Dave Thomas believes so strongly in the power of fresh vegetables that he is willing to provide the dirt and seeds to get them started.
Since 2013, his nonprofit Cornerstone of Hope has given away more than 1,000 raised beds, seeds and soil in Rock and Jefferson counties.
Thomas hopes that what home gardeners do not eat they will bring to food pantries, senior centers or hungry neighbors.
The intent of Produce for Pantries is to reduce the number of seniors and families who go hungry.
“Anyone can sign up for a raised bed, dirt and seeds,” Thomas said.
The first year, the bed, dirt and seeds are free. The second year, gardeners can request seeds and some plants. By the third year, most people are buying their own seeds.
The number of beds Cornerstone of Hope gives away depends on how much money it raises.
Ken Olander of Janesville is a good example of how the idea works.
In spring, Cornerstone of Hope gave Olander three 4-by-4-foot raised beds for the garden at Faith Lutheran Church in Janesville.
They were in addition to three from the agency last year.
“It’s not a huge garden,” Olander said. “But you would be surprised at how much food you can make in a small garden.”
He shares the produce with Faith Lutheran’s day care children.
In addition, he takes vegetables to people in need who come to ECHO.
“I’m just a small player,” Olander said. “But many small donations like ours add up to a big plus for the community.”
That’s exactly what Thomas counts on.
In spring, he started hundreds of tomato and pepper plants and plenty of onions and leeks to give away.
Thomas knows that many home gardeners have more than they can use, and he encourages them to plant an extra row for others.
“It’s all about supplying people with food,” Thomas said. “If everyone takes it to someone who needs it, then it is not just going to waste on the ground.”
In addition, Thomas raises vegetables in three gardens.
His son, Evan, and a volunteer plant, weed, water and harvest as the season progresses.
Last year, Thomas estimates Cornerstone of Hope and gardeners who got their start because of the agency donated more than 16,000 pounds of produce to area food pantries.
“It means a lot to our participants to be able to receive fresh produce during summer and early fall,” Jessica Locher of ECHO said. “Mostly we have canned vegetables. But it is nice to have fresh produce without all the added sodium and preservatives.”
In a peak year, when weather conditions were ideal, Cornerstone of Hope donated about 20,000 pounds.
“But it’s not about how many pounds we produce,” Thomas said, “It’s about getting the produce to where it needs to go. We don’t look at it as a failure if we have fewer pounds.”
In a year without a pandemic, he presents classes on how to grow plants, when to harvest and how to preserve food. He also has worked with school systems to set up garden beds to teach about nutrition and to provide produce to kids.
Donations from individuals, churches and businesses fund Cornerstone of Hope, which has three employees, including Thomas.
“This year, things are tight,” Thomas said, because of the pandemic’s hard-hitting economic impact.
In 2012, Thomas took part in a conversation about food deserts in Janesville and realized there was a need for fresh produce.
“We took a year to study if the community could support such an effort,” Thomas said. “We found out no one was doing what we do.”
Thomas is a natural to lead a group that gives away thousands of seed packets annually.
He has been raising his own vegetables for 40 years.
His interest began as a college student in 1970 while he attended the University of Akron in Ohio.
“We were talking with some old-timers in the hills of Appalachia,” Thomas recalled. “They were saying that green beans don’t taste the way they used to.”
One showed up at his door with a mason jar of old-time green-bean seeds. Eventually, Thomas collected more heritage seeds.
“We drove around the hills of West Virginia and southern Ohio collecting different varieties of beans,” Thomas said.
He worked with a contact at the University of Illinois to collect the seeds, which went to museums, cultural centers and heritage gardens.
Today, Thomas knows which vegetables to plant in August. He understands that people either love or hate cilantro. And he realizes that gardening feeds the soul as well as the body.
“I have to enjoy what I do a great deal or I wouldn’t do it,” he said. “I find gardening very relaxing. It gives me a lot of time to think.”
