Posts Categorized: Places

Glamping: Eclectic Escapes in the Driftless

Bending River Cove photo by Kassidy Renee Paige / kassidyreneepaige.com

 

Ever wanted to spend the night in a silo? Get closer to nature, but not so close that you’re actually sleeping on the ground? Or maybe you’d like to see what tiny homes are all about?

These days, there are more options than ever for overnight stays in the Driftless – from amazing hotels to B&Bs to glamping-esque experiences (like the aforementioned silo). We caught up with three Driftless locals who have worked hard to reclaim materials, buildings, and properties, bringing new life to forgotten pieces of history, and, ultimately, creating fun and innovative spaces for guests to lay their heads for the night (or longer!).

The Driftless Region is a unique mix of landscapes and ecosystems, artists and farmers, cheese shops and pizza farms all living and existing in harmony – so get out there and explore all there is to offer! The adventure lies in the journey, AND the destination.


Not your average roadhouse

At The Chocolate Escape overlooking the Mississippi River in Wabasha, a group of third graders sit outside, licking their dripping chocolate and vanilla ice cream cones. They hoot and holler when an eagle flies overhead. At another table, a couple enjoys a cup of coffee. And, across the street at the local pub, a group of bikers clad in leather jackets, black boots, and sunglasses drink a cold brew. Time seems to stand still as three unlikely troops congregate contently on Main Street. Such is the vibe in towns along the Mississippi River.

As you head north out of town onto Highway 61, the sweeping green valleys and rolling bluffs overlook the wild yet graceful river. And there, perched on the side of the highway, sits a handful of tiny homes, campers, and cabins. Welcome to Bending River Cove, a resort with a cottage and five tiny homes, founded in 2017 by co-owners Mike Burke and Denay Kelly.

Bending River Cove

Bending River Cove photo by Kassidy Renee Paige / kassidyreneepaige.com

Mike is a treasure hunter in overalls. He – along with four friends – manage Barndoogle Productions. They travel through small towns across Southern Minnesota “barndoogling” – their word for finding treasures and history in old barns and buildings.

“All barns have a story,” he says. “And each one is unique. We believe it’s important to save and preserve not only the boards, but the stories too.”

Bending River Cove, barndoogling

Barndoogling / Photo courtesy Bending River Cove

When Mike was approached about crafting structures for a tiny home resort between Lake City and Wabasha using his reclaimed treasures, he jumped at the chance. It took Mike and business partner Denay Kelly two years to gather materials and build the tiny homes. But now, Bending River Cove is open for business, sitting just above Lake Pepin on the Minnesota side of the Mississippi.

The handcrafted tiny homes – between 200-400 square feet each – contain a kitchenette, a bathroom, a bedroom outfitted with luxury linens, and a fire pit outside.

“I use as many reclaimed boards and wood as I can,” Mike says. “With those materials, I find I can create intimate and cozy spaces.” Mike uses the term inglenook – a 17th century Scottish word that means chimney corner – to describe the feeling they’re going for at Bending River Cove. Before central heating, the fireplace was used for cooking, and the inglenook – or enclosing alcove – became a natural place for people to gather and stay warm. Looking at the river below while nestled on a comfy couch, with a mug of coffee in one hand and a book in the other, you catch a glimmer of that contentment.

“This area is near and dear to my heart,” Denay adds. “As a child, one of my favorite things to do was camp. Through these tiny homes, we’re trying to recreate that same experience.”

Sign at Bending River Cove

The sign at Bending River Cove / Photo courtesy Bending River Cove

Bending River Cover “tiny house nation”

Each tiny home is nestled between the bluffs of Southeast Minnesota and the breathtaking Lake Pepin. Nightly stays range between $75-175.

The Birch Studio. Sleeps 2. Includes twin daybed and trundle

Fat Bottom Girls. Sleeps 2. 1950s camper-turned-glamper

Homegrown Honey. Sleeps 6

Includes loft and lake-facing outdoor patio

Bohemian Rhapsody. Sleeps 4

Includes private bedroom and fire pit

No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problem. Sleeps 4

Includes outdoor hot tub with lake views

River Queen. Sleeps 6

Includes two separate bedrooms and outdoor deck space

For more information, visit brctinyhomes.com or search Bending River Cove on airbnbn.com.


From pizza farm to glamping

Maren and Tom Beard have been busy. In 2013, they bought their 133-acre farm just outside of Decorah, now known as the beloved Luna Valley Farm. They hosted their wedding ceremony there in the valley, two years later. In 2017, they harnessed Tom’s skills as a farmer and chef and Maren’s passion for sustainable food systems and procurement (she’s an excellent chef, as well) and kicked off their pizza farm. Then, last year, the couple decided to introduce glamping. What’s that, you say? Glamping, AKA glamorous camping, is a way to experience nature with the added bonus of real beds and other plush offerings.

