When Jason Kulaszewski heard about the contest to give away a 150-year-old general store in the Southern Tier Town of Humphrey, he thought he might give it a try.
All he had to do was send $40 and write a 200-word essay explaining what kind of eco-friendly community hub he would create at the old-fashioned warming post called Tickletown Trade.
“It’s what I do for a living,” said Kulaszewski. As a director of PUSH Buffalo’s Green Energy Efficiency and Solar Programs initiative, he helps property owners through the process of making their homes energy efficient.
Kulaszewski also relished the idea of preserving a 150-year-old building located minutes from Ellicottville. Since moving into his century old home on the West Side, he and his wife Krista Constantino made significant energy improvements like insulating the attic and replacing the furnace. They plan to install a tankless water heater.
After consulting his wife, Kulaszewski began composing the essay at his favorite spot in his home for writing – the dining-room table.
“It was ridiculously tough,” he recalled of his winning essay. “I spent two or three days working on it, getting it down to the required word count while making sure it captured my thoughts.”
Kulaszewski earned a degree in urban planning from Buffalo State College. A musician, he plays several instruments including bass for the band Absentee Project.
His vision for Tickletown calls for a self-sustaining, grid-free existence that would utilize solar, geothermal and wind energy. He suggested rain water catchment - to counter Tickletown's dry well - and composting, farming and raising small livestock to increase sustainability. Long-range goals included the creation of a cider mill using locally grown ingredients, and the establishment of artisan workshops and a community kitchen.
“The owner had a great vision,” Kulaszewski said of Tickletown owner Lois Hilton. “She was looking for someone to take the torch and reinvent the space.”
He emailed his entry on March 20.
In Humphrey, Hilton was disappointed with the number of entries she was receiving. Even though articles about the Tickletown essay contest had appeared in two publications, entries trickled in.
"The contest's original closing date was the end of March, and I extended it twice," she recalled during a recent phone conversation. "I kept thinking it would pick up and take off."
By the time the contest ended, Hilton received 30 essays. To ensure the judging remain unbiased, she contracted with Boundless Connections, an Olean-based technological support firm, to process the entries.
"They printed the essays out and gave them to me. I didn't know the names," said Hilton. "I selected 15 and gave them to designated (anonymous) judges who picked the winner, and the first and second runners-up."
On Oct. 8, Kulaszewski received an email declaring him the winner of Tickletown. His immediate reaction, he recalled, was shock.
“It was a whirlwind of emotions,” he said. “I had known about what they were doing and the community she was building, a progressive community grounded in sustainable gardening and building practices."
The two runners-up had similar thoughts.
First runner-up Melissa Rivers from Phoenix, Ariz., envisioned a food co-op that would power a Meals on Wheels operation. Her plans also called for the development of an ecologically-themed education hub.
Second runner-up Joe Stahlman of Bloomington, Ind., is a Tuscarora whose desire to "live directly off the land" motivated his submission.
All along, Hilton - a self-proclaimed tree hugger - wanted Tickletown's rehab accomplished in a renewable way. As she read the essays on her Smart phone in the woods surrounding Tickletown, she searched for the best candidate to take over the property "free and clear."
Hilton purchased the rambling wood frame structure built in the mid-1900s for $22,000. It was 1986, and Hilton was going through a divorce. She saw the general store as a way to support herself and her two daughters.
Youngest daughter Love Slating was a sophomore in Ellicottville Central High School when her mother bought "the store." Moving into Tickletown was a step up compared to the log cabin they lived in before, Slating recalled.
"My mom's always been focused on leaving a small footprint, living in a log cabin with no running water. My friends had a phone and TV and we lived in a cabin. We used kerosene lanterns for light and heated by burning wood."
Slating, who is 46, is a special education teacher with the Buffalo Public Schools. She lives in Allentown with her fiance who – in true Buffalo fashion – is related to Kulaszewski's wife.
"It's an interesting connection," Slating said. "I'm engaged to his wife's brother. I had actually taken Jason down there and encouraged him to enter. He and my mom have similar philosophies."
Now that Tickletown is on the brink of new ownership, Slating admitted it's difficult thinking of her mother living in any other place.
"It's been a tough year. My grandparents died. We're selling their house in Angola, and we're giving away Tickletown. But it's really what she wanted. Most people would not give something away – at least not in this country. I am so proud of her. She's lived there for so long now."
In making the decision to leave her home of 30 years, Hilton said it was the right time to move on.
"Look, I'm 67, and I don't have the energy," Hilton said. "I had a bad bout with bone cancer, but I've been cancer free for eight years.
"It makes you realize you're mortal, and I was always thinking about some big dream in the future. I realized I needed to live in the now, and the only way that would happen is to get rid of Tickletown. I was concerned about all the people who gathered here."
Not to mention Nikki the cat. At age 16, Nikki earned her keep by being a prized mouse hunter. Nikki stays with the property, Hilton decreed.
The monthly full-moon festivals and music festivals will continue – for now. A fundraising page to ease Hilton's transition has been established.
"I have goals," said Hilton, who foresees a transition phase of about four years. "I want to protect the woodlands right now. I may have to keep Tickletown as my residence for a while. In a pinch I could live in the woods."