Wessels’ new director breathing positive energy into historical site

YORK – “Good morning friends!” Genevieve Tonniges soothingly said to the chickens and ducks who were clearly excited to see her in the morning hours as she dispersed food in their coop. “How are we today?”

Everyone clucked and quacked back, with the ducks clearly excited to see the mud left behind an early morning rain which graced the Wessels Living History Farm with moisture.

Tonniges, more than comfortable in her surroundings at the 1920s farm, spoke with the birds while also surveying the garden which also benefitted from the rain.

She talked about the new water feature the ducks would be getting soon, and how the garden needed to be weeded.

She clearly loves being at Wessels.

And that’s certainly been recognized in that she was recently hired as the new director.

Her first official day – as director — was Monday, July 10. But it was certainly not her first day at the farm.

Tonniges has been a part of the Wessels Farm since she was eight years old, which is truly remarkable.

“Back then, when Dale Clark was the director, I would come out here for classes,” Tonniges explained. “Then I aged out of those elementary classes and Dale suggested I become a volunteer to help out, to be part of the farm.”

She became such a part of the farm, she even started teaching some of those kids’ classes – even though she was a child herself.

Tonniges’ love of history has been a part of her whole life.

“As long as I can remember, I’ve been interested in historical things, like vintage clothes,” Tonniges said. “And my dad is a big history buff. When I was a kid, I hated eating vegetables so he would sit at the table with me after dinner while waiting for me to finish my vegetables. While we sat there, he’d try to bore me into eating them by telling me historical stories. But it backfired on him because I loved it and wanted to know more,” she said laughing.

“Then, my second grade teacher, Lynette Naber, would have Laura Ingalls Day during which she’d let us dress up in costume, with clothes from the era, and she’d read to us from the books. We made ropes and butter and she just really went all out. I loved it so much and that that was a big influence on me,” Tonniges said. “I’ve had a lot of those influences over the years – her, my dad, Dale Clark – to love history. And I guess I’ve just had an inclination for it.”

After she graduated from York High School in 2018, she conquered three majors at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, in French, Russian and global studies.

“I got a degree in something that is completely unrelated, because I thought I wanted to be anywhere but here,” she said.

She did some international travel and explored her future.

“But then, my former teacher, Jason Hirschfeld, recommended me for this job and here I am!” the young, yet longtime Wessels veteran, said.

She said she’s thrilled to be back in York County. She recently purchased a house in the Benedict area and is fixing it up, “because I guess I like a project.”

“This is a wonderful place and a wonderful opportunity,” Tonniges said of the living history farm. “I wake up excited every morning, ready to go to work each day.”

There is a lot of work to do at Wessels, just in the fact it is a living history farm alone. She has many plans to bring back educational programming, classes for older teens and adults, events, etc.

“First and foremost, we are bringing back Christmas on the Farm,” Tonniges said. “It’s a very important time at the farm and visitors have always loved it. In the fall, I want to hold homesteading classes for older kids and adults. We haven’t had classes at Wessels in a while. And I want to have classes about how people did things back then that can be applicable today – like baking your own bread, canning, making butter, gardening, etc. I want to get that started, as well as a series. We need to have classes throughout the year, like we did before. We have some great partners we are working with and I’m so excited about that.”

Boo on the Farm will be back this fall – she has some big plans.

And the tractor show on Aug. 13 will definitely take place.

“Next year, we want to get back to a full schedule of events like we used to have,” Tonniges said. “We will have at least one a month and hopefully two or more. We need to get back to that, to bring people to the farm and love it.”

Of course, that takes volunteers. Tonniges said some former volunteers have contacted her, saying they would like to rejoin the team. And there is a great need for new volunteers as some past volunteers have retired due to age.

“So much needs to be done out here,” Tonniges said. “And there is something for everyone, I promise. There is something that will fit a person’s interest, in an area where they shine. I can promise you that, here at the farm, there is something for everyone.”

Tonniges added that board members are also needed. If someone is interested, they should contact the farm.

The historic church will reopen next year. The sanctuary is being repaired at this time – the basement will not be tackled until funds have been secured to replace the elevator. The structure was damaged by broken pipes and subsequent flooding last winter.

“We are taking donations specifically for church work and those can be specially earmarked for that work,” Tonniges said. “Of course, we accept donations all the time to cover operations, but if someone wants to provide funds for just the church work, they can certainly do that.”

In the future, she said she intends for reports to be made as to how money is being spent at Wessels, so people know where their donations are going and have gone.

“And in the future, we will be putting out ‘wish lists’ of actual items, objects, tools, that we need to do projects,” Tonniges said. “These would be specific tangible things that someone might have in their garage that they would like to donate, rather than donate money. That will probably happen in the next month or so.”

As she spoke, gardening was taking place and a tractor was being driven on the grounds.

“Some days, all the things that need to be done might, just for a second, look overwhelming,” she said. “But I’m so excited about the future of the Wessels Living History Farm. It will come together. I just have to remember that when Dale Clark started, this place was just a charred out old house in an open field. What I have is ready made and I’m ready to go. The future out here is going to be great and I couldn’t be happier about being back home and back at Wessels. It took a lot of leaving to find this is where I want to be.”

Editor’s note: To donate money, time or tools/materials/supplies, etc., go to https://livinghistoryfarm.org/donate or call 402-710-0682.


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