Fiber mill in a village that rocks

May 10, 2011

I came to see machinery but before I was there five minutes I met a goddess.  I think Argyle is that kind of place.  You’ve gotta love these creative, entrepreneurial types.

From Michigan, the note in the box says, "State Fair #1"

The term “Fifty-mile Fiber” brought me here to check out the Argyle Fiber Mill, one of those great little destinations well off the thoroughfare.  Salt-of-the-Earth kind of people.   They raise animals – alpaca, Icelandic sheep and llamas –  in addition to cattle, pork and fowl of all kinds.  The Mill purchases fiber locally – thus the Fifty Mile goal – and provides retail services, consignment opportunities and a great place for aficionados to gather.

You can buy great yarns, including 100% Icelandic, 100% alpaca, blends using both or even the “houseblend”, which can include Icelandic, alpaca, llama, mohair, merino and whatever else they have small amounts of leftover.

The Mill does custom processing, mostly for breeders with small flocks.  They process fiber based on the specific needs of each customer and produce clouds, roving, batts and yarn.  When you deal with the Argyle Fiber Mill, you’re assured that you will get your own wool back.  “No minimum, no blending, your animal,” states a succinct Kristi.

They support and supply local fiber producers and artisans, although they have customers from throughout the Midwest and all around the country.  I kept thinking of how many neat knitted creations I’ve seen in shops recently that might have had some connection to this place.  Kristi says, “There isn’t a soul who doesn’t appreciate a hand knit item from someone they know and love.”

Kristi sets-up the spinning machine

I did get to see some neat equipment, by the way.  The Mill is a full-service operation located in an old hardware store.  The production action is in the rear of the building, and the techno-nerd in me loved the spinning machine, although there were quite a few other pieces of equipment there to wash and prepare fiber.  Nothing is wasted, and the day I visited they had some lesser quality fiber ready for making rugs.

The Mill sponsors a number of classes from time to time, but Wednesday nights have become a special time for gathering.  Argylia, Goddess of Knitting, Wine and Laughter, presides over a comfy spot in the lower level where people gather every Wednesday evening to knit, spin and chat.  They are the Argylian Society of Knitters.  Folks come quite a distance and represent a wide variety of ages, viewpoints, communities and expertise.  Most have animals.  The group makes items to donate, and has helped organizations like the Special Olympics, the Veterans Hospital and members of the armed forces.  Who would have thought about the need for a nice, knit helmet liner!

Argylia - Goddess of kintting, wine and laughter

I asked Kristi pointedly if it was true that Wednesday nights are when women gather to complain about their husbands and she said, “yup”.  Hmmmmm.  But she hit on the success of the group when she said, “Knitting remains a relaxing, soothing, comforting constant – and at the end of the day, you have something!”

The Argyle Fiber Mill represents more than just entrepreneurship; it is a place with a heart and a purpose beyond a job.  The people who run the place realize they are part of something bigger, certainly in the geographical sense and something larger attitudinally as well.  A community of spirit: People who support each other’s creativity.

And by the way, behind the door with the “Art Inside” sign is a great little studio where Pam works and plans community art classes.  So the Fiber Mill can probably also claim it is a business incubator, because I know that in that room they’re hatching some great ideas for community art projects.

Argyle is a postcard picturesque little community of about 800, on the Pecatonica River in Lafayette County.  It has its own hydroelectric plant on the river (how cool is that?), and was for a time the home to Wisconsin’s own Fighting Bob Lafollette.   Its community school survives and thrives – every kid in the district in one building that shares the playground with the village park next door.  The Pecatonica River winds through town and its wetlands grace the perimeter.  And you’ve got to see the turtle – designed and built by the students, local artists and artisans and scads of community members.  It took years but most everyone got involved in one way or another.

Historic Partridge Hall

Entrepreneurial communities are those places that create an environment that attracts, retains and supports talent.  I’ve seen some neat, thriving places in my time and Argyle is definitely an entrepreneurial community.  It is an industrious place with great history – something fairly common in agriculture country – but also welcomes new folks and new ideas and, frankly, the mixture makes the Village glow.

