To tell the story of a man’s life

To tell the story of a man’s life in a few paragraphs is to skim the wind over the ocean. I was privileged to meet Norbert Blei and become a friend.

Obituary  Norbert Blei   1935-2013  Green Bay Gazette  April 23 Author, publisher and teacher

Norbert Blei died early Tuesday morning at Scandia Village in Sister Bay, where he had been recuperating from recent surgery. He was 77.A native of Chicago, Blei moved to Door County in 1969 and became a passionate defender of its natural beauty and rural character, working from a converted chicken coop studio in Ellison Bay. He was the author of 17 books, including “Door Way: The People in the Landscape,” “Door Steps,” “Door to Door” and “Meditations on a Small Lake.” He established Cross+Roads Press in 1994 to support the work of local writers and poet. His “Chronicles of a Rural Journalist in America” recounts the furor he created with a satirical piece in the Door Reminder called “Shut the Damn Door,” advocating for sealing off Northern Door’s natural splendor from tourists. For three decades he taught writing workshops at The Clearing in Ellison Bay and was scheduled to return to the front of the class this summer.

In Memory Of Norbert Blei…My late great coyote brother

Norbert Blei

I first heard of Norbert in a newspaper article, must have been in the early to mid 80s. Norb’s photo was with the article. He was standing by a newly installed mail receptacle that was there for receiving free shopper papers. He stated that no one asked permission to install any of these beside every mailbox. They were plastic, ugly, another sore sight in beautiful Door County. I took to him immediately. He looked like me with his furry mustache. He had good solid eyebrows, strong shoulders, a granite bold face and in this photo he was pissed off.I was impressed that the article was sent statewide. I was more impressed that the eyes of this man paid attention to detail, to any visual despoiling of an especially beautiful peninsula in neighborhood Wisconsin. I had never been to Door County but I clipped the article and vowed to one day meet the man.

I can’t remember the date of our first meeting. Seems like I had known him all my life. I believe our introduction to each other might have been during a weekend that I was playing a concert with Big Top Chautauqua at the Door Community Auditorium in the late 80s. After the show he took me to one of the funkiest greatest bars I have ever been in and I have been in many a bar in my hopping. The A.C.Tap. The place was all soul. Old. The floor was polished by 50 years of beer. Jukebox. Antique stools. Names carved in the bar-top. My kind of bar. One that welcomes conversation and joviality. We stayed till closing time. He invited me to his place the next day telling me about his hole called The Coop.

I went. It was an old chicken coop books galore, wall to wall, floor to ceiling. Paintings. Snippets of poetry. Photographs. An old long-used typewriter. Wisdom in the walls.

He gave me one of his books. I gave him a CD. We both had carved careers out of celebrating a sense of place. We were basically the same guy and would remain brothers throughout our shared time. His recognition of the history of Door County as it yet stood in old people and old buildings was honor to the past and a hope that something would remain of what was because what was authentic. “If God wanted us to have fiberglass boats, He would have given us fiberglass trees.”      His written portraits of elders of Door County are priceless. The adage “They don’t make’m like they used to” applies to buildings and people and Norb and I often talked about that, bemoaning the news that an old farmhouse was being torn down, that the old country store was being demolished, that a new Condo development was rising on the heights over Lake Michigan (for me Lake Superior).

He had known about Lake Superior Big Top Chautauqua, a Bayfield Peninsula tent show I founded. Years later, I booked him for a reading at the tent along with Jean Feraca. It was broadcast on Tent Show Radio. He had the perfect radio voice that licked his words. You could definitely hear Chicago, his birthplace, in it.

I never saw him enough but when we were together the stories rolled. As much as I wanted to hear all of what he was up to and writing he kept on with new writers he had discovered and wanted to put into print by his Cross+Roads Press. That was his true gift to the forest of literature. He was a great oak standing in the middle of younger aspiring writers. Generous. Encouraging. Critical– knowing truth from bullshit. Those of us who knew Norb remember well his feather-ruffling in the politics of Door County. More like a coyote’s growl. Again, his eye looking beyond himself.

