COOK — It was Sunday, August 1, and I was spending the day with my grandchildren, Leo and Lucy, at their home north of Virginia. Not only was it the beginning of the dog days of summer but also the countdown to fall. Like many others, my mind was racing with all the fun-filled summer activities I was compelled to capture and experience before the end of the summer season.
Our initial plan was to take in a matinee at Cinema 6 and then play at Olcott Park in Virginia. Being it was such a gorgeous day, the thought of sitting in a movie theater did not seem too appealing. Also, the kids and I frequent Olcott Park on a regular basis. I was in the mood for a day of adventure and something outside of the normal routine to experience with Leo and Lucy.
I got to thinking about my friend Lois Pajari’s farm up in Cook. It had been years since I had been there. Many years back, during the 1990s, I lived up in Cook and owned and operated the Comet Theater. This is where I met and became friends with Lois.
My two older daughters, Nina and Anjelica, loved to spend time at Lois’s farmhouse on playdates with Lois’s nieces, Bethany and Harley. Lois’s farmhouse had so much charm and character, and the property was a haven for children to run and play. Being we lived above the theater downtown, we did not have much of a yard, so this was a simple pleasure for my girls to enjoy.
At that time, Lois had a handful of critters. Most memorable was her Saint Bernard. I never did know his real name. We always referred to him as Beethoven. When I owned and operated the movie theater, we played the movie Beethoven. Lois brought her Saint Bernard to the theater for children to have a polaroid picture taken with Beethoven. Such special memories.
After reminiscing, my mind was made up to pay a long overdue visit to Lois’s farm, now known as Cook’s Country Connection. It was officially established in 2014.
Of course, I had to get buy-in from Leo and Lucy. I asked, “How would you like to go on an adventure to a very special farm and meet a very special friend of Grandma Dana’s, or go to a movie?” Leo exclaimed, “Adventure!” Lucy, only 2 years old, did her best to repeat Leo. It was decided. We were going to take in a new experience and adventure together.
Since we were heading up to Cook and it was still quite early in the morning, I called my dad, Dave Quiser, and asked if he and his companion, Bunny, would like to meet the kids and I at the Montana Café in Cook for breakfast. My dad lives on the Little Fork River in Cook and is only minutes from the café. He was delighted to meet up with the kids and myself. It was the perfect way to start out a day of adventure.
After a hearty breakfast and pleasant conversation at the quaint café, my dad and Bunny sent us off with smiles, hugs and well-wishes for a fun-filled day and greetings to Lois.
As we turned off Vermilion Drive onto Lois’s road, we cruised the winding road in anticipation. A wave of nostalgia came over me as we approached the charming, weathered farmhouse. It was just how I remembered it. Beyond the house was the farm.
I was in awe of the beauty of the property, new structures, and many animals off in the distance. As I was sitting in awe, Leo and Lucy were chirping to get out of the jeep as they were so excited and intrigued to see and pet the animals.
We entered the bright red pole barn that was the gateway to the farm. The barn was a store and multi-media room for adult and children activities. We paid our admissions and I asked where I could find Lois. Jill Vito, a volunteer, smiled and pointed to a tractor barrel train full of children off in the distance. Lois was driving the children on a tour around the farm.
Leo, Lucy and I decided to start off by visiting and feeding the bunnies in their hutches while we waited for Lois to return. Jill asked Leo and Lucy if they would like to pet some of the bunnies. Lucy thought this was the best! In her toddler gibberish, she kept saying, “Oh, so cute.”
Leo was doing his best to be patient but could barely contain himself as he spotted a mini horse nearby. He was so anxious to see the many animals in the outdoor exhibits. Jill recommended we get some quarters as there are feeding machines set up at each exhibit. The kids and I went back to the barn and purchased $10 in quarters.
We could see Lois making her way back to the barn. I told Leo, after some greet- ings and introductions with Lois, we would head straight over to the mini horse and make our way through all the exhibits.
As the barrel train pulled up, Lois spotted me and hopped off her tractor and embraced me in the biggest hug. There are some friends who will always hold a special place in my heart. Lois would be one of them.
It was so great to see my friend and carry on a conversation like it was only yesterday. Lois has this larger-than-life spirit about her and a laugh that is contagious. Anyone who meets her, old or young, is drawn to her positivity, playful heart, and aura of pure happiness.
Leo and Lucy were immediately taken with Lois and followed her lead when she asked if they would like to ride the barrel train around the farm before meeting the animals. Leo insisted that I climb aboard one of the barrels as well. I have got to be honest … the barrel train was great fun! It is a bumpy ride through beaten paths and pastures. What a fun way to capture all that the farm has to offer.
While riding the train and bouncing along, Leo asked Lois what other animals were in the exhibits other than the mini horse that we saw. Lois said that, in addition to the bunnies and mini horse, she has a mini donkey, baby bottle cow, llama, alpaca, goats, sheep, chickens, guineas, peacocks, ducks, turkeys, cats and dogs. I told Lois that the farm is more like a petting zoo!
After our entertaining barrel train ride, Lois walked along with us as we took in the exhibits. Leo was in his glory as he is quite the little cowboy and is determined to be a farmer when he grows up. Little Lucy was having fun putting the quarters in the feed machines.
