Ken Kokesh was born in an era where willingness to work hard and an honest outlook was what it took to make a decent living.
From working at the Lodi A&W to graduating from Lodi High School, Kokesh’s next milestone was buying a car. Shopping with his brother in Madison, the pair stopped by Hults Chevrolet. By the time they were finished, Kokesh had his car and a job for $1.65 an hour.
As assistant to the salesman, Kokesh helped with deliveries and transfer of property of used cars. When Hults changed its name to Thorstad Chevrolet with a new location from East Washington to Park Street and a new building, Kokesh moved right along with them and was promoted to the reconditioning manager for new and used cars.
“I would get the car from trade and make sure it was safe and in good condition,” Kokesh said.
He would prepare the new cars for delivery. Kokesh stayed in that position for several years until the body shop manager retired. Recognized for his management skills, Kokesh took over the body shop manager position and for the first time and for the next 16 years, the body shop showed a profit.
When the manager of the car and truck repair retired, Kokesh moved into that position, overseeing a department of 60 employees. Timing and a good work ethic again was in Kokesh’s favor and when it was time for the general manager over the body shop, medium duty trucks and car and truck repair to retire, Kokesh was offered the job where he stepped in and now managed over 90 employees including 35 technicians.
Competing with over 400 dealers in the Midwest, Kokesh received top service manager accolades many times in his career. “We had the most highly trained dealership in the Midwest with 18 world class technicians. Most dealerships only had one. At times, GM came to our techs for advwice,” Kokesh said. Along with recognition, Kokesh also won trips from Chevrolet. He and his wife, Nancy, traveled as guests of Chevrolet to Hawaii seven times, Spain and the Caribbean.
Then, in 2011 everything came to a screeching halt and Thorstad closed its doors.
“I was close to retirement age, so I didn’t pursue other employment but I wasn’t ready to sit on the couch,” Kokesh said.
Driving by Schumacher Farm one afternoon, Kokesh stopped by to ask some questions and offered his services in tending the strawberry bed.
“For one and half years I putzed around helping plant and wherever I was needed,” Kokesh said. When Mary Collette, head of the gardens, knew she would not be continuing in that capacity, Kokesh spent more time at the farm and performed more of the work.
“We dug up the garden by hand. We use no fertilizer, no pesticides, only old machinery and only heirloom seeds,” Kokesh said in regards to keeping with the representation of early farming practices. Schumacher Farm’s heirloom seeds have been gathered and grown from plants from the early 1900s and have been openly pollinated by insects or wind and without human intervention.
Waunakee High School has helped start the seeds in their greenhouse and prepare for planting in the spring. The gardens are for educational purposes and samples are given during various events. Whatever is left over goes to the Waunakee Food Pantry.
“We had so much asparagus this year,” Kokesh said.
Besides asparagus, Kokesh plants potatoes, strawberries, rhubarb, beans, onions, garlic, chives and grapevines, all with their own growing season, which keeps Kokesh busy from early spring until fall.
With the abundance of vegetables and controlling the weeds, he has enough to do that he has given up taking care of the flowers. Kokesh has an occasional class or group and handles garden questions. Prior to the end of this school year, Waunakee fourth graders came to the farm on a field trip. Kokesh helped each child plant three pumpkin seeds around the garden fence marked by a stick with their name on it. When they return in the fall they can see what the results are.
Kokesh gleaned his knowledge of gardening over the years initially by helping his father in the family garden. When Thorstad Chevrolet had an empty median in front of their building, Kokesh planted and maintained 130 perennial plants for many years. As of late, Kokesh studies online master gardening classes, reads as much as he can and learns from others.
Kokesh mainly spends his time at Schumacher Farm in the gardens but has a helping hand for everything else.
“We are always short of volunteers,” Kokesh said.
The farm park was donated to Dane County by Marcella Schumacher, a Waunakee teacher, who was born in 1910 and raised on her parents’ farm. After her father’s death, she wanted to create a living history museum that documented and represented farm life during the early 20th century. As their website denotes, “The Friends of Schumacher Farm assumed responsibility for the restoration of the farm house to the 1930s era and have established an educational program that represents the life of the area’s early settlers. The successful partnership among the Friends of Schumacher Farm, its many volunteers, the Dane County Parks Commission and the surrounding communities has made Schumacher Farm Park what it is today, an educational legacy.”
The Friends of Schumacher Farm are in the midst of capital campaign to raise funds to finish the red barn on the property for offices and community space.
Kokesh keeps busy with other hobbies such as wine making. For three years he produced 30 gallons of a variety of wine including elderberry, grape and raspberry. His very first batch of raspberry wine won him first place at the State Fair. He used to can trout and tomatoes.
Kokesh raised his family, son, Brad and daughter, Brooke in Waunakee. He and his wife bought a cabin in Minocqua where they enjoy eagles and loons on the lake. Kokesh enjoys fishing for Muskie, big bass and large blue gill. He used to fish from a row boat with a motor but has recently purchased a pontoon boat.
The couple has four busy grandchildren, Gabby, Cameron. Brady and Peyton. “Whenever possible we watch their activities,” Kokesh said.
Kokesh is frequently asked why he spends so much time at the Schumacher Farm.
“I enjoy being here. I like the finished product. Some people think I’m crazy to work for free. I’m not concerned about the monetary and I don’t want to be on someone else’s schedule,” Kokesh said.
For more information about Schumacher Farm, events and volunteer opportunities go to http://www.schumacherfarmpark.org/