Ron Lester is quite a storyteller, a skill he developed some eight or so decades ago while being graded on his yarn-spinning chops by his grandparents.
Lester is such a great storyteller, in fact, that when you listen to him describe the details of his long, fascinating life, it almost makes you wonder if he’s slipping some fiction into the fact.
Like a Davy Crockett story or a John Wayne character, Ron Lester’s life almost seems too interesting to be true. How else to describe the bio of a man who joined the U.S. Marines at 16-and-a-half years old, was wounded three times in the Korean War, served on an elite, top-secret military intelligence unit, was awarded the Purple Heart, the Marine Corps Navy Medal and the Bronze Star, purchased land and started a successful business and then became a bison farmer and opened a country store specializing in unique, quality products?
Well, those are the amazing highlights of the life of Ron Lester, who moved to Kenosha County in 2004 and operates Lester’s Bison Farm and its accompanying Lester’s Country Store on the Ranch, located at 31807 60th St. in Salem.
And Lester is not done writing his life’s story. He’s 92 years old now, but he still operates his country store, waking at 5:30 a.m. every day, beginning work at 8 a.m. and going until about 7 or 8 p.m.
“And I don’t take a nap,” Lester insists.
The driveway at Lester’s Bison Farm – if you’re looking for it, it’s the one adorned with 60 flags – is wired up, plus his dogs will alert him, so that he knows when a customer needs assistance or just wants to hear a story (trust us, the story will be worth your time).
Lester is in a wheelchair and uses a walker, but he says he refuses to use his scooter or his electric wheelchair, because he prefers to rely on his own power.
Yes, Lester is a man who does not want to slow down anymore than he has to and has no plans to retire. On Wednesday, he made zucchini bread – “Son of a … did it turn out good!” Lester reported – and on Thursday, he was busy canning dill pickles.
(LINK: WATCH RON LESTER’S KENOSHAN OF THE WEEK INTERVIEW WITH TMJ4 BELOW)
Ron Lester, this week’s Kenosha.com Kenoshan of the Week, is still full of life at 92 years old, and, yes, the old Marine is still full of piss and vinegar, too.
“No. I never will,” Lester said in a phone interview this week when asked if he will ever retire from his bison farm and country store. “It’s already been situated. My kids wanted me to sell the place over here and retire. To make them happy, I put it up for sale. But I put it up for such a price that nobody could afford it.
“… We solved the problem. Improvise, adapt and overcome.”
Becoming a Marine
Lester’s story of joining the U.S. Marine Corps is probably not an uncommon one for young men from small towns during the post-World War II era.
Lester is originally from little Pulaski, Wisconsin, just northwest of Green Bay. His family owned a farm in the area, but Lester’s father died when Ron was just 8 years old. So, in seventh grade, Ron dropped out of school to run the family farm.
That lasted until 1949.
“My mom said, ‘Oh, the price is really good. We should sell it,’” Lester recalled. “So we sold the farm and we moved to Green Bay.”
Lester then began working at a Sears and Roebuck store changing tires, but he also worked as a lumberjack cutting down large trees on the side. All of this physical labor growing up, Lester says, gave him quite the physique.
“I was a horse,” Lester said. “I had a 49-inch chest with a 32-inch waistline.”
In those heady post-World War II days, there was really only one choice for young men like Lester. Especially if you wanted to impress girls.
“I was changing tires, and a young man was over there, he said, ‘Hey, Ron, let’s join the Marine Corps and guard the chicks on the beach,’” Lester said. “(I said), ‘What?’ … And he said, ‘Yep, the Marines guard the chicks on the beach.’”
Except Lester wasn’t yet 18 years old. He wasn’t even 17.
“The recruiter said, ‘No, no, no, you’re way too young,’” Lester said. “… ‘But,’ he says, ‘The way I look at you, you get your mom and dad to sign for you, maybe we’ll accept it.’
“So I went back home and told my mom all about it, that the Marines guarded the chicks on the beach, and she goes, ‘No, I don’t want you getting killed.’ … ‘Mom, the Marines don’t do that. They guard the chicks on the beach.’”
Well, Lester’s mom finally agreed to let him join the Marines, and off he went to find those “chicks on the beach.”
“I had no idea what I was getting myself into,” Lester recalls all these years later. “I was looking for the chicks on the beach, buddy.
“To this day, I haven’t found them yet.”
What he did find, however, as a not-yet-adult young man, was a harsh introduction to the U.S. Marine Corps.
“I loaded onto the train, we had an escort onto it,” Lester said. “Well, let me tell you, this was the first time I was out of the state of Wisconsin, and I had me a picnic on that train. Our escort was a gunnery sergeant, and he said, ‘Young man, you’ve got a rude awakening.’ I said, ‘How can you say that? We’re guarding the chicks on the beach!’ He says, ‘Yep. I’ll say one thing: You will be on the beach, all right.’
