Bomgardners’ Dairy Next to National Historic Landmark
LEBANON, Pa. — Like most dairy farms, Sonnylee Holsteins in North Lebanon Township, Lebanon County, is an especially busy place during June.
Hay and straw are being baled, the barley’s just been harvested and owner Harvey “Sonny” Bomgardner is getting ready to replant the grain field with corn to provide silage in the fall.
Bomgardner and his wife of 35 years, Cathy, run their dairy and crop operation on the 135-acre farm they purchased in 1981 and preserved in 2001.
Both Sonny and Cathy come from families with farming backgrounds — and their three grown children, as well as two grandchildren, point to a future that will continue this agricultural tradition.
Sonny Bomgardner grew up as one of eight children on the dairy farm of his parents, Harvey and Mildred Bomgardner, in North Annville Township, Lebanon County. That farm remains in the family and is now operated by Sonny’s brother David.
While Sonny spent a few years right out of high school as an installer for dairy barn systems, he’s been dairying on his own since 1978.
Cathy Bomgardner didn’t come directly from a farming background, but traces her dairy roots to paternal great-grandparents Robert and Mary Whitenight, who milked on their farm near Benton, Pa.
Among Cathy’s prized possessions is a green pottery bowl once used by her great-grandmother to separate cream for making butter. The bowl sits in a place of honor on the Bomgardner kitchen’s walk-in fireplace mantel, next to a photo of Mary Whitenight.
One of the features of the Bomgardner farm is its location adjacent to a National Historic Landmark, the Union Canal Tunnel, oldest existing transportation tunnel in the United States.
The 621-foot-long tunnel through solid rock was constructed between 1825 and 1827 as part of a canal connecting Philadelphia to Harrisburg.
A park at the northern end of the tunnel abuts Sonnylee Holsteins, and the farm’s acreage includes Lock No. 1 West, a sandstone structure that remains intact at one end of what is now a pond on the farm.
The Bomgardners note that most visitors to Union Canal Park are respectful of their property, though several times one of their dogs has been mistaken for a stray and taken to the authorities by concerned tourists.
Their dogs, Wilson and Amos, now sport large yellow cattle ear tags that read, “I live at the farm. I will go home.”
Before pursuing a real estate career in 1995, Cathy Bomgardner was a regular part of the milking crew in the farm’s step-up milking parlor.
These days, Sonny Bomgardner’s right-hand man when it comes to caring for Sonnylee’s 130 Holsteins is his son, 26-year-old Joel, whose duties include the twice-daily milking of 60 cows producing milk for Land O’Lakes.
Joel Bomgardner and wife Greta also assist her family as needed with their Honey Bear Orchard in North Annville Township.
Daughter Hannah Bomgardner lives in an apartment in her family’s 1869 farmhouse and assists with milking on weekends, when she’s not busy working as a milk inspector for Maryland-Virginia Milk Cooperative. She was previously employed in the lab of Lancaster DHIA.
A Delaware Valley College grad with a degree in dairy science, Hannah Bomgardner said she enjoys her role as a milk inspector and feels accepted in this male-dominated field.
While female milk inspectors are becoming more commonplace, Hannah Bomgardner is actually following in the footsteps of Pennsylvania’s pioneering female milk inspector, her aunt Jane Bomgardner Upperman, who still works in that capacity for Land O’Lakes.
The Bomgardners’ older daughter Melinda and her husband don’t live on a farm, but are frequent visitors to Sonnylee Holsteins, and their two daughters are active members of 4-H. Katie, 15, also participates on a local Dairy Bowl team.
All three Bomgardner children were active in 4-H, FFA and Dairy Bowl during their days as students at Cedar Crest High School, and Hannah now coaches Lebanon County’s Dairy Bowl team.
The Bomgardners have a long and successful record of showing their Holsteins in district and regional shows, as well as at the All-American and Pennsylvania Farm Show.
Without a doubt, though, the family’s favorite venue to show their dairy animals is the Lebanon Area Fair. Sonny and Cathy Bomgardner started showing there in 1978 and haven’t missed a year since then. In fact, the couple actually met while Cathy worked in the Lebanon Area Fair office one summer.
While the Bomgardners have taken many ribbons through the years, their greatest honor came in 2010 when Sonnylee Holsteins was named the premiere breeder at the Lebanon Area Fair.
Another proud moment came when their Sonnylee Roy Albany was named All-Pennsylvania junior 2-year-old in 2008, after being the reserve All-Pennsylvania summer yearling in 2007. She achieved the classification of excellent 93 and is on Sonnylee Holsteins’ new farm sign, which Hannah presented to her father as a 60th birthday present.
While Sonnylee Roy Albany died earlier this year, her line will live on through embryos taken from her. Some of her calves will be exhibited by the family at this year’s Lebanon Area Fair.
Proximity to the canal helped spur Sonny Bomgardner’s interest in local history, which led to the family selecting regional historic sites for day trips that fit their limited ability to take time off from the farm.
Son Joel has taken a particular interest in Civil War history since learning that his great-great-grandfather, Robert Whitenight, was a cousin of Robert E. Lee.
The Bomgardners like to talk about the folks who’ve helped them through the years.
“In addition to our parents,” Cathy Bomgardner said, “we owe our kids a lot. Farming’s not always an easy life, but they wouldn’t trade it — and we appreciate their hard work.”
The family has also shared its love of farming with neighborhood kids who helped with chores, those who worked to pay off calf purchases, as well as some troubled youths who found their way to the farm.
Now, many of those youngsters make their way back to Sonnylee Holsteins, often with their own little ones in tow. One “hopeless case” is now a drill sergeant, and two Sonnylee “alumni” are college professors.
Several of the young people wrote college entrance essays about what had affected their lives most, citing “working with Sonny.”
Cathy Bomgardner sums it up like this, “At the end of the day, the impact you made on your farm statistics is not as important as your impact on people’s lives.”
Sonnylee Holsteins seems to be succeeding at both levels.