It’s been about three months since I met our mulefoot stewards Linda Derrickson and Mark Kessenich, but I have yet to give them a proper introduction. It’s a bit of lengthy tale, so I’ll do it in parts.

Linda grew up on a 200 acre farm in Grant County Wisconsin, not far from Prairie du Chien, where her family raised pigs, chickens, and two dozen Guernsey milking cows. The story of her family’s farm is emblematic of family farming in general. As Linda and her siblings grew up and went off to college it became less and less economically viable to to operate a small farm without farmhands. As the years went by her father auctioned off the animals until finally it was time to say goodbye to the cows. “I can count on two fingers the number of times I saw my dad cry and that was one,” she says. He spent the last 20 years of his life selling cars. The land now belongs to a woman from Kansas who uses it as a hobby farm.

Linda studied teaching at the UW-Madison then joined the Peace Corps and went off to Saint Lucia, where she worked in health care and disease prevention. Upon her return she married, had a daughter son, adopted a daughter, and moved back to Madison. There she took over a small neighborhood grocery, turning it into a co-op she called Linda’s Lakeside Market, catering to both the “beans and barley crowd” and the regular neighborhood folks. In her words: “I said, ‘I’m not gonna legislate what people eat. I’m gonna have what my neighborhood wants.’ I sold cigarettes, candy bars, and tofu and bean sprouts. I got a lot of press for that.”

Kessenich grew up in Madison and starting working at the tender age of 13 as an assistant in the university’s labs, doing work with DNA recombination and extraction, the sort of work that has led to the development of genetically modified organisms, technology he now abhors. By the time he was 20 he was managing his own lab, but became disillusioned with his work in the midst of the social unrest of 60s and 70s.

“The whole Vietnam war stuff just ripped the cultural guts out of universities,” he says. “Before that you would go to the University Union and sit on the lake shore and there were professors and everybody was there having constant discussion. It was just one eternal dialogue of something going on, people talking about everything under the sun. By the mid-70s corporate money had really come in. So everybody was funded by some other outside source, and so they weren’t discussing the research anymore.” 

At 30 he “retired” from lab work and began volunteering at Madison’s Mifflin St. Co-op. It was there that he met Linda, who came in one day with her father while he was cleaning out the bulk bins. Linda’s father, a skilled carpenter, was scoping out Mifflin St.’s bins to help him design Linda’s.

“That’s how we met,” says Linda. “Over the beans. I was there talking with the Mifflin Co-op people [and] they said, ‘Oh you’ve gotta meet this Mark Kessenich. He volunteers here and he lives in your neighborhood.’ I said, ‘So you live in my neighborhood? How come you’re not volunteering at my store?” A week later Kessenich did just that.

Next: Linda makes a big splash in the Madison restaurant scene.