It also is a way to give back.
“I saw a need,” Thomas explained. “What kind of a person would I be if I saw a problem I could fix, and I didn’t fix it? I have the ability and the knowledge. Why not help people? That’s what gets me out of bed in the morning.”
Anna Marie Lux is a human interest columnist for The Gazette. Call her with ideas or comments at 608-755-8264 or email email@example.com.
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Any business with 175 years under its belt has waded through troubled waters many times.
The Gazette celebrates that milestone today as it plows through another deluge of bad news for the nation and for its own fortunes.
At the same time, the city’s oldest business works to uphold its history of service to the community.
It was during a recession the newspaper in a town of about 800 people printed its first edition in 1845, three years before Wisconsin became a state.
Three other papers already had tried and failed.
The Gazette continued through the Civil War, the Great Depression, many recessions great and small and two world wars.
It even managed to keep printing as the internet sucked heaps of advertising dollars from newspapers over the past 20 years, as many papers closed.
The recent troubles in the news industry remain a major question mark that its founders could not have imagined.
The business started when Levi Alden, a teacher from New York State, decided to move to the frontier town of Janesville to join his brother. Alden teamed up with printer E.A. Stoddard, and The Gazette was born.
The newspaper was a weekly until 1854. Daily printing was suspended after three months because only 200 subscriptions were sold.
Daily publication resumed in 1857 with the debut of the Daily Morning Gazette, after the purchase of two other publications, one called Janesville Free Press, which had been a Democratic-leaning paper, while the Gazette was Republican. Papers at the time were known for their strong political allegiances.
The paper switched to evening publication in 1860. Explanations given at the time included a faster distribution of telegraph reports and that the evening paper would be less subject to thefts, which were common in early-morning hours.
Today, in a city of about 64,000, The Gazette continues despite daunting financial woes. Along with the rest of the newspaper industry, staffs and pages have been downsized several times. Locally, the loss of the General Motors plant in 2008, as the Great Recession kicked in, was an added blow.
But the staff soldiers on and can look back at a legacy of bringing the news to the people.
One of The Gazette’s duties is to hold up a mirror to the community. The job that requires the courage to question the authority and face heartbreaking tragedies, from deaths of children to war deaths to the deaths of presidents, including this from April 17, 1865:
“Those who have robbed us of Abraham Lincoln cannot rob the nation and the human race of the great work that he has been permitted to accomplish. This nation has made a century’s progress in the right direction during his rule. The greatest rebellion of all time has been overthrown, and the cause of liberty and freedom has been maintained.”
Readers often complain about bad news, but The Gazette has been there for uncounted joys, as well, from wedding announcements to local-kid-does-good stories to homecomings after brutal wars.
Consider this from Page 1 on Aug. 15, 1945, the day after news arrived that Japan had surrendered, ending World War II.
“Within minutes, the streets filled with a noisy throng which sent up a din lasting till well after midnight. ...
“Today, war plants, which worked almost without interruption since 1941, many of them on 24-hour shifts, were silent. Every store and shop was closed, and the city was stilled into a silence symbolic of the peace which once more has come to the nation and world. …
“Automobile loads of celebrators reached the business district within a matter of a few minutes, and the blare of car horns, whistles and bells filled the air from then until well into the night. Before the evening was over, almost every Janesville resident and hundreds from nearby communities and rural areas arrived to take part in the victory celebration.”
Along the way, The Gazette often saw itself as a key player in making Janesville and its surrounding communities better places to live.
The Gazette centennial edition in 1945 lists community-minded endeavors, including neighborhood showings of movies on a Gazette-purchased movie projector, sponsorship of youth agriculture clubs that were said to be the basis of a strong 4-H organization here, promotion of the city manager form of government and establishing a golf course whose success prompted the city to take it over and expand it. It’s now known as Riverside.