We, of course, have his books to keep us company. And keep his mind and spirit alive by reading his writing. Incredible life of work. Incredible ship of wisdom that went down. I’m remembering a visit I made to Sigurd Olson’s writing shack out behind his house in Ely, Minnesota. It was kept as it was at the last hour Sigurd walked out the door to go snowshoeing and never returned. Typewriter in place. Chair staring at it. Books, snowshoes, skis, a wool hat on a hook. A museum. I wish The Coop could be left at it was on Norb’s last day. It should be on the Register of Historic Places.

There has been some Door County talk for a couple of years about a new show featuring Norb’s work with me putting music under and over his prose and crafting songs out of his writings and story. I had in mind that Norbert would play himself and I would sit and sing beside the source. Photos old and new of the Door County environs and people would be projected behind the staged program. I have to get this show on the boards. I’m casting myself in the role of Norbert Blei. The show would run 90 minutes or so and hopefully play in the summers forever. I love the thought of new people being introduced to Norbert Blei’s writings far into the Door County and Wisconsin future.

Here’s a poem I wrote in early 2012.


Codger, a dodger, confidence trickster–

Keeper of Wisconsin.

Writer, let’s know, of great Wisconsin wrongs.


I would lay light that his work

Unpaving a road through Door County

Will whisk dust up for young writers to come to

Find voice and camp there in their own

With a consciousness of no conciliations,

Follow their bare bones loosening the bullshit

To fit this new world that frighteningly forgets the old.


Prose man, poet blender.

Sender off to the world

His great working gifts.


A presence lifted from Illinois

Took the flyway of Lake Michigan

And built a nest as eagles do north

Where all can be seen from.


Perched in his coop to

Sway swoop down on any day.

Craft steeped like how-ever- old-he- is whiskey.

You can smell it on his breathway-

The truth.


Honor to the deep in shallow politics.

He is editing our time,

The anger all behind a voice of sweetness.


Plow the road.

Like that crazy crooked county road

That hauls all to the landing across from

Washington Island.

Jesus, who platted that?

Only one who can laugh along the way.


Norbert Blei ferries himself across for

All of us.

Warren Nelson
April 25,  2013

Saga of the Kickin’ Chicken Neon Sign


Kickin chickin sign





The late great Feed Bag drive-in on old highway 15 south of Fairmont, Minnesota was a popular stop for drive-in lovers including my family. I was born in Fairmont in 1947 and I remember going to the Feed Bag in the early 1950s on Sundays after church for the Chicken-In-The-Basket dinners fried perfectly with tater tots.and delivered with frosted glass mugs of nickel root beer. The lot would be packed with families fresh out of church.

My dad would park the ’50 Mercury, roll down the window, and a waitress, most likely a high school student, would take our orders. The window, of course, as so many of you remember, would not be rolled down all the way. You must leave at least five inches of it up so the tray can be secured to the glass. “Hello, can I take your order?” It was always the chicken on Sundays. I can still smell the baskets, filling the automobile with the delicious fragrance of the deep-fried. My sister Sharla and I waited anxiously for the baskets to be passed to the backseat.

Ah!!!! Ahh!!! Yum! Done! The paper crunched up, the mugs empty, the baskets were passed to Dad in the front seat. To the waitress-“thank you.” A dollar bill tip on the tray. And there it was– The Feed Bag Kickin’ Chicken sign, (with lights off in the afternoon), standing ready for the night.

The greatest day in a young man’s life happens when he gets his driver’s license. It is freedom to pack the car with your classmates, better yet girlfriend. The Fairmont thing to do on Friday or Saturday nights was to drive North Avenue, main street, up and down, repeat, repeat for hours, passing other high schoolers you knew. The north end turn around was at Rippe’s feed mill. Then it was to time to hit a drive-in. The six most popular in the 50s and 60s in Fairmont were the A & W, the Toot ‘n Tell (we called it the Beep and Bitch), the Dairy Queen, The Dairy Freeze, The Westside (was that its name?) and the Feed Bag. Four had carhops. The Dairy Queen and The Dairy Freeze, still operating in the same locations, were walkup.

