My Cup of Tea at Esther’s Place

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Natasha telling stories of the farm’s history

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An antique family cider press still working wonders

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An egg shipping box, circa 1930s?

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.

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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.

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~~~

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About BeeHappee

Where have all the bees gone? Where have all the flowers gone? https://beehappeenow.wordpress.com
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34 Responses to My Cup of Tea at Esther’s Place

  1. Klarinet says:

    Nice place and day! Thank you.

  2. migarium says:

    Esther’s place what a lovely corner of this planet! Thank you for sharing us this peaceful place in these chaotic days, my Earthling friend.

    • BeeHappee says:

      Thank you, Migo. Place by place, this world can become a little bit better. I am inspired and fascinated by young people like Natasha and appreciate her efforts. The sheep raising has been in deep decline in the USA. Wool from Australia and New Zealand has flooded the market.
      We also had just watched a beautiful film called Sweetgrass, (2009) about modern day Montana USA sheppards: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sweetgrass_(film) Quite an interesting life.

      • gatheringplaceseasonfour says:

        yes – and same for Fairfax County (Virginia). I think the permit costs $425 and in addition must get permission from the neighbors. Go figure. I’m with you.

        • BeeHappee says:

          Wow, those would be some expensive eggs. We are legally allowed to keep chickens in our town now, but technically it is made impossible, the coop has to be 50 feet away from any neighbor, which pretty much eliminates most of the properties that are not large. Then you need permit from neighbors, and we would never get it. It is changing though, slowly and painfully, town by town. Our public farm held 3 backyard chicken classes here – and it was a huge success and big demand for that. I took the class and it was great, we got into all feeds, chicken issues, and got to do the slaughter to pot after a demo from a local farmer. Many people attending were older who are planning to retire out in the country, but there were also a few suburbanites with young families. That was very encouraging.

      • migarium says:

        In Turkey also sheep farming is lower due to wrong policies. The sheep or cow are imported from even Uruguay to Turkey. Bad thing is next week tens of thousands of sheeps, cows and etc will cut in the name of Muslim’s greater eid. Sorry, but I call it a massacre of animals. I ve seen so many years in the Muslim countries this feast is not making with reason to help poor or beliefs. Maybe very few people do this for this purpose. Even I saw the photographs about hundreds of animals have been left by cutting in Saudi Arabia at residential areas away from the cities. I do not know my Earthling friend, but I am sure, it would have been very good there were more places like Esther’s place.

        • BeeHappee says:

          Thanks for mentioning that, Migo. It is quite sickening when we get stuck in beliefs and traditions that are not doing much good for anyone. I could never understand the idea of sacrifice or the belief that slaughtering an animal is somehow supposed to kill your own greed, pride, jealousy. In the ancient times, when a flock of sheep was the key property of a Shepard, sacrificing a lamb was supposed to indicate love and submission to God. But it makes no sense whatsoever these days. Strange how we can achieve so much economically and technologically and yet cannot grow our mentality.

          • migarium says:

            The problem is human nature and capitalism process, I think dear BeeHappee. Do know the documantry/movie “Earthlings”. There was a sentences like that in it: “The amount meat that the people who lived hundred years ago ate in several months, today’s man eats in a day. ”
            After the industrial revolution, after the wild capitalism, the people turned into barbarian carnivorous. And sometimes the excuse of them is religion, sometimes something else.
            No animals in nature, they do not eat more than saturated. But people are attacking in a greedy way.
            And yes, every extraterrestrial on Earth is obliged to watch this “Earthling” documentary:)

          • BeeHappee says:

            Thank you for the recommend, I will add that to my list! Your mention about the meat reminded me when my dad came to the USA. Now in Lithuania, as you know, like many other eastern/central/norhtern European countries they eat tons of meat. I just saw a joke on Facebook – suitcase filled with smoked meats saying “Lithuanian survival kit”. But when my dad came to the states, he got some portions at various restaurants, and he complained that there was entirely too much meat compared to other ingredients.

            It makes sense that you extraterrestrials are required to study up on Earthlings, back in the Soviet Union we were required to watch films about Americans. 🙂

          • migarium says:

            “Lithuanian survival kit”., it is so funny, and your father complains also funny:) And you are right, most eastern countries nations like to eat smoked meat. Actually it is also good, you know a lot of good food is making with the smoked meats.There was a meal which was made with smoked meat, coriander, dill and garlic, but I couldn’t remember what was its name right know. Even, the people were burying this meal under the soil inside earthenware pot for cooking. It was awesome taste:)And yes, the needs can change according to time and place, it doesn’t matter you are an extraterrestrial or not:)

      • bobraxton says:

        no religion (which sacrifices) has a corner on slaughter of animals: these numbers are about seven years ago (“factory” industrialized:) USDA slaughter stats 2008

        Cattle: 35,507,500
        Pigs: 116,558,900
        Chickens: 9,075,261,000
        Layer hens: 69,683,000
        Broiler chickens: 9,005,578,000
        Turkeys: 271,245,000

        … and serving ANY religious purpose?

