Starting with a stone barn and a big dream, Ken Krause shows what ambition, energy and a few strategic decisions can create.
Overbrook, Kansas – In the beginning, Ken Krause dreamed of a stone barn, nothing more, as he worked selling dental supplies. “Driving around Kansas I’d see these rock barns. I’d visualize, fantasize about what I could do with rock buildings,” he says.
Fantasy steered toward reality when a newspaper ad led to a barn he could call his own: built in 1909, with 22-inch walls and filled with manure. A 140-acre farm came attached. Over the course of three decades, Ken’s dream expanded to include seven cascading ponds, an array of “profit centers,” and an elegant barn home that doubled as a bed and breakfast.
Today, at 80, Ken is about ready to retire from the farming game in favor of leisure time, summer vacations and less responsibility.
“It’s time,” he says. From his cheerful sunroom, Ken looks out on rows of fruit trees zapped by an untimely spring freeze. Apples, cherries, peaches, pears, all lost for the season. Only the blackberries survived.
Yet his eyes twinkle as he talks of Fieldstone, a place where he made his dreams come true.
Before Fieldstone, before the barn, there were valuable lessons to be learned. Ken graduated from high school in Kansas City, Missouri, at the age of 16, enlisted in the Army and served in Germany during World War II. On his return, he studied at the University of Missouri, then began selling dental equipment for the family business.
“I wasn’t doing well. I was 22, 23, just a kid,” he says. Established dentists weren’t interested in what Ken had to sell, so when a customer steered him toward a nearby dental school, he made a beeline. He opened a student store. Not only did he sell dental supplies, he scouted towns for suitable practices, designed their office spaces and sometimes even found them patients. “I was really doing well,” Ken says.
He rose to head Krause Dental Supply, and then sold it to Boston-based Healthco International, staying on as regional vice-president until he retired. On the farm, his managerial and architectural experience would be reemployed in a more personal way.
It started with the barn. Ken acquired his prized possession in 1977 when an advertisement in the Kansas City Star led him to Overbrook, some 60 miles from his suburban Leawood home. It was love at first sight, Ken says. “I bought a barn, and they threw in the farm.”
He named it Fieldstone, for the rocky land from which it sprang.
He initially envisioned a weekend retreat and, as he plunged into renovations, those years of drawing plans for dental offices proved handy. Ken sketched in a three-room apartment for one side of the barn, leaving the rest of the structure for chickens and hay. He and his first wife, Marilyn, would drive over on days off from their jobs, their dream of a rural respite well under way.
Ken kept drawing, eventually turning his barn into a permanent home. The former hayloft became a master bedroom with a white marble fireplace, a cozy library and two spacious bedrooms for overnight guests. The chickens were evicted, and, as the city slicker settled into farm life, he was hooked.
The couple moved to Fieldstone permanently in 1983, commuting to jobs in the city and relaxing on the farm. They kept a couple of horses, some pigs, cows and sheep. But when Ken’s attention turned to grapes and apples, he expanded his dream yet again. “Basically I wanted, when I retired, to have a very viable business going,” he says. That viable business would be the farm.
Ken devoured Booker T. Whatley’s Handbook on How to Make $100,000 Farming 25 Acres. (See “For Inspiration”) As he read, he came to view his holdings in a new light. A small farm might make a dandy business, he concluded. He would rent out most of his land, keeping just 20 acres for his own operation.
Ken agreed with Whatley that for a farm to provide a living, it needed to generate a steady flow of income throughout the year. To that end, he settled on multiple profit centers that over time would include a vineyard, orchard, asparagus patch, even a restaurant. Tracking these “small businesses” separately, he’d measure the value of each to the farm as a whole.
A new dream was taking root.
So how did a person who simply wanted a barn end up knee-deep in a farm enterprise? “My problem,” Ken says, “is that I’m a horrible hog, and when I get involved, I get involved like you wouldn’t believe.”
His biggest obsession was the vineyard, which he planted early on. He added trellises and pruned to keep vines steady and strong. He nurtured red grapes and white: some for wine, some for juice and some just for eating. As the vineyard grew, Ken joined others to successfully lobby the state to ease its wine-making laws.
Water supply posed a challenge. “I knew I had to have ponds for the vineyard,” he says. So, with a little help, he developed a system of cascading ponds and drip irrigation. For fun, he stocked his ponds with bass, crappie and catfish. Next he added a “Yacht Club,” a high-falutin’ name for the dock where family members and guests could fish, swing, take out a canoe or simply mess around.
Yet his attention remained on the vineyard. “I went hoggish into wine,” Ken says. He would make some for his own use – and crush grapes for hobbyists, providing recipes with which they could make their own wine. “I had people drive in with 55-gallon barrels. They’d fill up just like gasoline,” he says.
Just at the point of success, he discovered that the end is not the end. On Ken’s 65th birthday, county workers were spraying for weeds when their herbicide – the extremely toxic 2-4-D – drifted across the Fieldstone vineyard. “What it didn’t kill that first year, it killed the next,” Ken says.
Heartbroken, but ever the optimist and dreamer, Ken eventually regrouped. He replanted some grapes but couldn’t revive the vineyard of his dreams. In its place, he experimented with dwarf fruit trees, significantly expanding his orchard.
In hindsight, Ken says. “If I had to do it over again, I’d have taken half of the vineyard and turned it into blueberries. I’d have just a little vineyard for table grapes and juice; there really isn’t money in vineyards unless you make the wine.”
In foresight, Ken had planted an orchard as a hedge against downturns in the vineyard. “Good years, bad years,” he says. By now, knowing Ken, you can surmise this was not just any orchard.
