On a beautiful September Sunday we headed out west. It seemed as if we were driving into the clouds, some randomly scattered through blindingly blue sky, and some marching in orderly fine lines as if some invisible hand hung them down on invisible threads. We talked about how it feels to be below these clouds in a car, and above them in the airplane. Our destination, about an hour west of Chicago, in a town of Big Rock IL, population 600, a wonderful fiber store, called Esther’s Place. Mrs. Donna Lehrer, who we had met years ago at our Waldorf school as well as some area farm events, runs Ester’s Place together with her daughter Natasha. That weekend, Esther’s Place was hosting an open door day. We had purchased their wool before, and participated in felting classes, but this time kids were excited to meet the culprits of this fiber love, the sheep.
Paul and Donna Lehrer left their suburban lives behind in 2000, and purchased an 8-acre farm to raise sheep. Back then, they were separated, and one court case away from divorce. The couple quit their jobs, and moved to the farm with their two kids, 9 and 13. Merely a teenager, Natasha, age 13, quit her ballet dancing, and acquired her first lamb and ewe, was gifted a spinning wheel, and immersed herself in the art of shepherding and fiber making. She steadily grew her sheep flock over the years. Five years later, in 2005, Lehrers purchased and renovated a beautiful Victorian house on the main street of Big Rock to start a fiber and retreat place. Natasha, who was 19 at the time, started the fiber business. With assistance from her parents and others, she wrote grants, learned everything she could about different fiber arts, helped furnish Esther’s Place restored 19th century Victorian building, and began this vibrant community resource in the sweet rural town of Big Rock, Illinois. Now, at 28, she is still as excited about the animals, the wool spinning and the community as she was then.
In addition to having developed an enduring love for her community, the entrepreneur feels compelled to extend her message throughout the country. She works with the USDA and the American Farm Bureau to help raise awareness and to encourage legislative efforts to maintain wool as a valuable commodity. Her quiet, persistent voice has become the champion of farmers and fiber lovers everywhere.
Natasha smiles as she recounts the highlights of her work at Esther;s Place. “The best par is sitting down with a group of people from all over, talking together and working together,” she says. The shop has become a vibrant resource, blessed with the interactions and relationships created beneath the rambling roof of the haven she has nurtured. it is a house where her vision rings true – a place where all are warmly welcomes to learn, laugh, linger, and be inspired. ~ from Victoria Magazine article
We pulled into the driveway next to Esther’s Place, and kids jumped out excitedly to meet two young kittens, Ginger Pie and Fuzzball. Kittens were the attraction of the day. The only way to entice the kids to go into the house, I promised them, there will be treats made by Donna and Natasha. And surely, there always are! Tray fulls of baked goodies, apple cider, and coffee, and honey butter, and their handmade bread. When Natasha hosts knitting, felting, or spinning classes, there are always homemade treats and tea. People gather around in their beautiful sun drenched living room, and there is a little fuzzy rocking sheep overseeing the crowd from high on the cabinet. This is the rocking sheep that Natasha got for her birthday when she was a toddler, Donna says. She did not have a rocking horse, but a rocking sheep. Perhaps even then, it was a sign of things to come, of the love that this young girl would develop for the sheep and their wool. There is always an inviting smile and a cup of tea for anyone who enters the store. Here, nobody is rushed, Donna will take you around, will chat, and treat you like a family member. Those who come here once, are sure to come back.
We walk the store, filled with every imaginable fiber and color. My girl enjoys little ornaments, she stops by every creation, examines it, and makes plans of making her own. My little man is interested in cookies and cats. But even he eventually gets excited and get to works quite seriously, felting some fall leaves. Then he makes a rabbit, then another, then he needs more wool, and more, then he starts practicing with a spinning wheel. Donna shows him how the spinning wheel works, and spins some yarn for the kids with their favorite colors. Donna and Natasha are some of the warmest ladies I had met. They seem to find a common language with everyone, smallest children and little old ladies. Their place has become a center of the Big Rock community, and they are great educators. In their barn, the sign reads: our goal is to preserve and educate.
As we wait for the tour to start, a few other people show up, many of them locals, who know this pace, and are regular visitors. But people come here out of state as well. We head out to the farm couple miles down the road. At the farm, Natasha’s father Paul meets this small group of people with a friendly smile. Kids get to visit with their miniature mule and her baby, look at their sheep barn and find an egg nest of Lehrer’s lone chicken who survived a mink attack by playing dead, but now prefers to avoid chicken coop and live with the sheep. We meet their flock of about 30 sheep and take turns feeding them out in the pasture. There are many stories of miracles on the Lehrer farm, which they call Lamb of God Farm. The mule horse mama, who they never expected to carry a baby, and then one day, she gave birth to a healthy offspring. The hen, who survived the slaughter by minks and racoons.
It’s a perfect breezy apple cider day, so kids get their hands on the long fruit picker, and pluck off some apples, then we wash them, and get to use an old apple cider press made by Natasha’s great grandfather. What an honor! My boy tastes the cider, says: it is a bit sour, but then he drinks it all, and insists on making more. The smell of fresh apples, the great company, and sheep in the valley, great blue herons fishing on a creek. Natasha leads the group to show us the history of this farm. Lehrer’s had preserved much of what they found on the land and documented the history of the farm going back 150 years. They display the old photographs, and the tools. Their goal is to preserve the land, foster community and inspire people.
We definitely feel inspired. I ask Mr. Paul how their journey began, and whether they are happy with their decision to farm. He assures me that he would never turn back, and he is pleased how it brought their family back together. Back at the fiber store, his wife Donna echoes his words. She says, this life is so fulfilling and rich for her, she cannot imagine it any other way. We chat about the community, and the struggles too, about their need for 2,000 hay bales and their broken hay baler. Lehrer’s are proud of their new hay barn. Donna gets excited when she talks how she looked forward to the barn raising, reading an old recipe book of Transylvanian Mennonites that called for some 175 chicken pies for the community barn raising. She admits, she had to cut the recipe to some 4 chicken pies, but she had an Amish man come in for the barn raising. She talks of struggles with technology and our unwillingness to put up hay without the machines. And her slow growing of the 27 share small CSA, busy lives of suburbanites who are very slow to adopt community supported agriculture, and know little what to do with the vegetables boxes. And Donna is full of ideas, planning and dreaming about providing suburban CSA customers with some pre-made meals.
My boy runs out to chase the cats again, and Natasha invites us to pick some okra, so we snip the okra in the garden, and kids gather toads and pet the kitties, good times, good smiles, much inspiration from young and elderly working together, colors and textures, and dreams, wonderful community at the Esther’s place.