A Skeba legacy of backbreaking hard work, vocation and livelihood

By Rebecca Gearing Carlson

Sun contributor

Part of our ongoing Leelanau Farming Family series.

Patient, selfless, nurturers. The American farmer intrinsically understands these three words 365 days a year without complaint, without dedicated health benefits, and without guaranteed vacations. All the families I interviewed over the past eight months are multiple job holders. These men and women do not ‘dabble’ in farming. It encompasses every waking moment of their lives. Many small family farmers work day jobs in construction, excavating, plumbing, electrical, and carpentry as well as other positions to pay the monthly bills so that they can come home and embrace the vocation that feeds their souls: farming the land. There are no golden handcuffs, protective measures, or guarantees of a lucrative retirement for these tireless and dedicated individuals, and yet they persevere in farming the land that feeds us all despite economic downturns, weather concerns, and family crises. Farming is in their blood and DNA. In many cases, these families are fourth and fifth-generation farmers. As I wrote in my December 2023 story on the Send family, these farmers are proud centennial and sesquicentennial farming families, as is the case of the Skeba family from central Leelanau County. To date, the Skeba family farm began in 1877 which translates to 147 years of continuous, single-family management with lots of backbreaking, hard work, but ultimately resulting in a rewarding vocation and livelihood.

With German and Polish roots, Andrzej (Andrew) Skiba made his way first to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, married Katarzyna (Katarina) in 1872, and landed on the Leelanau Peninsula around 1876. Andrew Skiba first appears on the 1881 Plat Map of Leelanau County owning 160 acres of farmland towards the southern end of Lake Leelanau. Andrew and Katarina purchase the farmland from the original homesteader, Jacob Palmateer, for $160 dated 1877.

Of all the families I have interviewed, this was the first time I could view invaluable primary documents: the Homestead paper (1878) signed by then President of the United States Rutherford B. Hayes, the land transfer Warranty Deed papers (1877), the Citizenship paper (1898). In examining the citizenship paper, I found myself re-reading it several times and in awe of what most natural-born citizens like myself take for granted: our own citizenship. In Andrew Skiba’s case, his path to citizenship takes about 20 years.

The document reads: “…[I]n the UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, on the thirteenth day of June in the year of our lord one-thousand eighteen hundred and ninety-eight Andrew Skiba a native of Germany a petition praying to be admitted to become a CITIZEN OF THE UNITED STATES; and it appearing to the said Court that he had declared on oath before the clerk of the circuit court of Milwaukee County Wisconsin on the second day of November A.D. 1876 that it was bona fide his intention to become a CITIZEN OF THE UNITED STATES, and to renounce forever all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, State or Sovereignty whatsoever, and particularly the Emperor of Germany of whom at that time he was a subject and the said Andrew Skiba having on his solemn oath declared and also made proof thereof by competent testimony of Jacob Rosinski & Leon Perszyk citizens of the United States, that he had resided in Leelanau County Michigan and within the United States of American upwards of Five Years immediately preceding his application…[T]o the satisfaction of the Court,…he had behaved as a man of good moral character, attached to the principles of the Constitution of the United States, and well disposed to the good order and happiness of the same[.]”

Essentially, Andrew’s path to citizenship begins in Milwaukee around 1876, fulfilling his dreams 22 years later in 1898 when awarded full citizenship after demonstrating his ability to be an active, industrious, and genuine person of character in his adopted country.

Andrew and Katarina focused their efforts on both commercial and subsistence farming as first-generation caretakers. After adding another 40 acres a few years later for a total of 200 acres of farmland, Andrew and Katarina raised five children, who all became active participants in the farming of sheep, pigs, wheat, oats, and corn. The crops and gardens fed the family, while the sheep’s wool and pigs were sold commercially. Great-great-granddaughter Mickie (Skeba) Greco added that Katarina had a loom to “process the [sheep’s] wool and sell it.” As Andrew and Katarina’s son Frank produced the first male grandchild, the original 160 acres of the farm were transferred to Frank and his wife Sophie. The additional 40 acres were given to their son Albert.

