Steve Winn is a good man. Honest, hardworking, dependable. He is also connected. A member of the Zionsville community for many of his 73 years, he knows everyone and knows every place. So, years ago when I was looking for a farm, I called Steve. It seemed right, as I trespassed on properties, knocked on farmhouse doors, and wrote what I believed to be convincing letters to landholders, to have someone else’s ear to the ground. Someone who knew the area. Steve was the guy. He brought a lot of land leads to me in those days. All of them were good ideas. One of them became WonderTree.
Like a lot of men his age Steve met with a group of guys every morning at a local cafe for coffee, news, stories, and laughter. Every single morning. For years. Rarely did anyone miss a morning. One cold February day, Steve called. I answered.
“Hey Hunter, it’s Steve Winn. I’ve got a farm I think you might be interested in.”
“Great, Steve. Tell me whatcha got.”
“Well, when I met my group of guys yesterday for coffee my neighbor, Kenny, wasn’t there. Just a no-show…and that never happens. So, we assumed he must’ve passed away. Someone went to check on him, and we were right.”
“Oh Steve, I am so sorry to hear that.”
“Yeah, I’m sad about it too. But I wanted you to know that Kenny’s farm will be going for sale….It’d be a great place for your family. I think the estate is going to sell it at auction.”
I’ll be honest. My first thought was to chuckle. The idea of people knowing each other so well…having such a standing meeting…that if one of them doesn’t show up he is presumed dead is just funny. The reality that they were right is sad, but is also a testimony to their commitment to being together. I want to have strong, standing commitments with friends like those men. I want friendships where I am presumed dead if I am not there for our moments together.
Steve was right about the property. Very interesting. Pasture, woods, ravines, and a nice steady roll. Over the next few months Jen and I prayed about, drove past, and trespassed on Kenny’s farm often. To be clear, Kenny had no family or heirs. The place was vacant. We weren’t intruding on anyone’s privacy. We were, at least, thoughtful trespassers. One early evening Jen and I were trespassing and discussing the possibilities. Toward the back of the property we noticed a giant white oak tree. We marveled at it’s girth and the outward reach of its enormous limbs. Its limbs were much larger than any of the trunks of the trees in the forest immediately surrounding it. It was a wonder-inspiring natural structure. About a hundred yards away from this tree, the WonderTree, in the middle of a pasture, she and I joined hands and prayed a brief (we were trespassing after all) prayer asking for this farm to be ours.
The auction was scheduled for late June. Months had passed since our prayer in the pasture, and I was discouraged. After much deliberation on the topic of land and farms—along with the sale of our home—there was little progress on the property front. Most discouraging was a conversation I had with the local auction company selling Kenny’s farm. I called to ask a few of the obvious questions about zoning, taxes, etc. The guy on the other line was rude. He must have fielded a lot of calls about this property because his patience was gone. Toward the end of our short exchange I asked him, based on assessment and appraisal where he thought the bidding might end up. I wasn’t asking for him to have a crystal ball. Just wondering if he might have any idea based on his experience and his knowledge of the market. “Look, man. I’ll tell you this,” he said, exasperated. “This property is one of the top hits in the nation on auction dot com right now. It’s going to be expensive. Probably some big exec from a big local company is going to buy it and build a big, private estate.” Maybe it was my Texas accent. Maybe my questions weren’t sophisticated enough for him. Maybe he was just having a rough day. One way or another, he was very discouraging. I wondered if he treated everyone like this who called asking for information.
It was the Friday night before the sale. Having sold our house, we were living in a friend’s home while he and his family were gone for the Summer. Jen and I were discussing, based on my conversation with the guy at the auction company, if we should even attend. It seemed unlikely that we would even be able to afford the opening bid, wherever it started. “Let’s just go see what happens,” Jen said. That was a good idea.
The farm was full of people. Hundreds. Kenny was an avid collector of sports memorabilia. His horde of items (a complete house and barn full) had been marketed well. There were license plates from across the country parked in the fields around the auction tent. “Great,” I thought. “I guess that guy at the auction company was right….people everywhere here to bid on this place.” We registered for a bidding number then walked around with our kids looking at the tables of stuff. Finally, the auctioneer made the announcement that the land sale was about to begin. We positioned ourself in the back of the crowd next to some friends we ran into.
The auctioneer made a brief introduction of the properties size, landscape, and taxes. Then he started the bidding.
“Who’ll give a million?!!” he shouted
The tent was silent as he and his spotters scanned the crowd.
From there he walked the bid backward. Way, way backward. Someone finally bid at $100,000. The night before, Jen and I came to agreement on our highest number. I was sure the bid would fly right past it, so I just waited. As the bidding raced upward it became apparent there were only four people participating. The price was still low, but rising quickly in $25,000 increments. I was just about out of hope when everything stopped. Seconds passed while the auctioneer, with a concerned look, darted his eyes around the tent. The next bid just happened to be our top number. Jen stuck her index finger in my side and said with an intense whisper, “do it!” I threw my hand in the air. The auctioneer, happy for another bid, jumped back in attempting to drive the price up.
He wiped his forehead with a towel and spoke, frustrated, into the now clipping microphone, “folks, we’re going to take a five minute break….this is the premier property in the area….you need to get out of this tent and look around…take a walk to see what’s here…see it’s real value….we’ll resume bidding here after while.” I laughed thinking about how many times Jen and I had already walked the place. No need for us to take a look around. No one else felt the need either. We all just stood there in disbelief that this auctioneer pressed ‘pause’ because he didn’t have the bid he wanted. I mean, really. What buyer comes to a land auction without knowing the land prior? And who is going to be convinced in five minutes of looking around to spend another several hundred thousand dollars?