The Beep and Bitch (Toot ‘n Tell) was famous for little hamburgers, six for a buck I think. (can’t remember their special name). The A & W was famous, of course, for Root Beer but also for Swiss Burgers which my mom, Clestle Nelson, was addicted to. The Dairy Queen, we all know, was renowned for the curly top soft ice cream cones and their malts, shakes and sundaes. The Dairy Freeze had the best malts and a menu that included homemade sandwiches. I loved the hot pork and the hot beef. The Westside had your basic everything. The Feed Bag specialized in the Chicken-in-the-Baskets, coney dogs, tater tots, root beer and hot Danish beef sandwiches with thin sliced dill pickles on moist steamed dark bread wrapped in white paper, 55 cents. That was the favorite of my friend and classmate John Larsen.

The Feed Bag menu was painted on a big white sheet of plywood. In those beautiful southern Minnesota Fairmont summer nights, with all windows down, crickets chirping, mosquitoes buzzing (why didn’t Noah just swat those two mosquitoes?) and the lake breezes whispering, it was heaven to hit the drive-ins. Teenagers got out of the cars and sat on the hoods, boys all spruced up, girls lookin’ good in pedal pushers. And there, beside and above us all, stood the Kickin’ Chicken kickin’. It was brilliant in the night. The neon glass tubing drew the perfect chicken and scrolled the name Feed Bag. Both sides of the sign operated. A horse with his head in a feed bag was painted beside the name. But the magic was in the feet. The design made it seem like the chicken was running. I should say the Kickin’ Chicken sign IS brilliant as it is still kickin’ in the museum home of the Martin County Historical Society.


On May 3rd, 1975, my 28th birthday, Betty Ferris and my brother Mark Nelson were driving south on old Highway 15 when they noticed the Feed Bag Kickin’ Chicken sign lying in the ditch in front of the drive-in ready to be picked up by the trash man. I had written a song entitled “Minnesota Summertime” four years before which included a verse on the Kickin’ Chicken-

I go Shoreacres Drive south I turn left on Lair Road

East a little ways to old highway 15

South again a mile or two straight until I see

The electric Kickin’ Chicken sign the Feed Bag is for me


I get the hots for tater tots and a Coney Island wiener

How I love those relish greens down between them chili beans

I get my fun in a Wonder bun and I always ask for pickles

Tickle my throat in the good old days when a root beer was a nickel


The Feed Bag sign was the best birthday present I ever received. We picked it up and hauled it to 667 Shoreacres Drive, my family home. It was faded, all the neon glass broken; a bird’s nest was perched on top of the sign. The next day I drove to Fairmont Signs to see about getting it repaired, up and running and kicking again. They had serviced the sign for years and were highly amused that I wanted to have it restored. I was living in Colorado at the time. I left it with them. They estimated the cost at between five hundred and a thousand dollars. The final cost was $1,200 as I remember. Totally worth it to me, the delight of my life. John Larsen gave the sign a fresh coat of paint, outlining the artwork. I had both sides restored.

I left town. I returned a few months later as I was writing a show entitled “Lost And Found Fairmont Histories: A Martin County Hornpipe.” The show sings and tells stories of Fairmont’s history, backdropped by historical photos of Fairmont all through the years. I chose the sign as the closing surprise in the show. At the very end I told the audience that historical preservation was very important to the community. We should save Fairmont and Martin County history however we can, leave a legacy for our children. Drum roll please. The sign was wheeled out on the stage and the cover removed. There, as the band played the Chicken Reel, the Kickin’ Chicken kicked again. The lights from the sign exploded throughout the auditorium. The crowd went wild.

The “Hornpipe” was enormously successful. I could give you many miracle moments that occurred during its conception and performance. After the show, I returned to Colorado. I had received permission from the High School to store the sign backstage until I could return.

When I returned a few months later, I went to pick it up. The glass tubing was broken in several places. A group called Up With People had played the High School Performing Arts Center and somehow they broke it. I was dismayed but took it immediately back to Fairmont Signs to have it repaired again. The cost was $500 so now I had $1700 into the sign.

We moved it to the basement of my parents’ house. What a private joy to go down in the basement, plug it in and watch it kick. It remained there for years. Over time, the neon gas needed to be re-charged and we had broken some tubing in transporting it so I took it again to Fairmont signs. It cost $400 so now I have $2100 into the sign. It went back to the basement.

