Take a late summer drive on State Road 85 in Eau Claire County and odds are one of nature’s most colorful creations will be on display. A field of yellow sunflowers sits on a patch of farmland next to the road. There was no bigger fan of these flowers than Babbette Jaquish.
“She liked all flowers, but sunflowers are kind of a happy flower, and that was probably her favorite flower,” her husband Don Jaquish said.
Babbette Jaquish convinced her husband, a farmer, to plant the sunflowers. Her daughter Jennifer White says they were a fitting choice. “She was kind of like a sunflower. I mean, she was, like, always smiling. She was always bright. She was always happy,” White said.
She says her mother stayed positive even as she faced the fight of her life. In 2006, Babbette Jaquish was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a cancer that affects plasma cells in bone marrow. “She was really sick at the time, and so they gave her just a couple of weeks to live if she didn’t respond to the treatment,” White said. “If she did respond to the treatment, they gave her two years, and she lived eight and a half.”
Babbette Jaquish passed away in 2014. Her husband was determined to make sure her spirit lived on. “My wife was my soulmate,” Don Jaquish said. “It’ll be going on four years in the fall, and I still miss her dearly.”
The next summer, he rented land from neighboring farms and planted sunflowers. Not just a single field, but four and a half miles of sunflowers along the highway. He surrounded State Road 85 in a sea of yellow. “I just wanted everybody to know how much she meant to me,” Jaquish said.
His touching tribute went viral. The story spread on social media, and emails poured in from all over the world. “We got some letters from China. We got some from the Ukraine,” Jaquish said. “It just exploded. Everybody loved them, and Don and I kind of put our heads together and decided, you know, maybe we should make something more of this, because it’s kind of what she wanted to do,” White said.
They formed “Babbette’s Seeds of Hope,” a nonprofit that raises money for cancer research. “There’s hardly a family around of any size that doesn’t have somebody in their family that’s had cancer,” Jaquish said.
Their biggest fundraiser takes place every August when part of Jaquish Farms transforms into a sunflower maze. For a donation, visitors can explore the maze and pick their own sunflower. They also sell sunflower seeds and offer horse and wagon rides around the farm. “Babbette’s Seeds of Hope” works with the Eau Claire Community Foundation to donate the proceeds to area cancer charities. Thousands of people flock to Jaquish Farms for the two-week event. Some come to snap pictures. Others, like Cindy Schlegelmilch, come to spread hope.
“Twelve years ago, I was diagnosed with breast cancer, and I was just going to have my 50th birthday. I had a lot of other things going on in my life and I didn’t think I had time for cancer,” Schlegelmilch said. “I survived, and I’m very thankful I survived. My family and my faith helped me get through it.”
White and Jaquish both say the sunflower field has become a place for people like Schlegelmilch to share their own stories. “For me, the sunflowers have made me realize that I’m not alone. There are a lot of other people out there like me and like our family,” White said.
Schlegelmilch visits the farm every year to show support for the Jaquish family. “It’s a fun family thing to come to, and who doesn’t love sunflowers? They just make you smile,” Schlegelmilch said.
“Babbette’s Seeds of Hope” has raised more than $50,000 for cancer research. Don Jaquish’s act of love ensured that his wife’s legacy will continue to grow year after year. “It’s kind of like a celebration of her life every year,” White said. “It’s something new for us to look forward to, and to continue on, and never give up.”