In 1896, a lone Civil War veteran, making his way back home to his farm located in what is now   Onalaska,  WI., was one of many war weary soldiers coming home.  I imagine he sought solace returning, to the fragrant fields, to the warmth of his young family, away from war and destruction.  What was then, located in Green Coulee, and is now, Clearwater Farm on Green Coulee Rd.    He had a small family then, and later, one of those children was  eventual Pulitzer prize winning author, Hamlin Garland, famous for Son of the Middle Border and other published books.        


Over one hundred years later, boom and bust in farming hit hard  in the 1980s, so that by 1998, that farmland was secured by a land developer, the lifelong investment of that farmer realized.  Keep in mind that Onalaska and Middleton Wisconsin at the time were the fastest growing cities in Wisconsin–and the opportunity of such a valuable site was not a common occurrence, and at the time, a  perceived risky decision to do anything that hadn’t been already done–build lots of similar houses on the land.  It was different to implement both design and landscaping requirements, and to allow anything like a farm to develop within all that development. 

The idea persisted, however, and the goal became to create something more alive than suburbia.  Instead, create a destination, within the homes, honor the past, push forward to linking the land to our sanitized lives, create a place with a mission, alive with plants, animals, history, children and adults,  rather than just more homes planted on former productive farmland.    


It took a bit of persistence, but the plan was developed, early advocates got on board, the pitch was made, and In 1999, the all volunteer, not for profit, Clearwater Farm Foundation was founded.  Elmwood Development Partners, LLC.,  generously granted the organization 5 years to get enough community support, and enough money, to purchase the tiny center of the once 80 acre farm, central to bluff land, new housing, and wetland.  


What was eventually left in that farm center were the remains of a few structures that will form the basis of this educational, working little farmlet, complete with outreach programing for all ages and abilities. Activities included growing and donating fresh vegetables and fruit for other charitable organizations, and sharing the reality of attempting to understand sustainability, the value of land, chores and caring for animals, understanding where food comes from, working as a team.  A counterpoint to cars, and commutes and a launching space to trails and gathering, ironically without the constant pressure of our times, or a sad disconnect from the land.  A peaceful setting that references a sense of place, within the fast growing community–a mission was created.


This initial effort also led to expanding a network of trail systems and parkland also within the City.  Early supporters granted the financial and infrastructural needs to get the farm started. The rock was installed, engraved BELIEVE.  Trees and shrubs planted, gardens laid out, fencing in place, modest renovations attained.   Suburban volunteer teams of families and individuals to manage the farm site were founded–along with a small working board to deal with communications, fundraising, administration and legal concerns.  


The Early Years


In that early time period, there were many hurdles, ranging from a world without fast internet or much email use, and old school mockups of newsletters, and  just local news organizations to tell the story.  At the time, the trend of volunteerism in general was statistically dropping, and those rare historic barns were rapidly disappearing from the Wisconsin landscape.  Both issues remain as a concern.  There was no money then, as now, to confidently  pay for a director to handle the workload and efforts of running the place, and leadership early on, and as now, is a formidable group of people that believe in the mission, and have worked very hard to offer this gem to the community and its members for now over 23 years. The financial picture is more stable these days due to successful annual fundraising drives, events, and programming, but the holy grail of success would be  paid leadership positions to continue, and expand,  the work of this small and successful organization, which has served thousands of people of all ages annually since its beginning.


In the first few years, the first animals arrived, gloriously colorful breeds of free range (during the day) chickens, highly indulged and cared for barn cats, a few goats, and Frosty the donkey.  Volunteers with heart for the mission arrived from unexpected places like small miracles on a regular basis–those with perhaps more experience in gardening, fundraising, organizational makeup, educational programming for kids or disabled adults, handyman skills, or animal husbandry.  Each brought their own ideas, passions, and techniques, as the farm maneuvered the realities of groups of people working together for an end goal, which at times meant differing, or even conflicting ideas of how to proceed.  Building upon itself each year, the farm continued to thrive, grow, and stabilize.  


Initial challenges ranged from volunteers that needed training, supervision and accountability had to happen, and century old barns needing repair and shoring up.  Developer Elmwood Partners’ initial concerns with a little farm  next to the beautiful Clearwater Farm Neighborhood  under development were calmed when the sales for those lots went first, and at a premium, and nearby homeowners talked of enjoying the rooster’s crow in the distance.  The win-win vision was happening. 


2021 Board Members Naomi Moeller, Barb Peplinski, Joyce Mlsna, Lora Kirschner, Amber Joswick, Shari Collas, Tom Smith, Frank Collas, Keaton Collas, Nick Dobbs

One of the first issues with the site was it was in the middle of a Coulee, not to mention the middle of a City..  Land at the time north of the farm was not developed as yet, and would not be for almost another 10 years. Today over a hundred new homes populate this former farmland north of the farm.  Those new neighbors walk by, volunteer, and wisely support via annual memberships.


Leadership and growth at the farm has evolved since the inception.  My own view is that some volunteers are best for breaking the proverbial sod and planting seeds, and others to manage growth, harvest, and continue on year to year.  What I do know for certain is that volunteering towards a common altruistic goal is good for the individual as well as the community. 


Becoming a Legacy for many


That is the lifecycle of any legacy, any farm, our world.  Without the contributions of volunteers, materials, cooperative stances of the City, and the critical financial support, this place would not exist.  The crew of current Animal team members exceeds 30 families–and transitions within this group have occurred year to year. Current VP and Educational Outreach coordinator, Amber Joswick, shares the passion and spirit of giving alongside President Shari Collas, long time volunteer and leader at Clearwater Farm. Shari’s son Keaton is now a board member, and thoughts are of the next generation that will need to lead.  My own memories of Keaton, and other local kids, are of working their own plots of gardens and selling vegetables at their own Kids Farmers Market.  


 It is exciting to hear the story, and at this point, share the stories of looking back at what has been achieved, and marvel of this work that can  help shape a community as well as so many families and individuals that have made this all happen–by working together.  


The current working board is a crew of  passionate, talented advocates that keep it alive, (some have been there in the beginning, such as Charlotte Grant and Joyce Mlsna, are both early leaders that also came back again later to pitch in after a pause).  This commitment is what each board member and significant volunteer has done since the beginning, sharing a passion for developing and growing programming at the site, welcoming community support as well as contributing, always with the vision and mission in mind of what could be.  



I am struck by visiting the farm in its beauty, its care, its evolution.  The trees planted on sweaty summer days are now easily 30 feet tall, the bushes full, the buildings and programming supportive of kids and adult programming, weddings, events, community celebrations, and seasonal events that are now part of the fabric of life in Onalaska and surrounding communities.  


Well done Clearwater Farm supporters.  You have preserved a bit of history, and have shepherded the little farm that could, and can, make a difference for many people, giving generously to others, even those you don’t know. Meaningful.


–Julia Henley