My musical group, the Lost Nation String Band, performed in concert at the newly saved Fairmont Opera House. The sign needed neon again and glass repair–another $400. Now I had $2500 into the sign. We plugged in at the end of the concert while singing the Feed Bag verse from my song and once again the crowd went wild. Eleanor, the owner of the Feed Bag, was in the audience. As the chicken was kickin’, I introduced her and asked her to stand up. She got a warm round of applause.

A couple of years after that, I was driving by the Feed Bay and got the idea that something was missing at the drive-in. I called Eleanor and told her I would like to remount the sign, this time on top of the drive-in. John Larsen, Dave Nordby and I put it in a truck and spent a couple hours setting it in place. It was working beautifully and once again kicking at the Feed Bag! I was living in Madison, Wisconsin then and when I came back to visit my parents I would immediately drive out to the Feed Bag. There it was in full glory! Ah! Once again, I sat in my car, ordered a coney dog and tater tots and admired the great spectacle. How privately proud I was of saving and restoring the historic artifact.

Every time I came back home, I drove to check it out. No! No! On one of my trips I returned to find The Feed Bag closed, boarded up. The sign was gone. Gone. Gone. Where was it? I called Eleanor and she told me she had sold the property and retired from the drive-in business. Where’s my sign? “I sold it to a farmer who lives further south, close to the Iowa line.” She gave me his name. I was insulted she never called me to tell me she sold the property. I called him. “Yeah, I bought the property and I have the sign in my barn.” “Well, I’m coming out to get it.” “I own it now, ” he replied.

I drove to the barn. That’s my sign. “I’ll sell to you for $400.” I wrote out a check for $400 to buy my sign. It was broken again. Again I took it to Fairmont Signs to repair the glass tubing $500. Now I have $2,900 in the Feed Bag Kickin’ Chicken sign. Totally worth it. There isn’t a price on Earth that was too much for keeping the chicken kickin’.

So back it went to Al and Clestle Nelson’s basement on Shoreacres Drive.

A year or so later, I received a phone call from a guy who said he grew up in Fairmont and wondered if I still had the Feed Bag sign. I said I did. He and his pals were at their hunting camp in North Dakota. I could hear other voices in the background. They were partying hardy. “Would you consider selling it to me?” he asked in a slurry voice. Well, I never thought about it. I told him the long and goofy story of it, telling the cost of having it repaired all along the way. “I’ll give you $5,000 for it.” I paused. I said no, not for sale. “Are you sure? $5,000 dollars cash.” No deal. I thought to myself, well, I could sell it and hold $5,000 in my hand but that would just be a handful of money. The money would soon be gone AND THEN I WOULDN’T HAVE THE FEED BAG KICKIN’ CHICKEN SIGN!

The Kickin’ Chicken’s next stage appearance was as star performer in the “Martin County Hornpipe” performances at Lake Superior Big Top Chautauqua in the mid 1990s. It needed a shot of neon and repair so I put another $450 bucks into it. (Now it’s $3350 I have in it). Rick Borchardt of Fairmont, a good friend of mine and my brother, trucked it up the 380 miles to Bayfield, Wisconsin. The Big Top was (and is) a magnificent tent show I founded along the south shore of Lake Superior, 3 miles south of Bayfield on a ski hill. It stole the show as it always had. The show closed and Rick trailered it back home to Fairmont and to Al and Clestle’s basement where once again it stood a few years. I always plugged it in first thing when I came back to Fairmont. Its glory grew in the glow of my mind and heart.

The Fairmont Opera House celebrated its centennial in 2001. The “Martin County Hornpipe” was booked for a 2-night run at the Opera House to help celebrate the wonderfully gorgeous restoration of the theatre. Of course, the sign came again to the stage. I assumed the neon would glow when I plugged it in but no. The neon again needed help. Where to go? Who to ask? The man at Fairmont Signs told me they no longer did neon. They told me the guy who always handled neon was retired and living in Jackson. “Here’s his name and number.” I called him. It was Saturday the morning of the show. He did a double take on the phone. He laughed delightedly. “Can you come right now?” “I’ll be there in an hour.” He arrived at the Opera House with an enormous smile. We introduced ourselves. He shook his head laughing as he approached the sign. “I worked on this sign for years. That was a good while back. I had no idea I’d ever see it again.” He pumped it full of neon and it lit up in its old glory.