He started with heritage apples, conventional apples and Asian pears, products that offered market opportunities from August into November. Today, he counts more than 2,000 trees: 45 varieties of apples keeping company with an array of pears, cherries, peaches, blackberries and pecans.
Early on, as he checked his ledger, Ken saw labor costs – the picking, transporting and sorting – gobbling most of the orchard’s profit. That’s when he decided to give U-Pick a try. His first customer balked. “You want me to pick my own apples? That doesn’t sound good to me,” Ken recalls the response. But Ken persisted, offering a golf cart, a map and a bucket that the customer could fill for $10.
“He went up, came back down and said, ‘I gotta go get the kids.’ He did; they had a great time – and that’s when we changed from picking apples to family entertainment.”
Again, in inimitable Ken fashion, this enterprise led to yet others. Fieldstone began offering field trips, even a petting zoo. Children who toured with classmates would return with their parents, generating enough traffic to keep six golf carts busy. With weekends drawing 200 to 250 people, says Ken, “We had to have something else for them to buy.”
He added a farm market, selling pre-picked produce along with cookbooks, apple peelers, corers, pie plates, napkins, jewelry, straw hats and more. He offered ice cream, cheese and other snacks and, on occasion, grilled bratwurst.
He hawked apple wood and cider, too. But E. coli concerns limited any “off-farm” cider sales. “We don’t pasteurize,” he says. “I think pasteurization takes out the pure flavor of cider.”
Fruits disappeared fast with U-Pick. When Ken got big-time into asparagus, however, he turned to the Community Mercantile, a food co-operative in nearby Lawrence, to unload his abundant supply. The market buys all he can produce from mid-April through May.
While fruit and asparagus attracted most public notice, the farm’s profit centers expanded to include property as well. Ken began promoting Fieldstone as an event site for “do-it-yourself” weddings and other occasions. He turned a mobile home on the property into an apartment. He bought several buildings in downtown Overbrook and rented them out for a tidy profit.
Another downtown purchase proved a lot more labor intensive: a restaurant, bar and dance hall. The Palladium drew customers from throughout the region. On Mondays it was closed. But other days offered special draws: Tuesdays, dance lessons; Wednesdays, bingo; Thursdays, German fare; Fridays, prime rib and a dance; Saturdays, karaoke or a dance; and Sundays, a champagne brunch.
After three years, he gave it up. “I enjoyed the restaurant; I couldn’t stand the bar,” Ken recalls, especially when folks ordered pitchers right at closing time.
Today, the old Palladium sign adorns a vine-covered pergola in front of the Fieldstone market.
Ken’s dream, as with many dreams, came with its share of sorrows. Five years after he and Marilyn settled onto the farm permanently, she died suddenly from an aneurism.
He married his second wife, Nancy, in 1988. The two, acquainted earlier in Kansas City, were reintroduced through mutual friends and just hit it off. Since then, Nancy has been knee-deep in projects: restaurant, market, orchards and more. She hadn’t realized she was saying “I do” to Ken’s ever-expanding dreams. “I never thought about it,” she says. “I kind of just go with it. If I thought about it, it might not work.”
Fieldstone employs one full-time farmhand and other part-time help. Nancy keeps her own list of chores. “Ken? He likes to manage,” his wife says with a laugh.
“I don’t even mow the yard,” Ken says. “I’m afraid I’d cut my leg off.”
Not long after Ken and Nancy’s wedding, another “profit center” popped onto the agenda. The old stone barn, filled with antiques and art collected from around the world, seemed the perfect site for a bed and breakfast. “We thought we’d try it to see if we liked it,” Nancy recalls.
For guests, home furnishings provided plenty of conversation starters: A chandelier from Chicago’s Bismarck Hotel, a fireplace salvaged from an old Kansas City theater, a player piano in excellent tune, a prayer chair carried home from Paris, tiles from an Austrian castle, a collection of German steins. And in the living room, a painting of sheep in a stone barn, willed to Ken by his grandmother long before he had a barn of his own.
As an added draw, the couple transformed the barn’s partially finished third floor into a first-class retreat, complete with library, movies, pool table, wet bar, Jacuzzi and beautiful view of the farm. Lights hang from a track once used to hoist hay. “We call it our track lighting,” Nancy says.
The bed and breakfast was Nancy’s domain. She’d fix breakfasts featuring freshly picked asparagus, eggs, even fruit cobblers. Ken kept the guests laughing while she cooked. “Ken was my entertainment center,” she says.
Both enjoyed sharing the farm, meeting new people and working the land. But now, they say, it’s time to change course. The couple closed the B&B December 1 and as their tenure at Fieldstone nears its end, new dreams dance in their heads. Ken imagines Portugal or an apartment on Kansas City’s Country Club Plaza. Nancy considers a smaller country home.
“I’m going to Portugal and sit by the sea,” Ken says. “I’m going to put my chair against a wall, sit on it and drink wine, then just roll over.” He pauses to let this vision sink in, then amends the dream. “No, we’re getting an apartment on the Plaza.”
Nancy bought her husband a sporty convertible for his 80th birthday. She has tons of dishes; Ken, tons of paper. “We need a two-car garage, a place for two dogs, and someplace to put Ken,” she says.
Wherever they land, both will recall Fieldstone as a dream come true. “I’ve had a wonderful life, an unbelievable life,” Ken says.
Regrets? Just one, he says, “The blueberries. I should’ve planted those blueberries.”
Freelance writer Carol Crupper has worked 30 years as a newspaper reporter and editor, the last seven as a Kansas Statehouse correspondent.
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