Life On The Farm
(Editor's note: The following story appeared in the June 26, 2019 edition of the Trempealeau County Times. The story was honored a second-place award for non-profile features in the Wisconsin Newspaper Association's Better Newspaper Contest)
It doesn’t look like much.
A small silo off to the side of the road with the words “The Farm” painted on it. Seemingly meaningless, that painting is one of the only visible pieces of evidence of a community that called the backwoods of the backwoods in rural Ettrick home as they tried to save the world.
Some local accounts paint members of The Farm as hippies who hid in the woods to smoke marijuana and escape reality. The true story, is a tale about a group of people who came to Ettrick with nothing and left on the cutting edge in both the technological and medical fields. People who started out not knowing what they were doing and became business owners, mechanics, construction workers and medical professionals.
The Farm wasn’t just a place for these people to live; it was an experience.
Dougie Padilla admitted his memory is weird, but he does remember his time on The Farm, a 160-acre parcel of land located on a gravel road off of another gravel road near the Jackson County line.
The 13th resident of The Farm, Padilla remembers the winters he spent living in a tent with a group of his peers, surrounded by nothing but wilderness.
At one time, The Farm housed 75 people, all living there to try to make the world a better place as part of the back-to-the-land movement under the teachings of Stephen Gaskin.
“We pissed off our parents,” Roger Kanies, who lived on The Farm from 1974 until 1979, said. “Half of our parents thought we were kidnapped by a cult. Our motto was we were going to try to save the world.”
Padilla said The Farm was born of hippie renascence. A group that included his wife and friends, all from the Minneapolis area, decided to start a branch of Gaskin’s Mother Farm south of Nashville, Tenn.
They searched for property to call their own before eventually finding land hidden deep in the woods of rural Ettrick. On Feb. 6, 1973, Communion, a non-profit corporation organized in the state of Minnesota, took possession of the 160-acre parcel of land on a land contract with Roy Emery for $16,000.
The first group of commune members consisted of 10 people, including Padilla’s wife. Two months later, Padilla moved to the area, first living in a rented house in Galesville before the entire group was able to settle on The Farm in Ettrick.
The Farm was based on a religious or spiritual movement. Gaskin had a blend of Eastern and Western religion, which used marijuana as sacrament.
“Every Sunday morning we’d go out to the pasture, meditate and smoke marijuana. We sat completely still in the pasture — or a tent if it was winter,” Padilla said. “Plenty of talk about spiritual stuff.”
Michael Traugot moved to Ettrick from the Tennessee Farm to help residents get organized. Before they built three houses, Traugot said people living on The Farm slept in MASH-style tents, school buses or wherever else they could keep warm.
Padilla said they would line the tents with heavy plastic to create an extra layer of insulation.
"School buses are worse than canvas tents because there’s no insulation in those puppies,” Padilla said. “We’d wake up in 4 a.m. and your beard would be covered with frost because it was so cold.”
Members of the commune grew all of their own food. While few had any experience farming, they relied on the expertise of other area farmers, such as Emery, who still lived nearby, Padilla said. Within a year, they grew soybeans and other vegetables.
The residents of The Farm worked mostly on other area farms or did other manual labor jobs to try and save up money.
Paul Walhus said he worked on a local sawmill sorting oak lumber and at Kaste’s Morningside Orchard where he said he drank the best fresh apple juice he has ever tasted.
Those living on The Farm also had jobs to do closer to home, within the commune. Padilla said he became the designated woodcutter, despite not knowing how to operate a chainsaw.
Kanies said his college experience as an actor helped him out. “It was good to be an actor because I could pretend I knew shit while I was learning how to be a roofer and a carpenter on the fly.”
The early days of The Farm were a struggle, both financially and with managing personalities. Padilla said he left in 1974 because egos started to get involved with how The Farm was run. As the group grew, commune members elected a board of directors to make the financial decisions, something that led to personality clashes.
“Everything was supposed to be decided by a consensus, but there started to be a little hierarchy and stuff,” Padilla said.
That’s when Kanies and others came to The Farm and changed the leadership style.
"We spoke freely and often, too often sometimes,” Kanies said. ”We believed in telling people what we thought about them and each other and not everybody’s egos could sustain a full conversation.”
Kanies said that changeover led to more strict enforcement of the religious vows and agreements members had to take in order to live on The Farm. It also led to some of the original members leaving.
Ownership of the property also shifted. In 1974, the property was transferred to Foundation of Wisconsin, Inc.
There was also a decrease in marijuana usage.
“We almost never had any, and what we did have was junk,” Kanies said, adding that he doesn’t remember smoking marijuana very often on The Farm in Ettrick. “We did smoke a little, but we weren’t obvious about it. We didn’t smoke it for recreation.”
Kanies said that when he and a group of others moved to Wisconsin from Tennessee, the Wisconsin Farm changed with a focus on midwifery.
“As soon as the midwives hit the scene that gave the movement from Tennessee the moral strength to enforce the teachings, so to speak,” Kanies said.
According to numerous reports — told to Walhus and Kanies — more than 100 babies were delivered in Ettrick.
After getting her start at The Farm in Tennessee, Kim Cox has now retired from the University of New Mexico where she was the Associate Professor and PhD Program Director at the College of Nursing.
Cox joined The Farm in Tennessee in 1975, moving from Maine, referring to it as the “granddaddy” of the substantial social movement sprouting up across the country. After training on the Tennessee Farm, Cox came to Ettrick in 1978.
Training for midwives, Cox said, was through an apprenticeship program, they’d start by coaching the mothers before advancing to other areas of midwifery.
Cox trained as a midwife, a lab tech and emergency medical technician in Tennessee before moving to Wisconsin. She said the effort of The Farm was “very instrumental in the growing midwifery movement,” a practice that she said was demonized in the United States in the early 1900s before becoming popular again in the 1970s.