Glamping tent at Luna Valley Farm

A glamping tent at Luna Valley Farm / Photo courtesy Luna Valley Farm

At Luna Valley, the glamping happens in two 12 x 14’ canvas wall tents, which were once used at a Camp Tahigwa, a former Girl Scout camp located north of Decorah. For years Camp Tahigwa hosted groups of girls for week-long camps in the summer, some of which were in wall tents in the woods, overlooking the local trout stream. When the camp got sold a few years ago, Maren and Tom purchased a few of the tents with the dream of someday pitching them on their farm to welcome guests for a farm stay. “We have a passion for breathing new life into remnants of the past and doing what we can to repurpose things of deep history and profound beauty,” Maren writes on their Airbnb listing. “A local Amish tarp repair shop helped us fix up the tents and they have found a new life on our farm, where we hope they will be enjoyed for many years to come.”

The tents are situated in a beautiful oak savanna and feature king-sized beds, whimsical lanterns, rough-sawn hardwood floors, and spaces to read, write, and relax. Set up on a platform that extends into a deck, each tent offers a stunning view of the farm.

“This is a chance for people to unplug, connect with the land, and spend time on a working farm,” Maren says. In addition to pizza and glamping, Luna Valley grows organic crops, and graze sheep and cattle on pasture. “There’s something magical about waking up in the woods in a comfortable bed. It’s so quiet and peaceful.”

In the morning, down at the barn – a three to four-minute walk from the tents – glampers will find local coffee waiting for them, plus lovely bathrooms and a luxurious shower (with room for two). You can even add on glamping extras – mason jar mimosas, anyone? The barn also houses Maren and Tom’s commercial kitchen and pizza oven. Bonus for glampers: On Friday nights, you can take your Luna Valley wood-fired pizza up to your own private patio.

Glamping tents and renovated showers at Luna Valley Farm

Glamping tents in the Oak Savannah at Luna Valley Farm & the renovated showers in the Luna Valley barn / Photos courtesy Luna Valley Farm

Tents are available on Friday and Saturday nights throughout the summer. $150/night, 2 night minimum

Pizza nights: Fridays, 4-8 pm • April – October

For more information, visit lunavalleyfarm.com


Reconstructing history

Five miles north of Decorah, you’ll find a barn silo and a 1973 train caboose, both lovingly restored by Jim Dotzenrod, a Decorah native who proudly welcomes visitors to his land – and the region.

“We are super laid back and friendly up here on The Ridge!” Jim writes in his Airbnb profile. “I grew up in this area and know lots of folks, so no matter your interests, I’d be happy to help you find what you’re looking for during your stay with us.”

CR Train Caboose

The CR Train Caboose / Photos courtesy Silo on the Ridge & CR Train Caboose

Jim says lots of his renters come from the Twin Cities looking for something different.

“They don’t want to stay in town. They’d rather enjoy an experience,” he says. “And out here, they can pet the horses in the pasture, pick raspberries and apples, and watch the sunset.”

The silo came first. Jim – with the help of his brother – restored the structure, adding a roof and building bunk beds and a bathroom on the second level. They even incorporated a grapevine that was originally wrapped around the outside of the silo – the horses had chewed it off, so it was fair game. It now acts as the handrail leading upstairs to the sleeping area. A sofa and kitchen space fill the main level, and a large deck wraps around the entire structure.

Silo on the Ridge, petting horses, picking raspberries, and grapevine handrail

Two above – the Silo on the Ridge & that grapevine handrail / Photos courtesy Silo on the Ridge & CR Train Caboose

After seeing the silo book up frequently, Jim decided it was time for another reno project. That’s when he found the CR Station train caboose — one of the last of its kind, according to Jim — sitting on a set of railroad tracks at a local recycling center. Although a carpenter by trade, Jim wasn’t set up for the ironwork inside. But, with the right tools and help from his daughter, the two of them went for it, gutting the train car – repurposing the original conductor chairs and handrails in the front room, and fitting a queen bed and bunkbeds in the loft. The main level holds the kitchen and bathroom. With help from a crane and semi, the 52,000-pound train car now sits 200 feet away from the silo.

Prices range from $75-$121/night. For more information, visit airbnb.com and search Silo on the Ridge and CR Station Train Caboose.


When Maggie Sonnek isn’t spending the night at unique and cozy destination properties like these, she can be found sipping an iced coffee with her husband, watching their three kids play with Max the puppy.


