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Here Come the Yankees, There goes the Neighborhood

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March 10, 2011 by wcobserver

By Steve “Grits” Winkler

Northwest Arkansas has been a population magnet for several decades. The combination of economic vitality, year around climate, education and recreational opportunities have lured people to the area, adding to the rich population diversity. Some people come here, stay for a while and move on. Others come, like what they see and build their lives here. These “newcomers” often bring a fresh perspective and a jolt of energy to the community that enriches the lives of us all. This is the story of a “Yankee” couple who like hundreds of other transplants are making their mark on the small business, environmental and rural life of our community.

Jack and Patti Besser are New Englanders who met in Florida and moved to rural Washington County seventeen years ago. Growing up in Rhode Island Jack recalls, “ My mom always sang ‘hit the road Jack’ and my dad called me the rebel so as soon as I was old enough, I was programmed to head south…so I’m really a rebel with a Yankee accent, that’s all.”

Patti’s upbringing was in a small historic Massachusetts agriculture town. The Observer wondered if that prepared her for rural life in Arkansas.  “Not so much,” she answered, “It’s a lot more work than I thought it would be to keep it going, it’s a lot of work.”

Before ever meeting Patti, Jack had lived in Tennessee utilizing the craft learned from his father – an electrician.  It was during those youthful “on the road” years in the mid eighties, that he happened to pass through Fayetteville and liked what he saw. So he and his first wife visited a real estate office where they had a chance meeting with the then mayor of Fayetteville Dan Coody and his wife Debra, who as most local boosters do,  suggested they move here while they look for land.  It didn’t take that long. After three days the perfect spot was bought for $485 an acre.  Jack and his wife and kids split soon after and he found himself in Florida where a friend recruited him into the boat and electric car building business.

He dated some he said but when he would mention moving   to Arkansas “That kept them back a little bit,” he said.

All except one. Patti offered, “I was working at a food coop for years and looking to move the kids to the country, further away from Disney World, so that kind of fit the bill.”

So he sold his boat and together they headed to a little valley between West Fork and Elkins with Trace Branch Creek running through it.  Patti’s two youngsters and Jacks “almost out the door” son moved into a “little shack” on the land while they started building their home.

“Originally, I wanted to come to Arkansas to get into an acupuncture apprentice program but they ended it. So it was back to being an electrician again.”

The two worked side by side building a business by day and building a house in the off time.

“Then one day we went to get our business license at the courthouse.  They had a little sign up there, ‘Business Licenses and Marriage Licenses.’” Patty recalls.

It was then that Jack popped the big question, “Hey, you want to get married, too?”  Fayetteville attorney and Justice of the Peace Ron Woodruff’s office was just down the street.

photo by Steve Winkler Patti and Jack Besser work together putting the deck on their house east of West Fork. They are one of many couples who have come from around the country and contributed to the quality of Northwest Arkansas in recent years.

He married them. “He was fabulous, really wonderful,” Patti cooed.

Jack remembers it as, “We zipped in there got married then went to the next job, Patti corrects him, “No, we stopped and had a daiquiri across the street first.”

“It’s helped our relationship to grow,” said Jack about working with his wife, “So many grow apart after many years. If you really like somebody and you want to be with them then, be with them however you can,” adding, “I probably like Patti more than she likes me.” Patti laughed.

While the house was still coming together Jack renewed his interest in horses by acquiring a thoroughbred quarter, trotter and donkey. He also took an interest in wild mustangs could be adopted from the government.   “I would ‘gentle them’ and get them rideable … got rid of some, kept some. The two I have now don’t care if it’s hot out or cold out; they’re great.”

Horses mean saddles. “I taught myself to build saddles..I wanted to do something else. So what’s an electrician do that builds saddles, you gotta put lights on it.” It turned out he was too late for the patent on that idea but night riding was never a problem again.

The couples shared interest in environmental activism led them to starting a “stream team” for their neighborhood.  Stream teams are part of efforts by the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission to have citizens monitor stream quality near their homes.  It was during this time that several new chicken houses were built down the road on the banks of the creek. Jack was nominated as the person to contact the county judge representing the concerned neighbors. None had been contacted about the project and wondered what they could do.

“He just caught my accent right away,” tells Jack, then in his best Boss Hog impersonation he mimics the county judge, “I’m sick and tired of people coming in here from New York telling us what we can and can’t do.   Chicken houses are what made northwest Arkansas what it is today.”   Another county official was more sympathetic but said even though he hated the smell commented “that’s how I make my money.”

“The chicken house owner was a newcomer who’d only been here 5 years – newest guy on the road,” Jack remembered. The experience was “kinda weird, something not in my area.”  The Bessers backed away.

“We don’t hang around people like that,” Patti offered. The chicken houses still sits on the edge of the creek but the couple’s environmentalism turned another direction.

Jack cultivated his interest in the electrical aspect of solar energy. Besser Electric was the first company to acquire electrical permits to do “grid tie-ins” in the area. The concept involves a private party producing electricity by solar or wind and selling it back to the electric company.  The Bessers don’t install solar panels but connect them to the grid. It’s all new to the power companies. “They’re still figuring it out,” said Jack.

“All these solar people have money – you have to have money to do solar. You can do wind for a fraction and if you are a do- it-yourselfer.  You can still tie to the grid or feed batteries,” explains Jack.

“I just want to come up with a wind generator for the do -it your –selfers; help somebody get their generators off eBay, get all the components together. The one I want to set up is run directly to the coils on a hot water heater; you don’t need anything special in between,” said Jack.

After raising kids, running a successful business, building a home by hand, taming horses, building windmills, homesteading, and we forget to mention remodeling a few houses; one might wonder what’s next.

After a long pause, they reply laughing in tandem, “Sell it all and move away.”

Realistically, like other couples their age they begin to think about traveling to “visit the kids.” Patti wants to get back to making jewelry and giving more attention to gardening. I never expected to be a bookkeeper, organize stuff… so much going on,” she said.

Jack and Patti see more building in their future, a tiny house, off the grid, ecological green house, tightly insulated with solar panels. They would perhaps lease one or the other. Perhaps build a rustic cabin utilizing the saw mill on the property, develop some alternative energy ideas.

Patti comments how she world, “hate to leave because we have such great neighbors.  Everybody watches each other’s houses when we go away, takes care of the animals…   works out good.”

“My next thing is building wooden boats…wooden kayaks and canoes,” says Jack, adding, “Patti says no more building, that’s it.  If I build a little house– that should be okay and the canoes and kayaks that’s something that if I’m not doing electrical I can make money… building a couple of saddles, build a wooden kayaks and canoes.”

“I have to keep building something.”

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