Lanesborough Couple Fighting to Save Historic, Family Farm
In 1923, he and his wife, Randi, immigrated to the United States, landing in New York. But the city life wasn't for him. He told his wife, "it's no way for a man to live" and every week he'd stash money aside in hopes to move to the country.
The Depression or some other factor would hit and he'd lose the savings and build it back up. And every week he'd stop at the bank and browse the real estate listings.
In 1938, one of those listings intrigued him. He hopped a train to Pittsfield and soon found himself in love with 95 acres in the town of Lanesborough. Without even telling his wife, he used all of his savings to purchase what became the Olsen Farm.
"Living in Brooklyn, it was destroying his soul. He wanted to get his hands back in the soil," Chris Wheeler, Thomas Olsen's great-grandson, said. "It was an abandoned farm. It was rundown, needed a lot to get going and they buckled down and did it."
There was no electricity or running water to the large farmhouse in which the couple lived.
"This farmhouse, we were told, was built in the 1790s by an officer who fought in the Battle of Bennington. The house is so large for that time period, he would have had to be a really wealthy person," Wheeler's wife Kristen Tool said.
Thomas Olsen created the farm of his dreams through decades of work. He passed those skills on to his children, who passed them on through the generations.
"My great-grandfather really imparted a love of animals and nature. He taught my dad a lot of compassion for animals and how to be with them. I feel like my dad could meet any dog or cat and bond with them instantly. He had a way of disarming animals," Wheeler said. "That's something great-grandpa gave my dad and he passed on to us as kids."
What's left today is about 30 acres, with the rest being sold off through the years for housing developments, and it hasn't operated as a farm in about 50 years — since Thomas Olsen died.
"It was in the '60s, that's when the farm stopped being a farm and diverted to being a homestead for great-grandma," Wheeler said.
Wheeler and Tool find themselves in just about the same shoes as the Olsens. The two moved to the farm two years ago with Wheeler dedicating himself full time to restoring and bringing the property back into operations.
But, in January, his father died unexpectedly, leaving the future of the property in question and what seems like a mountain to climb for the young couple to save a family legacy and piece of Lanesborough's history.
"It wasn't our goal for it to be a profitable farm. It was our goal to just be self-sufficient here and have it be a homestead. When Tommy passed away, we really had to rethink how are we going to be able to afford to live here," Tool said.
The couple said when Tommy died, there was some $100,000 in debt against the estate and the two will have to purchase acreage from Wheeler's siblings to keep it. With only one income and the farm just now turning out products to sell, the two are afraid they may have to sell the land.
"There are large debts against the estate and the land was Tommy's only asset. If we can't find the money to pay off those debts, we will have to sell the land. Then they would be developed," Tool said.
But the two are buckling down to do it, just like Thomas Olsen did some 80 years ago. They've been reaching out to any agency for grants, tax benefits, anything that can help them make it work.
Wheeler, an arborist, continues his efforts to grow an apple orchard, berry fields, peach and pear trees, and taking care of chickens. They're selling eggs — both for eating and fertilized for hatching — chickens, and an assortment of fruits and vegetables. They've got a bee hive for honey and they raised turkeys. He's rid the forest of invasive species.
"There is a lot of sweat equity in here that would be a shame to lose," Wheeler said.
For the first time in years, there will be a farmstand outside of the Olsen Street property this spring. In the next three to five years, they'll have rotating crops of fruit from the trees.
"It was [Chris's] dream to see the farm brought back to the way it was when he was a kid," Tool said.
In the future, they'd love to see livestock brought back to the farm. They're hoping to expand the apple orchard and blueberry fields. They're envisioning a farm with a diverse ecosystem and hope to have an eye on conservation and things like solar panels. The original farmhouse still stands but is falling apart and they know they'll have to do something with that. There are maple trees Wheeler hopes to use for maple syrup.
"I'd love for it to be a teaching farm where school groups can come and get hands-on experience with animals and gardening," Tool said.
But first thing is first, they need to get the farm in their name.
"We've got a lot of dreams, we just have to prioritize them," Tool said. "We're working one step at a time."
In 1940, the Boston Sunday Post published a full-page feature story on the Olsen Farm. It was coupled with a piece on the Farm Security Administration and it focused on Olsen's story and the challenges the family faced starting the farm. Wheeler and Tool have a framed copy of that story in their home, which Tommy Wheeler built on the property in the 1980s.
They read about Thomas Olsen's love of the property and they love it too and each day they are doing everything they can to have the farm of their dreams.
"They had a hard time coming up with the money then and it's like, wow, some things never change. Even though that is a lot less than what we have to come up with today, it is the same story just a different generation," Tool said.
"It's like history repeating itself."
They admit that the task seems overwhelming at times. But as they started fundraising and telling people about their dreams they've found something they didn't expect.
"It's gotten us in touch with all of these people who grew up in Lanesborough, buying their eggs here or their parents buying their eggs here. People are excited about bringing Olsen Farm back, which is cool. It is a piece we hadn't thought about until we did it. It's been nice to get that kind of support," Tool said.
They know they have a big task ahead of them but thy remain optimistic that history really can repeat itself and they can restore the historic farm.
Tags: agriculture, farming, historical,
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