Retirees find new careers in vineyard, old hotel
RED RIVER – Mark Lefebvre retired from the Wisconsin Public Service Corp. after 38 years in 2001, working outside as much as possible in a variety of positions.
Returning to the Green Bay office six months before he retired, he and his wife, Sandie, knew that they wanted to stay in Northeastern Wisconsin, where Sandy had graduated from Denmark High School and Mark had graduated from what is now Notre Dame Academy in Green Bay.
“I’ve hunted, fished and trapped all my life; I love being outside,” said Lefebvre. “I didn’t want to spend my retirement watching television.”
So when they bought 52 acres in the town of Red River in Kewaunee County in 1995 and built their retirement house in 2000, Lefebvre thought he would grow Christmas trees on some of the remaining acreage.
He didn’t figure that they were on the Niagara Escarpment with shallow soils and karst bedrock that didn’t work well for the trees.
So instead, they planted a vineyard.
“It was Karl Johnson at Parallel 44 winery who talked me into it,” said Mark.
Karl’s son, Steve, and Steve’s wife, Maria Milano, opened their Kewaunee winery, Parallel 44 Vineyard and Winery, in 2005 and their Sturgeon Bay winery, Door 44, in 2013. The winery is named for the 44 North Latitude, home of many renowned wine regions, such as Tuscany and Bordeaux that are at the same latitude and have similar growing seasons to Door and Kewaunee counties.
In 2009, the LeFebvres planted their first acre of grape vines.
“Karl was my mentor – if I had any questions I would go to him,” Mark said.
They were supposed to plant Marquette grapes from Vermont, but because the order was received late, the first grapevines they planted were Frontenace.
Over the years, they have added more Marquette vines and last fall harvested 10 tons of grapes, which they sell under contract to Parallel 44.
The harvest is one of the busiest times of the growing season for the Lefebvres, who are both 74 years old.
They have to recruit friends and family to help pick the grapes, usually on short notice, for the two-day event.
“We have a lot of retirees and neighbors who come to help,” said Sandie. “We even have a couple come all the way from Texas.”
Volunteers can sign up on their Red River Vineyard Website and they often have entire families volunteer.
Last year, their 18-month-old great-granddaughter, Ahyellah, became the youngest picker.
They have bought an old farm wagon for transporting the pickers and use a tractor to haul the grapes up and down the hilly terrain. Both Mark and Sandie use an ATV to climb the hills out to the vineyard.
From early spring on, the vineyard keeps them busy, They have to prune the vines, thin the shoots and position them with tuck wires, pull the leaves from around the grape clusters, spray for bugs, and, finally, net the grapes so they aren’t eaten by birds before the harvest.
“I always know where he is,” jokes Sandie, noting that even though the vineyard takes a lot of their time during the summer and fall, they still can travel and visit their four children, eleven grandchildren and two great-grandchildren..
The vineyard now makes a profit, and the Lefebvres’ contract with Parallel 44 also includes payment with several cases of their “M” wine made with their vineyard’s Marquette grapes.
This year, they planted several vines of table grapes so the volunteer pickers have some grapes to take home after the harvest.
“We are not getting rich,” said Mark. “But we are supplementing our income and enjoy gathering family and friends.”
The old hotel
WASHINGTON ISLAND – It had been almost 100 years since Jeannie Kokes’ grandparents first came to Washington Island and stayed at the Hotel Washington, beginning a century-long love affair for their family with the island.
Today, Kokes is beginning her second season as the owner of the Hotel Washington and Studio. She is one of a growing number of retirees in Door and Kewaunee counties who are buying existing businesses or starting new ones as longer life expectancies allow them to enjoy second careers.
For the 72-year-old Kokes, who is using some of her retirement years and funds to resurrect the landmark Hotel Washington, it has been a road she felt compelled to travel down.
“It is part of the magical way I choose to live my life,” she says.
A few winters ago she was visiting two island friends, Fritz Damler and Mari Anderson, at their home on Crooked Island in the Bahamas when they started dreaming of reopening the hotel, which had been shuttered and for sale for almost four years.