The Argyle hydro plant

By the way, if you’re into community development, don’t miss the 2011 regional conference, Building Economic Strength Together (BEST), held this year in Argyle on May 24.  There will be two business tours: the Fiber Mill and another excellent local business – the Thunder Bridge Trading Company.  Click here for more information.

The famous Argyle Turtle, designed and built by students, teachers, local artists and just about everyone else. Yup, you can crawl right through it!

Give Argyle a visit sometime soon.  It’s near Monroe, Darlington and Blanchardville and other neat places in southwest Wisconsin.  Together, they’re great day trip material.  You’ll find scores of shops and hundreds of creative, innovative people.

And you can also connect with the Fiber Mill folks through their Facebook page.

Do you know of an entrepreneurial community, either an urban neighborhood or a rural place?   Let us know about it.

Rick Rolfsmeyer, Hollandale, WI

Battle of the Bread Spreads

November 18, 2010

A brochure created in the 1930s to encourage consumption of Wisconsin butter. Photo: Wisconsin Historical Society.

In the 1950s and 60s, Wisconsin had a smuggling problem so widespread that state officials all but looked the other way. The contraband in question–not drugs or weapons, as you might guess–was margarine. Yellow margarine, to be precise.

Dairy farmers took the late 19th century introduction of margarine to the Midwestern marketplace personally: many viewed the product as unwholesome and (when colored to resemble butter) downright fraudulent, an industrial threat to the agrarian lifestyle. That perceived threat initiated a battle of the bread spreads that would last decades, with dairy interests typically prevailing. For years margarine, primarily the colored variety, was taxed and regulated by both federal and state governments. And no state fought longer or harder to edge out its oleaginous opponent than Wisconsin, which by 1915 had staked its claim as the nation’s Dairy State. Between 1895 and 1967, using colored margarine here was a crime, punishable by fines and/or imprisonment.

Historian Gerry Strey chronicles the epic butter/margarine conflict in an article called Oleo Wars: Wisconsin’s Fight Over the Demon Spread, which I found in a back issue of The Wisconsin Magazine of History. As Strey tells it, emotions ran high among dairy sympathizers of the day. One of the more famous examples of their collective frustration occurred in 1931, when farmers marched on the State Capitol in Madison. “Down With Oleo! Farm Crusaders Cry” read the lead story in the Wisconsin State Journal on December 16th of that year.

The traveling Smithsonian exhibition Key Ingredients: America by Food,  currently taking place in Reedsburg, features a display about another  protest that took place in the 1950s. On Wisconsin Public Radio recently to promote the exhibition, curator Donna Neuwirth explains how Green Butter Day came about: “Apparently the editor of the paper in Sauk City launched a protest and said, ‘Rather than eat your damned yellow oleo, we’re going to dye this vat of a ton of butter green’  … they did, and they sold out by mid-day. And the entire issue of that week’s paper was printed in green ink. ” (Wisconsin history enthusiasts will be interested to know that this same newspaperman, Leroy Gore, also wrote the consequential editorial Joe Must Go. In 1954, Gore’s opinion piece launched a movement to recall Senator Joseph McCarthy.)

Green Butter Day in Sauk City. Photo submitted by Donna Neuwirth.

Donna Neuwirth says the Green Butter Day account was “just one of the many stories we’ve unearthed” for the Key Ingredients exhibition. She says that particular display, which includes the Sauk-Prairie Star article and other oleo artifacts, has elicited lively conversation among people who experienced the oleo versus butter controversy firsthand. My own mother used to talk about purchasing a sort of DIY butter substitute–uncolored margarine sold with yellow dye and a plastic bag. The product, never outlawed, allowed consumers to mix their own yellowish margarine. And my aunt tells me that my grandparents staged their own butter/oleo taste test back in the day (but interestingly she can’t remember which product our farming kin backed, or which won).

