The former WOKY studio is still rockin’ on Sundays

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This week on Urban Spelunking, we’re learning about the legendary Milwaukee radio station WOKY.

One the city’s longest running and most influential — especially in the early days of rock and roll — the radio station had a well-known lineup of on-air DJs, including Bob Barry, pictured below. It was also the official sponsor of the Beatles sole visit to Milwaukee in 1964, giving a sense for the station’s profile at the time.

Bob Barry in the WOKY studio. Photo courtesy Jim Salinsky, via OnMilwaukee.

WOKY was located in one section of large building on the corner of Sherman Blvd. and Fond du Lac Avenue. It moved out at the end of the 1980s, writes OnMilwaukee’s Bobby Tanzilo.

“In 1984, WOKY was still at the Sherman Boulevard building, but, it seems, not for long. By the end of the decade, there was a CPA and an American Family Insurance office in the building, but no cutting edge radio station anymore,” Tanzilo writes.

A vintage peek at WOKY’s music library. Photo courtesy Jim Salinsky, via OnMilwaukee.

But the space has been anything but empty. Two years ago, developer Jim Salinsky purchased the building and converted it to office and retail space under a new moniker — The MilWOKY Center.

Now it is home to at five distinct churches, a nail salon, a hair braiding studio and a clothing boutique, among other clients.

One of five churches inside the MilWOKY center. Photo courtesy Bobby Tanzilo via OnMilwaukee.

“On Sunday, this place is rocking. We’ve had some tenant gatherings, like the open house (in March). Everyone gets along really well,” said Jim Salinsky, quoted in OnMilwaukee.

Meanwhile WOKY continues to broadcast under new branding, The Big 920.

Listen to this week’s podcast below, and be sure to visit OnMilwaukee for more history and photos.

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Adebisi Agoro carries on his son’s legacy with a coat drive

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“We had a lot of things planned. He was a very active child, athlete, ambitious, dancer, he was into STEM technology,” says Adebisi Agoro. “So he had a lot of ambitions, and it was just something that I wanted to do to continue, you know, just to move his legacy forward.”

Every year Adebisi Agoro hosts a coat drive in honor of his son Adebisi O. Agoro, who drowned in 2018.

You may have heard about Adebisi’s son’s passing. He was well loved by many, known for his talent and community outreach. 

Adebsi says he chose to honor his son in this way because he and his son have always been active. 

“My son was just born with this innate sense of giving, you know, even more than I. Like, he showed me things,” Adebisi says.

Adebesi says his son was a friend to those bullied, always helping people and wanted to help others through community service.

After his son passed, Adebisi started doing the coat drive in an official capacity to carry on his legacy and fulfill what his son didn’t get to finish.

This year he plans on donating coats to Asha Project. Asha Project is run by Shawn Muhammad, who is also a step father to Adebisi O. Agoro.

Photo courtesy of Adebisi Agoro

“This being the third year, I want to show the community how we can work together to do great things to benefit others in this giving season,” Adebisi says. “As Black men working together and as co-parents, especially.”

Adebisi says that Muhammad had been a friend to him for years before becoming a step father to his son. 

Together, this year the coat drive helps Asha Project which provides shelter and support to women who have endured domestic violence.

“We want to call it a boutique type organization directly created to benefit Black women and children,” says Adebisi. “It is the only organization as such in the state and maybe in surrounding states. They are small and we know that we have to do things to keep resources like that alive in the community.”

While this year’s pandemic creates new challenges, Adebisi is asking for coats to be donated in new condition. Normally he’d collect and wash all the coats before donating them but the coronavirus is a big concern. But in terms of what is to be expected this year, it’s not just hope to Adebisi. He knows that if the community shows up people will be served.

“It’s winter time, we’re in a pandemic,” says Adebisi. “That lady who is facing a domestic violence situation and is going to need to get put up for a week, we have resources for that. It’s gonna be there. This is a proven thing. We’ve done it.”

That spirit is what Adebisi instilled in his son and continues to follow up on in a coat drive in his honor.

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Alphonso’s in West Allis went viral with this humongous mozzarella sticks

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Tim Szuta is the owner of Alphonso’s, a pizzeria that makes mozzarella sticks the size of your forearm.

