One of Wheeling's last pioneers from its rural heritage has died. Erna Koeppen passed away on July 5 after suffering a massive stroke. She was 90.
"She was truly a farm wife," says her grandson, Greg Koeppen, a former Prospect Heights city councilman and now executive director of the Lake County Farm Bureau. "She never learned to drive, but was happiest working on the farm and making her family happy."
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Koeppen and her late husband, Andrew, ran the 120-acre farm started by his parents in the center of Wheeling, William and Minnie Koeppen in 1918, and they continued the seasonal roadside vegetable stand along Dundee Road.
"It was a fixture that drew people out from the city for fresh sweet corn and tomatoes," Greg Koeppen says, adding his grandparents also had contracts with large grocery store chains and with Campbell's Soup, which bought much of their annual tomato crop.
The couple slowly sold off parts of the farm to developers and the bulk of it now is home to the Wheeling Village Hall and its police department, Holmes Jr. High School, Heritage Park and the former Wickes Furniture.
They sold the last 10 acres in 1991 to the Wheeling Park District for its community center and aquatics venue.
Erna Koelper grew up on her family's farm, which they later developed into the Koelper Flower & Greenhouse, in Wheeling, and now is home to the Chicago Executive Airport. Once she married Andrew Koeppen, her farm chores continued as well as her new responsibilities of managing the farmstand.
"Growing up on the farm, Grandma was in the fields or washing produce every day at sunrise," Greg Koeppen remembers. "And she still found time to make it back to the farmhouse to make us breakfast before we started working in the fields and selling produce."
Koeppen and his brother, Kevin, managed the farm during its last few years. He said they never counted the number of customers the farmstand drew each year, but it was "thousands."
"When they finally sold the farm, you would think she would have enjoyed not having to work so hard," Koeppen adds, "but she missed those years. She missed those hard working days on the farm."
Besides her grandson, Koeppen is survived by her children, Gerald (Jane) Koeppen, Sharon (John) Lemke and Jane (Michael) Frey, as well as five other grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.
A funeral service will be held at 10 a.m. Friday, July 13, at St. Paul Lutheran Church, 100 S. School St. in Mount Prospect.