BY MOLLY HAINES RIDDLE
Sweet Owen Editor
Tom Nelke’s profession led him and his wife Kristin to Kentucky, but fate may well have played a role in the couple’s move to Owen County.
The couple, along with their young daughters Genevieve and Maggie, relocated to Owen County in 2019 from Ste. Genevieve, Missouri, after Tom, 36, accepted a position as Owen Electric Cooperative Inc.’s right-of-way manager.
“Some friends of mine from another co-op in Missouri knew I was looking to advance out of my current position,” Tom said. “Rusty Williams—who is somewhat recently retired—was Owen Electric’s operations manager at the time. He went around to other utilities to see what they were doing with their right-of-way programs. He visited the utility I was friends with in Missouri and asked if they knew anyone who might be (looking for a position). They referred him to me. The next thing you know, we’re moving to Kentucky.”
As with any life-changing decision, the couple faced hurdles upon their move—one of which saw Tom living at Owenton’s former Hi-Y-Inn for two weeks before an apartment came open on West Blanton Street.
“Genevieve was obviously already born, but (Kristin) was five months pregnant with Maggie when we moved here,” Tom added. “I couldn’t find anywhere to rent, and everybody at Owen Electric was looking for me; some of them even had rentals, but they were all booked up. So finally, Rusty says, ‘Man, you gotta start eventually.’ I told him I’d get here and find something and wound up in the Hi-Y-Inn for two weeks before we got the apartment on West Blanton.”
Within months of relocating, COVID-19 would halt all community activities, as well as shutter restaurants and anywhere else a new-to-town couple might seek social interaction. To stay active, the family of four began taking walks around the courthouse square and soon became fixtures of downtown Owenton.
“Once we got to know people, they recognized us from our walks around the square,” Tom said. “We were known as the people with the two kids who walked the square. That’s what we did.”
As COVID restrictions began to ease, Kristin, a 38-year-old homemaker, began finding her footing socially by attending events at the Owen County Public Library and becoming active with the Owen County Mom Group.
The brainchild of Hoosier-turned-Owen countian Becky Michels, the Owen County Mom Group began as a Facebook page for local moms to meet and network. Eventually, the group started hosting events of its own.
“It was a weird time, as everybody knows,” Kristin said of the couple’s COVID-era move. “We’ve just stuck with it—going to events, meeting as many people as possible, and talking with them. That’s the biggest thing.”
From the suburbs to the farmstead
Both Tom and Kristin hail from the suburbs of St. Louis and lived in Kansas City—population 500,000-plus—before settling in Owen County. An avid outdoorsman, Tom’s familiarity with rural locales outweighed that of Kristin’s, who admits she was at first wary of the significant lifestyle change.
“I grew up visiting a family farm, and that’s what got me interested in the outdoors,” Tom said. “So, in 2003, my parents bought a hunting property in northeast Missouri. From there on, most of my time was dedicated to projects—hunting projects—up there.”
“I met (Tom) and I’m like, ‘I don’t like tics, I don’t like pigs, I don’t want to use an outhouse,” Kristin laughs. “I was pretty much a city gal, so I didn’t visit the hunting property for a while, and if I did, it was just a day trip.”
Since COVID, many young couples who once shared Kristin’s attitude toward rural living have had a change of heart, now flocking to farms and a simpler way of life.
“I think it’s wanting to keep your kids away from some of the city issues,” Tom said. “Don’t get me wrong, rural areas have their own issues; some are the same. But then, too, I feel like the self-sustainability thing has also added to it. I hate to keep using COVID as an example, but it made a lot of people stop and think, ‘Can I provide for my family off my own piece of land?’”
Since purchasing their farm in Owen County, the Nelkes are raising a garden and recently learned to butcher chickens through a University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Program in neighboring Gallatin County.
The Nelke’s two daughters are at the heart of many of their life’s choices, and neither show any regret toward relocating to a county of just over 11,000 residents.
“I would’ve wanted this when I was a kid,” Kristin adds. “We grew up in neighborhoods, and it was fun and everything, being out, riding bikes, but this is way cooler.”
The couple aim to teach their girls, Genevieve and Maggie, how to care for animals and get them involved in 4-H programs, “I feel like that’s so important; I would have loved to have had that growing up,” Kristin said.
Whether making new friends by attending community events or taking it easy at home, the couple agrees rural living isn’t for everyone but has made all the difference in their lives.
“If you move to the country, you have to be somewhat willing to compromise and drive,” Kristin said. “I say we’re near everything but close to nothing. It’s quiet, and you get to know all of your neighbors and start recognizing people at the grocery store. Everyone’s been incredibly kind and helpful; that’s the biggest thing. Knowing that if we need something, there are people around who are happy to help. That’s a big deal.”