We were both speechless for a while, grinning ear to ear. Thank you thank you thank you I told him. How much do I owe you? I mean you came on short notice on a Saturday out of the blue. Our show wouldn’t have the grand ending. How much? He stared at me with even a wider smile. “No charge.” I gave him two tickets to the show. He came.He was in the front row. As the chicken kicked, we gave each other the thumbs up.

Ladies and gentlemen, I would like to introduce the star of tonight’s show— The Feed Bag Kickin’ Chicken sign. As it was gloriously rolled out, the crowd went super wild as we sang my song “Minnesota Summertime.” People in the audience came on stage after the show to have their pictures taken in front of it.

For an hour after the show, people came up to me thanking me for saving the sign. They told me stories– “My dad took our family there for the Chicken-In-The Basket when I was growing up.” “I worked as a carhop there for three summers when I was in high school.” “My goodness, I loved the tater tots and coney dogs.” “I can’t believe this.” “How did you ever get it?”

It travelled back to the basement after the “Hornpipe.”

The reactions of the people got me to thinking. Everyone with Fairmont roots should be able to see the Kickin’ Chicken. A light went on in my head (was it neon?). It should be at the Martin County Historical Society’s museum.I called Lenny Tvedten, Executive Director. He was all for it from the get-go. John Larsen and I moved it to the museum where it quickly became a star attraction. Volunteers at the Museum restored it, put a plexiglass front on it to protect it. They did wonderful work. It was on loan from me. I’d go to the museum when in Fairmont to see it. Lenny put it center stage in the big room you come to when you first walk in. It rules.

One beautiful spring day when I was in Fairmont (sometime around 2006-7), Nina Archabal, Executive Director of the Minnesota Historical Society, travelled down from St. Paul to give the keynote address at the dedication of the Red Rocks Center which sits across the street from the Martin County Museum. I had met Nina in St. Paul at the state museum while I was researching my show “Old Minnesota: Song Of The North Star.” We played the show at the Minnesota Historical Society auditorium in 2008, the year of Minnesota’s Sesquicentennial. After her speech at the Red Rocks Center, in which she lavishly praised the incredible story of the dedicated volunteers who dreamed of an old church being saved from destruction and made into an arts center, she followed Lenny across the street to the museum. I tagged along. Upon entering the museum, she immediately saw the Kickin’ Chicken which was kickin’ full bore. She stopped in her tracks. She laughed a grand laugh and said, “Now that’s preservation!” I meekly said to her, “Nina, saving that sign is the best thing I’ve ever done in my life.” I think her estimation of me rose considerably from that moment on.

For the past few years, the Chicken has delighted thousands of visitors to the Martin County Historical Society Museum. I would see it in their newsletters as groups of school kids would pose in front of it– seniors, tourists, visitors from foreign countries, Fairmont and Martin County citizens. I always smile when I see the Chicken in the newsletters.

Forward to late fall, 2012. Unbelievably, I got a call from a man in Illinois who said he grew up in Fairmont, had seen the sign at the Museum. He noticed it was on loan from Warren Nelson. He made me a generous offer. He wanted to buy it for his wife, a Fairmont girl who carhopped at the Feed Bag, as a surprise birthday present. I emailed Lenny and told him of it. I told him I was only considering selling it because I needed money (who doesn’t) but would hate to see the sign taken out of Fairmont and out of the Museum. I told Lenny it really belongs where it is. He agreed.

Well, thanks be to generosity, an anonymous donor has bought the Feed Bag Kickin’ Chicken sign for the Martin County Historical Society. It is home forever. I think of years from now, when I’m gone. Unlike me the Chicken will still be a kickin’. I sure am hungry for Chicken-In-The Basket right now. Continue reading

Down The Home River

Down the Home River mp3River Meets Lake Superior

My song Down The Home River is the end song from 30th Star: Wisconsin’s Sesquicentennial Musical, created by Betty Ferris and me (The Nelson-Ferris Concert Company), and produced by Big Top Chautauqua 1998. It sings of the incredible beauty of the Badger State, an adopted home to me, and here I am to stay.

A week ago The Wisconsin Conservation Voters posted the first stanza on their website in the face of the terrible terrible decision of Wisconsin’s Republican lawmakers to pass the mining bill that will deface the beautiful Penokee Mountain country and pollute the creeks and streams that feed the Bad River and Lake Superior.