Looking for more out-of-the-norm spots to spend the night? Add these to your list:

Little House on the Farm & The Guest Barn – Postville, Iowa

The Little House on the Farm – a 750 square-foot cabin located outside of Decorah – was built in 2009 on the foundation of an old barn that was once located on owners Donna and Dave Dull’s farm. The cabin has the look and feel of an authentic pioneer cabin, but with modern touches. The Guest Barn was built in 2012 with materials salvaged from a nearby barn and corncrib. The pieces were used to build a smaller 700 square-foot “new” barn. The space is cozy, but open, with exposed original barn beams and high ceilings for an authentic, yet modern farm stay. www.littlehouseonthefarm.com


Elkader Jail House Inn – Elkader, Iowa

Hosts Julie Carlisle-Kane and Dr. Tim Kane have transformed the old Clayton County Jail – located in Elkader Iowa, and originally built in 1870 – into three spacious suites. Nothing like a jail cell, these suites are beautifully renovated and outfitted with luxurious beds and baths, while still retaining the historic character of the stately old limestone building.

Guest can hang out in the “cell block” – a public space that was once actually the cell block of the jail. These days you can play a game of shuffle board, watch TV, or just relax there! www.elkaderjailhouseinn.com


Trout River Log Cabin – Decorah, Iowa

The Trout River Log Cabin was built in the mid 19th century as a Norwegian-Lutheran parochial school, then taken apart in 1898, moved across a field, and rebuilt as Norwegian immigrant Peter Losen’s home. Then, Decorah residents Paul Cutting and partner, Nathan Thompson, come into possession of the cabin. They stripped it to the logs, numbered everything, and once again moved it – to its new location on the Cutting family farm seven miles from downtown Decorah, perched on a bluff overlooking Trout River valley. It took three years to piece the house back together, and the results are stunning. The cabin is small, simple, and beautiful, with everything you need to make your stay comfortable and relaxing. www.troutriverlogcabin.com


Historic Tobacco Warehouse – Viroqua, Wisconsin

The Northern Wisconsin Co-op Tobacco Pool warehouse – listed on the local, state, and national registries of historic places– is one of the most unique and recognizable buildings in Viroqua. The owners, Valorie Schaefer and Richard Bock, bought it in 2008, and have been slowly renovating it to include their family home, several offices, a photo studio, and now a private guest suite that folks can rent through Airbnb. And that only fills about half of the 24,000 square-foot building! To book, search “Guest Suite in Historic Warehouse” on Airbnb.


Trempealeau Hotel – Trempealeau, Wisconsin

Directly above the Trempealeau Hotel bar and restaurant are eight historic sleeping rooms. Take a step back in time – there’s no TV or air conditioning, but each quaint room has a comfy bed, dresser, chair, and window. Two restrooms with showers are shared with the other lodgers. There is live music most Thursdays and Saturdays and many days in between, so if you need a quieter experience, you may want to book one of the other Trempealeau Hotel lodging options (suites available!) or choose a night without music. Book ahead of time for Reggae Fest, Cajun Fest, Memorial Day, 4th of July, Catfish Days, Labor Day and all weekends in October. www.trempealeauhotel.com


 

A Storied Summer: Driftless Theatre

Heartbreak House, 2018. Photo by Liz Lauren. / Courtesy American Players Theatre

Everybody loves a good story – from tall tales to fairy tales to ghost stories around the campfire to a stage full of actors, performing the scripts of Shakespeare (and others!). Stories transport us, remind us of our history – our joy and our sorrow – and bring us together for a fleeting bit of magic. Add to your summer story by checking out one – or all – of these fun theatres and story-telling events across the Driftless this year.


American Players Theatre – Spring Green, Wisconsin

The scene is set: You’ve got great friends, snacks, and a sense of anticipation along as you head off to the beautiful American Players Theatre (APT) in Spring Green, Wisconsin. Get there early to enjoy your pre-show picnic and the ambiance of the outdoor amphitheater, with sounds of whippoorwills and cicada floating through the air. And then, find your spot – the show is about to begin.

American Players Theatre

Photos by Kelsi Wermuth / Courtesy APT

“Nature definitely plays an active role in our outdoor theater,” says Jess Amend, APT’s Marketing Content Manager, explaining the charm of the Hill Theatre, where the outdoor APT plays are staged. “Most of the performances start around dusk, so you get to watch the world transform as the play goes on. It’s really a full sensory experience – the breeze blows, and the stars and moon come out, and they’re the same stars and moon that Shakespeare’s plays have always been performed under.”

With a backdrop like this, it’s no wonder playgoers love APT. Not only it is a great excuse for a relaxing night out, but the elements of nature – like the occasional pigeon landing on stage – also ensure each experience will be unique. “It all adds dimension to the plays we produce here, and it’s a pretty spectacular way to spend an evening.”