“Well, typical Wisconsin fashion, I was kind of hanging around having a cup of beers, experimenting on some stuff with cheese, of course and one thing led to another and world famous mozzarella sticks,” says Tim.

He says people wonder about how he can afford to make a stick that size and that the answer is that he can’t.

“But at the same time, I just feel like I’m just a small town kid and I always feel good when I get back to the people,” says Tim.

Tim says they’ve been getting a lot of business when a picture of the mozzarella sticks ended up on Reddit’s Food Porn page. Don’t worry it’s just pictures of food. Then it hit Reddit’s front page and TikTok.

“Everyone’s thinking El Presidente Dave from Barstool Sports is going to make a trip over here because within like, eight hours we had 1,001,000 views.”

The views brought in more mozzarella stick orders from teens and college students, but in the midst of it all some long time fans of Alphonso’s have had a harder time getting the food they love and new customers can get turned off and not come back. On top of that, Tim’s fryer decided to kick it.

It’s tough because all this exposure is really kind of a blessing and a curse at the same time,” says Tim. “It’s so difficult for me to keep up with this.”

Tim is also between physical spaces for both his home and commercial property. He had to prioritize buying a new spot for Alphonso’s before buying a house for himself. Keep in mind that the space he bought on 92nd and Greenfield Avenue is for a much needed expansion. Right now the pizzeria is practically a hole in the wall, a roughly 700 square foot restaurant that cooks up not just pizza but Jamaican food with their sister restaurant Kings and Queen’s Jamaican Kitchen.

“I felt that you never know how things can go,” says Tim. “So I really wanted to secure my position in the city.”

While the orders might be backed up, Tim says people should consider the pizza, too. It comes from a recipe from one of Tim’s mentors growing up, who the business is named after. Without him he wouldn’t have the business period.

The pizza is in Phaidon’s “Where to Eat Pizza?” Almanac, which Tim says people can be surprised to have a hidden gem in their town.

So if you’re in the mood and prepared for a wait, know what goes behind the scenes and what it takes to serve a viral food crave and be a restaurateur.

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This Milwaukeean fixes up snowblowers and gives them away

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“In this time of sour elections and pandemics running the world, it’s nice to have some good energy, community spirit going around,” says Greg Ryan. “And I am so happy to be part of that.”

Greg is known for driving around Riverwest and other neighborhoods and picking up discarded lawn mowers and snow blowers. Here’s the thing: He fixes them up and gives them away to people for free.

“Initially, I was selling these things on Facebook or Craigslist,” says Greg. “But then I just started noticing that there were a lot of people out there that could really use a snowblower and often couldn’t afford to pay for them.”

Greg is an engineer. At one point he worked at Bliffert Lumber in Riverwest, where he’d fix up outdoor equipment that people would bring in.

Today, he no longer works at Bliffert but he’s kept rolling with the work.

Greg working in his garage. | Photo courtesy of: Greg Ryan

Greg runs an engine company and part of his business is servicing what people bring in, but lately he’s been getting so many donations that fixing up old equipment is one of the highest demands of his time.  

“The word started getting out and people would contact me and say, ‘Hey, I have a lawn mower for you. Would you like this to give to somebody else?’ And I’d say yes, absolutely,” Greg says.

Photo credit: Greg Ryan

Greg says that a good portion of the lawn mowers and snow blowers that he fixes typically have fuel issues. Some use ethanol, which is derived from plans and can clog engines.

Also did you know that gas expires? Old gas can cause the engine not to start. In a case like this Greg will clean it out and most of the time things work; it’s where he goes first in route to diagnose.

“A lot of people leave gasoline in their snowblowers, for example, over the summer,” Greg says. “When they go out in the fall or even the winter to start it off. It’s not going to start.”

Greg Ryan giving a lawn mower to a young boy | Photo credit: Greg Ryan

But Greg says the most rewarding part of his work is giving the lawn mowers and snow blowers out for free.

He asks people to “snow blow it forward,” though it’s not a requirement but most people are more than happy to comply.

“People say if I can get this snow blower, I will,” says Greg. “I will snow blow out the entire block. I’m assuming that they’re going to do what they promise and I’m not checking up on anybody in any way.”

We all know how a winter snow can be a hindrance to getting to work on time when you’re trying to dig a path to your car or get the car out from under the snow. Greg says some equipment can really make the difference.

