When 13 U.S. service members were killed last month at Kabul airport, half a world away in Prentice, Wisconsin, Dave Charpentier felt called to do something to honor their sacrifice. The Navy veteran and owner of Northwoods Greenhouse & Ice Cream hung 13 flags side-by-side on the wall from inside the scoop shop.
Yet, the symbolic gesture wasn’t enough.
Since the 1960s, the Village of Prentice in Price County has hosted an annual “Progress Days” over Labor Day weekend. For the town’s 563 residents, it is one of the busiest times of the year.
High school marching bands and first responder vehicles, their sirens blaring and lights flashing, parade through town. There are softball and volleyball games, a classic car show, and food and craft vendors hawking homemade and artsy goods. Bands perform on stages set up in parking lots scattered around Prentice and at the park, which also hosts an evening movie screening.
With so many visitors streaming into Prentice’s two square miles, Charpentier saw a sweet opportunity to raise money for veterans by hosting an ice cream fundraiser with proceeds benefiting the Gary Sinise Foundation.
Charpentier served in the Navy in the 1990s assigned to Naval Air Station Point Mugu in Ventura County, Calif. Every six months, his squadron flew to New Zealand, then Antarctica, as part of Operation Deepfreeze. His crew transported cargo and equipment to researchers from the National Science Foundation living on the unforgiving continent.
For Calif.-raised service members, Charpentier recalls with a laugh, Antarctica’s harsh temperatures were an “eye-opening experience.” Not so for the Wis. native who loved the experience saying, “It was a beautiful country.” Another year he lived in New Zealand for ten months.
As a teenager, Charpentier built “Timber Logs” for Toys for Tots. Like Lincoln Logs, he handcrafted each interlocking timber beam in the family basement, which doubled as a woodworking shop. Carpentry was his life, before and after his stint in the Navy. So it was by accident that he came into horticulture 11 years ago after his father died.
Unemployed and new in Ixonia, a town about 40 minutes northwest of Milwaukee, he found a job as an assistant grower at a greenhouse. In the ensuing years, he said the more he learned, the more he fell in love with the work.
“Something where I’m going into a greenhouse at six o’clock in the morning and seeing the unbelievable beauty when it’s around Mother’s Day, and it’s just full of stunning flowers,” he said. “I mean, there’s not much better environment to be working in.”
Last fall, Charpentier was prepared to buy a greenhouse in Prentice. If not for the higher than expected asking price, Northwoods Greenhouse & Ice Cream likely wouldn’t exist.
“I just happened to be out driving around looking for property to build my own greenhouse business, and there was this little place that she had an antique shop and an ice cream shop all in one,” he said about Vintage Inspired, the dual business owned by Helen Bacholl, and her husband, Michael.
Located on Cemetery Road near U.S. Highway 8, Charpentier didn’t take long to move on the property, which sits on nearly five acres. He gutted the antique store, kept the ice cream shop, and converted half of the former home into his residence.
Charpentier runs a lean operation, spending most days by himself working between the ice cream shop and garden. Two high schoolers help part-time on the weekends; another manages the shop’s Facebook page. He serves Cedar Crest Ice Cream — a Wis. family-owned business whose products are a perennial favorite with locals.
Fundraising for veterans and community causes isn’t new to Charpentier, who has donated to veteran service organizations and the Prentice Lions Club. He said he knew about the Gary Sinise Foundation for some time but added how the current news cycle and deaths of U.S. service members in Afghanistan inspired him to “do my little part.”
Over Labor Day weekend, the shop blew past its goal of raising $600. Charpentier didn’t expect to sell more ice cream that weekend than over the July 4th weekend. He estimates the shop went through between 40 and 50 gallons of ice cream on its way to raising $1,050.
“I felt really good about donating to that cause because I feel that the veterans kinda get the short end now compared to a lot of other people...we should be honoring our veterans in every aspect,” said Mary Petersen, the postmaster for the Village of Prentice, who saw the fundraiser advertised on Northwoods' Facebook page.
“My husband and I went, and we brought ice cream home for the boys,” said Michelle Yanich, who lives nearby in Worcester. Military service runs deep in her family, stretching back to the Second World War. Supporting Charpentier’s fundraiser was a no-brainer.
“Just to be able to go and buy ice cream and donate money, so those people know that we’re proud of them,” Yanich said. “We’re proud of every sacrifice they made. And we’re honored that they chose to do that for us because if they didn’t, we wouldn’t be here living the lives we are and having the freedoms that we have.”
With winter approaching, Charpentier will close the ice cream shop with an eye to reopen in the springtime. He is nearly finished building a greenhouse next door that will hold an estimated 15,000 plants, including hanging baskets, annuals, and perennials, and vegetables.
“It ain’t about making a million dollars. It’s about doing what I love and paying the bills, putting a few bucks in the bank, and just doing what I enjoy doing,” Charpentier said.
Plans are already in the works to host a July 4th fundraiser for the Gary Sinise Foundation next year. “I don’t know how much more ice cream we can do on a weekend, but I’ll find some other means to get the bar higher.”
Until then, he’ll tend to the greenhouse, waiting for the flowers to bloom.