American Players Theatre's outdoor amphitheater, Hill Theatre

Photo by Mike McDermott / Courtesy APT

The storytelling in this setting is what truly makes the Theatre a must-see Driftless destination. “APT’s mission includes digging into really dense, poetic language. And that can be hard – for the actors and the audience – if you don’t do it right,” Jess says. This is why APT has a dedicated voice and text department – one of the strongest in the country – that helps bring stories to life in ways many have never seen before. “We often have audience members tell us that they never understood Shakespeare until they saw it at APT,” says Jess. That, in combination with the chemistry and ease on stage of the actors, makes once-complicated, hard-to-interpret stories feel more digestible, Jess says. “People tell us these actors feel like family, and that’s a powerful thing, and a powerful element to add to any story.”

In addition to the newly renovated 1089-seat outdoor amphitheater, Hill Theatre, there’s the 201-seat indoor Touchstone Theatre. Mark your calendars to the APT 40th Anniversary party on July 21 featuring a first-ever arts installation.

American Players Theatre’s 2019 season’s plays (both indoor and out) are:

Twelfth Night and Macbeth, both by William Shakespeare

She Stoops to Conquer by Oliver Goldsmith

August Wilson’s Fences by August Wilson

The Book of Will by Lauren Gunderson

The Man of Destiny by George Bernard Shaw (indoors)

A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur by Tennesee Williams (indoors)

A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen (indoors)

A Doll’s House, Part 2, by Lucas Hnath (indoors)

See more info and buy tickets at americanplayers.org


Great River Shakespeare Festival – Winona, Minnesota

At the Great River Shakespeare Festival (GRSF) in Winona, Minnesota, they spend a lot of time investigating what is at the core of the story and the characters – translating the works of Shakespeare in new and exciting ways is both challenging and rewarding. “Things like jealousy, love, and ambition are timeless, and there are always new ways to examine how those things affect us,” says Eileen Moeller, GRSF Marketing and Sales Director. “Keeping productions relevant is very important to our company.”

Great River Shakespeare Festival

Photo by Dan Norman / Courtesy GRSF

This year’s production of Macbeth is a great example of how GRSF stays true to the core story and script, but also dips its toe into something new. Their website even suggests you should bring along a “Game of Thrones fan looking to take their fandom to another level” to enjoy the show. “Macbeth is a popular play because it’s dark and broody, but it also deals with ambition and power,” says Eileen. “It’s one that offers a lot to a lot of different people – famous lines for Shakespeare geeks and lots of swords and (fake) blood for those who like action.”

The stories, the costumes, and the set design are all top-notch at GRSF, but, like APT, it’s the atmosphere of community that keeps both audience and company coming back year after year. They’re expecting about 11,000 attendees for this year’s event. “If you’re not from town, you feel like you belong, and if you live in Winona, it’s like seeing old friends,” Eileen says. “For those of us in the company, it’s a combination of a family reunion and summer camp.”

“It’s a community,” she adds. “We want to tell stories together and discuss with our friends and neighbors what they mean for us, in this moment.”

Great River Shakespeare Festival

Photo by Dan Norman / Courtesy GRSF

This year’s Great River Shakespeare Festival – it’s 16th Season! – includes these plays:

Cymbeline

Macbeth

No Child…

The Servant of Two Masters

White Rabbit Red Rabbit

Love’s Labors Lost (Apprentice/Intern Production)

Mark your calendars: GRSF runs now through early August. New this year are two off-site performances at Forager Brewery in Rochester (July 11) and Pearl Street Brewery in La Crosse (July 14). Learn more and buy tickets at grsf.org.

Noteworthy: There are many opportunities for kids to get involved in GRSF through classes, like Shakespeare for: Young Actors; Young Designers;  Young Filmmakers and more. Find details at grsf.org.


Commonweal Theatre – Lanesboro, Minnesota

Lanesboro, Minnesota, is a charming little town that packs a punch, with outstanding recreational activities, exquisite art experiences, and beautiful Victorian houses. And one of the big pieces at the heart of Lanesboro is the Commonweal Theatre, an intimate theater with 30 years of experience under its belt. Executive Director Hal Cropp works hard alongside staff and crew to ensure that playgoers have the same, enjoyable experience at their shows that they do in the surrounding community. The ensemble of folks at the Theatre rotate between different jobs – in addition to being actors on stage, they may also be ticket sellers one day, ticket takers the next, or work selling concessions another. This allows theatre-goers to interact with the company on a more personal, face-to-face level. “It works with both the intimacy of the theater itself and the unique style of the public spaces – all of which are a permanent art display,” Hal says. “And deepens the audience feeling that we are ‘their’ theater.” Passionate storytelling is at the core of the Commonweal company, and this is what brings attendees back for more.