A very important moment occurred within that little interval in the sale. I met a friend. From the front of the crowd a portly fellow in his sixties walked back to me. He was wearing jean shorts, tennis shoes and a dirty t-shirt with a ring of sweat around the neck, like he had been mowing all day. He held the bid just behind mine. “What are you going to do with this place?” he asked. I was a little startled by his tone and the directness of his question. “I’m going to raise kids and cows,” I answered. My response hung in the air. I was embarrassed at the cuteness of it—especially in light of the firmness of his question. But, it didn’t seem to bother him. He shook his head forward. “Alright then…I’ll let you have it. My name is Wilburn Craft. I’ll be your neighbor.”
The auctioneer resumed the sale certain we’d all return from our hiatus with fresh perspective and increased budgets. He was shocked to find no more bids. Jen and I looked at each other with wide, hopeful eyes. “Are you serious?!” she asked. This time intensely, but not whispering.
No more bids.
“Well, folks, this is a steal, but there’s no reserve on this sale…so I guess we’re going once….going twice…and sold to the tall guy in the back.”
He was not a happy auctioneer. The sales price was not even in the neighborhood of his expectation. None of the “big execs” showed up. And, while plenty of people came for the baseball cards and vintage Wheaties boxes, hardly anyone came for the land. In time we’ve learned we were bidding against four of our neighbors. Everyone else must’ve spoken to that discouraging guy at the auction company.
That was a good day. Jen and I hugged each other, then turned to our kids. They, of course, had no idea what just happened. We explained what we could, then started fielding congratulations from people at the sale. Many of them were our soon-to-be neighbors. This included Wilburn. He was warm and let me know he was there if I ever needed anything.
I hope he meant it, because I took him up on it. He taught me how to fix tons of stuff, and, gave me access to his barn—which is a big deal. I have saved thousands getting our farm operation off the ground by not having to buy the right tool for the job. Instead, in the spirit of neighborliness, Wilburn loaned me just about every tool or piece of equipment he owned. “Wilburn Mart,” as we named it, turned out to be my favorite store. In return I offered him my ability to lift heavy things. That’s about it. Oh, and laughter. He had the best time laughing at my inexperience and propensity to break things. We’ve shared lunches and many trips to see tractors for sale. My best tractor is one Wilburn turned me on to. He even helped negotiate the deal with guy I bought it from.
There is not adequate time or space here to share how much I learned from Wilburn over the years. I have learned he could’ve bought our farm five times over. I was at the end of my budget that day in the tent. He was just getting started. Wilburn loved children and animals. So I guess my “homesteady” answer about “kids and cows” hit him in a good place.
After our exchange in the tent, talking to Wilburn became regular practice. It was something I did daily. There seemed to be no predicament he couldn’t speak something helpful into. He and his lovely wife, Connie, were the best neighbors. They loved our kids. Like grandparents, there was no amount of “don’t give our kids candy or ice cream” you could say that they would listen to. The freezer in Wilburn’s garage seemed to be a bottomless ice cream sandwich pit. Connie spoiled our horses with apples and carrots across the fence.
Unfortunately, Wilburn’s health had been failing since before we met. His slow and gradual decline finally bottomed out this past Summer. He was in Florida with Connie and their adult daughter, Stacy. One day we were texting pictures of farm trucks across the miles. The next day he was gone.
WonderTree is here because Providence chose to let our family acquire the land and start a farm. That is clear to me. Wilburn Craft was part of that process. Wilburn was not one to let an opportunity pass. He bought and sold a lot of land in the time I knew him. He had that old-country-boy paranoia about who lived next to him. It would’ve made perfect sense for him to buy our place and keep control over it. Something caused him to walk away. As a result we have been allowed to grow food, friendships, and our family here. WonderTree has become the family farm to a community of families in an era where the family farm has all but disappeared. This has happened because of work we have done, but also because of the support given to us by you, the friends and customers of WonderTree. And, it has happened because of Wilburn and Connie.
I still talk to Wilburn. After his death, Jen and I acquired their home and property, including the barn where Wilburn and I spent so much time together. All of the tools and equipment sold with the estate, but I still feel him there. It is amazing how someone’s presence can linger after they are gone. The barn has become fully “ours,” but somehow it will always be his. Sometimes when I am there I will laugh at myself, at some stupid thing I do, something I break, something I bump into on a tractor. I’ll sense him laughing along and I’ll say something like “hey…stop laughing, Wilburn!” Or, sometimes I will speak sensitively to him, thanking him for what he meant to me and to our family. Whether he hears me or doesn’t is irrelevant. I’d like to think lost loved ones can hear us from time to time. I wouldn’t try to back this up theologically or mystically. Some experts may try to reduce this practice down to “grief stages.” Maybe. Someday we’ll know the answer. I think there is a reality that lost loved ones are never really lost. Their lives and contributions, their laughter…these things, as parts of our lives, become pieces of who we are. This is why it is important to push forward after the losses of those we love. As we endure, they endure. As we work, flourish, hope, dream, and love, so do they.
They live on because we live on.
We built our house in almost the exact footprint of the auction tent where we bought this farm. I am writing near a window in just about the same little spot in space where Wilburn approached me and decided to remove himself from the bidding that Saturday. It’s like he’s here. I’m going to stop writing now and talk to my friend.
February 18th, 2021