Greg is happy to help people and loves the community spirit that fixing and giving out lawnmowers brings for people.

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This public art was a little contentious in 1932

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Art is subjective. It is meant to be open to interpretation, to discussion.

But there’s something about public art in particular that can spark an especially lively debate, from enthusiastic acceptance to searing disdain. And it’s nothing new; Milwaukeeans have been debating the merits of art in public places since at least the 1930s as evidenced by a series of paintings inside the Milwaukee County Courthouse.

One of the 25 Bradford murals in the Milwaukee County Courthouse. This one can be seen in the County Board quarters. Photo courtesy Bobby Tanzilo, OnMilwaukee.

The drama started after Milwaukee County contracted Appleton-born artist Francis Scott Bradford.

“For this, it tapped a Wisconsin artist to create 25 canvases, 24 of which would be installed behind the benches of courtrooms and one larger one that would adorn the County Boardroom,” writes OnMilwaukee’s Bobby Tanzilo.

But a 1932 newspaper story, uncovered by Tanzilo, shows reaction was mixed, particularly to one panel depicting a large snake.

The contentious panel, depicting a snake and the word “STRENGTH” below. Photo credit: Bobby Tanzilo, OnMilwaukee.

“‘Isn’t that a hell of a thing to put in a courtroom,’ queried bailiff John McManus. ‘I’m not a student of art but I’ve got to look at that picture every day and if you asked me I’d say it’s l—-y. In fact, I think it’s the lousiest picture of the whole lot. What kind of snake is that anyway?'” he said in a newspaper interview.

This week on Urban Spelunking, we share the story of the collections of murals that were commissioned in 1932 to be painted behind each judge’s bench within the courthouse. Some loved them, some harshly criticized them, and if you’ve never been in the courtroom, you’ll likely have a reaction of your own.

Listen to this week’s episode below, and visit OnMilwaukee for more history and photos.

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Tonda Thompson is a carpenter with a mission to teach

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The pandemic has had people jumping into home projects like gardening and finally getting those pictures hung on the wall. If you’re thinking about adding some planter boxes to your garden consider Tonda Thompson. 

Tonda is a woodworker. She has always been a technically skilled person, she grew up in Milwaukee and went to Milwaukee tech where she got into computer engineering and went on to become a videographer. But she wasn’t always into carpentry. At Milwaukee tech it was something she did as a prerequisite but didn’t fall into. It was when her son, years later, broke a family gift that she made an attempt to repair the table and found interest. 

“I had a coffee table that was given to me by one of my uncles who passed away not too long ago,” Tonda says. “It was a glass table; it was near and dear. I wanted to do my best to keep it but my son got into watching Mickey Mouse. At the time, there was an episode where Donald likes to stand on furniture. So my son stood on the glass table, and it almost broke and caved in.”

Due to the pandemic slowing down her full time business of videography, Tonda didn’t want to spend money on a brand new coffee table so building her own was cost effective. In the process she found that carpentry could be a hobby. One that’s relaxing.

“It was really a form of art that I could kind of get away from the normal work that I was doing,” says Tonda. “I got some healing from that work.”

The love of carpentry was a surprise to Tonda though she says it makes sense. A lot of family on her grandfather’s side is into woodworking. She discovered this on a family trip to meet relatives she didn’t know.

“It’s kind of in my bloodline. I went down south during the summer and saw one my aunties doing the same stuff that I was doing. Like, I have a miter saw in my house right now,” says Tonda. “My mom just met her real father and all of the people on his side do that type of carpentry work.” 

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Tonda’s woodworking gained traction when she posted her work on Facebook. Soon she had a lot of people asking her to either build tables and other projects.

“I’ve been building tables, legit, since April,” Tonda says. “I’m still behind right now. I’m trying to catch up. I need to hire people right now, I need to get a building right now because it is cold in my garage.”

The demand in the wake of the pandemic has gotten Tonda to think innovatively. Tonda says she’s offering Zoom lessons on how people can build their own coffee tables. Tonda buys and delivers the wood and hardware and then together, online, you build in your own home. She got the idea from her videography work. She’s thinking about maybe having a Black carpentry YouTube channel.

“You have a lot of people on YouTube, but you don’t have a woman from 13th and Keefe,” says Tonda. “I’ma be honest, I got a hood background. You don’t see Black people doing DIY stuff on YouTube.”