2018 production of The Clean House at Commonweal Theatre

Colleen Barrett (left) and Fernanda Badeo in the 2018 production of The Clean House by Sarah Ruhl. Photo by Peterson Creative Photography & Design / Courtesy Commonweal Theatre

Production selections start with “passion pieces” presented by members of the ensemble. “This generally yields a list of 40 or 50 titles, which then get sorted through for a number of variables: cast size, technical requirements, as well as how it fits against the other titles being offered,” Hal explains. “We are deeply cognizant of our mission to enrich the common good.” Even after 30 years, each production is a new experience at the Commonweal. The company is dedicated to the philosophy of making each person feel like the theatre is their home, and ultimately, feel connected to each story. “The satisfaction we derive from having people connect on so many levels is spiritually fulfilling, and therefore fun,” Hal says. “Passionate storytelling, executed on a highly professional level, touches everyone.”

Commonweal Theatre

Commonweal Theatre. Photo by Katrina Myrah / Courtesy Commonweal Theatre

Commonweal’s 2019 Season runs from April-December.

Current and upcoming shows include:

Boeing Boeing by Marc Camoletti (May 10-Aug 31)

Peter and the Starcatcher by Rick Elice (July 12-Oct 26)

On the Verge by Eric Overmyer (Sept 6-Nov10)

Sanders Family Christmas by Connie Ray (Nov 15-Dec 22)

Find details and buy tickets at commonwealtheatre.org

Resident ensemble member and theatre patron at Commonweal Theatre

Brandt Roberts (left), resident ensemble member, and a theatre patron / Courtesy Commonweal Theatre


Looking for more storytelling fun?

La Crosse Storytelling Festival – La Crosse, Wisconsin

Love a good scary story? Then the La Crosse Storytelling Festival in La Crosse, Wisconsin, is for you! This two-day event kicks off on a Friday night with a gentle first act, perfect for youngsters or the faint-of-heart. Then, the fear gets for real after intermission. “Humans have listened to scary tales for centuries as both cautionary tales and fun experiences. We hope to address the fun, but scary, experience,” says Professional Storyteller, Terry Visger. The festival ups the fun by serving witches brew with costume-clad emcees – appealing to young and old. “This has been a very popular event for children of all ages but, in the last two years, we have actually had more adults than children in attendance,” Terry says.

Day two brings tales of a tamer variety. Musicians, jugglers, and storytellers unite to provide an exciting family-friendly experience. “Storytelling is magical for children. It engages all of their brain and physical being. We choose musicians who know how to interact with children by making them part of the performance,” Terry says.

For adults, the talent and variety of internationally-known storytellers can’t be beat. “We strive for variety in style, content, and type of story. We believe our audiences should experience the best-of-the-best and that is why we bring tellers from many areas and backgrounds to La Crosse,” she says.

After 16 years of hosting this fun-filled weekend under tents, this year’s festival will leave the mosquitoes and unpredictable weather behind for a new location: The Pump House Regional Arts Center. “We will have great food and drink, a silent auction, and bookstore,” Terry says. “And, more importantly, wonderful entertainment for the weekend.”

Mark Your Calendars: La Crosse Storytelling Festival – July 19-20. Learn more at lacrossestoryfest.com.

History Alive – Lanesboro, Minnesota

Loving that Lanesboro, Minnesota vibe? Mark your calendars for History Alive Lanesboro, “Pop-up Plays: Founding Lanesboro 1869,” coming this fall, September 21, 22, 28, and 29 at 1 and 3 pm each day.

History Alive presents stories of Lanesboro… in the streets of Lanesboro. The one and a half-hour walking tours take you to different play locations around town. Tours begin at Sons of Norway, 200 Parkway Avenue South, Lanesboro. Tickets are for sale at the door.

2019’s traveling plays celebrate Lanesboro’s 150th anniversary. Meet some of the town’s first residents, railroad builders, stonemasons, fresh off-the-boat Irish and Norwegians, Chief Winneshiek, area abolitionists, even snake oil salesmen through this storytelling event!

Mark Your Calendars: History Alive Lanesboro – September 21, 22, 28, and 29. See facebook.com/historyalivelanesboro/ for details.

Community Feature: Westby, WI

Old Traditions and New Opportunities
in Westby, Wisconsin

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

It would be easy to tell the story of Westby, Wisconsin through quaint scenes of Norwegian Americana: The 50th Syttende Mai festival that will take place this May, the all-volunteer Snowflake Ski jumping Club, heading into its 95th year, or the Westby Dairy Cooperative, celebrating its 115th Anniversary – and marking Westby the “Cottage Cheese Capital of Wisconsin.”

But just focusing on that would be an understatement of “Uff-da” proportions.

Make no mistake, from the Westby Stabbur to Borgen’s café, Dregne’s Gifts to the Historical Society’s Thoreson House, the Norwegian theme is strong. There’s even the Nisse House of Art, two storefronts offering unique artisan wares and class space, including “Koselig”, a tea and coffee counter. Owner Monica Orban has held the outpost in downtown Westby for the past five years – an idea that came to fruition after farming in Vernon County and spending seven years as Organic Valley’s Senior Events Coordinator. But despite the Nordic themes and deep community ties, Monica isn’t exactly an “old timer,” as they say.