Wisconsin State Senator Bob Jauch, in his testimony before the vote, spoke the first stanza in the Senate asking the question “What shall we leave our children to live on?”
Once again the almighty dollar takes precedent over the health of our planet and the sacredness of our waters. I would be honored if you would learn the song and spread the message. You can purchase the 30th Star CD on my website

link: Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters


What shall we leave our children to live on?
What shall we give our children to dream by?
Leave a deep garden and clean waters blue
To their children’s children and their children too

From Mother Mississippi to the Lake Michigan shore
From the prairie south bottomline to the Great Superior
From the valley of the St. Croix to Red Banks Green Bay
In the long eye a song in the long view of the day

In the coolees in the driftless to the Kettle Moraine
Across the sun prairie to the sand central plains
Up north to the big woods in the shadow of their stand
Under all our thunder always the land

Meskousen Ouisconsing down the home river
Winding in time along we all go
River that gave a name to our landing
To the ground under Wisconsin my home

Let the winter come let the wind blow the snow
Let the spring come singing let the summer go slow
The road ditches blossom the wildwoods flower
The distant blue hills lose the now of the hour

Like the geese rising from Horicon Marsh
Lifting to leave filling the sky
We land here stop over for just a short time
Like the winged ones above us we are just a fly by

We have all come now to a new carrying place
A new century we are all turning to
Let’s haul it all over all that we are
Portage the light of the 30th Star

Meskousen Ouisconsing down the home river
Winding in time along we all go
River that gave a name to our landing
To the ground under Wisconsin my home

Green Step

St. Patrick’s Day March 17 2013
This poem was written for Tent Show Radio in late 1990s.
And a happy St. Patrick’s Day to you too.


The only thing I wonder is with all of us doin’ so right,
The only things I wonder is will I ever get home tonight?

For tonight the fiddler’s on the bow
And the pipe and whistle are rollin,’
And the floor is swept up clean for the dance
And if I see her I’ll ask my chance

And if I see you I’ll empty my pockets and buy you one
Ale dark as the night is out
Or a double shot or a pint of stout

I’ll buy it and toast the glass of your eye
That shines that certain way
Especially when you’re all in green
On old St. Patrick’s Day

For all and some and those of us here
This is the night we roll up the year
Give a hand and a step to the band
Sing to the moon and the wild land.

And I wonder, and I wonder,
When shall we meet again?
For a true love and a great friend,
The only two that never end.

And I wonder, and I wonder,
With all of us doin’ so right.
I wonder, and I wonder,
Where are you tonight?


I took this picture from my living room window, 19 Jan 2013 “Two eagles, symbols of American Democracy, are perched on the branch of the Legislature. The Democrat looks to the left, the Republican looks to the right. Listen to each other, compromise. Do what’s best for the Nation, with Liberty and Justice for all. Epluribus unum—out of the many, one.”

In 1883, year of my Grandmother’s birth,
the state horticulturist of Minnesota rode
from St. Paul to the tallgrass of Martin County.

He was looking to see the tallgrass prairie
before the plow would turn it over
to the field.  He was looking for
the wild call of blossoms in the spring.

The redwing blackbirds were whistling
in the wetlands,
the meadowlarks perched in their song,
the male prairie chickens prancing
for their mates.

He found the astounding sight of
5 thousand acres blooming in wild orchids.
He wrote it down on the parchment
of history.  He scratched on a hung buffalo hide
a sight of thousands of years turning to the sun,
the glory of wild summers in sprout.

That dream planted it’s forever
in the black soil of my soul.

It tells me then may come back forever.
That the wild waving grass may come back
when mankind is used up.
Before the sun explodes and
life on Earth is burned to nothing,
the wild orchids may grow again
as one last pistoled blast
to God.

Dream Grass Orchids

Valentine 2013

Daylight brings the swift flights of thought
and mine begin with you as you lay asleep beside me.
It’s 18 years. It’s a minute ago. It’s now. It’s then.
It’s you wrapped, hibernating in the night.

What dreams are in that cocoon?
I slip quietly out of bed,
turn to your shape,
sigh a sigh of sweetbreath,

You are my comforter.
Be my Valentine.