Tonda is now doing carpentry full time along with her video and photography business so she’s keeping busy but putting her trade skills to work for the community. She hopes to help empower women through carpentry by teaching them that if they’ve ever felt they weren’t capable for whatever reason, there’s an opportunity here for them.

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211 workers are also frontline workers answering thousands of calls

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When Wisconsinites are seeking housing assistance, food security or mental health service they might dial 211, which connects people to various non-profits that can provide shelter, offer meals or lend an ear.

This past October Impact 211 saw its highest number of people seeking assistance during the year. They received close to 19,000 messages, with about 600-1000 people reaching out to them per weekday.

The majority of their Community Resource Specialists, which can be people answering phone calls, texts or emails are frontline workers who are working from home and answering a lot of emotionally charged concerns. 

“We talked about anxiety,” says John Hyatt, the CEO of Impact 211. “That’s when our phone number rings and you pick it up and you don’t know what’s going to be on the other end.”

Hyatt says that there are cases where they aren’t able to help everyone and when workers have someone who is upset on the other end of the line it can produce stress.

Some of the highest requests the organization has received are for housing, mental health and food. This has been pretty consistent for them during the pandemic.

For 211 workers there’s not a guarantee safety that being on a certain type of response line is going to spare them from dealing with stress or anxiety themselves.

Impact 211 promotional
Photo courtesy: Impact 211

“There are certain cues that you can get into,” Hyatt says. “If you’re calling about food, push one or if you’re calling about mental health push two. If you’re calling the psychiatric hotline that has its own number. So, you can sometimes see where the call is coming from but sometimes people are just pushing those buttons thinking ‘is this going to help me get through?’ So, it’s supposed to be a food call, and it turns into a psychiatric crisis call.”

There’s over 30 people answering calls and texts — some are bilingual. There is also an interpreter service. 211 workers, like all healthcare and frontline workers, are not exempt from the pandemic. They are often in a position of managing their own life and assisting others on their worst days. The days where callers feel like they can’t do anymore, they’re worried about food or medication.

“You see a lot of acknowledgement of healthcare workers, which is really important,” Hyatt says. “There’s also this whole contingent of people doing social service work in the community that is as important and as risky.”

Impact 211 serves the south east region of Wisconsin, though during evenings and weekends the take on up to (90%) of the state’s calls. 

But Hyatt says the work put in is helping people get access to healthcare or  housing through the various non-profits that help people. Perhaps keep in mind what frontline workers do.

“There’s not as much made of those of the heroic efforts of that collection of people but are certainly equally critical to people in their lives,” says Hyatt.

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‘Neither Wolf Nor Dog’ offers insight into contemporary Indigenous life

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If you’re looking for something a little different than your usual Netflix binges, “Neither Wolf Nor Dog” could be for you.

The film follows a white author who is sucked into a road trip through the heart of Native American Country by a Lakota elder and his best friend. It offers viewers a deeper understanding of contemporary Native American life through the imparted wisdom of the elder.

The film has been out for about four years now and for a micro-budget, non-Hollywood film, it’s still going strong today.

Director Steven Lewis Simpson says it’s because of the way it resonates with people, driven by the central character Dave Bald Eagle, who plays the role of the Lakota Elder, known only as Dan. 

“The audience is just falling madly in love with Dave Bald Eagle, an essential performance in this film,” says Simpson. “He takes the audience into a very deep place.”

Consider Dan’s advice to Kent Nerburn on writing:

“The world is not an accident. We don’t always get to choose our parts. I called you and you came. If you’re too small or too weak, it is too late. The Creator has given you a task. You don’t get to turn back just because you want to.”

Simpson says central to Neither Wolf Nor Dog’s relevance is the need to deeply listen.

“The story is inspired by a real experience of the author Kent Nerburn and his novel after a native elder approached him about distilling a lot of his own thoughts down into a book,” says Simpson. “But then Nerburn thought, ‘to make it really come alive for the audience, it’s best to teach through story.’ So he created this narrative structure to draw the audience in and spend time with this elder in a more active way.”

The film addresses having an outsider, a white man, tell the stories of indigenous peoples. 

Simpson says that as the director telling this story he focused more on explaining the rift author Kent Nerburn has with the elder.

