Posts Categorized: People

Probituary – A Notice of Life: Eleanor & Tilford ‘Tip’ Bagstad

Interview by Benji Nichols • Originally published in the Spring 2018 Inspire(d)

Eleanor and Tip Bagstad were both born on Norwegian-speaking farmsteads in the coulees of Vernon County. Eleanor recalls the farm life, tending nine acres of tobacco, playing piano, as well as playing “teacher” with her eight siblings. Tip grew up in Timber Coulee, and farmed his whole life, in addition to “two or three other jobs… always”. Tip also ski-jumped as a youngster, including a trip to the National Jr. Ski Jump Competition in the early 1950s. At age 48, Tip picked up the fiddle and started learning old time tunes by ear. Eleanor played piano most of her life, and family friend Beatrice Olson, a retired dairy farmer, also happened to be an accomplished accordion player. The trio started playing in 1982, after being invited to play at a Norskedalen Nature & Heritage Center meeting. A small article was written in the local paper, asking “Could it be, ‘The Norskedalen Trio’?”

The trio went on to play all over the upper Midwest for three decades, including Westby Syttenda Mai, many trips to Nordic Fest in Decorah, community dances in La Crosse, and The Yankton Old Time Fiddlers festival. The group was invited to perform at the 1998 Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C. and the Wisconsin Folklife Festival in Madison, WI. They contributed several tracks to the album Deep Polka: Dance Music from the Midwest, put out by Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, and also produced their own albums.

Tip also took up Acanthus and chip carving later in life. He was awarded a gold medal in carving at Vesterheim Museum’s National Exhibition of folk art in 2000. The couple has two daughters, Bonnie and Kimberly, who are both accomplished in regional health care fields. Eleanor and Tip’s 62 years of marriage are a testament to hard work and the courage to take on new challenges at every step of life.

What’s the best advice anyone ever gave you?
Tip
– My Dad always used to say that it isn’t always what you make in the year, its what you have left at the end of it.

Eleanor – We were always told from home to be friendly when you meet people.

Tip – It’s nice to be important, but it’s more important to be nice!

What did you want to be when you grew up? What do/did you do?
Eleanor
– I always knew I wanted to teach. When we were little we’d all play school, and I always liked to be the teacher! After normal school, I went on to teach at 5 of the country schools in Vernon County, and played and taught piano too.

Tip – Well, my brother and I did construction work for several years, building many tobacco sheds and such. I hauled milk in the coulee for a few years when we were first married. I later took a job leading up habitat restoration crews for the Wisconsin DNR. For 17 years I led crews to restore trout habitat. Our crew helped create the LUNKERS structure, and several trout stream restoration ideas. I also always had cattle on the farm.

If you were stranded on a desert island, what three things would you want with you?
Well, probably food and water. Maybe our instruments!

If you could eat anything every day for the rest of your life, what would it be?
We like lutefisk and lefse, but not every day! We enjoy if for special occasions though. And we’ve often had good trout to eat over the years.

Tell us about…

Your wedding day:
We were married June 2, 1956 at Coon Valley Norwegian Lutheran church. We had 600 people at the reception as we both had a lot of relatives. It was an afternoon wedding, and of course at that time there was no dance, as it wasn’t allowed – we just had a big reception in the church and then everyone went home.

Your First Job:
We’ve both done many things, but both of our families raised tobacco. Eleanor’s family had nine kids, and nine acres of tobacco, which is a lot of tobacco. It was a big job, growing, tending, and harvesting. And then there was the work in the tobacco houses – Bekkedal, Lorillard, King Edward – we did that for years.

Your favorite memory:
We’ve been fortunate to travel to Norway three times. Our daughters came along as well, and they spoke Norwegian because that’s all their grandparents spoke. And of course playing music all over the Midwest for 30 years – so many great people.

Community Builder: Greg Wennes

Community Builder: Greg Wennes – Sunrise Care Facility, Spring Grove, Minnesota

Story and photos by Kristine Jepsen • Originally published in the Fall 2017 Inspire(d)

It’s a sunny Thursday morning, and Greg Wennes is waiting in a plastic lawn chair, under the mature trees shading Sunrise Care Facility, just “Sunrise” for short. It’s a farmhouse on the outskirts of Spring Grove, Minnesota – known by locals as the Gilbertson place. As many as 10 men, all recovering alcoholics or addicts, can eat, sleep, work and find community and support here. They may stay weeks, months or years as they transition between formal rehabilitation treatment and regular, productive lives.

When Greg, owner-operator of Wennes Communications Stations, helped found Sunrise in 1988, it was among the first of its kind in this part of the Driftless. And while these days he’s a guy who has the glow of wintering in warmer places and who drives a glittering burgundy motorcycle, among other classic rides, he needs you to understand this about him first: He’s a recovering alcoholic, a lifelong condition.

There was a time when he himself came home from residential treatment to find his house empty but for a mattress and a dying spider plant, his wife and kids gone. He’s been to the depths, and he knows what it takes to climb out (and stay out), one handhold at a time. Sunrise was founded to provide the footing.

“Drinking is a lonely occupation,” he says, “but ‘sober lonely’ is incredible. It’s one of the most difficult parts of recovery.”

Opening a care facility isn’t the easiest thing in a tight-lipped Scandinavian community, where people keep problems to themselves, but beneath any public stigmatization that existed, Greg and other founders quickly assembled a broad base of support, across medicine, recovery treatment policy, public health, law enforcement, and ministry. The home opened as a non-profit with significant help from the Tweeten Foundation, previous owners of the local hospital. Renovated twice to date, Sunrise operates with resident fees paid privately or subsidized by state and federal public health systems. Supporters aspire to add a private wing for women soon, too.