Even with the added taxes, margarine remained the cheaper alternative. So consumer loyalty for butter began to erode during the Great Depression and faded even further during the food rationing times of World War II.  Federal support for the dairy spread waned, too, as lobbies for soybean and cottonseed oil producers gained strength. As a result, dairy-producing states gradually gave in to market pressure and eased up on oleo regulations–all except Wisconsin, that is, where the margarine ban remained on the books the longest. These combined factors set the stage for the aforementioned oleo smuggling, when margarine sold legally in Illinois commonly came across the border by the trunkload.

As we all know, Wisconsin legislators did finally relax their anti-margarine stance. Though a few regulations remain in effect, most restrictions on margarine were repealed in 1967.

The Wisconsin Historical Society sells gift items, like this t-shirt, for butter loyalists. Photo: Wisconsin Historical Society.

Interested in learning more? If so, I highly recommend:

–Gerry Strey’s 2001 article, which is exhaustive but never boring. Demonstrating an impressive knowledge of legislation, market forces  and consumer behavior, Strey weaves an engaging tale that spotlights some of the colorful characters behind the controversy.

Key Ingredients: America by Food, on view in Reedsburg through Dec. 3  (in conjunction with the Reedsburg Fermentation Fest). Visitors will find photographs, artifacts and panel displays, presentations and local food-related art, all dealing with the ways history, culture and environment have shaped national and regional dining habits.

–Larry Meiller’s interview with Donna Neuwirth on Wisconsin Public Radio.

Wisconsin Statute 97.18 details current “oleomargarine” regulations. If you’ve made it this far into my post, I’m betting you’ll find these interesting–maybe even a bit surprising.

By Tammy Kempfert,

Sound wisdom from rural Wisconsin

May 7, 2010

In the Spring 2010 issue of Wisconsin People and Ideas, Bill Berry confesses he’s “hopelessly in love” with rural Wisconsin and its residents.

Clearly Berry’s soft spot for the state’s backroads is no passing crush: as evidence of his affection, the Stevens Point journalist has more than 30 years experience covering rural issues around the state. Among his published works is the final report for the Future of Farming and Rural Life in Wisconsin project, a Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters policy initiative that explored economic and sustainable growth through agriculture.

So who better than he to inaugurate Voices of Rural Wisconsin, a new venture of the Academy and Voices of Rural Wisconsin broadens the scope of the Future of Farming initiative–with a four-part series of interviews to be featured in Wisconsin People and Ideas, and a companion audio archive on Portal Wisconsin.

“Part One: The Call of the Land” showcases the likes of conservationist and organic agriculture pioneer Harold Kruse. Those living in Dane County have the Kruse family to thank for our beloved farmers market, which wraps around Capitol Square Wednesdays and Saturdays throughout the growing season. In the audiotaped interview on Portal Wisconsin, you can listen to Kruse describe his lifelong love of nature–in high school, he cataloged 1,500 species of plants and animals on his family’s Loganville farm–while a woman calls bingo at the nursing home where he currently lives. Given all Kruse has seen and accomplished during his life, the interview he granted Berry is an oral history jewel.

I liked listening to Randy Cutler’s interview, too. The Milladore farmer reminds us that, in the 1970s, parents urged their kids to “Get off the farm.” While he ultimately didn’t take the advice himself, he says people back then saw farming as a high-risk, low-paying last resort. Today he’s noticed a renewed interest in living off the land.

Almost as if to prove his point, we have Val Klessig. Just a year or two ago, the 19-year-old was sure she wanted to leave her family’s six-generation Cleveland farm to pursue a career as a teacher or a veterinarian. Lately, though, the UW-Madison freshman reports a change of heart: “I still want to spread my wings, and I still want to venture into the world and take that leap of faith,” she says. “I feel though that eventually I will be returning and doing something with our farm.”  In the audio version, you can hear the pleased chuckles of her father Karl in the background–and you can almost feel the magnetic pull of the land he later describes.

