By Norm Wheeler
Back in 2012, the Sun ran a story entitled “Local troubadour Chris Skellenger is Johnny Appleseed.” In that story we echoed a story from 2007 called ‘Saving the world one bucket at a time,’ “about Skellenger’s nonprofit 11 Oaks and how he was teaching hungry people in Africa how to install gray water bucket irrigation systems in their parched gardens so they can eat vegetables, not just grain.”
The bucket irrigation projects in Lesotho morphed into a nonprofit called Buckets of Rain that focused on food security in both Guatemala and Detroit. Gardens were planted in both places and skills were shared with the locals. In Detroit alone, by partnering with Cass Community Social Services and then the Detroit Rescue Mission Ministries, “we prepared and planted 6,000 square feet in Highland Park,” said Skellenger. These food programs grew to serve one million servings of fresh vegetables per year. This work has kept him busy for 10 years.
Buckets of Rain in Detroit, while still hosting four community nonprofit gardens in the Highland Park area, now has some younger board members with corporate connections that hire economically challenged youth to be mentored by successful young professionals.
Back home in Leelanau County, Skellenger and former Buckets of Rain treasurer Mike Binsfeld are creating a new nonprofit called Row by Row, with a website and “some visuals” forthcoming. Row by Row will continue to support their friend Fredy Maldonado’s projects in Guatemala, including getting gear to local first responders, getting fresh food to small hospitals and workshops, and helping economically challenged women establish community gardens on vacant public land.
Back up north, Skellenger’s focus will shift to northern Michigan food security as he works with Taylor Moore’s Food Rescue of Northwest Michigan. Skellenger and volunteers for Row by Row continue to nurture the little garden next to the Poor Farm across from Miles Kimmerly Park on Co Rd. 616 between Big Glen Lake and Maple City.
“We’re gonna build raised beds again,” Skellenger says. “This time they will be wheel-chair accessible raised beds made with new wood so they don’t rot as fast. We may not make as many, but they will be for Disabled American Veterans who want to garden.” The new website is being created, but if you want to donate to Row by Row you can visit the Buckets of Rain website and earmark donations to Row by Row in the “comments” section.
Skellenger also continues to be a busy local troubadour. He plays guitar and sings at Boonedocks, Little Traverse Inn, French Valley Vineyard, Cherry Republic, and Lake Ann Brewery with an assortment of his musical friends. An amazing singer-songwriter, his originals include “Halfway to Mackinaw,” “Monterey,” “Hudson Bay Song,” “Old Yeller Dog Song,” “The Eyes of an African Girl,” and “Timbersong.” Nobody has a voice that covers Neil Young songs like Skellenger does, and he knows pretty much everything by Guy Clark. His version of “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” is not to be missed.
And that’s not all. Besides performing most nights and trying to oversee a nonprofit the rest of the time, Skellenger has a day job again, too. Northwood’s Hardware & Garden Center has expanded in Glen Arbor, and he is the new Nursery Manager. He’ll be selling trees, shrubs, perennials, and annuals. Skellenger and his wife Sue ran North Coast Nursery and did landscaping all around the County from 1995 to 2003. Sue is now the resident horticulturist at Cherry Republic.
Behind the new Nursery just south of the hardware store, a new expanded lumber building will have more screen repair space and now equipment rental, including drills, saws, floor sanders, cement mixers, pressure washers, and log splitters. Owner Jeff Gietzen said it will be “everyday tools for home and cottage owners who no longer have to bring those things with them.” It will also give Northwoods more space to store things that can’t freeze that they have to buy in the winter in order to stock up for the summer season, like paint. The expansion started with a need for more parking, as that limitation was hurting their business. Suddenly they had space for a nursery and lumber center. “Next year we plan to expand our hardware store by 50%,” Gietzen continued. “We may also try to land a food truck, so the contractors who come here can get some food. Many more folks are wandering around Glen Arbor now, and it’s especially busy at noon.”
“We are so happy to have Chris Skellenger to help us get this going,” Gietzen said. “He is a skilled, legitimate nursery person.” Watch for Skellenger singing at many of the local watering holes, and in the daytime get yourself some plants for the pollinators at the new Northwoods Nursery. The nursery is open daily 10-4, while the hardware store is open Monday–Saturday from 8 a.m.–6 p.m., and Sunday from 9–4.