VAN PETTEN – Running a town is hard work. It’s a little easier, though, when the town has only two residents.
Dave and Babe Brandon, both 77, are the sole proprietors of the 130-acre town of Van Petten, just east of Rock Falls in rural Lee County.
The couple, who live in a farmhouse at 52 on Van Petten Road, have tended their kingdom much of their adult lives.
If you look hard enough when passing by the house, you can make out two small green signs – one on a telephone pole and the other on the barn – inscribed with the words “Van Petten – Population 2.”
“That’s something we just had to put up,” said Dave. “It’s not often that you make up the entire town.”
The Van Petten administration is pretty streamlined – If ever there’s a problem in the town, the Brandons take it up with each other. And every 6 months, they take turns being mayor.
Right now, Dave’s in charge.
“When she turns 78 in May, it’s her turn,” he said. “Then in November, when it’s my birthday, I get to do it.”
Don’t be fooled by its size – Van Petten has many of the things a town needs. If there should be a fire, for instance, the Brandons are in luck: Years ago, Dave bought Harmon’s first fire truck.
They don’t have a police car. They do, however, still have Babe’s first car, a Ford Model A, that her father bought for her in 1949 for only $100, she said.
And the Brandons don’t just pay taxes on their farm – they pay town taxes, too.
“The people in Dixon ask why we don’t just pay taxes on our home,” Babe said. “I pay those taxes because I want the town.”
A family legacy
The little village has been in Babe Brandon’s family for years.
Her father, Leroy Henry, bought Van Petten in 1936. The original farmhouse was built across the field from where the Brandons' house now sits. Babe, brother Pat and sister Peggy grew up there.
In years past, Van Petten had a general store, a grain company and a railroad station, all long gone now, Babe said.
She and Dave met as kids in the 1930s and often played together growing up. Then Dave bounced around between schools in Dixon, Tampico, Morrison and Sterling and the two lost touch.
His senior year, though, Dave transferred to Dixon High. The second he set foot in the school, Babe said, “I’m gonna get that little bugger.”
Dave remembers that meeting differently. “This gal grabs me and pulls me back into the bushes,” he said, breaking out in a huge grin.
They married in 1950, when they were both 19, and bought the farm from Babe’s father 4 years later. At the time, Babe was studying in Rock Island to become a nurse.
In 1978, they moved to Montana, where they ran a small grocery store and an apple and cherry orchard. Twenty-eight years later, they came home.
They have four children – David Jr., 58, of Morrison; Stan, 57, of Franklin Grove; and adopted daughters Tracy, 57, and Kim, 45, both of Washington.
Any time any one of them want to put down roots in Van Petten, Mom and Dad have them covered.
“If they wanted to live here, all they have to do is pick out whatever lot they want,” Babe said.
Van Petten is for tourists, too
Dave, a blacksmith for almost 30 years and a member of the Upper Midwest Blacksmith Association, has a shop in the barn where he holds “hammer-ins,” inviting people to get hands-on experience. He had a similar place in Montana.
Van Petten also has a museum of sorts. Babe is a collector, and she has a treasure trove of more than 800 trinkets, souvenirs, toys, military helmets and memorabilia. She keeps a log of all her items – complete with drawings and descriptions – in a large notebook.
Her godfather served in the Army in World War I, in Germany and France, and sent Babe match boxes from the places he served.
“I’ve been collecting all my life,” she said. “I was 8 or 9 when I got those match boxes, and my collecting just kind of took off from there.”
One of her favorite items, she said, is a World War I helmet her uncle wore in the war.
Babe also runs the Van Petten kinda public library: 6,000 volumes shelved on the museum’s second floor that Babe has collected over the years.
It’s open “by invitation only,” Dave said – visitors to his “hammer-ins” are invited to check out books during their stays.
Through the years, all visitors have been invited to sign their names on the gregarious couple’s big white board.
“We like to invite people in and let them see what we have,” Babe said.
“The wall is a reminder of the fun times we’ve had.”
If you want to learn more about the history of Van Petten or tour the farm, call Babe and Dave Brandon at 815-359-4378 at least 2 days before visiting.
If you’re interested in blacksmithing, the next hammer-in is Feb. 21. Visit www.umbaonline.org to learn more. See photos from a recent event on C1.