The Gazette was a big promoter of the skill of swimming, the 1945 edition noted. It employed a swimming instructor, who visited towns once a year with a canvas pool, teaching thousands of children to swim in the hopes of preventing drownings. The Gazette also offered financial backing for towns that built their own pools.
A Howard F. Bliss medal was awarded to people who saved others from drowning.
The medal was named for Howard Festus Bliss, the saddle and hardware merchant who bought shares in the paper in 1883 and became its editor and publisher. The Gazette remained in the Bliss family for the next 136 years.
Bliss bought those shares from a man who wanted the money to invest in a Janesville-based circus.
Bliss’ bet paid off over the long term, while circuses died as people found entertainment in movie houses and elsewhere: a lesson in how tough it is to maintain a business in the face of historical and technological forces.
Into modern times, The Gazette often backed local projects, said Sidney H. “Skip” Bliss, the last of his family to own the newspaper and great-grandson of Howard F.
“I can’t tell you the number of times people would call me … people who are kind of the doers in the community, and they would say, ‘can we have lunch and talk about this thing?’ … I always told them the door is open to any of you who have any kind of an idea. … We’ll listen to you, and if there’s a consensus that it’s a good idea, we’ll help you.”
Bliss hopes the new owners will carry on that tradition.
Adams Publishing, a company that has been buying newspapers across the country, bought the Gazette in June 2019, ending the Bliss family’s longtime control of the paper.
Adams has continued the Good Samaritan Christmas collection for the needy and its support for local community efforts such as the United Way, said Mary Jo Villa, a longtime Gazette manager who became regional president and publisher for Adams’ southern Wisconsin newspapers.
Bliss credited Villa with keeping The Gazette on an even keel through the difficult times of recent years, but he said the financial pressures became too great and were a major factor in his decision to sell.
Bliss had borrowed over the decades to buy radio stations and smaller newspapers that dotted the Wisconsin map. Like farming, they had their good and bad years.
A business gamble of an earlier generation—the 1930 purchase of WCLO Radio—had paid off.
The 2007 building of a new printing and distribution plant created a new debt load, but the decision was based on the calculation a 38-year-old press that was showing its age.
Then advertising revenue—the traditional backbone of a newspaper’s finances—dried up. Local banks disappeared and with them the ability to do business almost with a handshake, Bliss said. The new, corporate lenders were less forgiving.
As the financial vise tightened, Bliss sold off those properties, including papers from Ironwood, Michigan, to Monroe.
Newspapers today rely much more heavily on subscriptions, something many are not willing to pay, while they are willing to pay much more for TV service.
“They want be able to Google everything and not have to pay a red nickel for it,” Bliss said. “The information we produce is far more critical and far more costly because you’ve got to have people on the street and at the school board and city council meetings, and that costs money.”
Today, Bliss looks back fondly and with sadness at what was, even though he is more convinced today than ever that he was right to sell.
“That’s the glory and at times the difficulty of these longstanding family companies. You have an inherent love for it, but you don’t know when to leave it,” he said. “I think about the difference we were able to make in people’s lives in our communities. It hurts to leave it, it really does. I’ll never get over it.”
The Gazette kept track of local, state and national debates that shaped the nation and the political candidates in countless elections.
In early decades, editors did what their peers across the country did: They unabashedly promoted their own political ideology. In modern times, as journalism professionalized itself, reporters and editors have sought fairness and balance and guarded the line that separates their work from the opinion pages.
Critics often spot what they believe is bias in news reporting. Editors publish their letters, consider their opinions and take comfort in the fact that the attacks come from left and right.
One year into retirement, Bliss remains a huge cheerleader for his beleaguered industry. He confesses to boring people with his sermons about what a strong local news source means for American democracy.
“I’m almost paranoid about a country without independent, local journalism. I worry that the bureaucrats and the powerful will simply run amok, and the public will be subservient …
“That’s the challenge, to awaken in the consumer the fact that it’s going to be a different world,” Bliss said. “Knowing what’s going on in their community has to be worth more to them, and it should be.”