Anderson suggested that she could organize a yoga studio in the back; Damler said he could bring musical talent to the dining room. They talked about other islanders who could offer talents to make it a cultural gathering place for the island, one that was rooted in the island experience where there is a diverse community with a common love of the land, Kokes said.
When Kokes returned from the Bahamas, she bought the hotel.
“I’ve always loved this place,” she says today, sitting on the hotel’s wide front porch, which overlooks an expansive lawn. “The old maples and oaks draw people in and the hotel has its own energy.”
Entering her first season last year, Kokes said she was a little overwhelmed but “believed in a benevolent universe.”
Using a few of her own recipes, she found a chef to help reopen the dining room, a talented manager, and made small improvements to the rooms, which had been renovated by the previous owners.
Within a few weeks of opening, she was hosting a wedding. Since then the hotel and its backyard studio have been the setting for writer’s conferences, songwriting seminars, dance classes, art workshops and many other classes and celebrations. It is often difficult to get a dinner reservation or a hotel room on summer weekends.
“The unfolding of all this has been a wonderful experience,” said Kokes, who is a retired elementary school counselor and clinical psychologist with a Ph.D. in guidance and counseling.
What has made it so special is the many people from on and off the island who have found their way to the hotel and added their talents and suggestions, according to Kokes.
“It is like a weaving … a tapestry,” she said “I don’t have to convince people, they just know this place is different.”
Now as she launches her second season, she said she is feeling more confident and is excited to begin her “Homestead to Hotel” concept..
Last year, she purchased an historic homestead and farm on the north side of the island with the idea of growing local organic fruits and vegetables for the hotel’s dining room.
One of Kokes’ friends introduced her to Russell and Alessandra Rolffs from Milwaukee, who are now are living at and tending the farm for the summer, while they work as naturalists at the island’s Art and Nature Center.
The couple have planted more than a quarter-acre garden of vegetables, including exotic greens, like dragon’s tongue lettuce and radish sprouts, that are favored by hotel Chef Michael Hofmann.
They are also grafting the Montmorency cherry trees on the farm, as well as adding other fruit and nut trees, including Chinese chestnuts, according to Rolffs.
“Jeannie is tremendous to work for and eager and willing to try new ideas,” said Rolffs.
Kokes located Hofmann through an island friend’s recommendation, and it turned out he lived just down the road from her sister in Portland, Ore. She invited him to the island and working together they have developed a menu that includes field green, beet and spinach salads, smoked salmon with dandelion pesto wood-fired pizzas, cavatelli, pan-seared top sirloin and whitefish, spaghetti and nightly specials. They also offer homemade desserts such as Pot De Creme, apple galette and homemade ice cream.
Kokes said she feels very grateful to have this opportunity in her retirement years.
It allows her to spend more time on the island, and she is selling her home in Naperville, Ill., and moving up to the island full-time this fall. After her grandparents visited the island, they spent several decades vacationing at Gibson’s Resort on West Harbor. Kokes’ father bought land on West Harbor and in 1968 built a home there where Kokes and her family still spend their summers and where she plans to live full-time.
With her husband, Dan, an accountant, the couple took an early retirement and spent almost a month every year in Guatemala, working to build bridges. Jeannie also volunteered for a national women’s leadership cooperative. In 2005, Dan died suddenly. In spite of her grief, she continued their volunteer work for several years, while spending more time on the island with her three grown children and her four grandchildren.
This year, two of her grandchildren are working at the hotel and her son, Todd, serves as the hotel accountant. The hotel has three full-time employees and seven part-time employees. She also has two culinary interns from Beloit High School who are helping in the restaurant this summer.
As she has gotten older, Kokes said that she has learned more and more to “trust her instincts,” and appreciate all the new friendships that the hotel has brought into her life. .
“It is exciting to see it continually evolving,” she said. “Some days it feels like a dream.”
This article originally appeared on Green Bay Press Gazette: Retirees find new careers in vineyard, old hotel