Living the grape life
By ANDREW MCGINN
It’s no surprise that the owners of John 15 Vineyard are confident that God will send along the right person to buy the 80-acre property north of Scranton.
The thing is, it may take an actual act of divine intervention for the right someone to not only see a For Sale By Owner sign in the yard, but for that same someone to be in the market for a place with a treehouse that sleeps eight, a pond and a par-three pitch and putt golf course. (The moles, FYI, have been unforgiving on the front nine.)
There’s not a whole lot of through-traffic in that neck of the woods.
“It’s good because we’re isolated, and bad because we’re isolated,” owner Dean Rogers explained. “Some people don’t like being this far off the beaten path.”
Rogers and wife Nancy — both now in their mid-70s — are ready to step away from their self-made tourist destination.
“We had a good run,” Nancy Rogers said. “We don’t know who the next owner will be. We just know it will be someone who loves being out here.”
“We’ve made so many friends,” she added. “Our lives have been changed by it.”
Indeed, Dean and Nancy Rogers have woven themselves into the fabric of Greene County, as if they’ve been out there in the sticks forever making grape jelly, grape pie and folksy conversation.
As an overnight visitor once noted in their guestbook, “Dean and Nancy are just like Grandpa and Grandma of America.”
They hope to retire to a smaller acreage a little closer to Jefferson.
“We really have to think practically about how to age,” Nancy Rogers said.
Once upon a time — not long ago, truth be told — Dean and Nancy Rogers were actually city people from Omaha.
While Dean Rogers had grown up on a farm near Albia, Nancy Rogers was all town — a goal-oriented career woman in business attire who originally wanted to live as close to the heart of downtown Omaha as she could.
“Very high strung,” she said of herself.
The property north of Scranton was willed to her in 1990. By decade’s end, they had both up and quit their jobs in Omaha and moved into the farmhouse they’ve called home ever since.
“Our lifestyle has changed so much since being here,” Nancy Rogers said.
For them, the countryside proved to be transformative.
“We just felt so relaxed and comfortable here,” Nancy Rogers said. “And stress-free.”
“And then we started a business,” Dean Rogers added with a laugh.
Officially, John 15 Vineyard opened in 2012 with the remodeling of a century-old barn into a retreat/event center and lodge. The barn also houses their vineyard’s retail store, where they sell jam, jelly, pie, cider, juice, syrup and anything else they can derive from grapes without an alcohol content.
“As far as we know,” Dean Rogers said, “we’re the only one (vineyard) left in the state not part of the alcohol industry.”
That distinction — it was simply a personal choice, they say — has become their niche. And only rarely does somebody get back in their car and drive off, disappointed, after following the highway signs and learning that John 15 Vineyard isn’t a winery.
Grandpa and Grandma America are just too darn welcoming.
Of course, some people are so oblivious to the biblical aspect of the vineyard’s name — “I am the vine, you are the branches,” Jesus tells his followers in the New Testament book of John — that they see Dean Rogers and say, “Oh, you must be John.”
There are now 400 vines on the property, which means that whoever purchases it will be up to their eyeballs in grapes. Four years ago, they collected their biggest harvest to date: 5,400 pounds of grapes off 350 vines.
Initially, Dean Rogers started planting grapevines back in 2001 as a way to earn extra income.
Nearly 20 years later, though, John 15 Vineyard is a full-blown destination — as seen on Iowa Public Television — for couples seeking a picturesque backdrop for a wedding and families looking to get away.
One reviewer on Yelp raved that there’s no one around. “It’s your own private Iowa,” they wrote.
Dean Rogers loves to observe families who stay multiple days at the vineyard, noting the presence of cellphones and laptops on the first day, and then the lack of them by the second day.
Even though the old barn has Wi-Fi, people seem more content to just talk to one another, he said.
“And they look relaxed,” he added.
Making the decision to sell hasn’t been easy. As Nancy Rogers tells it, her husband would venture out into the timber wanting to sell and then return home not wanting to sell.
Her father, the late Dr. Orman Nelson, a Jefferson family physician, fell under the same spell.
A Scranton native who became a doctor after World War II on the G.I. Bill — he started college the same year his daughter started kindergarten — Nelson bought the property from his aunt and used it religiously as his own personal retreat.
“He loved the farm and he loved being a doctor,” Nancy Rogers recalled. “So he got to do both.”
The house had a phone, but he refused to activate it, Nancy Rogers said. If one needed to get ahold of Dr. Nelson at his country estate, they called the neighbor.
Nelson, in fact, planted the property’s very first Concord vine. He also once tried growing kiwi, according to Nancy Rogers.
Nelson would scarcely recognize the old place now, but there’s no doubt he’d still find himself right at home.
“I love the serenity. The beauty,” Nancy Rogers said. “It’s just peaceful and calm out here.”
Admittedly, Dean and Nancy Rogers are unsure how much longer they’ll serve officially as Grandpa and Grandma America.
“It depends,” Nancy Rogers explained, “on who God brings us.”