“Well, I’m the president of Syttende Mai…,” laughs Monica, a wide grin perched under her browline glasses. “I’m 100 percent Polish. But, the thing is, I’m only a generation away from being an immigrant.”

A tight-knit Polish neighborhood in Detroit proper taught her what it meant to be a part of an immigrant community.

“People are willing to learn – you have to be creative,” says Monica.

The Westby community is on that creative track. Much like the town’s original Norwegian immigrant settlers, folks are taking large leaps of faith – moving forward with the conviction that they can create and re-create the small community they want to live in.

Just down Highway 14, housed in one of the oldest standing homes in town, Ruth and David Amundson are working to tell those immigrant stories in creative “out of the box” ways through their project, “History Alive.”

“When you have a small rural community, it can be very single-minded – ‘oh, I’m Norwegian, I’m German’ – but to know what happened to make a city, that’s something,” says David. Ruth picks up in a heartbeat, “We work to pique interest through active history, working through students, the community, Syttende Mai, and even with students in Gausdal [Norway].”

David, a lifelong photo collector, and Ruth are both retired high school teachers. History Alive’s goal is to share the history of Westby through photos, stories, and projects – often focused towards high school or younger audiences.

It’s the immigrant story of America – one that has come full circle in our recent world, playing out relevant as ever. But the story of Westby is what all of those immigrant stories can become.

In the mid 1840s, after time at Koshkonong and Galena, Norwegian immigrant Even Gullord walked off a boat at Coon Slough (near Genoa, Wisconsin) onto the banks of the Mississippi. He kept walking, hiking up the valleys until he found, with conviction, what would become his new homeland, Coon Prairie. He settled alongside Driftless Native Americans on the familiar-feeling land, filled with abundance. More immigrants followed, with prompting – from Biri, Gausdal, and across the struggling nation of Norway – making the harrowing weeks long trek across the Atlantic Ocean to new opportunities. Among them was Even Gullord’s nine-year-old nephew, Ole T. Tosten, whose family would take the surname of Westby upon arriving in America. Ole would eventually have a mercantile that would warrant a Westby railroad stop. A town was born.

Norwegian immigrants knew how to farm, how to milk cows, how to grow wheat and crops, eventually even tobacco. Farmsteading was incredibly difficult work, but they found success by looking out for each other, sharing the services they could provide, and through the eventual creation of cooperative agreements. Dairy cooperatives were formed, like the Westby Creamery, plus commodity ag cooperatives, including thriving tobacco croppers like M.H. Bekkedal, and the Northern Wisconsin Tobacco Co-op Pool – most with direct Norwegian immigrant ties.

“I’m still amazed I got elected as mayor, I’m only half Norwegian,” jokes Danny Helgerson, second term Westby Mayor. “But, you know, we have a city and county full of coops,” he continues, reflecting on the changes of rural Vernon County.

Even the communication system is cooperative-based. When telephone systems began to grow mid century, many failed to reach rural areas, deemed too unpopulated to be serviced. That didn’t stop a group of Norwegians from picking up the party line though, as Vernon Communications Cooperative formed in 1950. With the same cooperative principles that had led their agricultural successes, the award-winning provider was formed to service the flowing hills and steep coulees of Vernon County. The Cooperative now serves over 7,000 customers in Western Wisconsin with cutting-edge fiber connectivity, cable, 12 community access channels, and additional computer and IT services. It has been nationally recognized as one of the top rural communications companies in the country.

The cooperative model, woven into the very fabric of the region, provided a path for groups like Organic Valley, Select Sires,Vernon Communications, Premier Coop, Vernon Electric Coop, Westby Co-op Credit Union, the Viroqua Food Co+op, and many more.

“A lot of it has to do with heritage, from the Norwegian settlers with that mentality,” says Dr. Dave Brown of Select Sires – one of the largest AI (artificial insemination) and Bovine genetics providers in the world, which has roots in Westby.

“We’re going to help each other and take care of each other…it’s not quite as cut throat. It worked really, really well for lots of small farms, and we’re evolving with it as businesses grow,” he says.

But a business doesn’t actually have to be a cooperative to benefit from the model. In the early 2000s, Borgen’s Café, a Westby landmark for a century, had hit tough times. The Scandinavian café had become tired, and was eventually shuttered, much to the dismay of patrons, who for decades had stopped in for a piece of pie and cup of hot coffee. So the town got together – a group of investors formed to buy the business, make necessary repairs, and re-sell it to a community-minded owner.

