by Britt Aamodt
If you live in Nowthen, you probably know Orval and Joanne Leistico. For almost 60 years, they have been at every (or nearly every) fish fry, pancake breakfast, Heritage Festival and happening in town.
Orval Leistico is the quiet guy with the farmer’s roughened hands and missing finger. He once told kids at a birthday party that his wife bit off his finger. No one under 6 would go near her for the rest of the day.
Joanne Leistico is the social honeybee, flitting from person to person, greeting friends and neighbors and always full of energy.
Everyone seems to know the Leisticos. But what isn’t commonly known about the couple is what makes them extraordinary.
For one thing, their dairy farm has played host to visitors from as far away as Portugal and Japan, not to mention thousands of schoolchildren. And the couple made a later-in-life job transition that would launch them across Minnesota and to many parts of the U.S. to document the best day in many people’s lives.
Orval Leistico grew up in Nowthen. In 1952, he enlisted in the Army and worked as a radio operator in Germany. Two years later, he returned to Nowthen with plans for his parents’ farm and a Browning camera that was quickly becoming his No. 1 hobby.
Joanne Dawson, who lived on Birch Lake just outside Elk River, was quite sure she didn’t want to marry a farmer. She’d pitched in at her uncle’s farm too often to find the long, grueling hours romantic.
But then that fellow she met at the Elk River roller skating rink (located near present-day Dare’s Funeral Home) wasn’t just any old guy.
She’ll never forget going to the Leistico farm to meet Orval’s parents.
“They had chickens. Oh my, did they have chickens,” Joanne Leistico said. “His mother would tie them to the clothesline and cut off their heads. I almost had a heart attack.”
Orval and Joanne Leistico married July 16, 1955, and moved in across the street from his parents. They had five children: Steve, Dennis, Gary, Delores and Gene.
As the kids got older, they helped their parents on the farm. Cows needed to be milked at 5 a.m. and again 12 hours later. Early on, Joanne Leistico had the job of mucking out the milking barn, until Orval Leistico invested in an automated barn cleaner. The addition of a pipeline milking system boosted their operation to a Grade A dairy farm.
The Leisticos must have been doing something right because Anoka County started sending visitors their way. Representatives from Europe, Asia and the Middle East came to them to learn about farming.
“We had this man from Saudi Arabia who wanted to farm with camels,” Joanne Leistico said. “We had no idea how to farm with camels.”
In the 1980s, busloads of schoolchildren started arriving. The Leistico farm had become a popular field trip destination.
Joanne Leistico organized hayrides and set out punch and cookies. Orval Leistico and son Steve showed kids how to milk cows and introduced them to the ducks, geese, foals and the pot-bellied pig named Poppy in the petting zoo.
All along, Orval Leistico kept up his photography. He was a hobbyist and hesitated when his son Dennis asked him to photograph a wedding. He and Joanne Leistico finally agreed, and for the next 35 years, they would photograph more than 600 weddings.
In the 1990s, a Bill Clinton called.
“He said he wanted us to photograph his daughter’s wedding,” Joanne Leistico said.
In 2012, Orval Leistico suffered a stroke and moved into Guardian Angels’ care facility. That’s where you can find the Leistico couple these days. Though they don’t get around like they used to, they still bump into people who say, “Hey, you’re the ones who photographed our daughter’s wedding.”
And as chance would have it, Clinton’s wife — the other Clinton — happens to work there, too.