“The perspective I brought to this film, which is most distinct is actually more to do with the awkwardness of this white officer than the native characters,” Simpson says. “I’m Scottish and I have a completely different experience in Indian country than most white Americans. I took the real author to meet this elder on a reservation and within 60 seconds, I’m laughing and joking with this elder, we’re having a blast, and the author’s sitting there trying to not put a foot wrong. He always thinks of the ghost of history on the wall.”

It’s a film that can challenge what we think and know about indigenous life and history.

It’s playing at Marcus Ridge Cinema in New Berlin this week. If you’re uncomfortable attending the cinema due to Covid, you can catch it on Vimeo.

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Niche Book Bar, the only Black-owned bookstore in Wisconsin, sells books and wine via bike

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Remember bookmobiles? Cetonia Weston-Roy has created one, though it is on a bike.

Maybe on a Wednesday or Saturday you’ve seen her riding around on a big blue tricycle with a yellow box attached.

That yellow box is a book bar housing the works of Black authors which Cetonia sells at outdoor markets like the Riverwest Gardeners Market and Alice’s Garden artisan market.

Cetonia says she chose a tricycle on purpose. “I found a tricycle because I knew I wanted that vintage look,” Cetonia explains.

Originally Cetonia wanted to sell her books at a brick and mortar store but it wasn’t in her immediate cards.

“I was going through getting funding and it was looking like I was going to be approved, and then Covid hits,” Cetonia says. “And suddenly the year looks really different. I know for sure. I’m not getting a brick and mortar. So my pivot solution was like, Okay, well, what can I do that’s mobile.”

Main image. Cetonia Weston-Roy with a customer and her bookmobile that sells works by Black authors.
Cetonia Weston-Roy Cetonia Weston-Roy with a customer at her portable bookmobile | Photo courtesy of Cetonia Weston-Roy

She knew couldn’t afford a van but she got the idea for a bike-mobile from someone else.

“I saw a guy with an ice cream like a freezer, and it wasn’t really even a really fancy bike,” Cetonia says. “It kind of looked like he took a freezer, and he built it up himself. So when I saw that, I was like, ‘Oh, well, yeah, I think I can figure out how to get a bookstore on a bike.’”

Cetonia found a three-wheeled cycle that fit what she wanted and with a local woodworker creating the book bar needed, she was up and running. 

Though, the brick and mortar isn’t out of the question for Cetonia. She plans on opening a physical location where customers can read books without pressure to buy; almost like a library with the added benefits of wine and tea. She even has a few specialty teas lined up already. She collaborated with a local tea maker to create them.

“I went to Swaye Tea and I told her, ‘I want to do a tea that steeps red that’s maybe a little spicy and has a surprising flavor,’” Cetonia describes. “So she put together hibiscus, a couple of hot peppers and I think it’s lemon peel or zest in it. And so that’s my thriller tea.”

Cetonia considers herself a geek. She likes anime, sci-fi and speculative fiction. She came up with the idea for the shop as she wanted to see more Black characters that she could find herself in, that didn’t have their lives focus on Black pain and struggle. Hearing those stories has been a lifelong desire. So she figured why not sell books that have a diverse range of stories. She sells her favorite genres of sci-fi and fiction along with religion and spirituality, romance, history. A little bit of everything because she means everything, even finance. She’s hoping to reach even people who have said in the past they aren’t fans of books or certain genres.

In order to do so, she joined Black sci-fi groups and book clubs looking for the titles she carries, spreading Niche Book Bar by word of mouth along the way. 

Now she’s launching a Kickstarter to help her open that brick and mortar store.

“It’s not going live until Nov. 1,” Cetonia says. “So I am going to still open a brick and mortar and it is going to have all of those elements. But also it’ll be new and used books for sale. I want to have a little bit of everything, you know, to help.”

She’s helping the community at large fall in love books by Black authors of all sorts.

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Ultimate Farms aims to build on Growing Power’s legacy

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Growing Power was once a powerhouse of a farming community that expanded beyond its location on Silver Spring Drive in Milwaukee.

Growing Power had locations in other parts of Wisconsin and in Illinois. It hosted university students and allowed K-12 students to learn about farm animals. It was nationally, even internationally, known as an innovative farming community that people could learn and study from.

