For anyone who has ever travelled from Chatfield to Fountain on Highway 52, they’ve observed “God’s Country.” They’ve seen it spray painted bold and black on a 70-year-old steel farm building full of round hay bales.
Tom, who grew up in Rochester, Minn., discovered God’s Country when he was just a kid.
He recalls when he was about nine years old, he would ride a Jefferson bus down to Fountain, and ring the bell as the bus approached his stop. The bus driver pulled over and let young Thomas Starken step off the bus along Highway 52 near an old country school known as the Murphy School. Today, that old country school is merely a memory; the only sign of it’s existence is a field drive.
After he stepped off the bus, he would walk past the Murphy School down a gravel road to his uncle’s house – Uncle Lee Copeman and Aunt Louise.
He spent a good amount of his youthful years in rural Fountain enjoying his life in the country.
A 1961 graduate of Lourdes High School, he went on to work for IBM.
In 1972, he landed an opportunity to purchase an acreage in the area where he spent a good amount of his childhood. He bought the farm, and continued to work at IBM, traveling to the north side of Rochester for a few decades. At age 48, after 31 years with the company, he retired from big blue.
He was enjoying life with his wife Kay. They had raised two children, son David and daughter Ann Marie.
Then, a tragedy happened. In 1999, Kay was struck by a drunk driver that crossed the center line on the south side of Chatfield near Tuohy Furniture, shared Tom.
He was devastated.
Little did he know that this life-changing event would connect him with someone else who had experienced tragedy.
Her name was Ginny Buss. She had lost her husband Donnie Buss in 1998. And, her son Jason died in a car accident when he was 21 years old.
Tom’s cousin knew both of them, and encouraged him to talk to her, but Tom wasn’t ready yet.
Eventually, Tom and Ginny
made a connection when the time was right for both of them.
They had a lot in common. They had both lost someone close to them. They both had lived on farms in the Fountain area. They both worked at IBM, although they never knew each other while working there. She retired from big blue after 35 years with the company.
They started dating, and Ginny says, “He said he would love to travel if they ever got married. He said he could see them taking trips to Hawaii.” They married in 2003.
She laughed and smiled, and said, “We still haven’t been to Hawaii.”
Tom always liked this area, since he was a little kid. He said, “Why would you want to go anywhere else, when you live in God’s Country?”
He loves nature. Every night, he takes their 1999 Chevrolet pickup or their side-by-side around the area to check for deer, other wildlife, cattle grazing, and check the hay.
Their farm continues to be ideal for raising cattle with water from natural springs in the abundant pasture land. He makes a trip down to the sale barn in Lanesboro twice a week. He loves life on the farm. And, he loves the people in the area.
It wasn’t a sign from God, but it resonates with people in a spiritual way that makes them appreciate the natural and unspoiled beauty of Bluff Country.
Tom said he had considered knocking down the shed that he figures was constructed back around 1950. Ginny had an idea. She was going to spray paint “God’s Country” on the steel roof of the building, but she figured it would only be visible from the sky. And, it would be a little more dangerous to get up on the roof.
Instead, she opted for painting the message on the east side of the shed facing Highway 52. Together, more than a decade ago, Tom and Ginny spray painted “God’s Country” on the old shed.
Now it’s become a tradition. Every two or three years, Ginny steps up on to the back of their old Chevy pickup, and Tom backs up to the steel shed. Ginny refreshes the fading black paint for the sake of those who have grown to expect to see it as they travel along that stretch of highway. It’s become a landmark that represents something special for the region. It’s almost like a welcome sign to Bluff Country.
To locals, it’s become a backdrop for Christmas card family pictures, high school senior photo shoots, and even the Chatfield Football team had their team picture taken in front of the shed a few years ago, shared Ginny.
Tom and Ginny are proud to share this symbolic message with locals and passersby. The Starkens have received gifts from family, friends and neighbors who have bought coffee mugs, shirts, and home décor displaying the “God’s Country” message. One friend, Darla Schleusner, even made a sign they posted on the road leading up to their shed that discourages people from littering in “God’s Country.”
Some people call this place Bluff Country. Others call it the Driftless Area. Tom and Ginny call it God’s Country.
We had a relaxing conversation at the kitchen table of Tom and Ginny’s farmhouse. They are the most welcoming and wonderful couple. And, when I was ready to head back to the Journal office, Ginny invited me out onto their deck to choose from a variety of fresh-picked tomatos and zucchini from their garden. With some ingredients from their garden, I made our family favorite Greek Turkey Burgers, which calls for shredded zucchini. The sharing of an abundance of locally grown vegetables is yet another reason to love God’s Country.