VERNON COUNTY - Every parent knows the pride of seeing the children they raise grow, bud and flower. But for many that is accompanied by the sorrow of seeing them set their roots and plant their seeds in locations far from the family and community that produced them. Kids leave rural communities in search of good paying jobs, and maybe a little of the excitement their small rural town may not have had on offer.
A young woman like Brandie Myhre, who grew up on a dairy farm outside of Viroqua in Vernon County may lend some insight into what it will take to reverse the exodus of our youth. Myhre, after attending college in Milwaukee and LaCrosse, has come back to her hometown. She lives in Viroqua, teaches art at the North Crawford Schools, and works part time at the trendy new Driftless Brewing Company in Soldiers Grove.
But, perhaps most telling, coming back home has allowed her the opportunity to get back out into the beloved outdoors of her youth. Volunteering with the Friends of Vernon County Parks & Forests has allowed her to reconnect with the cherished woods and trails of the Esofea County Park. Myhre’s home farm bordered the park, and she and her brother spent many hours hiking and playing there.
“Since I’ve moved back to the area, I realize that what we have here is very special and hard to find elsewhere,” Myhre said. “I know I will always want to live where there are opportunities for hiking, kayaking and outdoor fun. For me, it has been great to reconnect with Esofea where I had so much fun as a child, and work to make it better as an adult.”
Originally Myhre’s educational path, after graduating from Viroqua High School, took her to Alverno College in Milwaukee. There, she took a degree in Interactive Media Design. In the summers, she worked at Cal West Seeds in West Salem. The company was a Woodland-based supplier of alfalfa, clover and other crops to seed companies. This job experience caused Myhre to remember her love for the country and the outdoors after experiencing the excitement the big city had to offer.
“I loved this job because it got me outside,” Myhre remembered. “Since I lived in LaCrosse, I was also able to find a new outdoor activity I loved as well – kayaking.”
In her free time, Myhre took kayaking lessons at Lake Onalaska, and eventually became a kayaking instructor. The Fish & Wildlife Refuge out side of LaCrosse offers a total of 96 miles of marked canoe trails. The trails all have difficulty rating so paddlers can pick a trail that meets their skill level.
All of this “outdoorsiness” caused Myhre to kiss the big city goodbye and move back closer to home. She decided to attend Viterbo University in LaCrosse, and took an Art Education degree in 2016. She landed her first teaching position at North Crawford, starting in the Fall of 2017.
“The greatest thing about teaching art is watching students tap into their creativity, and enjoying that moment when they really get something,” Myhre said. “What makes it challenging is just the sheer number of students that my job has me working with every day – sometimes it’s hard to catch my breath between one class and the next, and be ready for a new group of students and a different creative lesson.”
Myhre said that she enjoys teaching as a career, and North Crawford as a district, describing it as “completely and totally willing to listen to ideas and supportive of its teachers.” Nevertheless, she dreams of a way to put her love of teaching, love of art, and love of the outdoors together into one career.
“I’d like to see something that could be called ‘Artdoors,’ where the activities of teaching art and getting kids outdoors could be combined,” Myhre said. “I am working on the possibility of getting an art exhibit going in the school also, but one of the things that I’ve learned as a teacher is that the creative process is just as important as the final product.”
Another attraction new to the area is the Driftless Brewing Company in Soldiers Grove. The microbrewery offers one of the kinds of attractions that young folks are flocking to urban areas to enjoy. It has provided a great part time job for Myhre, and is another element that makes her rural home town more attractive.
“Working at the brewery has been SO COOL,” Myhre said. “Chris has taught me so much about beer, it has become a new interest of mine, and working with Eli Mandel is awesome!”
Myhre was recruited by brewery business manager Cynthia Olmstead to work part time at the brewery after the two had become acquainted at another Soldiers Grove business Myhre had worked at – The Old Oak Inn.
“Brandie is a special part of our team here at Driftless Brewing Company. She's a real spark---hard working, talented, friendly, community-minded and like myself, a real outdoor enthusiast,” Olmstead said. “I first got to know her when she taught art at the Pleasant Ridge Waldorf School summer camp a few years ago, and then at Old Oak Inn.”