        • BeeHappee says:

          Serving $$$ religion. You read my mind. Now take those numbers, and what are the stats of how much food gets wasted in the USA? 30-40%? So if my logic is right, this puts us at about 19 billion total heads slaughtered and about 6 BILLION creatures killed – and wasted. 😦

  3. gatheringplaceseasonfour says:

    thirty eggs together is called a “flat” (still in Kenya) so I guess four flats make 120 (ten dozen). For Orphan and Vulnerable Children program Njoro (town), Kenya, there is an indigenous poultry project – a “cock” and five hens to begin – an egg is 15 Kenya shillings so 30 eggs (to market) make 450 Kenya shillings. The exchange is range of 95 – 97 K shillings per American dollar.

    • BeeHappee says:

      Thank you, I am assuming this is you Mr. Bob. Yes, I need the poultry project myself. We support the projects in Kenya, but make it illegal to keep chickens in my own backyard. Go figure.

  4. noblethemes says:

    Once again, what an intriguing, fun, adventuresome and educational excursion! Thank you once again for sharing such an exciting and enticing narrative with us! 🙂

  5. Bill says:

    I love this. What a delightful way to begin my morning. The Lehrer’s beautiful story makes my heart glad. For every family who follows a path like that, in spite of all the cultural pressure against it, I’m convinced there are dozens if not hundreds who desire it, but never find the courage. May the Lehrers be an inspiration to them.

    • BeeHappee says:

      Thank you, Bill, it is an honor to know you enjoyed this story for your Sunday read. Your and Cherie’s posts inspire me every day. 🙂
      I am happy to see it worked out for this family and their patient persistence and resilience has paid off. Sometimes, unfortunately, following one’s dreams can bring families further apart than closer together, but not following them is a sure disaster.

  6. What a funny coincidence… The connection name-naturalfibres-felting etc.
    My wife bears the same name and has the same passion…

    • BeeHappee says:

      Ron, I did not even think about it, but yes, definitely!!!! If your wife is in the States one day, I will take her to Esther’s place. I spent some time yesterday talking to another fiber lady at a local fair, and got to do some spinning and such, she has made full time occupation out of it, and was listing the number of shows she goes to here in the Midwestern USA, and really, she believes the fiber arts are growing.
      Did you already have your trip to Estonia?

      • No, we’re leaving on friday.
        And the chances of us visiting the States….. are very slim to say the least.

      • I will.
        Any suggestions on where to go?

        • BeeHappee says:

          Tons of stuff, Ron. As an adult I had only been to Tallinn. Oldtown Tallinn, underground tunnels, KGB museum in Tallinn, local restaurants. The most renowned is the island of Saarema, where the Viking lived. 🙂 and next door is Muhu island with a palace and some really old villages. There are tons of beautiful villages and great places for road trips in the southern Estonia, as well as by a lake Peipsi, something about Onion festival and three different cultures living side by side around the lake with some interesting traditions. Second city is Tartu, and it has toy museum. It just depends what interests you and how much time you have. Mostly, talk to locals, and they will point you to the cool stuff. If time limited, I would just do Tallinn and the islands.

      • I have 1 saturday afternoon. The trip is arranged by others and I am “somewhat” disappointed in the program. I thought it would be a boat trip there on friday, stay at a hotel, have all saturday, stay at a hotel and then the boat back on sunday…
        Turns out we’ll be arriving saturday morning (nightboat), have a guided bustour by 10am until 12, than a tour on foot until 14:00 (which I most likely will skip and we’ll have to be back on board by 18:00 (nightboat).
        It kind’a sucks, but my wife gets her trip paid for and I just tag along, just to have some sparetime with her alone.

  7. shoreacres says:

    Wait. What? Tallinn? Oh, my goodness. I think you’ll like this. I’m just starting to figure out some of these connections.

    Your day, and the place, are wonderful. My mother would have loved seeing all of that fiber. I would have enjoyed it, too. Even capitalistic meat-eaters can appreciate those finer fibers of life, the efforts put into the farm , and the production of good food!

  8. blazeburgess says:

    The stories you capture are really incredible, both in subject matter and style. Natasha’s story was interesting enough, but the general community is fascinating.

    I always thought the small-farm, environment-minded community was strong, but I didn’t realize how many people were in it. You seem to have a knack for finding these places. It’s very encouraging.

    • BeeHappee says:

      Thank you again. Yes, there are more people than you would think growing and making things, and not necessarily farmers, but also craftsmen and local artists and artisans, and people bringing some traditional crafts and arts back to life, educating children, etc. We feel more at home with these folks, who are often much more sincere and passionate than the crowd high up there creating the expensive art. As you know from your research, sometimes you can find some real hidden gems there.

  9. beeholdn says:

    Wow, so many colours, such beauty. So many thoughts shared in comments, too; thanks, Bee, for such a brilliant potpourri! (Oh and how I agree on your words about animal sacrifice; it’s so hard to imagine how we, as human beings, can conceive of such abomination . . . /and it sure existed well before capitalism did/ . . . we are such a complicated species.)

    • BeeHappee says:

      Thank you! Glad you liked the colors. 🙂 Your bringing up work ‘potpourri’ is excellent, makes me want to paint some picture of a large colorful quilt as the sky and many colorful sheep and autumn colored leaves pouring down to the ground. Ok, I get carried away. 🙂

  10. Pingback: Angels in the Sun | Bee Happee Now

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