“It takes an alchie to know and help an alchie,” Greg says of his friend and colleague Greg ‘Gregor’ Rostad, using recovery slang for an alcoholic, as opposed to a ‘normie’ (an un-addicted person). Gregor, also a successful business owner, is in his fifth year as administrator on-site at Sunrise, a job layered with management, mentoring, discipline, and compassion. “It takes being both an achie and a business person to make this place work,” Gregor says. Above all, he has to keep inevitable social challenges from trampling the bottom line.

Residents, each with his own private room in the stately farmhouse, make meals together in teams. They coordinate clinic and therapy visits, run errands in Sunrise’s two shuttle vans, and perform all the maintenance of the house and five-acre grounds. They also host and attend recovery meetings, both on-site and at other meeting spaces around the region. Friends and family can sign in to visit, and it’s common for residents to walk the mile or so into downtown Spring Grove to shop on their own, enjoy the view of neighboring pastures, and get a breath of normal, small-town life.

“Anyone can quit drinking,” Greg says. “The question is, ‘How do I learn to live and function in society as a sober person?’ Our goal is to provide a sober, safe sanctuary.”

 ——-

To join the conversation, Greg and Gregor recommend Facing Addiction (facingaddiction.org), a resource hub for those living with addiction or wanting to support someone who is. To learn more or support Sunrise Care Facility, visit sunrisecarefacility.com.

Community Builder: Shannon Dallenbach Durbin

Community Builder: Shannon Dallenbach Durbin: ArtHaus & Creative Community

By Aryn Henning Nichols • Originally published in the Fall 2017 Inspire(d)

“I got this.”

It’s a phrase Shannon Dallenbach Durbin has found herself saying a lot. Usually it’s about a job or a project that will bring artists, kids, and/or creativity together.

“Computers can do so much now. They can replace manual labor and intelligence,” she says. “But creativity can’t be replaced. It’s what humans have… and we don’t nurture it enough.”

Fostering a creative community started early for Shannon.

“I always wished I had that one best friend,” she says, “But instead I had a bunch of friends from a bunch of different groups. And maybe that’s because of my personality – I like almost everyone.”

She grew up in Arlington, Iowa, and went to school at Starmont, where she was active in pretty much every activity possible: musicals, choir, saxophone, piano, art, dance, tae kwon do (she’s got a black belt!), future homemakers, future business leaders, chess, drama, yearbook, quiz bowl… you get the idea.

“I really wanted to experience everything,” she says. “And nothing about that has really changed.”

In high school, she was also on what she called a “LOVE mission.”

“It was my goal to make sure that no one felt unloved,” she says. “I wrote lots of letters to random classmates sharing what I liked about them, I went to graduation parties I was afraid wouldn’t have many attenders, and I bought anonymous gifts for people.”

After an eighth grade trip to the Holocaust Museum, she came across a Dalai Lama quote: “It is not enough to have compassion, you must act.” This became Shannon’s motto, and even drove her college choice, the University of St. Catherine in St. Paul, Minnesota, because of the school’s strong emphasis on Social Justice. Shannon got a degree in art education, then moved back to Starmont to teach high school art.

It was a great job, just not quite the right fit.

“I realized I loved organizing curriculum but teaching wasn’t my favorite,” she says.

So Shannon took an ad design job at a newspaper in Elkader, but shortly after she started, most of the folks in her office left to start another newspaper. Shannon stayed on. “This newspaper had been around for decades and I really didn’t want to see it end,” she says. The owners of the newspaper said, “You got this?”

“I had no idea what I was doing, but I still said, ‘Sure! I can do this!’” Shannon started running the place, hiring writers and designers – even her husband, Bryce.

It’s this can-do attitude that has helped Shannon grow creative communities across Northeast Iowa. Shannon and Bryce moved to Elkader in 2008, where they had their two sons, Lincoln and Felix (now 8- and 3-years-old). She ran the newspaper for two and a half years. Next up was a two-year stint with AmeriCorps, then two years running a retail shop in Elkader called Whimsy Market, while also volunteering with the Elkader Main Street Committee, and helping to organize the first Art in the Park in Elkader.

Then she landed a job that brought all her passions to one place: program coordinator for the Clayton County Extension office in Elkader. Her work focused on planning community events and youth programs like a makers’ space, lego robotics, youth after-school clubs, and more.

“I loved that job so much,” Shannon says. It was hard to conceive of leaving, but in 2016 a job opportunity arose: Executive Director at ArtHaus in Decorah.

“I basically said, ‘If you can make this job a lot like my current job, then I’m your gal,’” she says. The board was excited to have Shannon’s background in the arts, business-ownership, kids, and the region as a whole. They offered her the job, and she accepted.

“There is a great group of people on the board, and they give me the flexibility and freedom to do what I think will work best for ArtHaus,” she says.

That means promoting cool classes that are all about community. Folks can come together for a casual night of subversive cross-stitching, or head in for open studio time or join in on a singing or writing workshop.

“I want to make it easier for people to make their own art,” she says. “ And I want to make the arts community accessible for everyone.”

“I think I found my groove,” she says. “I love partnering with other groups to make things happen and reach sustainability,” she says. “ Then it’s my turn to say, ‘You got this.’”