“It’ll be 10 years in November,” says Blane Charles, citing the decade he and his wife, Mary, have owned Borgen’s. “It was a great way for us to get into the community. It was a win-win, it benefits the community, and it’s what we wanted to do.”

Mary and Blane have never been short of things to do – the couple embodies the value that there’s no sitting back in a small town. Mary worked her way through nursing school waiting tables, and Blane started cooking in his mother’s restaurant at age 16. They also ran a dairy farm for several years, and are present on a number of community groups and projects. At Borgen’s, they’ve brought back to life a town hub that provides everything from pie and coffee to meatball dinners to banquet and catering facilities – even nightly lodging.

“You have to buy into and be a part of a community to be successful,” says Blane.

“It’s really awesome to see how one hand washes the other, so to speak – how we all benefit. You get people into town, and they stop for lunch, but they’re also going to stop at the gas station, or they’re going to the winery, or cheese store. We’re all in it together – and when we see that common vision, we all benefit.”

Michele Engh, Director of Faith Formation at Westby Coon Prairie Lutheran Church, agrees. “You work to build your community; you don’t sit and wait for your community to build you.”

For years, Michele worked with CouleeCAP (the regional Community Action agency) and Vernon County on a grassroots level in economic development and grant writing, before finding her way to Coon Prairie Lutheran. But it was a statewide call for action from the Wisconsin State Associations that sparked her most recent endeavors. “From AARP to the churches, teachers unions, town associations – all of these state associations and leadership groups realized, ‘Hey, I’m working on this, you’re working on this, how do we cross these ‘silos’ and help put them together?’ How can we make this area better for our grandchildren?”

Once folks from the different organizations started meeting, challenges within economic development came to the front, and immediately under that heading came childcare.

“We live in a childcare desert,” says Michele, “and that prevents employers from being able to hire. So how do we address the need in Vernon County?”

With small communities like Cashton, Viroqua, Viola, and Westby all several miles from each other, the physical challenges of rural communities are magnified. There is no one-size fits all answer, Michele says, so by working with various agencies, they came up with a “Shared Services” model. “There are about 25 of these that operate nationwide, much like the many cooperatives that operate in our area.”

The group received a $400,000 grant from the Medical College of Wisconsin, disbursed over four years, to help get the program off the ground. Their focus is on in-home childcare providers who are legally allowed only three kids at a time. That number can be raised to eight, Michele says, but the work to get there can be daunting.

“So we’re creating a structure, along with the Wisconsin Early Childhood Association, to do the majority of the paperwork, training, and pooling of resources to get these providers licensed and regulated for eight kids,” Mary says. “That doubles our current capacity across the county. Providers will also receive training in early education awareness, communication, and support systems to not only help themselves, but parents of children as well… a sharing of services.”

This spirit of cooperation – working from the ground up to move a community forward – is a cornerstone principle behind Servant Leadership, a timeless philosophy that’s been inspiring the Coulee Region for years.

The phrase, “servant leadership,” was coined, in recent times, by Robert K. Greenleaf in The Servant as Leader, an essay first published in 1970. A “servant leader” is essentially a person who, first, wants to serve their community in some capacity – on the city council, as a mentor, anything that gives back. Second, they lead in their community with positivity – through a specific project, on a board, anything that helps move things forward.

“Our communities change when good people get together and do good work,” says Tom Thibodeau, Director of the Master of Arts in Servant Leadership (MASL) program at Viterbo University. “This is what changes communities, this is what impacts lives, this is what creates a sense of trust.”

Mayor Danny Helgerson has seen firsthand the impact of everyday leaders. “I got a phone call at city hall,” say Danny, “and Lori Pedretti wanted to know if we could talk… we’d never met. So we did, and she said, ‘I’d just like to know what we can do to make this a better community?’ That’s a great conversation. We got talking about servant leadership – I was sold once I understood that you basically start with what you have that is positive and build on it. All the way through is positive.”

On a chilly Driftless evening, Lori Pedretti walks into The Logan Mill – one of the oldest buildings standing in Westby, which now offers travelers a place to stay or gather with groups. The historic structure represents not only a unique place in history, but like Lori, a renewed sense of purpose in the community. Lori completed Viterbo’s Master of Arts in Servant Leadership program in three years, while being a full time RN, raising a toddler, and nursing her husband through a battle with brain cancer. Along the way, she started connecting with community members to bring the concepts of Servant Leadership to town.

“As I started talking to people, I realized there were all these great things happening but people didn’t even know about them – nobody helping bring it all together. I just had this big ‘a-ha’ moment, where I knew I wanted to do something. I started talking with anyone who would listen – telling them what we wanted to do: Build relationships in the community, identify all the things we already have in place, acknowledge the positives, and figure out the needs,” she says. “It was important for me to get a wide audience – farmers, business owners, single moms, families, our seniors.”