We hope you’ll take a look at the latest issue of Wisconsin People and Ideas, where you’ll find Berry’s article, “The Call of the Land,” and so much more. And please make time to listen to the voices I’ve described here and the others that make up the new audio project on Portal Wisconsin. You can find them collected at We’ll be posting the Part Two audio, “From Farm to Plate,” soon.

–Tammy Kempfert


The Public Option

August 10, 2009

Historically-minded people often discern similiarities between events past and present and can’t resist the temptation to share them.  So be warned, here’s one now.

The current debate over the expansion of the federal government’s role in providing health insurance to Americans resembles the discussion–to put it mildly–that occurred in the mid-1930s on whether the United States should fund the extension of electrical service to rural areas unserved by investor-owned utilities.  It was the 1930’s version of the familiar public-versus-private debate that is as old as the republic.

The need was obvious. Ninety percent of the six million American farmsteads did not have electricity. Basic amenities that urban Americans had enjoyed for decades–modern lighting, running water, indoor toilets–were absent, as were “luxuries” like radios, refrigerators, automatic hot water heaters and kitchen stoves that did not burn wood.


In the 1930s, standards of living on American farms lagged far behind those in cities. Photo: Wisconsin Historical Society.

That was in the farm house. In farm yards, barns, sheds and shops, electrical power would save labor, make for a better-lighted, safer working environment, increase productivity and boost income. An electric water pump meant a farmer had only to turn the handle on a faucet to water his livestock instead of pumping hundreds of gallons by hand or relying on a windmill that did not always spin. Electric motors could also power the numerous choppers, grinders, mixers and loaders that were vital to handling everything from shelled corn to shredded silage. Electricity would bring American farming into the 20th Century.

In 1934, President Franklin Roosevelt established the Rural Electricification Administration. The following year, Congress appropriated $100 million and charged the REA to make low interest loans to public and investor-owned utilities to run power lines in rural areas.

Then the debate began. The power companies said that if they borrowed the entire $100 million they could extend power to another 200,000 farms–maybe. That would leave about 5.2 million unserved. A dismayed Senator Frank Norris, the prairie progressive from Nebraska, succeeded in amending the REA legislation to require that loans  be made only to organizations  agreeing to extend power to all consumers in their service area. Norris’s “all-inclusion” provision prevented the power companies from using taxpayer dollars to “cherry pick”  their customers. Obliged to serve both the big farm on the county highway and the hardscrabble homestead up the hollow, the power companies passed on the loan program.

Farmers themselves stepped up. Often led by university-extension county agents, they organized cooperatives that collected membership fees as low as one dollar per farm, established local distribution systems, and purchased power from the investor-owned utilities.

In Wisconsin, two cooperatives lay claim to the honor of being the first to deliver power to farmer members. On or about the same day in May 1937, Richland County Electric Cooperative and Columbus Rural Electric Cooperative energized their first power lines.

1950s Iowa farm kids, part of the first generation of rural Americans born on farms with electrical power.  Photo: Author.

1950s Iowa farm kids, part of the first generation of rural Americans born on farms with electrical power. Photo: Author.

Cooperatives spread and today there are over nine hundred rural electric cooperatives serving forty-two million people in forty-seven states. There would be more had the private utilities not responded as they did. Faced with competition from the “public option” they discovered that they really could extend service to millions–not just thousands–of farmers.

As a result, electrical power came to rural America. It was a precondition for the transformation that occurred in the countryside in the years after World War II.

What would a public option as real as the rural electric cooperatives mean for American health care today?

–Michael Goc

It’s the people!

June 9, 2009

You don’t have to be from Mineral Point to get asked about the place.  It is a small southwest Wisconsin city that is getting discovered by more and more people and for good reason.  Folks often go there for its natural beauty, history, arts, architecture, workshops, culture, theater and a dandy farmers’ market.  I go there for welding supplies and vehicle parts.  We all get the same thing: extraordinary people who are glad you’re there.