While she described the training they received as fairly informal, Cox said they worked closely with Dr. Eugene Krohn out of Black River Falls.
“We weren’t just out there doing our own thing with no connection to the system, I think that’s important to understand,” Cox said.
Although the practice was to have a medication-free and religious birthing experience, there were times when expecting mothers had to be taken to the hospital, Cox noted they had an ambulance on-hand with trained EMTs for any emergencies.
Diane Larson moved to what was known as the Wisconsin Farm from the Tennessee Farm in 1974 with her boyfriend at the time, William. When they arrived in Ettrick, the Larsons realized they were ready to start a family and The Farm setting appealed to them.
Diane and William were married by Gaskin in Ettrick on March 9, 1975. Their first child was delivered by Mary Fjierstad in the pole house on Feb. 29. 1976.
“It was miraculous, this childbirth event, a revelation,” Larson said.
The influx of children helped the schoolhouse on The Farm thrive too. In addition to children living on The Farm, the school was attended by other area children.
The number of children delivered in Ettrick surprised Kanies, but he did remember the one who didn’t make it, a stillborn boy named Garth.
While local stories report there are numerous unmarked graves on the property, Kanies said there was just one: Garth’s.
Kanies helped bury the infant in a handmade cherry casket on a hillside facing south. The grave was unmarked in accordance with Wisconsin state law.
The population on The Farm continued to grow.
Kanies noted that they had 35 people living in one house, 16 of which were children, 12 under the age of four. “We believed in natural birth control,” Kanies said. “What was wrong with us?”
The birthing center kept people coming to The Farm, but, according to Kanies, it came to a sudden stop in the late 1970s.
One of the busloads of people arriving from the Tennessee farm had a teenager who had hepatitis.
The teenager lived on the Wisconsin Farm for weeks before it was discovered that he had the disease. Fearing everyone there had already been exposed to the disease, a decision was made to end the birthing practice.
Cox said she did not remember it having anything to do with exposure to hepatitis, but rather it wasn’t as comfortable of an environment as the midwives preferred.
Cox birthed a son in what is known as the “new house” on The Farm, but said there were concerns about the location of The Farm in Ettrick.
“It was a long way to the hospital,” Cox said. “Weather could be scary with little twisty roads through the coulees in wintertime.”
She said the general consensus from the midwifery perspective was that The Farm in Ettrick was not a safe environment to practice.
With the closing of the birthing center, Kanies said people stopped coming to the Wisconsin Farm.
“How else do you get people to come here? ‘Come to Wisconsin and spend a winter with us,’” Kanies joked.
But, The Farm was still profitable.
Kanies said that instead of working for local businesses, they eventually learned the best way to make money was to start their own businesses. Soon, The Farm Ladder Company was started, along with Coulee Construction Company and Kanies’ own business, Solar Energy Works.
Kanies also ran the construction company and combined the two to build a solar-powered house near Whitehall. Kanies said the construction company was booked for an entire year before The Farm closed in 1979.
There were also some in the commune who fixed up cars, eventually buying a building in Beach Corners, which they used as a car-repair garage.
For the most part, Kanies and Padilla both said they didn’t have issues getting along with neighbors, although there were a few problems.
“Sometimes we didn’t get along with the other hippies,” Kanies said. “They viewed us as elitists because we didn’t eat meat, smoke cigarettes or drink alcohol. It rubbed people the wrong way.”
While the Wisconsin Farm thrived, the Tennessee Farm struggled. Word was sent north that the Tennessee Farm needed help and requested the satellite farms close down to focus resources in one location.
Everybody on the Wisconsin Farm voted and the majority chose to close The Farm in Ettrick and head south to help in Tennessee.
At that point, most of the people living in Ettrick packed up into school buses and caravanned down to Tennessee.
Leonard Tischleder said he left the silo— and the painting on it — standing because he likes the way it looks and the history it comes with.
Tischleder now owns 40 acres that was a part of The Farm, and is familiar with the property’s history. His home is built on the foundation of what was known as the pole house and his shed is on the foundation of what was the schoolhouse. Both of the original buildings had to be torn down because of damage done from roof leaks.
With Kanies signing as president, The Farm was sold to Pat Olson for $75,000 in 1980. Olson owned the property until the early 1990s before selling to Scott Holmquist, who said its history was part of the reason be bought the land.
Holmquist eventually sold off portions of the land, including 40 acres to Tischleder, who had been helping Holmquist take care of the property.
The only house left standing from The Farm is owned by Larry and Marilyn Tischleder, Leonard’s brother and sister-in-law. They have spent 20 years remodeling the three-story structure and are now planning on selling it, along with their 45 acres of land.
While the silo is one of the few visible pieces of evidence remaining, Leonard Tischleder said there are still leftovers deep in the woods. When he moved on the property, there was still a wall from one of the tents with a steel stove, presumably used for heat, inside of it. He noted there were power and water lines running above ground throughout the property. He also said there is evidence of where outhouses once stood all over the property.
Kanies said he was bitter when he left The Farm commune in Tennessee, thinking he had failed, but later came to understand the accomplishments of the people living there.
When he left The Farm commune, Kanies purchased his solar energy company from The Farm. He and his wife live in Nashville. Two of the Kanies’ six children were born on The Farm in Ettrick, one of which, he said is currently the Chief Executive Officer of a 500-person company.
“I came to understand the success of the farm wasn’t from what we set out to do,” Kanies said. “It was from what we gave back to society. We just made the world a little more compassionate and friendlier.”
Today, the silo is the last obvious reminder of a group of people who just might have changed the world, even if it didn’t happen the way they intended.