A Community Comes Together in Wisconsin

A homesteader and community activist’s enthusiasm gave her town the right to own backyard chickens and inspires others to connect with nature.

| September/October 2015

Jen Van Order is something of a celebrity in the 9,000-person town of Rhinelander, Wisconsin. “Just last week I dropped Ivan off at work,” she says, “and an older lady was unloading her bike in the driveway. I didn’t even get out of the car, and after I drove off she asked Ivan, ‘Was that the chicken lady?’ I’m the chicken lady—or the crazy chicken lady, depending on who you talk to.”

Jen, a server at a local diner where her sister, Katie, also works, and her husband, Ivan, a bike mechanic, live in Rhinelander, a small community in north central Wisconsin where everyone knows just about everyone and “people will stop and say hi, or wave or beep at you,” Jen says. “It’s a pretty easy-going and friendly place to live. We’re progressive in so many ways,” she says, noting the small town’s expansive farmers market and natural food grocer. Yet when Jen decided she wanted to keep chickens—for their eggs, for their many contributions to the garden and as pets—she found no clear wording in any of the town’s ordinances about whether keeping birds inside city limits was permitted.

So Jen jumped into action, contacting a friend who sat on the town’s alderman council who suggested they write up something to present to the city council. “It was difficult,” she says of the process. “Convincing some of the other aldermen was a little tricky. The attitude in this city can be, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’” Yet Jen persisted in her quest, asking the city council, “Why can I travel 30 miles down the road and live in an urban setting and have some chickens in the backyard, but here I can’t?”

As the debate continued, Jen became the town’s de facto chicken spokesperson. “This is a pretty sleepy town, so I ended up being on the news and in the papers,” she says. Eventually, the town settled on a fairly restrictive ordinance, but one that does allow for community members to keep up to four birds in the backyard.

Growing Community

Although she was interested in the various benefits of keeping chickens, the work to draft a chicken ordinance in Rhinelander was ultimately about something bigger to Jen. One of Rhinelander’s most vocal community supporters, she also recognizes that small communities like hers need to do some work if they hope to keep younger generations around. “Most people leave this community when they graduate high school,” she says. “We have a lot leaving, and they don’t come back. We need to work a bit to make this a more appealing place for young people. When we do get people back in their late 20s or 30s, they say they missed this place a lot. It’s the closeness and sense of community—it’s endearing, and it’s really special,” she says.

For Jen, doing things like working to revamp outdated legislation is just one way to help encourage the community to grow and offer its residents benefits that will help keep them around. Ivan’s passion is bicycles and mountain biking, and both Jen and he have participated in activities that helped Rhinelander acquire new public lands dedicated to hiking and biking trails—another cause Jen believes can impact individuals and the community in an important way. “The reason I’m so passionate about mountain bike trails is because they are so much more than just hiking or biking trails,” Jen says. “They are a safe and accessible way for people to get into the woods, and the more access people have to nature, the more they will appreciate and love it—and want to protect it. You think of mountain bikers as these hard-core folks shredding it through the woods, but they really do a lot for preservation. Acquiring land, giving wildlife safe habitat, allowing people to explore nature, and even making biking fun, which often encourages people to bike more and rely on cars a little less.”

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