The restored Mineral Point railroad depot (Credit: Joy Gieseke)

The restored Mineral Point railroad depot (Credit: Joy Gieseke)

Mineral Point is one of the oldest cities in the state.  At one time it was relatively large, a hub of commerce related to mining.  Many Cornish folks came from England from about 1830- 1850 and the ties to Cornwall exist today.

The Cornish could also build, and Mineral Point has scores of beautiful buildings, large and small. These include St. Paul’s Mission Church, the gorgeously restored train depot, the Gundry House, and historic buildings on Shake Rag Street, some of the oldest in this part of the state.  Many are made of stone, the first of these being built in 1834.  Stone was cheaper and more plentiful than wood.  This was a land of prairies.

Many know Mineral Point for its artists.  There are some fine musicians in that bunch as well, so if you stay a few days you’ll probably have an opportunity to hear some great tunes at any number of venues.    But the artists themselves and diversity of their craft lures you from shop to shop.  Watch them work; talk to them about why they do what they do.  This is a small town.  Connecting is part of being here.

A special treat for theater lovers is the new Alley Stage, an outdoor, intimate 200-seat venue that features original plays professionally performed.  The setting alone is outstanding.

Historic houses on Shake Rag Street (Credit: Joy Gieseke)

Historic houses on Shake Rag Street (Credit: Joy Gieseke)

And if you like to bicycle and love stunning scenery, check out the new Cycle Southwest Wisconsin web site, a compendium of 28 diverse bicycling loops, many of which pass close by.

Mineral Point has also become known as a place to learn and have fun doing so.  The Shake Rag Alley Center for the Arts offers a potpourri of classes: Drawing, mosaics, painting, metals, glasswork, gardening, and a whole lot more.  Join them for the Country Garden Tour on June 20 and take-in an original play at the Alley Stage that evening.

The natural connection between local food and local art presents itself every Saturday morning with the Mineral Point Farmers’ Market.  It’s busy but not crowded, and you can find a wide variety of products.  Like anyone else in this city the Farmers’ market people want you to be here – they love sharing.

This reminds me of sports.

Conversation is important in small towns and we like the athletic rivalries we have with our neighboring burgs. So if I wear something that identifies my school when visiting, there’s a good chance I’ll become engaged in a “discussion” about some big game or maybe a few of them.  And it may have been 25 or 50 years ago.  Sports in these parts are the family thing to do.

My oldest son won his regional event so earned the right to wrestle in the Mineral Point Sectional Tournament a few months ago.  Going to wrestle in Mineral Point is like a pee-wee football team playing the Packers.  Point is and has always been very, very good.

Three wrestlers advance to the state tournament and my kid took fourth.  We were a bit dejected but, what the heck, we thought we might as well get a burger while we’re here.  We did not know that we were stopping at the place where the Mineral Point wrestling families celebrate, and when the crowd came through the door we weren’t sure what to expect.

Veggie Babe (Ruth Rolfsmeyer) at the 2008 Farmers' Market

Veggie Babe (Ruth Rolfsmeyer) at the 2008 Farmers' Market

But it was like the artists and the musicians and the folks who do the workshops and the woman who sells me my auto parts.  We were immediately embraced and the conversations began.  They were glad we were there.  Two parents in Pecatonica green amid a sea of Pointer blue, and I think every single Mineral Point parent came over to us at some point to congratulate us: “The PEC kids did well” (all two of them).  “I’m sure you’re proud.”

I still think about that.  Local or visitor, motorhead like me or arts aficionado…..whatever.  It didn’t matter.   There are tons of things we can come up with to highlight differences but here folks just thought about what we had in common and we enjoyed each other’s company.

So you ought to visit Mineral Point.  It is loaded with things that will please almost anyone, all within walking distance.  But with all it has to offer, the attraction is the people.

Make sure you’re not in a hurry.  You’ll want to spend some time in conversation.  Folks will be glad you came, and they’ll want to get to know you.

