.

“You’d say the name ‘Rex,’ and people knew who you meant,” said Billeye Rabbe, solid waste coordinator and Prairieland facility director. “He was a character, liked by some and not liked by others because he was willing to speak out and publish some things … I always took time to listen to him, because you always learned something. At the least, you would learn patience.”

Rex passed away in April at the Minnesota Veterans Home in Luverne. He was 78.

Rex was known to Martin County residents for several reasons, from his Blue Ribbon Farms organic farming operation that got him on the cover of Mother Earth News for the March/April 1986 edition, to operating a nightclub and adult bookstore for a short time in the 1970s. But for most, he was known as a rabble-rouser whom many dismissed after several of his big ideas fell through.

“He was a unique individual, very opinionated,” said his oldest son, Mark Oberhelman. “We used to accuse him of chasing windmills, but I think he kind of enjoyed that. He liked being the center of attention. He was always trying to do good, but it didn’t turn out.”

Rex was born in Tenhanssen Township in 1935, and graduated from Iowa State College with two years of animal husbandry, and later earned a degree from Minnesota State-Mankato in political science, history and liberal arts. He also served in the U.S. Army in Germany in the 1950s.

After his service, Rex spent time studying religion and worked in South Dakota, but he eventually came back to Martin County. He managed to find his way to controversy in the early 1970s, when he had “The Idle Hour Bar,” and the “Browse-A-Bit” bookstore in downtown Fairmont, which catered to adult entertainment.

“It was a period of decadence in Fairmont,” recalled Martin County Commissioner Steve Pierce. “He had this import shop, the Browse-A-Bit … There was an upstairs room with the adult magazines. Or so I heard.”

“The Star-Tribune came down to do a story on it because it brought about the city ordinance,” Mark Oberhelman said. “And sure enough, my dad’s picture was on the front page of the Star-Tribune for it. He was a minor player in the whole thing. At the time, he had the Browse-A-Bit, and there was that one corner upstairs by his office. My friends thought it was neat.”

Once the city ordinance squelched the adult businesses, Rex turned his attention back to farming.

“With the Blue Ribbon Gardens, he had friends, neighbors setting aside acres of land for planting,” said Rex’s friend Bill Gunther. “The only problem was there were no markets … If you’re a farmer of corn or soy, you can change and alternate the crops, and hold on until the markets are in your favor and sell, because they are commodities. But as a food farmer, there is only a small window of time when you can sell it at its optimal time.”

However, Rex saw enough success with crops such as pumpkins that had a longer shelf life, that it caught the attention of Mother Earth News.

“He claimed he had made $27,000 off of five organic acres,” Oberhelman said. “I don’t know if he actually made the money he claimed to, but he tried marketing the produce. He provided Gunther’s store with produce. He was always trying to expand.”

Despite the ups and downs Rex had with Blue Ribbon Gardens, he attempted to give back by allowing juveniles to work on his farm through the Minnesota Valley Action Council.

“Unfortunately, there were plenty of people who didn’t get paid,” Pierce said. “But I will give him credit for hiring those kids.”

Rex had plenty of big ideas that were well-intentioned, but always fell through.

“He had all these pipe dreams,” Martin said. “The flaxseed, switch-grass, wind turbines, Bright Lake as Indian property, Omega eggs … Unfortunately, none of it came to fruition. He’d have these big plans, but he could never get anything going. Something always happened with everything, it was like he was jinxed, and that would turn to aggravation.”

Rex clashed with the county on several occasions because of this. He once ran for county commissioner but lost. This was during a time when Rex was making a pitch for turning switchgrass into ethanol in the mid-2000s.

“On paper, some of it looked good,” Pierce said. “But the practicality and logistics, taking grasses from the road ditches … We know how to handle corn but don’t know how to handle grass. Those pipe dreams, that’s where he’d get carried away with stuff … He loved to quote experts from the state, then we would contact these experts, and they would say, ‘Rex who?’ He was not a stupid man, but he couldn’t channel his knowledge in an orderly fashion.”

“If the facts didn’t suit him, he’d end up on a different side of the issue,” Oberhelman said. “He’d get impatient, that was a common theme. If things weren’t moving fast enough, he’d move on or try to accelerate things.”

Moving from big idea to big idea was typical for Rex, and also part of why many people would dismiss the ideas he did present.

“He was always working on something,” Rabbe said. “He jumped from thing to thing. He always had some grand plan in mind, some of them were ahead of their time. He didn’t want to listen to all sides, but he did a lot of research in his ideas of interest … He’d put people on the spot. He liked to challenge issues and authority. He needed a decision as to why or why not things could be done.”

Unfortunately, this aggressive approach led to alienation.

“It’s tough to have knowledge with no credibility,” Pierce said.

His professional endeavors also mirrored his personal life.

“It was a complex relationship,” Oberhelman said of his father. “I’m the oldest of six children. He has two families of kids, but he was estranged from all of them except for myself and his youngest son … But he treated his grandkids great. He loved going fishing, and so he took them fishing, and they will have good memories of him. I’m grateful for that. We never had issues in that department; he was a wonderful grandfather.”

Martin recalled Rex seemed to find some peace once he moved to the Minnesota Veterans Home in Luverne.

“I was the one helping him pack away his life, from a 5-acre farm to half a bedroom,” Martin said. “He did manage to get everything into a suitcase. But he got bored real quick. He went outside and claimed a pile of dirt with a flag. There he planted corn, tobacco, all kids of plants. He gave residents there lectures on the plants and how they grow. When you’d visit, everywhere you went, there were little white coffee cups … The people there worshipped the ground he walked on. He was president of the citizens board there. He had a great time, and he had some peace of mind. He said it was like heaven.”

However, when Rex passed, his death had as much controversy as his life did.

“He was secretive about stuff,” Oberhelman said. “We didn’t learn about the foreclosure [on his farm] until after his death … He wouldn’t pay attention and get in over his head financially.”

“He lost everything,” Martin said. “When they foreclosed, they took everything but the paint on the walls. It was very sad.”

Despite the great ideas that failed, or his abrasive manner, Rex’s absence is noted in Martin County.

“He certainly was no wallflower,” Oberhelman said. “He was well-intentioned, he liked being in the center of things, except he always came up short.”

“Colorful – that was how he lived,” Rabbe said. “He did come with the baggage, but no one should leave this world without an acknowledgment.”

“I could say his was a life well spent,” Gunther said. “I enjoyed him.”