Acres of vision just a Stones Thoreau away
A story worth telling and an experience worth living usually cost something, and in rural Nebraska we measure cost in drive time. We drive an hour or three or more for a story, and this month we cruised Highway 4 over the prairie towards Thayer County and into Davenport to discover the story of Stones Thoreau.
We turned onto Davenport’s wide main street, South Maple Avenue, and noticed cars parked at the grocery store and the bar/coffee shop. Then we saw a storefront glowing in east sunlight and noted thriving green plants in a wide, sparkly clean frontage window. No signage needed to tell us that we had arrived at the Stones Thoreau farm-to-market enterprise.
We entered and were greeted by owner, creative director and operator Dr. Harold Stone. The building was neglected and in disrepair when Harold and his wife, Barbara, discovered it and invented a new purpose for the property. Now sunbeams danced off the newly restored and handsome wood floor. A stained glass feature on the west wall in amber, cream and rich browns set the color and theme of the storefront restoration. The tin ceiling tiles, meticulously restored and painted in a delicious clotted cream color, topped off a seamless renovation project.
Man with a mission
Harold’s career has spanned East Coast, West Coast and work in Crimea (then Ukraine) as a Fulbright Scholar where he facilitated environmental and coastal planning by working with students to develop a national park in the Crimean Mountains. He is a man with a mission and he brought that mission to rural Nebraska when he established Stones Thoreau, a food-based enterprise, to promote community and economic development there.
“Rural communities are in trouble,” Harold wrote on his Stones Thoreau blog. Fewer people farm ever larger tracts of land, leaving fewer job opportunities and less people to support rural communities. Harold wants to reverse that trend.
His study of urban planning and development prepared him to tackle the perennial problems in rural Nebraska — out migration and population loss resulting in fewer jobs and a lagging economy. He writes in an article on his blog, “Growing Prosperity Through Whole Food Systems,”that taking inventory of existing resources and studying to keep those resources in communities is a first step in reversing this trend. Resources to help with this are restaurants, grocery stores, farmers markets, schools, senior centers and other businesses that provide services in small towns and villages.
Stones Thoreau came into being to promote community and economic development in Davenport and the Fillmore, Clay, Nuckolls, and Thayer county region.
“The population also has a long history of agricultural skills,” Harold writes. “Because collectively, we know how to grow, prepare, and preserve food, we have a common skill set throughout the four-county region to change the tide of decline in rural communities.”
Vision takes physical form
Harold acquired funding to restore and revitalize the Stones Thoreau store front, added a commercial kitchen, and developed outdoor and indoor farmers markets. He invites the community to gather in the welcoming space, and he provides catering services for private parties.
With certification from the University of Nebraska Food Lab, food can be prepared, preserved and canned in Stones Thoreau’s commercial kitchen. The kitchen may be rented by the hour and is more than 800 square feet, fully equipped and glistening in stainless steel work areas and sinks. A Hobart double-convection oven and stove, the queen of all stoves, reigns over the spacious work stations. “The work spaces are designed to accommodate between four to six people cooking, canning, and baking at the same time,” Harold said.
Grandma Grace’s Mustard, a popular local recipe, is currently in production there. Cubbie’s Market in Shickley purchased the recipe from the family who first made and sold it, and they asked Harold to manufacture the mustard in the Stones Thoreau kitchen. Grandma Grace’s Mustard soon will be available for sale along with the canned tomatoes, salsa, spaghetti sauce, pickled green beans, pickled beets, paprika from dried Hungarian peppers, homemade crackers, fettuccini, and many other value-added food products.
Sharing food with others
Most small rural towns lack wholesome, fresh produce and organic fruits and vegetables so the Stones Thoreau team started the summer farmers market in Davenport in 2011. Neighbors brought their garden produce and baked goods. People came to Davenport to buy at the farmers market and business stayed in town. The Stones Thoreau storefront then opened on Thursdays for a winter farmers market where cheeses made at a dairy near Lincoln, eggs from a farmstead in Brainard, raspberry jam from a local jam maker, dried herbs, pickles and dried and canned tomatoes and more can be purchased.
During the 2013 fall harvest, Stones Thoreau prepared meals for farmers and others who helped with the row crop harvests in the region. Meals were served at the Davenport Community Center and box lunches were prepared to take out to the fields. Profits were donated back to the community building for upkeep and repairs.
Harold intends to prepare frozen dinners for seniors to eat on holidays and weekends when the senior center closes. On Memorial Day, Harold, originally from Texas, served barbecued brisket and chicken for 100 people.
“Then I opened my mouth and announced that I’m grilling Porterhouse steaks for Father’s Day June 2014, and I don’t own a barbecue!” he said. Harold’s friend in Davenport is building him an eight-foot-long grill. Call Stones Thoreau to reserve your Porterhouse steak.
Creating a whole food system
Harold also gardens with passion and skill. “My grandmother taught me about gardening, and from a small boy, I had my own garden,” he said. When Harold and Barbara moved to Davenport in 2010 , they purchased four acres of land, and a half acre will soon be planted in vegetables. Harold has fig, peach, apple and cherry trees in cold storage for planting in April. He dreams of bountiful harvests and shimmering jars of canned peaches in years to come.
In 2011 he planted 500 asparagus plants in the east gardens, and the asparagus harvest this spring will be a grand time for fans of the delectable vegetable. Contact Harold to place an order.
“My thing is the land, the vegetables and fruits I grow, and I’m a canner,” Harold said. “Last year I learned to start my canning in May and June, and I will be pickling radishes this year.”
Canning, freezing and drying the vegetables and fruits add value. For every seed or root planted he asks, “How can I maximize the uses of each product I grow?” Value is added to everything he does. The Hungarian peppers are dried and become a paprika, and purple-hulled peas become hummus.
Future plans for Stones Thoreau include selling products online, attracting customers from Lincoln, Hastings and Friend, developing a year round farmers market, and growing prosperity in the Thayer County region through Harold’s vision of a whole food system.