‘Chex Mix Lady’ Loretta Dessen provides welcoming atmosphere, lives active lifestyle

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‘Chex Mix Lady’ Loretta Dessen provides welcoming atmosphere, lives active lifestyle

By Mikayla Ostendorf

Loretta Dessen’s wooden house sits tucked away in a forest of trees, situated near two small ponds in Urbana. Every morning, she wakes up to her peacocks perched upon the porch. Although the property has hosted countless barn dance parties, summer camps and picnics, for Dessen, 82, this is home.

Since Dessen and her late husband Ed bought Farm Lake in 1955, Dessen lives on the 17-acre property, which lies approximately four miles northeast of the University. 

When sitting at her table for breakfast, she watches the birds, deer, foxes, raccoons and squirrels. She admires how these squirrels can get into any bird feeder.

“No matter where I look, I am seeing wonderful things,” Dessen said. “And then night times, party times, I see wonderful humans.”

Known as the “Chex Mix Lady” by many University students, Dessen has held barn dances at Farm Lake for the past 20 years. Since the first barn dance, Dessen has served her own kind of Chex Mix to guests at the parties as a welcoming gesture. Her recipe consists of a mixture of veggie sticks and salty snacks, such as pretzels and Melba Toast.

“I wanted something to fill kids up,” Dessen said. “I wanted to be able to get outside with the kids and not just stand around, and I wanted to put something in their tummies.”

Before she served up her famous mix, Dessen found her way to Champaign-Urbana back when she was a college student in the 1950s. Dessen originally attended the University of New Mexico. After falling in love with her husband who was a graduate student at the University of Illinois, she transferred here before her junior year.

“We were counselors at a sleepover summer camp. We had the same day off, and he had a car, so we could leave the camp,” she said. “It was love at first ride.”

The two got married while in college and started a life in Champaign-Urbana. 

After graduating in the late 1940s, Ed opened Illini Studio, a Champaign-based photography company that takes photos of weddings, fraternity and sorority parties, and more. Entirely new to photography, Dessen picked up on the skill quickly.

“I knew it was a science, and I understood what was happening, but it was magic to stand in a dark room in the old days and watch a picture develop. It was fascinating,” she said. 

Ed purchased Farm Lake to fulfill his dream of owning a lake. Loretta Dessen said she remembered thinking he had lost his mind. 

“He bought a mud hole,” she said. “But he was a man of great vision and imagination. (He was) clever and saw things here that I did not see.”

They promptly began planting trees and building a barn and a home. The Dessens started a family and had three children: David, Jonathan and Ami. 

During the summer 1959, Dessen noticed that many mothers would bring their children to play with her children and would ask Dessen to watch their kids, too. It got to a point where she voluntarily watched six to eight kids at a time.

Her husband suggested that she charge 50 cents per hour. This informal babysitting service turned into Farm Lake Day Camp, which ran from 1966 to 1981. Dessen, along with camp counselors and staff, taught swimming, arts and crafts, and archery on her property. Kids also rode horses and put on plays for parents and campers. 

A new possibility for the property arose when the social sorority Sigma Delta Tau requested to have a picnic on the property, naming the picnic “Eat at Ed’s” after Ed.

Dessen said that other student organizations started to ask to visit, and the barns started to fill up on weekends. This fall, one week consisted of two barn dance parties every single night except Sunday.

Madison Ingold, sophomore in DGS, said she attended a barn dance this fall with her sorority, Alpha Gamma Delta. She said Dessen remained calm even when students rushed to her for her famous Chex Mix.  

“She talks to everyone and is so friendly,” Ingold said. “I don’t know how she does it.”

Jesse Bohlen, Farm Lake maintenance and security worker, also appreciates Dessen’s welcoming attitude. He said Dessen “would give you the shirt off of her back if she had to.”

“She’s a good person. She’s helped me out in keeping me upbeat about my position and my troubles in my life,” Bohlen said. “She kind of takes the worry off of it.”

Supervisor of security at Farm Lake Jim Goudie agreed that Dessen is good at cheering people up.

“Being a supervisor of security, I sometimes don’t smile, so she always makes sure that I am smiling more,” Goudie said. “She’ll come up to me and she’ll get a big grin on her face, and she’ll look at me and she’ll go, ‘Smile!’”

Goudie said that Dessen loves hosting barn parties and is always smiling. Dessen tries to ensure that guests have a good time and feel safe on her property, he said.

But barn dances aren’t the only events on Dessen’s calendar. She maintains an active lifestyle, takes numerous classes and attends musical performances. 

Two weeks ago, Dessen hiked at Portland Arch Nature Preserve in Indiana with her daughter-in-law and one of her grandchildren.

Dessen is also planning a winter cross-country road trip to visit family.

“I’m hoping to take a driving trip this winter with a friend. I think we are going to try to go all the way to California from here,” Dessen said. “We’ve done road trips before, she and I. At one point, we’ve called ourselves Selma and Louise.”

She has taken the University’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute classes for five years and learned about various subjects, including philosophy, musical jazz and astronomy. 

On Friday, Dessen prepared to see the San Francisco Symphony perform at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts just before she attended the last barn dance of the season. 

“Part of going to a great university is being exposed to a lot of different things that you haven’t done before. It’s to open horizons not just for a job,” Dessen said. “The things that used to be valued in a university education are not even taught anymore. You’re taking courses to get a job, earn a living, make money — and there is more to life.”

Mikayla can be reached at [email protected]