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A love story in Barton: Behind the scenes with Hank and Essie

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Hank never thought himself the ‘modeling’ type. But there he was, strutting his stuff to a packed house at the Barton Roller Mill.


“Is that your husband,” said Gene Otten talking in my direction.


“Sure is,” I said. “My boyfriend always told me I should be more affectionate – – so I got two boyfriends.”



I was brought in recently to speak to the Old Barton Historical Society and shine a little light on the story of Hank and Essie.


The quarterly meeting was a hum of activity even before we got started as neighbors got caught up on activities at St. Mary’s School, they reminisced about some of the knuckle-rapping nuns, and then there was a visit by the resident brown bat who completed several laps around the room and probably wondered who let all these people in.


Once the crowd settled down and the bat found a spot in the rafters a brief history on the love story in Barton got underway. The premise is a young couple from the 1940s living in present-day Barton. They’re shopping at stores, attending church, flitting between the past and present and carrying on an old-time courtship with a foundation in faith and family values.


A hand shot up in the back row. “Where’s this relationship going,” said Diane Dricken-Flynn, owner of Reflections By the River.  “They should get married and have a baby and in that order,” she said… answering her own question.


An ingenious marketing campaign

The Hank and Essie story is the brainchild of Deb and Jeff Slais; respective local business owners of Over the Moon and Wisconsin House Woodworks.  The couple have lived more than 40 years in Barton.


They’ve seen shops come and go and they brought me in to try and come up with a creative way to light a fire in the business community and help Barton create an identity of its own – growing a trend of seeing local shops open and stay.


The ingenious campaign of Hank and Essie living a 1940s lifestyle in the 20th century has taken on a life of its own.


“I have customers come in the store and they know Essie right off the bat,” said Deb. “A woman came in from Burlington the other day and she knew about them.”


Most days Essie can be seen working her regular shift, modeling the latest fashion in the front window at Over the Moon. Hank is on the move and oft times on the street – mowing the lawn or coming back from fishing and carrying a cane pole.


The pair are keen on each other and they busy themselves in Barton, participating in life with its high points and its woes.

The story line

Essie is in her early 20s and she lives with her grandmother in the upper flat of a duplex around Roosevelt Street.  The duplex has hardwood floors, a built in china hutch with beveled glass. Grandma sits in a rocker and knits; her ball of yarn is hidden in an old paper G&H sugar bag that rests snug beside her chair.

Essie, who works as a window dresser on Main Street, is active in the community singing St. Mary’s choir and watching over her elderly grandmother who appears to be on the threshold of some form of dementia.

Hank is in his late 20s and is a WWII veteran. He works alongside Jeff as a cabinet maker and handyman. Hank is clean cut, hard working, boyishly charming and is sweet on Essie.


Marketing mania

The Hank and Essie campaign was a success by its second episode and now the tail is basically wagging the dog. Where ever I go I’m just shocked at the number of questions I get about Hank and Essie.


Stunned, may actually be a better word. I’ve had about two speaking engagements a week for the past month. In the last four engagements, which normally focus on the upcoming bike tour for Alzheimer’s or local news, the topic of Hank and Essie comes up immediately.


The only similar marketing campaign I’ve seen take on a life of its own this fast is the ALS ice-bucket challenge.



This campaign isn’t slowing down – there are now t-shirts, bumper stickers and even a Barton bourbon which will be carried by Joker’s 5 Pub & Grill.


Essie and her grandma will soon be headed to downtown West Bend and Century Farmhouse Soaps where owner Ann Marie Craig will be making a signature soap for Barton. ‘Clean up your messy with Essie’ was one suggestion.


Secret to the success

There are a couple reasons why the Hank and Essie campaign is successful.


First it’s extremely unique. Quirky, could be another term but quirky and wholesome. This Mayberry-esque story line is coming during a time when our day-to-day lives are inundated political campaigns that are like at TV reality show.


Barton – is a nice step back in time where neighbors know each other by name and you can meet at a hometown diner like Sandy’s Cafe, pick out a fresh donut under the glass display case on the counter or get a hot cup of coffee with free refills.  Take a stroll down the hill and watch the water rush over the dam or go for a stroll on the Eisenbahn State Trail.


The Hank and Essie campaign also shows off the business support of a small community that cares. The outreach to grow Team Mason for the Holbrook family during the upcoming Wash/Ozaukee Heart Walk on May 21 at Regner Park and there’s the consistent story line to Build, Boost, & Buy in Barton.


The campaign to draw recognition to the businesses and beauty of Barton is working. Stay tuned as The Sign Shop hosts a brat fry on May 7 and we’ll unveil the real Hank & Essie…. as the couple was actually found in a 1940s photo that featured a picnic at Barton Park.


Barton Park




Build. Boost & Buy in Barton  – – Shop these local businesses

          Wisconsin House Woodworks 

           Undercar Service & Repair

          Albiero Plumbing

         Master Electric

           Mies Products
           Lake Lenwood Beach and Campground
  1. Posted by Geredith Tackes

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