“So off we went. We got to the receiving barracks at 3 o’clock in the morning. He gets off the bus, and he goes and talks the DI (drill instructor) onto it, and this big guy over there comes back onto the bus. And he walks on there, and he says, ‘Boys! Listen up, you people!’ And he got within two inches of my face and turned loose (for) 20 minutes. I did not even know my own name.”
Thus began a 22-year career in the Marine Corps for Lester, who went to Korea for three years in the early 1950s and then to Vietnam years before the Vietnam War became a major conflict – and a major source of controversy – for the U.S.
Upon coming back to the U.S. from overseas, Lester got into a new outfit being formed called OIS, for Operations Intelligence.
“Now, this is still silent to this day,” Lester says of his time with OIS. “So I cannot get into detail with that.”
Lester did say he participated in some dangerous covert operations in other countries, and he was one of an exclusive group of troops who made it into OIS. He said out of 200 candidates, only 47 made it.
“That’s how rigid it was,” Lester said. “Thirteen weeks of the most hell you could ever face.”
Starting a business
Lester was discharged from the Marine Corps in 1973 and settled in Mundelein, Ill., with his wife, Connie, and their young children. Lester’s own mom had moved down to Illinois upon getting remarried while Lester was in the Marine Corps, so that was where he would come back to and eventually decided to keep his own family there so they didn’t have to move from base to base while he was in the military.
But upon his discharge, Lester admits he was kind of lost.
“When I retired (from the Marine Corps), I spent about six months doing nothing,” he said. “And I ended up in the hospital. … It was a nervous breakdown, because I didn’t have anything to do. When I was in the military, I had 7,000 young men that were below me.
“… The colonel told my wife, ‘He’s got to have something to do to hold him down.’ So that’s when I started my company.”
Starting with just 109 dollars in 1973, Lester – who told his wife he wouldn’t touch his retirement money – rented out his first tractor for a week from Howell Tractor & Equipment in Elk Grove Village, Ill. What Lester made from a week of work, he used to rent that tractor for a month. Eventually, he bought the tractor, along with a front-end loader and a manure spreader.
“Beat the heck out of the dirt, and it came out like flour,” Lester said.
Slowly but surely, Lester built up his company, Lester’s Material Service, which today is operated by three of he and Connie’s seven children, Steve, Lori and Bill.
“How I ran my business was, for every dollar that I made, 85 cents of that dollar went back into the business,” Lester said. “And I survived off of the 15 percent.
“… You figure my company right now is a $10 million company. And if you take that 15 percent, that’s a million-five. You live pretty good.”
While building up his company, Lester acquired land in various parts of Illinois around Mundelein, Grayslake and McHenry County and built a 12,000-square-foot home in that area. However, Lester ran into disagreements with the building department in McHenry County, prompting him to seek a relocation.
While building up Lester’s Material Service, Lester had developed land along a railroad that stretched up to Sussex, Wisconsin, in order to bring gravel down across the border. One of those parcels of land was in the western part of Kenosha County, just north of the Illinois border, and that’s the 160-plus acres of land that Lester chose to invest in long-term and still works on today.
“With that, I said, ‘I’m coming out here,’” Lester said. “And I’ve been here ever since. I’ve owned this land for 30, 40 years now.”
And Lester says working and then eventually living in Kenosha County has been a great experience.
“What a nice county, gosh-darnit,” Lester says in only the way he can say it. “The people, the health department, everything, how they work with you. … I had a bad culvert out in the front. So I called up the county. They said, ‘Well, you have to buy a new culvert.’ I said, ‘Well, take a look at it first.’ Well, they cleaned it out. And the guy was so appreciative with my reaction, that he extended my culvert another 15 feet so I would never slip off of it.
“… They’re sweethearts, they really are. I go down to the building department over there, and these young men are just so kind and helpful. I deal with the health department. Gosh darn, the guys are super great.”
A passion for bison
Now, in the process of building up a successful business, you may wonder when Lester had time to acquire bison, which aren’t exactly common house pets.
Well, his passion for the large animal began during Lester’s military service. He began studying bison and how they survived and thrived as a survival tool for the Marine Corps.
“My commanding officer wanted me to be an instructor,” Lester said. “And he said, ‘Just reading from the book is not (enough). You’ve got to create interest in your fellow troops.’
“So I went out to Custer State Park (in South Dakota), and I spent a month there amongst the herd (of bison), watched how they did it, watched how they didn’t do it, and watched their action and how they took with the weather, predators and the whole bit.”
What Lester discovered was that bison didn’t seem to run away from danger like other animals.
“The unique thing about it was, I studied all the lions and the tigers and everything else, and they all depend on something else to eat and to make a living,” Lester said. “But the bison … feeds off of the earth, the grass … whatever.
“What amazed the heck out of me is when the wind was blowing … instead of sticking their butt into the wind, no, they turned around and faced into it and walked through the storm, instead of walking with the storm.”