However, Lucy was not fond of feeding the animals. When one of the goats licked her hand while eating the food pellets, she looked at me in disgust and said, “Ew, Gamma!” She let Leo do the feeding from that point on. Lois and I laughed as she referred to every animal as a cow and would moo at them.
Lois told me the farm was so much more than just the animal exhibits, playground, and tractor train. She said that Cook’s Country Connection offers a children’s day camp that entails animal studies, animal chores, nature hikes and arts and crafts. The age groups are 6-8, 8-10 and 10-12. All activities are age specific. She said the day camps run weekly on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays from 9 a.m. – 3 p.m. during the summer months and the cost is $50 per day.
For family fun, Lois has live music on the farm once a month during the summer. In the fall, she hosts a fall family fun day that entails wagon rides, potato sack races and other fun-filled activities.
For adult activities during the summer, one can take in Goat Yoga every Thursday evening and happy hour on the farm once a month. Lois also hosts various ladies’ nights where different vendors come into the barn and ladies can shop and enjoy wine and hors d’oeuvres.
In addition to the many attractions and activities, Lois said she has been renting out the barn/farm for weddings, family and class reunions, school proms, grad pictures and birthday parties.
It was so great to spend time with Lois and see all that she has accomplished the past several years. She was truly living her dream and created an inviting oasis for all ages to enjoy. I am so proud of my friend.
After making our way through the exhibits, Leo and Lucy wanted to spend time at the playground as there were many kids there with whom to have fun. Lois said she best jump back on the tractor train and tend to the other guests and never-ending chores. I promised to catch up with her before we left for the day.
Leo and Lucy wanted to start out with building castles in the sandbox. This was the perfect opportunity for me to take a break on a nearby bench. As I sat down, I turned to the lady sitting next to me to say hello. Upon doing so, she asked, “Aren’t you Dana?” Even though it had been 20 years since I moved away from Cook, I recognized Sherry Crego immediately. She, too, was taking a break as she watched her grandson build castles with Leo and Lucy.
It was fun to visit with Sherry. She said that her and her husband moved to Soudan some years back. She was visiting Lois’s farm with her grown daughters and grandchildren.
While sitting on the bench visiting with old and new acquaintances, I kept hearing my dad’s voice ringing in my ears saying, “How precious the circle of life is.” Those are words he often says to me. The meaning of those words did not really resonate with me until this day on the farm.
I was filled with nostalgia as I reminisced of years when my girls were young and now, embracing laughter, joy, curiosity, and excitement with my grandchildren. As a grandparent, so many resemblances and mannerisms of your grandchildren are mirror images of your adult children and jog so many priceless memories.
Being at the farm was such a great escape from the chaos of the world we currently reside in. In a sense, the farm was magical and healing as it encompasses a simpler and healthier way of life. Lois could not have said it better: “Connecting people, animals and the land.”
After amazing sandcastles were built and adequate time was spent on the swings, Leo, Lucy and I decided to take one more lap around the exhibits to say goodbye to all of the beautiful animals. Lucy was most partial to the baby bottle cow and Leo, the mini horse. I was drawn to the goats. They were so comical and mischievous!
As we headed to the barn to say goodbye to Lois, Leo stopped in his tracks and exclaimed, “Oh my gosh, Grandma Dana, Lois has a tortoise!” Next to horses, turtles are a close second favorite of Leo’s. Leo ran to the barn to track down Lois and ask about the tortoise in the pen. Laughing, Lois said she forgot to mention her tortoise named Screech. She then asked Leo if he would like her to take Screech out of his pen as she would trust Leo to play nicely with him for a while. Leo was ecstatic! He thought it was so cool to gently pet his shell and follow him through the lawn as his protector.
It was now nearing late afternoon. I then realized that we had pretty much spent the entire day on Lois’s farm and best be making our way back to Leo and Lucy’s. With heartfelt hugs and many thanks, we said our goodbyes to Lois and the farm.
As I was buckling the kids into their car seats, Leo, a month shy of turning 5, told me this was the best day of his entire life. This melted my heart. I told Leo and Lucy just how much I loved them. There is nothing sweeter than hearing I love you back from a grandchild.
Before we even reached the end of Lois’s road, Leo and Lucy were fast asleep. Our day of adventure had worn them out in the best of ways. I drove with a quiet smile, happy heart and reflective soul.
Here’s a little history about Cook’s Country Connection. The original homesteaders were Lois’s great-grandparents Albert and Augusta Peterson. Their son Uno lived on the farm until his death. At that time, the farm went to his remaining siblings. From them to Lois’s mom, Bonnie Pajari, and then to Lois. On display in the barn is a framed certificate signed by Theodore Roosevelt giving ownership to the farm to Albert Peterson.
Lois has put her heart and soul into preserving her family homestead. Her vision, work ethic and drive has made Cook’s Country Connection not only a “must-see and experience,” but an ultimate success. Lois shared that this dream would not be a reality without the help of her partner Al Hoover, friends Jill Vito and Haley Bogdan, and the numerous volunteers.
Dana Sanders lives on the outskirts of the Sax-Zim Bog with her husband Jeff. She is a frequent contributor to Hometown Focus and newly published author of the children’s book The Hidden Treasure of the Sax-Zim Bog.