On a Grafton farm, a real field of dreams

Lester Bartel (right) built a softball field on his Town of Grafton farm and named it Lebon Park for him and his wife Bonnie. His two daughters played on the field, and his son Nick (center) today uses the diamond with his Special Olympics team. Photo by Sam Arendt
Ozaukee Press staff

For many parents, there’s nothing like watching their children partake in America’s national pastime.

But most don’t do it from their own front yard.

Lester Bartel of the Town of Grafton is the exception.

Bartel built a regulation high school fast-pitch softball field on his 45-acre property in 2002. He calls it Lebon Park, named for him and his wife Bonnie.

Hundreds of children have hit, fielded, caught, thrown and pitched on the field.

“Our farm has been a home for wayward children for years,” Bartel said.

The idea to put in a field started when Bartel’s youngest daughter’s club team, the Stingers, was struggling to find a place to practice.

Bartel, who is chairman of the Town of Grafton, gave up running his 90-cow dairy farm in 1996 and had room to spare. Being a farmer, he also had equipment to work the field.

The key was finding a backstop and fence. Bartel was in luck. John Long Middle School was being expanded, and one of its baseball fences was going to come down.

He called the school district superintendent, who first told Bartel he would have to bid on the equipment. But the superintendent called back later and said it was being thrown away and directed Bartel to the demolition company.

Bartel asked what the company wanted for the fence. They said a couple of cases of beer.

“That’ll work,” Bartel said.

The company saved the poles, rolled up the fence and put them all on Bartel’s trailer.

“Once I got that, we’re going now,” he said.

The poles still had their concrete bases. Bartel cut out holes in his property so they would fit and used a tractor and chain to put them in.

That wasn’t the most challenging task.

“The tricky part is measuring out so everything got in the right place,” he said. “It took a little trial and error and digging up my algebra and geometry.”

The former handyman did all the work himself. He estimates it took 500 man hours and $3,000 over two years.

His daughters Kim, 36, and Alyssa, 25, spent hours on the field Alyssa, he said, “probably threw 20,000 to 30,000 pitches on that diamond.”

Bartel was catcher — “me and my bucket,” he said.

Those kinds of memories made the investment pay off.

“That’s the precious thing. I’ve got countless hours with the girls I wouldn’t have had otherwise,” he said, “and for that it was all worth it.”

Besides the Stingers, Little League and neighborhood children would play on the field, and Bartel found a way to fill another need a few years ago.

His 30-year-old son Nick plays with the Special Olympics softball team that would often practice on rough and grassy fields. Now, two teams practice twice per week at Lebon Park.

Regardless of who plays there, admission is free.

“Nobody’s ever paid a dollar to use it,” he said. “It’s there to be used, not to be looked at.”

It’s always standing room only at the field — literally, “unless you bring your own lawn chair,” Bartel said.

Some spectators come on bikes. The Ozaukee Interurban Trail is 190 feet from home plate.

“People would be stopping on their bikes watching,” Bartel said.

Lebon Park doesn’t offer concessions, “but we had to open up the bathrooms a couple of times,” Bartel said.

Bartel drags the field every couple of weeks with a spiked tool he bought at an auction, originally for farming and other projects. He said controlling the weeds is the hardest job.

Bartel has chalk marker for base paths and strings to ensure proper distance.

He toyed with the idea of putting up lights at one point. He had eight to 10 poles from the bike trail, but determined that would be too much work.

“That idea didn’t go very far,” he said.

A big tree protects the Bartels’ house from foul balls, but they often land in farm fields.

“Sometimes, we don’t find them and we find them during harvest,” Bartel said.

The field represents one of Bartel’s lifelong passions. His mantra in life, he said, is the famous James Earl Jones speech in the movie “Field of Dreams” that includes the line, “people will come.”

Besides Special Olympics, more people may be coming soon.

The Bartels have 9 and 6-year-old granddaughters and a 2-year-old grandson, all who live two miles away by car and a half mile via walking.

Though not a standout athlete — his claim to fame was running a five-minute mile in high school and taking third in a junior wrestling tournament — Bartel has been involved in baseball and softball much of his life. 

He has coached Little League and the Stingers and has been the varsity softball assistant coach. He is a master softball umpire and also calls baseball games.

Bonnie Bartel, who serves as the Town of Grafton’s treasurer and administrator, has accepted her husband’s hobby.

“Him and softball, he’ll never get out of that,” she said.

She supported the idea to build the field.

“I thought it was a good use for the land,” she said.

Like anyone with a passion, Lester said  finishing the field came with a sense of satisfaction, relief and pride.

“You realize the ride was the enjoyable part,” he said.

He carries countless memories from the field, including a learning moment. He remembers once children began to argue while playing, and one of the mothers came to Bartel and suggested he intervene.

He declined. If they don’t stop arguing, he said, they won’t play. Sooner or later, he told her, the desire to play will outweigh the desire to argue.

“They’re getting a social education,” he said.

Bartel still farms — now he has beef cattle and wheat and soybeans for cash crops — and works as a feed and food ingredient salesman.

“I always tell people I farm just enough to remember why I don’t do it anymore,” he said.

His enjoyment remains the sights and sounds of children taking up the great American pastime.

“Nothing makes me happier than driving home and seeing some of the kids playing ball,” he said.





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Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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