History of Kraus Farms

Four Generations of History at Kraus Farms…

Kraus Farms began business in 1936 as 66 Riding Stables, twenty miles from St. Louis and accessible to city cowboys by the famous Highway 66. Ben Kraus and his business partner offered hay rides, boarding and rental horses on 200 leased acres that included the property now owned by Valley Mount Ranch as well as the present Kraus Farms property. Ben lived at the stables while his wife Freida and their eight children, Shirley, Gene, Darwin, Gerry, Laverne, Norita, Dorothy Lee and Sheila remained in town. Ben was a talented promoter, and 66 Riding Stables was soon providing hayrides for more than 100 people each night, using 12 wagons and as many as 15 teams of horses. Area farmers were often pressed into service with their teams on busy nights. The same horses were rented out as saddle horses during the day, with guides provided for trails through 1000 acres of leased woods to the east of the ranch, on what is now Forest 44 Conservation Park. The business soon allowed for Ben’s family to move from town to a frame farmhouse just north and west of the existing barns. The family made-do without electricity or inside facilities, heating water and cooking on wood stoves and bathing in the creek. 

Ben Kraus, his sons and ranch hands broke all the horses used at 66 Riding Stables, maintaining a herd of 25 to 30 horses. Hay for the operation was grown in the bottom lands on the other side of what is now I44 and along the Meramec River, now covered by the land fill and industry. The hay was put up loose using the same horses ridden by renters. Ben also grew the grains the ranch converted to feed with their own mill. The hay and grain fed not only the ranch horses, but also the rodeo stock – Brahma bulls, calves, and steers. The popular holiday rodeos of the 1940’s attracted large crowd to stadium-style grandstands and a red, white, and blue arena with eight bucking stalls, located on the site of the present Valley Mount arena.

All the Kraus “kids” took part in the rodeos and shows as trick and Roman riders, trick ropers, rodeo contestants, barrel racers, and livestock managers. Norita and Dorothy Lee went on to championship seasons as barrel racers.

Ben Kraus also organized the famous Fireman’s Fund Rodeos and Parades in downtown St. Louis, complete with bands, floats, clowns, and as many as 200 horses. Many dignitaries and movie stars visited the ranch during these years, in town for the Fireman’s Benefit and looking for a relaxing ride. Hollywood visitors included Joel McCrae, Andy Devne, Scott O’Conners (the Rifleman), Gene Autry and Debbie Reynolds. The ranch was also the site of midget auto races!

All the Kraus “kids” helped to run the ranch, but Darwin soon became Ben’s “right-hand man” and took over ranch operations after his military service in the 1950’s and his father’s death in 1961. Darwin had married his wife Gerry in 1955 when he was 26 and she was 19. The ranch played a part even in the courtship, since the two met through a horse owned by Gerry’s brother and boarded at 66 Riding Stables. Gerry found it hard to resist the combination of Darwin, horses, and moonlight rides! The couple had eight children: Mathew (Dusty), Theresa (Terry), Jay Andrew, Phillip, Timothy, Rebecca (Becky), Sara and Katherine (Katy) – all Biblical names. Darwin and Gerry credit their faith for their strong family relationships and many happy years managing Kraus Farms. Their strong faith helped the family weather pressures from changes in the community around the ranch, the construction of I44 in the late 1950’s, changing politics, property access issues and destructive floods. The flood of 1982 destroyed three buildings and the hay crop and was followed by an equally destructive flood in 1983, but brought the opportunity to purchase the land south of I44. Because other parts of the leased property had been previously sold, Darwin was able to separate the property with about 30 acres remaining for Darwin’s boarding facility, renamed Kraus Farms, and 110 acres going to other family members and becoming Valley Mount Ranch. Darwin acquired additional property during the 1980’s, bringing Kraus Farms’ acreage up to the current 50. The boarding facility increased from 23 stalls to the existing eight barns, and hay fields were purchased in Pacific.

The 1970’s brought residential and industrial development to the area, along with new customers and new pressures. In the late 1980’s Kraus Farms risked losing access to the leased property now known as Forest 44 Conservation Area, but the property was saved from developers by environmental groups and the Open Space Council. Kraus Farms remains a vital partner in maintaining access and usage of the area for riders. Sons Jay and Tim remained active in the family business, with help from all their siblings. Jay’s wife Traci and children and Tim’s wife Chris and children consider the ranch a second home, as do many cousins. In 1986 Darwin turned the business over to Jay and Tim, enjoying with wife Gerry and mother Frieda the privilege of watching their grandchildren and great-grandchildren play and learn at Kraus Farms – the fourth generation!

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