Like many livestock farm kids growing up, Jim Checkel didn’t stray too far from the farm. Those animals needed daily care, so family vacations were never on the radar back in the day.
Instead, as a youngster, Checkel learned about people and other countries from the World Book encyclopedia set his parents bought.
“We had a neighbor who farms, and he went with [President] Nixon to China,” Checkel recalls. “Before he left, he shared a list of the cities where he would be. I got out the World Book and tracked his trip. When he returned, he gave talks about it. I told myself then that I wanted to go to China.”
Others piqued his interest in travel, like his two bachelor uncles who traveled Europe on Eurail Passes and drove across Central America.
However, Checkel’s dad discouraged him from farming. Growing up, the family operated the traditional livestock and poultry farm with beef, dairy, sheep, pigs, laying hens, turkeys and geese. More than 20 outbuildings housed the animals, along with needed farm machinery.
“He had to quit school in eighth grade to work on his family’s farm, and I think that is probably why,” Checkel says. Nonetheless, Checkel took every ag class and joined FFA while in school to learn everything he could about farming. He took his first trip off the farm in his high school junior year, when his class took a 16-day trip to Spain. That initial adventure sparked a passion for travel that continues today. The Kasson farmer has visited 32 countries and 36 states, and he’s still counting.
Oh, and by the way, he ended up buying the family farm in 1992.
And yes, he did make it to China and celebrated his 60th birthday there.
Upcoming travel on Checkel’s radar are two special trips: One in memory of his father, Leonard, and another in memory of his mother, Evelyn. He plans to travel to Arlington National Cemetery on his dad’s birthday in December, and to visit the pyramids in Egypt on his mom’s birthday in February.
Global travel is only one passion of Checkel’s. Another is collecting antique farm implements and of course, old tractors. His collections — sometimes the odder, the better — include barbed wire, jacks and hay trollies.
His farmstead, steeped in history, is his own personal museum. The 14-room farmhouse, known locally as the Scharpp Mansion, was built in 1883 on some of the best land in the county. The barn, built in 1913, has had some renovations over the years, including the addition of block walls in 1936 and stanchions, a manure track and a hay mow in 1948. Checkel’s grandfather Frank bought the 160-acre farm in 1947 and made the latter improvements.
As vice chairman of the Dodge County Historical Society, he is involved in numerous projects, such as working on the restoration of seminary ruins in the small town of Wasioja, which also served as a Civil War recruiting station.
Besides farming, Checkel worked for the Mayo Clinic for 41 years, more recently in the neurology department as a cell laboratory technician. Over the years, he has worked with people from 35 different countries.
Knowing what it’s like to be in an unfamiliar environment, Checkel has befriended many and often invites them to his home. Hosting visitors is second nature to Checkel, who often volunteers to hold events at his farm. His largest event over the years? Hosting a live Nativity in December. He figures more than 12,000 visitors have been on his farm over the past three decades.
Checkel also is active in numerous organizations, and has served as a volunteer on 29 boards and committees over the years.
Regardless — if the work is on the farm, in the lab or when volunteering, it’s the learning, doing and ultimately, traveling, that Checkel enjoys.
“Often I hear people say, ‘I wish I did that,’ or they joke, ‘Can you believe all that stuff that guy did?’” Checkel says, adding that often people comment, too, that they don’t want to travel alone.
Yet, traveling solo pushes you out of your comfort zone and offers you the freedom to explore.
For Checkel, that’s the perfect place to be.