Bill O’Donnell has a knack for figuring things out. It’s a skill he’s honed since childhood and something he wouldn’t put to full use until an epiphany occurred as he sat upon his tractor in a bucolic corner of southwest Wisconsin.
How can I do this and get paid for it, he wondered. “This” was a simpler life, worlds apart from the one he’d built in Chicago.
For 30 years, O’Donnell (brother of actor Chris O’Donnell) donned a dark red coat on the windowless trading floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. Long, stressful days spent shoulder to shoulder with screaming, gesturing traders had provided a great living for him, his wife, Amy, and their four children. But something was missing.
“It was a great career, provided a great lifestyle, nice home, a second home,” O’Donnell says. “It just wasn’t my passion.”
Last May, he traded his red coat for a plaid shirt and lived-in jeans and reconnected with the country boy that’s always lived deep within him.
The Lay of the Land
By 2001, the O’Donnells had two small children and were eager to buy property. Friends encouraged them to buy a timeshare but Bill wanted permanence. A place “to plant trees” and build from the land up. A solo search with a dairy farmer who moonlighted as a real estate agent revealed a 35-acre parcel two hours from his home in Deer Park.
It was rough, overgrown with noxious weeds and full of drain tile that had destroyed the wetlands that used to cover the area. But he wasn’t deterred.
“As funny as it sounds, the land spoke to me,” he says. “It was like the movie ‘Funny Farm.’ Pheasant were jumping in the fields, ducks in the pond, deer in the woods. I had to ask [the agent] if he’d cued his friends to release their pets to make the sale.”
He began educating himself on land restoration and set to work applying his knowledge to reviving the property. When he dug out the drain tile, the water fowl population exploded. The removal of invasive vegetation gave way to the return of indigenous plant life. Frequent sightings of wood ducks, eagles, mink, bear, bobcat, raccoon and fox were a testament to his success. Prairie and habitat restoration was another feather in his cap.
“What’s so nice about habitat restoration is that if everyone with acreage does a little restoration it works, it becomes contagious, and your neighbors start doing it too,” he says.
A Cabin to Call Home
With the land on track, O’Donnell focused on building a home. Always the consummate do-it-yourselfer, he found a company that allowed customers to design and build their homes. Based on his specs, the cabin was shipped in pieces to be assembled on site. With the help of a few buddies, he had it framed in a week and completed in 2004.
The O’Donnells named their homestead Blue Ash Farm in honor of Bill’s grandfather, Karle Rohs, who owned the original Blue Ash Farm near Cynthiana, Kentucky. Shortly after Karle’s untimely death, his wife, Gertrude, sold the farm, saving only the hand-carved wooden sign that was attached to his grandfather’s pickup truck. Despite never knowing him, Bill felt a connection to the man through stories told by his mother. Like Bill, Karle was an avid outdoorsman and hunter. His grandfather’s Blue Ash Farm sign now hangs on his green 1950 Ford F-1 pickup truck.
Like Father, Like Sons … and Daughter
The O’Donnell kids are unique compared to most children. According to Bill, they devour venison, quail and veggies from the garden. They build wood duck boxes and bluebird boxes for both of their homes and thrill at the sight of a mother duck entering a box to lay her eggs. Daughter Abbyis the best ramp hunter he knows and all the children enjoy searching for morels to add to his recipes. The two oldest boys have completed hunter safety classes in order to accompany their father on his outings.
“They’re not afraid to try anything,” O’Donnell says. “The kids help cook and they love to get involved.”
They grow their own Christmas trees and planted a pear and apple orchard on the farm. When the fruit trees weren’t producing fruit, he realized there could be only one solution. Bees. True to form, he set to work learning about beekeeping and installed his first two boxes. That first year with the bees produced a bumper crop of fruit and more honey than he could use. Friends became the fortunate recipients of Blue Ash Farm honey.
There isn’t much that O’Donnell won’t attempt and eventually master. An avid reader, his uncanny ability to retain information has served him well. Most recently, a desire to float along his trout stream in a handmade canoe has earned him another title, canoe builder. Using walnut and cedar he harvested on his Wisconsin property, he has built two canoes and hand-caned the seats for both.
Perhaps the most challenging question to ask Bill O’Donnell would be “What can’t you do?”
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