So Lori, with the help of her professor Tom Thibodeau and Michele Engh, set a series of community meetings to share the principles of Servant Leadership.

“Our goal was to have conversations – what are the things that would make this area better? How do we, as a grassroots movement, find answers? Not looking from the top down, but what will fit our area and make sense from the bottom up?” says Michele, an edge of excitement in her voice. “It’s so easy to look at the community and say what’s wrong instead of what’s right – and saying what’s right is more fun. It’s exciting to be in Westby right now, because when you bring 100 people together and talk about what’s good with a community – it’s amazing what happens.”

But the work of gathering community conversations is real work – make no mistake.

“Everyone needs to be protected, respected, and connected to the community,” says Tom Thibodeau, “and this is the good work that Lori and Michele are helping to facilitate in the Westby community.”

They hope to do six more meetings in 2018, Lori says, with the goal of supporting current initiatives, identifying what needs to meet next, and always moving the community forward.

In many ways, the Servant Leadership ideals were already in place amongst community members of Westby. The group that helped realize the vision of the Westby Area Performing Arts Center is a great example of that.

In 2001, the Fine Arts Foundation of the Westby Area (FAFWA) was formed to figure out how to build a performance facility for the Westby community and schools.

“Seventy-four percent of high school students in Westby are involved in music, and consistently do well in contests,” says Linda Dowling, FAFWA Chairwoman. “A lot of us felt it was time for them to have a performance space that fit, and not just a gym.”

But funding was a challenge. The process drew on for years, with small successes, but no momentum.

In 2014, a community member challenged the foundation to get things moving. The group was reinvigorated, and a referendum passed with the agreement that FAFWA would come up with a sizeable amount of the budget – both in short and long-term views. Four years later – February 2018 – the facility celebrated its grand opening.

“But that’s what I see with a small town – how people come together to help each other,” says Linda. “The timing was right, the energy was there, the commitment.”

Common good, shared services, cooperative business models. This could be the description of a modern Scandinavian country, but it’s not; it’s rural Vernon County.

“There’s definitely a tipping point – I don’t know if we’re there yet, but I can’t wait to see what’s next,” says Monica Orban. “When all is said and done, you can have the small town us and them, the insiders and outsiders, but when push comes to shove, people offer a hand. Time and time again, they just give. We’re celebrating Westby, we’re celebrating history, it’s like the sign says – we have these old traditions, and new opportunities – boom. That’s the formula to move forward.”

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Benji Nichols is a big fan of kind people, the hills and valleys of the Driftless,  communities that are working hard to make positive change, and cheese. This story is a living testament to those truths. A special thank-you goes out to Evelyn Larson for the use of her Nisse and button art in this story. 

 

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Westby’s 50th Syttende Mai!

Westby, Wisconsin celebrates the 50th year of their most well known community celebration, Syttende Mai, May 19-20, 2018. The small town comes alive with a troll hunt, folk art displays, food demonstrations, sporting events, great music, church services, the kiddie parade Saturday, and Grand Parade Sunday!

Evelyn Larson  (Pictured at left) has designed the Westby Syttende Mai buttons ever since year two of the town’s celebration (the first year the button – at right – was made by the American Legion Auxiliary). Evelyn is the local Nisse creator as well. Don’t miss her Nisse at Syttende Mai (plus a couple of her drawings in this story!).

Find the entire 50th Westby Syttende Mai schedule at
www.westbysyttendemai.com

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Norskedalen Nature and Heritage Center

“Norwegian Valley” started as a 100+ acre farm near Coon Valley, WI that was donated by Dr. Alf and Carroll Gundersen to the UW La Crosse foundation in 1977. An arboretum was established on the farm in memory of Gundersen’s mother, and  in 1982 the Thrune Visitor’s Center was completed. Since then, the Nature and Heritage Center has grown into a 400 acre treasure of coulee, springs, creeks, and prairie. It also holds the Bekkum Homestead – a collection of original log buildings built by first generation Norwegian Immigrants arranged in a traditional horseshoe-shaped ‘tun’ or farmstead. Various trails, shelters, and facilities are available by reservation, and the facility is supported by visitors and memberships. Plan a visit and find out more at www.norskedalen.org

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Westby Rod & Gun Club

The Westby Rod & Gun Club is a unique conservation club that has been serving the region since 1937. The Club is also Wisconsin’s longest surviving conservation club to stock trout each spring in local streams. For over 75 years the club has been providing opportunities to sportsmen, and supporting local conservation and habitat projects, as well as fundraisers like their Christmas Toys for kids drive, which raised almost $4,500. for local families. The club maintains a bar & kitchen on Main Street in Westby, which is known for huge weekend breakfasts, and occasional events like smelt fries and hosting sporting contests. With additional camping, range, and banquet hall facilities just outside of the city, membership is available on an annual basis with unique perks.