My guess would be that he began seriously thinking about it on or about summer or fall of 1969.
His first wife had tragically passed away several years earlier, he was about to marry his second wife and begin a new phase in his life. Business was good and everything seemed to align in order to provide him with the opportunity or permission to make a drastic change.
“I didn’t retire. I quit.” is what he would often say. “I finally looked at things and realized that I had enough. Enough to head to the country and spend my days doing mainly the things that I truly loved.”
I’m speaking of course about my father, Francis Cloud Schellinger, who at the age of 52 “quit” his successful contracting business and left town. Moving out to an 80-acre farm south of Avon, MN. By those days standards, a very long way away.
He was in a position to make this paradigm shift in his life, but by no means an infinitely comfortable position. And he certainly had this in mind for many years. Some years ago he shared with me how he had been disappointed that he had been unable to retire at the age of 50 and had to settle for 52. Boo hoo, too bad for you, I now think when I reflect on this conversation.
This past year for me has been an interesting one as I am coming up on my 47th birthday. My father married his second wife, my mother Karen, at the age of 46. A woman half his age. Not almost half, not in the hyperbolic sense – half. She was 23 years old.
I’ve found myself thinking what it would be like to marry someone the same age as my oldest daughter AND then start a whole new family AND quit my successful and comfortable life in town AND move out into the country. Scary, exciting and all so very, very new. It must have been quite a time for him.
Life was not always easy on “the farm” as we and all our old neighbors and cousins would call it. Over the years we raised nearly every animal you could think of. Here is an incomplete list: chickens (many, many different kinds), ducks, geese, rabbits, pigs, horses, cows, bees, guinea hens … you get the idea. The gardens were many and large. The firewood was a never ending process. We were either cutting it or burning it.
I remember many days, years when my father was concerned he would have to go back to work, but somehow we managed. He quit in 1974. For those of you not an adult in the 70’s this is about the time things went to shit- economically.
The house in St. Cloud did not sell and sat there for over two years. Prices went up, things were tough. I clearly remember the Year of Powdered Milk – nasty, nasty stuff. But of course real milk was far too expensive. I am convinced that two things saved us from an entire childhood of this vile stuff. One – my mother discovered that she could get a gallon of milk straight out of the bulk tank from a local farmer for $1 (very illegal today, maybe then too). Two – this would not have been enough to tip the scales if it were not for my fathers obsession with cream. He loved cream. It would go in his coffee, which he drank all day long. He would eat Corn Flakes with cream – all cream, no milk. It would go in his strawberries, blueberries, cream of wheat, etc. This sealed the deal. We never saw powdered milk again!
This did introduce another stressor into our household though. You NEVER wanted to get caught using the milk or mixing it up and using it until the cream had risen to the top AND Francis was able to draw off the cream for his use. Hilarious. But not hilarious if you got caught. And believe me – he would know.
Growing up in the country was a lot of hard work, but many days of fun in the woods and stream that surrounded us. I would not have changed it for anything. One of the vivid memories of my childhood was all the people that would show up to visit. Either to borrow this or that or to chat with my parents about something they were thinking of “taking on” as my dad would often put it. More often then not they would leave having been given the encouragement that they could do it! And they usually did.
So. What the hell has all of this got to do with the Avon Hills Folk School. At a minimum, I see it as an important part of the history of this place.
There is also this. I believe that my father, possibly consciously, practiced and embraced the tenants of a folk school – to practice and introduce people to the power of working with your hands – often in and in concert with the natural world.
A day stands out in my memory. A memory that came back to me several years ago as I sought to establish this folk school in the Avon Hills. He and I were working on the farm engaged in one form of manual labor or another. I was probably about 9 or 10. The year would have been around 1978. He straightened up and looking off to no where in particular said, to no one in particular, ” I often imagine that some day this place could be a retreat for jaded businessmen. A place where they could come to become refreshed. To renew themselves, their outlook. To do some of the things they yearn to do, but never have or take the time to do.”
Looking back and reflecting on this I think he was talking about himself. I think this place – the lakes, woods, prairies and streams and the way in which he chose to engage them had this effect on him. It may be too much to say that it saved him, because I don’t know if he needed “saving”. But there is no doubt in my mind that it completed him, fulfilled him and provided him with nearly 40 years of joy and satisfaction.
It was because of this outlook he had that he was so agreeable, along with my mother, to seeing this property become a place where others could come and experience the same sense of fulfillment that he was able to experience.
These are some of the reasons why we seek to establish the Avon Hills Folk School.