Rick Rolfsmeyer

Wisconsin Rural Partners

Hollandale, WI (Pop. 283)

A Morning on the Farm

May 7, 2009

It had been a while since I spent a morning with a bunch of second graders. There were 66 of them, but I was only responsible for keeping track of thirteen. They all wore nametags, so I could more easily say “Joleen, be careful you don’t step on the tomato plants” or “Carlos, get your radish out of that tub of spinach.”

Thanks to the planning of an innovative teacher at Glacier Edge Elementary School in Verona, Wisconsin, these second graders are learning about botany, nutrition, agriculture, and their local community.

The countertops of their classroom are lined with healthy-looking bean plants, sprouted from seed and tended by the young gardeners. The students are learning when fruits and vegetables are ripe in Wisconsin, how to make and use compost from volunteers from the Home Grown Lunch program, and will even make a special weekend visit to Madison’s South Side Farmers Market to talk directly with the farmers about what they are growing and selling.

Gathered around Farmer Bill at Snug Haven Farm in a former dairy barn, now used for washing fresh cut spinach, my group of thirteen asked hard-hitting questions they had prepared and written out on index cards: Where do the chickens go in the winter? Which vegetables are the hardest to grow? Who does the planting on the farm?

Lettuce varieties growing in a hoop house at Snug Haven Farm.

Lettuce varieties growing in a hoop house at Snug Haven Farm. Photo by Jessica Becker

None of the children in my group had been to a farm before. They went eagerly from hoop house to hoop house, sampling arugula and other lettuces, pulling radishes from the ground and nibbling tentatively through the red into spicy white flesh, and then planting a small tomato sprout to take home.  They chased chickens hoping to “pet” one, and lined up to drink water from the pump.

Back at school, it was lunch time and I barely had the chance to say goodbye to my brood. Chicken nuggets, peaches, carrot sticks and milk were gobbled down in mere minutes and they were gone to the playground. But I was content. Rarely, in representing the Wisconsin Humanities Council or in attending programs the WHC has funded do I get to hold hands with the recipients, bundle them against a chilly wind, or giggle with each bounce in the back of a school bus. It was not my first time on a farm, but it was fun to see a farm through the eyes of a child again!

Jessica Becker, Director of Public Programs, Wisconsin Humanities Council

New Deal Now

February 25, 2009

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

March 4 is an auspicious date in Wisconsin history and not just because it marks the inauguration of this blog. It is also important because on this date in 1933, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was inaugurated for his first term as President of the United States. Historians debate how effective Roosevelt’s New Deal policies were at ending the Great Depression but there is little doubt that they changed the political, social, economic and physical landscape of the nation.

The legacy of the New Deal is large in our state–too large to cover in one or one hundred postings. Two easy-to-spot examples stand out. The farm fields artfully shaped to follow the contours of the Driftless Area hills in southwest Wisconsin were designed to keep the soil on the slopes and out of the once pristine rivers and streams. The practice was introduced in the Coon Creek Valley of La Crosse and Vernon counties in 1933, when it was the site of a pilot project for the New Deal’s fledgling Soil Erosion Service and the Civilian Conservation Corps. Lessons learned here were applied to hills and dales throughout the country. As they conserve the soil and as aerial photos reveal, the contours make art of the landscape.

As winter melts away this month, we’ll see the results of another New Deal program in the skies overhead. The vast state and federal wildlife reserves that range across the state from the Mississippi River to central Wisconsin and east to Horicon and Lake Michigan will welcome waterfowl returning north to nest. Nearly all of the refuges were established during the New Deal.

In the last few years, the redwing blackbirds, Canada geese, and Sandhill cranes have been joined by a handful of whooping cranes. They are the focus of a national effort to restore the nearly-extinct Midwestern population of whoopers that includes the much-publicized autumn flight of the birds to Florida guided by a pilot in an ultralight airplane.

The whooping cranes and millions of other birds spend the warm weather nesting season at the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge and adjacent state-owned conservation areas–all legacies of the New Deal that began on March 4, 1933.