Building Bridges: Meet Bob & Kate McQuade

By Jennifer Moore-Kerr

Jennifer Moore-Kerr

The phrase that best describes this joyful couple who settled in Arena three decades ago might be carpe diem. It seems that no amount of uncertainty, tragedy or hardship slows Kate and Bob McQuade down. They seem to have seized everything that they have encountered in their “very long” life together. I can’t tell you how long they have been married. According to Kate: “A hundred and some years.” To Bob: “A very long time!” They wear those years well: finishing each other’s stories, correcting misremembered details, filling in facts, and clearly acknowledging that, while the ride hasn’t always been easy, they are grateful to be doing it together. Depending on whose version of the story you choose, their first move to the Midwest was the result of a real estate ad in either The New York Times or the United Farm Catalog. What they agree on is that their bodies couldn’t take the pollution of New York City anymore. 

“Papa” Bob and Kate McQuade made their way west from New Jersey in 1971, settling on a farm in Minnesota before moving south to Boscobel and then Arena where they ran The Shoppe at Herbs Spices & More.

The path that brought this delightful, fun, hardworking and thoughtful couple to Arena was circuitous at best, and at times seemed haphazard. They will tell you that they “are moving verrry slowly south.” But before moving south, they left their home in New Jersey for a 160-acre farm in Little Swan, Minnesota, sight unseen, 22 miles south of Hibbing. Kate had traveled to Minnesota with a dance troupe the previous summer and thought it was beautiful. It turns out that she was there “the one day of summer that year.” Life near New York City had become too much for them, causing breathing difficulty for Kate, who was teaching classical dance in the city. Then Bob had a stress-induced seizure, landing him face down in his dinner plate one night and providing the final impetus for leaving. Bob had always looked at ads for farms in the newspapers. Kate, on the other hand, was quite sure that she had no interest in living on a farm. In the end, though, the health issues drove them west and, on March 11, 1971, they packed up a large moving van with all their belongings and put their five children (ranging in age from 5 months to 11 years) in the car and headed to parts unknown. Nowhere in the telling of that move (complete with the decision in Ohio that the hotel was too expensive, pushing on to a truck stop for the night) is there trepidation or hesitation. While friends and family in New Jersey expressed concern, Kate’s response was, “I don’t know why everyone was upset, we were just moving, you know?”

When they arrived at their new home to discover 120 inches of laid snow on the ground, covering the steps to the house they had seen in pictures, they found their new home without a bathtub or plumbing in the kitchen. They purchased a horse trough and set it up on kitchen chairs as a bathtub. As they told of those first days, their focus was on the unknown neighbors who came to help them unload their truck, and a sheriff who gave them a claw-foot bathtub out of his basement.  

Fifty years later, laughter filled the room as Bob and Kate shared these stories. They were shared without complaints, self-pity or a sense of having been overwhelmed. Instead, they were just stories about the good people who helped them along the way. There were other stories, too, about pigs, a cow, and always snow. I could have sat at their table for hours drinking coffee, eating their delicious cookies, and listening to these two tell their stories. What a pleasure!

Over the next 10 years, the McQuades learned to raise those pigs, milk the cow and grow hay. Kate never grew comfortable with the butchering of the animals, and was visibly moved when talking about it so many years later. She could “feel the souls of the animals when they were alive.” One year they built a hoop house with lumber harvested from their land, and bought the plastic to cover it. Much to the surprise of their neighbors, they were able to harvest ripe tomatoes on the fourth of July. 

When the first three of their children had graduated from high school, and the last two had not yet started, they saw an opportunity to leave Little Swan and the cold and snow of Minnesota. “It was now or never.” At the time Bob was working as a construction supervisor in the Quad Cities, spending his weeks there and coming home for the weekends most of the time. Kate was teaching dance and raising their children on the farm. It was time for a change. Bob and their son-in-law, Matt, started looking for a restaurant to lease. Cooking had been Bob’s passion since he was a small child when his mother and grandmother took him under their wings in the kitchen. They settled on the Restaurant and Saloon at Hotel Boscobel. This was the return of Bob to his actual professional life as a chef. 

When the family moved to Boscobel, they rented three different houses, each of which sold shortly after they moved in. Times were very tough in those years. I was reminded of frontier stories in which so much hard work was done, and yet the focus was always on just getting it done, and not on the hardships. Even when their memories differed and Kate said, “no, no you’re wrong — I’m sorry but you’re not remembering right,” her tone was compassionate and respectful and there was still the laughter and warmth of shared experiences.

These two are terrific storytellers, weaving the tales of their life together with precise details, an appreciation of the people they encountered, willingness to try new things (or at least Kate’s willingness to go along with Bob’s latest idea, even if that meant saying to Michael, their oldest, “Hey, Mike, how would you like to milk a cow?” because she was deeply afraid of the large animal!), and a sense of humor about it all.

The stories wove onward, leading to an invitation from Robert Graves for Bob to come work at the Spring Green Restaurant (now the Frank Lloyd Wright Visitor Center) for three months. The job extended, and one day, driving to Madison for supplies, Bob noticed a for sale sign in front of the “cute country cottage” on Highway 14 that they had been eyeing, “and we bought it that day.” Many changes later, Bob and Kate established The Shoppe at Herbs Spices & More, an herb and spice blend business and a thriving kitchen out of which has come beautiful breads, cookies, “Bob’s salty balls,” delicious soups, and, on Tuesday nights during the summer, fabulous wood-fired pizzas. It is from this business that they are (again) trying to retire. If only Bob will “try harder” this time! The trouble is that they like to “do things,” though, and feel there is still more for them to do in their community. 

The closing of the Arena Elementary School makes them sad. They see the loss as bad for the children who now bus away from their neighborhood and family to attend elementary school in Spring Green. While that change and the loss of the School of Architecture at Taliesin feel like huge losses to both Bob and Kate, they remain optimistic about the area and particularly the young people. Kate speaks positively of “hope in the kids — they’re smart, and they care.” She also sees a strength in community here: “The people are diverse in their beliefs, but most people here put community and people before their beliefs.” The last time she has seen that kind of attitude was in New York City, she said.

When I asked what makes them happy, they answered for each other, as if, after so many years together, it made more sense to explain the other’s happiness than their own. Both answers were about their creativity — painting, sketching, cooking. And both expressed great pride in each other’s work.

Adversity, on the other hand, is answered with doing what needs to be done, with the help of each other. Some adversity was too hard to talk about, and on several occasions those stories would begin, only to be cut short with either a change of subject, or a pointed “Bobby.” Those are not the stories to share.

In the end, Kate wishes that “everyone had the opportunity to achieve what they want.” The openness, graciousness and kindness from these two people filled my soul, and has brought warmth to countless others who have sat at their tables. As I said to them, the community they cherish is one they have helped to build. 

Jennifer Moore-Kerr is a mom, a free spirit and a barefoot dancer living in Spring Green where she can walk to the river and commune with friends. She can often be found around Spring Green welcoming locals and visitors alike. To suggest ideas for future “Bridges” columns, email jennifermrkrr2@gmail.com.

In what seems to be a time of ever-increasing strife, this column is a small attempt to build bridges with our neighbors. The broken bridges and steel-clad social bubbles that keep us apart can begin to mend and thin as we get to know the stories that define each other. In this space I interview community members of all walks of life from throughout the Voice readership area. May you enjoy meeting them, and may this build bridges for us all. Thank you for joining me on this journey.