Tyler Schmitt is the founder of Ultimate Farms, which is taking over the former Milwaukee property of Growing Power. Schmitt says the farm land on Silver Spring Drive is roughly 2.3 acres and housing greenhouses, fish farms and even orchards.

“There’s a triangle orchard that goes to 60th Street which is technically part of the farm,” says Schmitt. “We have a creek on the north end of it, Lincoln Creek. Sometimes there’s salmon in it. Sometimes the farmer that takes care of the goats walks the goats down there.”

You can play chess in a warm greenhouse at Ultimate Farms and perhaps one day enjoy coffee | Photo credit: Olivia Richardson

When I interviewed Schmitt we sat in a greenhouse. You can hear in the background the rustling of water from the aquaponics farm. The sun’s direct light that day kept the place warm to the point that no gas or electricity was needed to heat it. It was warm enough that some of the solar panels facing south on the front of the building could have been banking energy, which Schmitt says they can sell to the city.

Also, there were baby goats out and ready to play. It was a perfect warm day minus some wind that knocked over some materials that keep the houses insulated and can take some people power to sustain.

“The tarps will kind of rip like that with the wind,” says Schmitt. “When I see that, I have to go out there and get that. I’ll probably do that this afternoon.”

Growing Power was a nonprofit that at one point employed around 150 people. It was a vibrant community that many people could enjoy.

Ultimate Farms wants to bring that community back. Like Growing Power, Ultimate Farms wants to provide fresh food to the Havenswood neighborhood where the farm is located. Havenswood lacks an abundance of fresh food options. Schmitt says they want to help fill that void with what can be grown on the property.

Hence getting more people on site. Having more farmers and neighbors on site is part of the plan to rebuild the farm site, otherwise the farm sits idle and things falls apart.

Schmitt describes an aquaponic system that’s currently shut down. “There’s no fish in those ones right now,” he says. “But they’re all in really good shape. They’re all about, I think five feet deep.”

Baby goats are still on the farm along with some adults.

There’s one, however, that has a rubber liner at the bottom that’s bubbled up.

“The reason this one is like this is it flooded,” Schmitt says. “We had a really heavy rainwater and the water pushed it up. The fish were all out here one morning and it wasn’t good.”

At the time, the fish were on the soft bed of black soil and grass which we were standing on. 

Currently Ultimate Farms is small staffed and allows people to grow veggies and fruits inside their greenhouses. They’re taking care of the farmland mostly themselves, including the Aquaponic farms, which are basically a mini ecosystem where plants are housed with fish in freshwater and the fish provide nutrients to the water that plants utilize.

Over the summer Ultimate Power provided greenhouse access to classrooms, restaurants looking to grow their own veggies and the general public. They also have a few farmers who produce commercially.

It’s not as bustling as it was when Growing Power occupied the property, but on a Thursday or Friday there’s typically a good number of people around. 

Schmitt says that they want to expand the community Growing Power once had. They also want to build self-sustaining revenue by opening up a coffee shop.

“We’re really trying to emphasize the coffee shop right now just to get that started,” Schmitt says. “We think that putting coffee in a person will be like putting it into the farm. It would give some energy, some activity and we think that’ll allow the rest of the farm to grow.”

Schmitt hopes to restore the kitchen so they can use it to sell coffee to visitors.

Nov. 11 is when they launch their campaign which will explain a bit more of what Ultimate Farms does and where people can donate to help Ultimate Farm reach its goal of building a coffee shop.

Schmitt says once people are on the property they get hooked, with about 80% of the people who visit coming back to either volunteer, garden or attend concerts when they can host them. 

Touring the property, it was hard not to be drawn in as the property is abundant with green technology, outside of the farming itself, like solar panels and glycol heating systems that helps it stay self-sustaining. If you’re into engineering and systems it’s pretty entertaining.

Then there’s the amount of business that can come out of the farm. A huge mound of compost once shifted provides fresh dirt for the farms.

“There’s probably like nine or 10 small businesses that could come out of it, soil being one of them. And it’s really good soil too,” says Schmitt.

But it’s getting people back and building a community that comes first. Schmitt thinks they can do it with how much people have loved Green Power before and how much people are looking forward to farming, outdoor activities and connecting with one another.

The Nov. 11 launch date of their fundraiser is hopefully just the beginning of a long running sustainable farm.

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