Taking his knowledge and appreciation of bison into his role as a Marine Corps instructor, Lester formed a class centered around a skit between bison and man. At first, the course didn’t get much interest, but that changed quickly.
“The first class, only seven showed up,” Lester recalled. “I was livid: ‘What the heck? Only seven?’ But I made it interesting. I didn’t let that bother me. Within two weeks, I had over 120 troops that were listening to what I had to say.”
Upon entering civilian life and starting his business, Lester never lost his passion for bison. So, in 1980, he loaded up his young family into an RV with a two-horse trailer and a sign that said “Buffalo or Bust” and headed out to Yampa, Colorado, to pick up and take home four bison.
That trip had some harrowing moments.
“We had to go through Gore Pass,” Lester recalled. “We were pushing snow with the camper, with the front bumper. And my wife, looking over the edge, it was a 300-foot drop. And I said, ‘Balls to the wall. We’re going.’ And she says, ‘You’re going to kill them (the kids)!’ And I said, ‘No, I’m not. I’m a good Marine. We will get this done.’
“So, we went and got it done, got (the bison) home, and that was my start.”
Today, Lester counts 85 bison among his herd. However, if you’re looking to actually see some bison out at Lester’s Bison Farm, you won’t find them at the moment. Because it’s so dry in southeastern Wisconsin right now, Lester had to ship out all 85 of his bison to South Dakota, where he owns some land that’s overseen by cousins.
Lester is hoping to get at least some of his bison back to Kenosha County when we finally get some more rain.
“My pond has only got 10 inches of water in it right now,” he said. “And the next 10 days show no rain. So that puppy is going to be pretty dry since the first time it was built.
“… If we get some storms where I can get two, three feet of water in that pond, I’m bringing 20 of them (bison). My trailer’s already turned around and jacked up into the air and waiting to be hooked up.”
With his children now running Lester’s Material Service, you may think that Lester would choose to slide into retirement. He and Connie, married since 1958, have 14 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren, spread throughout the country, but mostly in Illinois.
But Ron Lester is always looking for a project, which is how the Country Store on the Ranch at Lester’s Bison Farm came to be.
There was an old horse barn on Lester’s property that was falling apart, and that’s what was converted into the store about 10 years ago.
“The (horse barn) was about ready to fall down,” Lester said. “It was in that bad of shape. So I told my son at that time, I said, ‘We’re going to rebuild it.’ He said, ‘Dad, it’s not worth rebuilding.’ I said, ‘Yes, it is. We’re going to do it.’ It took us five years to rebuild it. We put a canopy onto it.
“… We put in a walk-in freezer and a walk-in cooler. And we lifted the ceiling on the inside. The only thing we saved were the walls and the roof, and we went over the top of the roof, because it was sagging and I didn’t like it. So we finished the inside of the store. It’s beautiful. People come in, and they’re just amazed. Everything on the wall and up on the rail is a gift, and none of it’s for sale. There’s got to be 100 pieces in there.”
Lester sells quite an array of products from his store, including meats like bison (obviously), beef, pork, lamb, elk, venison and poultry, as well as cheeses and bread, chips and salsa, jams and jellies, pickled goods and other products.
Lester prides all of his products on being grass-fed and hormone-free.
“A lot of it, we process ourselves,” he said. “A lot of it, I go out and find it and see what it is and how it’s raised. I’m very picky about my store. I’m picky about how it’s cut. All my products have no hormones, no antibiotics and no nitrates.
“All my bacon is pure. It’s not slit bacon. We put it into a square box, so you can see both sides of the bacon, not something hidden. And all of our bacon is young material. It’s maybe 200, 250 pounds of animal. … Our pork chops … they’re pork loin chops. And it’s excellent.”
Shopping at the store is an entire experience. Lester says people will even call him to request stories, a request he’ll grant for one hour per day. Many of these stories have been honed since Lester’s childhood.
“When I was a boy, we didn’t have electricity or heat or anything else, except in the kitchen,” he said. “Our hobby to do in the evening was to tell stories, to make up a story. And my grandparents graded you.
“And let me tell you something: They were tougher than (heck). They graded you on the quality of the story. So I made up my own stories.”
Obviously, Lester can’t run his store forever, even though it seems he wants to. He says if he had to guess at anyone to take it over when he’s gone, it would be his secretary, Susan.
“I had (a customer) here the other day,” Lester said. “He came in and spent 595 bucks.
“… He said, ‘You’ve got to live forever.’”
For however long he’s around, you can bet that Lester will be working. He says he doesn’t watch TV until after 7 p.m., doesn’t listen to the radio and doesn’t even listen to music.
“I was born to be a worker,” Lester says. “I was born to be a military man. And I honor the Lord for what He has given me the ability (to do).”
And, with that, Ron Lester says you’ve just got to visit his Country Store on the Ranch at Lester’s Bison Farm and gives you a hearty salutation.
“You have a great day,” Lester says with bravado. “And remember: God bless America!”