Olmstead commented that she enjoyed Myhre’s photography as well, and that she had done some great early shots of the brewery’s taproom for the business’s website.
“Brandie is generous, enthusiastic and a great spirit,” Olmstead said. “I'm glad to have her in our community!”
Befriending the parks
Myhre grew up on a property in rural Viroqua next door to her grandpa’s dairy farm. Her grandfather, Myron Engh, milked a herd of 40 Holstein cows. Engh’s farm shared a property line with Esofea County Park, and Myhre and her younger brother Dusty were able to walk a half-mile through the farm’s back forty to reach the park on foot.
“The coolest part about where we lived is that it was isolated, and in the country,” Myhre said. “This caused my brother and I to focus on the simple entertainments available right outside our door. In the summer we spent all our time riding bikes and escaping into Esofea County Park.”
She said that “Esofea was home base for my brother and I.” In addition to hiking the trails, she remembered that they would also wind up over at the greenhouse business near there, helping them make up cardboard boxes for shoppers to take their purchases home in, and doing odd jobs. “Now the Bad Axe Country Club is located there, and patrons can get “drinks and flowers,” Myhre said.
After Myhre moved back to Viroqua and took her job with North Crawford, she learned of a new group that was forming in Vernon County – Friends of the Vernon County Parks & Forests.
“I first learned of the Friends group when Vernon County Conservationist Ben Wojahn shared a flyer with me,” Myhre said. “I immediately thought of Esofea Park and that I might be able to help maintain and improve the county park where I spent my childhood.”
Since joining the group, Myhre has helped with trail building, maintenance and installing new fire pits at Esofea Park. She has also put her social media skills to work for the group, helping to manage the group’s Facebook page, and snapping photos of the group’s work day activities.
In 2019, Myhre was recognized at the Vernon County Conservation Awards Banquet with the ‘Bestie’ award for her social media and photography contributions. This award is given each year to recognize an individual’s volunteer efforts through the Friends.
“I love the Vernon County parks and hiking is my favorite thing,” Myhre said. “The Friends have lots of exciting things planned for 2020, such as a Woman’s Backpacking Clinic, foraging events, bird hikes, and even ‘Yoga at the Dam’ at Duck Egg Park.”
The Friends of Vernon County Parks and Forests partner with park staff and volunteers to celebrate, protect and preserve the Vernon County parks of the Driftless Area. The Vernon County Parks, formed after the county became home to 22 PL-566 flood control dams, offer a wide variety of outdoor recreation opportunities. Those include walking trails, bike trails, horse trails, and fishing, camping, all in a setting offering residents and visitors the breathtaking beauty of the Driftless Area.
New for 2020, on the same day that the Vernon County Land Conservation Department holds their annual ‘Conservation Awards Banquet,’ the Friends will also hold a music event fundraiser. This fundraiser is intended to generate funds that will help the Friends group continue their park improvement activities and begin to offer more programming for the community and to help promote green tourism.
The Conservation Awards Banquet and Friends Fundraiser will be held at Pedretti’s Party Barn – Vernon Vineyards on February 1. The fundraising event will include a raffle, silent auction and culminate with live music performances from renowned and nation-ally recognized bands, Pat Ferguson and Buffalo Gospel.
“Some of our most valuable assets in Vernon County are our land, water, parks and our forests. This special event with the Friends of Vernon County Parks and Forests will directly benefit the preservation, education, accessibility and future of Vernon County,” says Ben Wojahn, County Conservationist.
Pat Ferguson from Madison, channels Americana, bluegrass, and folk that is deeply influenced by his Upper Mississippi River musical roots while the critically acclaimed Milwaukee based Buffalo Gospel will bring their “hopped up trucker country and breathtakingly honest ballads” to the party barn for this special event.
The awards banquet will begin at 5 p.m., with the live music portion of the evening to begin at 8 p.m. Tickets for the Award Banquet are $15. Tickets for the Live Music are $10. Advanced tickets can be purchased for the banquet and/or the live music by contacting Sarah McDowell at 608.637.5480 or firstname.lastname@example.org prior to Friday, January 17, 2020.You can also purchase advance tickets from the Friends of Vernon County Parks and Forests Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/vernoncountyfriends/