Seeing the Future at a Place Called 'Tomorrow'
Written by, Thomas Wegner // Founder of MakeRoom
It’s early October and I’m on a journey of discovery - a small weekend road trip, really - from my own artist residency in the land of ten thousand lakes to one in the great state of Wisconsin. I’m headed to a place called Tomorrow River Homestead to find out for myself what’s happening in a little village in the middle of America’s Dairyland. Small towns and the country sides are familiar to me - I grew up in rural Wisconsin and know the way these little places tend to fade, get by-passed by highway improvement projects and become forgotten spots on a map. But this particular little place, in the village of Nelsonville with a population that hovers just below 200, seems to be leading a bit of a renaissance, a rural revival.
I’m driving the backroads, navigating over hills and valleys, through farm fields, past duck ponds, pheasant patches and golden rows of corn. It’s a good day to be on a little adventure, to notice the change in seasons. The leaves along the hardwoods are not at peak but signs of faded green and pale yellows are abundant. The shoulders along the highway feature pops of brilliant purple as the last of the aromatic aster offer their final display for the season. Despite the sun's bright shine, spreading shadows across the roadway, it’s a crisp fall day, the kind that makes a cup of gas-station coffee sound like a good idea.
At Tomorrow River Homestead I’m greeted with the site of work underway. Boards, tools, materials, and lumber are piled high, and the sound of tradesmen making home improvements rings out across the yard. It’s clear the folks who are running this place have a vision and are focused on bringing it into the world. With the help of a visiting artist, I make my way through the guest entrance and find my room. It’s simple and minimal layout is appealing and puts me at ease. Clean sheets, a nearby stack of blankets, and a large sun-filled window make it clear this place will allow me to rest and contemplate. I grab one of the blankets, add it to my bed and put on another layer of clothes to chase away the afternoon chill. Next, I find a tea kettle and make myself something warm in the shared kitchen. It’s a quiet and still afternoon as the daylight fades and I take in the scene out the back window. A sprawling garden and hammock appear in the distance and I know there is a river beyond waiting to be explored. After the sun has set I have a simple dinner and a glass of wine. Later, I grab my journal to record a few thoughts and turn in early - a simple luxury I find easier to take advantage of when I’m away from my own to-do lists.
Morning brings the view of a mammoth white pine out the picture window of my room. I lie quietly under a comforting stack of covers contemplating my day and thinking about the unique place where I find myself. Other guests begin to stir in the hallway, doors open and close, dishes are shuffled, fresh coffee brews, and the distinct smell of waffles enters my room. I rise for the day, get dressed, depart my room and am greeted by Rubina, one of the members of the dynamic duo that runs Tomorrow River Homestead. She greets me with a wide smile full of enthusiasm as she scoots by, already busy with the day’s agenda.
She offers me a warm breakfast and makes time for conversation. Fresh waffles are not the norm but today is special as we’re trying to make some time to catch up and exchange ideas on the futures of our residency programs. We cover local issues, national concerns, big-city living and our hometowns, rural identity and the challenges of growing a small operation in an era so filled with a preoccupation of what is new. At the breakfast table I join Rubina, her partner Isaiah and visiting artist in residence Iona, a weaver hailing from Ann Arbor MI. We share waffles, conversation and a lovely debate about the merits of short term, emerging artists residencies versus longer more established programs. It’s the kind discussion that fills our minds as much as the home-made food fills our bellies. It’s this sort of engaged dialogue that seems to be the norm at Tomorrow River Homestead.
After breakfast I decide it’s time to explore the outdoors and to see the river that gives this place its name. I head out the back door and take in the old barn, aged and worn with a fine patina that only history can provide. The backyard also features many works in progress and an impressive garden boasting 60-plus tomato plants. This operation is clearly run by a couple with a lot of energy and resolve. Just past the barn I find a meandering path that leads to the actual Tomorrow River. Small minnows dart towards the shadows as I approach. A rugged table and chair sit on its banks, a simple but perfect setting for some solo contemplation, another cup of coffee, or possibly a place to set your towel down before a dip in the creek during the heat of summer. A large red building stands out a short distance away - the original sawmill built in 1855 by Jerome Nelson, the village’s namesake. It’s a charming building that in its day stood sturdy and offered great utility. Now its empty contents serve as a rental hall. On weekends it’s filled with the sound of celebration and music as the mill is the location of many regional weddings.
In Nelsonville there is a post office at which locals gather to catch up on news and village talk. There is a concrete fabrication business, a welding and saw sharpening sign hang on an old garage, a gift shop sits nearby, the village hall where local government is run rests up the hill, and there is a coffee shop, Ruby Roasters, that sells cups of coffee, only on the weekends and roasts beans the remainder of the week for restaurants and customers nationwide. It’s not only a local favorite but an award-winning coffee roaster of great acclaim. Food and Wine magazine named it the best coffee in the entire state of Wisconsin. It’s a special place run on determination and moxie, qualities that I saw a lot of while I stayed in Nelsonville.
I saw this spirit in so many of the people I met. From the educator who built his own off-the-grid, solar-powered home to the marine biologist who has purchased property with her husband so together they can raise chickens, bake bread, and have a place to call their own. My hosts at Tomorrow River Homestead are no exception. They have arrived to this rural place from wayward West Coast cities and planted roots that are fueled by a learn-on-the-go determination. It’s with a fixated determination and an apparent fearlessness that Rubina and Isaiah run their facility. They have turned a long-declining property into a center for creatives, a safe space for the marginalized, and some pretty charming lodging for those traveling the roads less traveled. But, it’s not just the heating systems repaired, the old carpet ripped out, the rust stained fixtures removed, the walls painted, and the countless other physical improvements made to this place that strike me. Rather, it’s the love, care, and intention that has been added which matters the most.
My weekend plan was simple enough, to travel to a spot I’d never seen so I could understand it and experience it for myself and, of course, to do some weekend relaxing. Not only did I find a place that put me at ease and welcomed me with open arms but, I discovered an optimism and a tenacious enthusiasm that I didn’t know I’d find. I met a group of people who are forward focused and ready to build a place for tomorrow. I’m impressed not by what I see at Tomorrow River Homestead today, but what I envision for its future. Their youthful enthusiasm is infectious and when the time came to depart I was filled with a spirit of hopefulness that seems so needed in many places right now.