When the farm passed to Frank and Sophie (Flees) Skiba and their four children (two girls and two boys), Frank continued growing wheat, corn, and oats for livestock feed, added dairy cows and a team of work horses, but sold the sheep. According to Mickie, “The farm also supported chickens, geese, and turkeys for personal consumption,” selling the eggs and cream at a local co-op. Frank changes the last name spelling from Skiba to Skeba. Mickie explained there were two possible reasons: her great-grandfather either liked the spelling of ‘e’ versus ‘i’ or the name was spelled incorrectly on his paperwork, and Frank corrected the misspelling. After Albert died his 40 acres reverted back to Frank.

Frank and Sophie’s son Edward Joseph, wife Marie (Czerniak) Skeba, and two children become the next caretakers of the 200-acre farm. During Edward J. and Marie’s stewardship, they expanded the farm’s production with fruit crops of strawberries, raspberries, and in the 1960s, cherries. Son of Edward J. and Marie, Edward Daniel (Dan) Skeba shared some fond memories of growing up on the farm with his parents and grandparents. As a toddler, “I was known for wandering off and getting lost. My mother, Marie, resorted to putting a harness on me attached to a clothesline so I would not run off.” Furthermore, he also liked to use the family dog as a step stool, standing on his back so he could reach in the live well and play with the minnows swimming in a tank. While Dan and his cousin were teasing the pigs, the pigs decided to turn the tables and began chasing the boys, right up into a tree. It took Dan’s very-petite grandmother Sophie to swat at the pigs to let the boys climb back down the tree. Lastly, Dan shared that he “hated” mucking stalls in the barn, but loved the freedom of exploring and hunting 200 acres of forest, lake, and fields of the farm.

Fourth generation farm stewards, Edward Daniel (Dan) and Ricarda (Cox) Skeba, first met in the 1960s at Tanz Haus in Acme, a teen music venue featuring bands such as Ted Nugent’s Amboy Dukes, Brownsville Station, and Bob Seger. Ricarda (Ryckie) spent her early years growing up in Traverse City and is a member of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indian Tribe which was federally recognized in 1980. Ryckie’s mother, Diana Cox, served as an Elder of the Tribe. Dan and Ryckie married in 1965 and will celebrate 59 years of marriage this year. Their two children, Mickie (Greco) and brother Edward, spent several weeks each summer on the farm picking cherries and helping around the farm with grandparents Edward J. and Marie while growing up. Mickie remembered her grandmother “encouraging” her to help “process a live chicken for dinner.” Processing a chicken for dinner translates to killing and removing the feathers, etc. Mickie stated, “I ran.”

The fourth and fifth generations of Skeba owners have witnessed the most changes to the original farmstead. After parceling off some of the acreage to family, the Skeba family still manages 120 acres of the original farm. There have been some changes to the farm’s production as there are no longer any animals, grain crops, or strawberries. Dan’s addition to the farm came in 2015, when he added another fruit crop to the existing cherry orchard: blueberries. The addition of blueberries is successful as a U-pick crop. I can comment personally on the Skeba Blueberry Farm Stand as I have been lucky enough to pick my own blueberries for the past two years alongside Mickie, her husband Paul Greco, and my two nieces. There is nothing like eating your way through the blueberry patch and popping sun-warmed blueberries in your mouth.

Dan and Ryckie’s son (fifth generation), Edward (Ed), and his family are living in the original farmhouse and managing the blueberry crops as the cherry orchard is leased out. When asked about the future of farming in Leelanau County, Dan Skeba answered, “Unfortunately, the costs of farming outweigh the price farmers are getting for their crops.” He added, “Larger, established farms may do well; however, crop prices will still be an issue.” Dan’s comments mirror the same concerns in previous interviews with other Leelanau County farmers. The question remains, “What will become of our small, family farms in Leelanau County if we do not advocate for and support them?”

For this upcoming spring and summer, I will visit and interview the families of the wonderful farm stands dotting the Leelanau Peninsula. The county’s farm stands are gorgeous, colorful, and most importantly, offer direct access to consumer products. No middleman is needed (i.e. grocery store or big box store). A customer can ask the farm stand owner about the food source, pesticide use, growing conditions, etc. I cannot wait to share the histories, personal stories, and bountiful offerings of these farm stands. It will be another lens from which to understand and appreciate the local farming families of Leelanau County. As noted by the University of Illinois extension on agriculture, “An industry that feeds you is an industry worth appreciating.”