Digging for deeper meaning at Port Oneida’s Kelderhouse Farm

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By F. Josephine Arrowood
Sun contributor

In these days and in this foodie haven of Northern Michigan, it seems that one can hardly turn around without tripping over another would-be farmer. In sharp contrast to this desire to “live off the land” (as the hippies used to say), the knowledge and experience to live with the land have diminished alarmingly since the end of World War II.

The Port Oneida Rural Historic District in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore has “the largest and most complete historic agricultural landscape in public ownership in the country,” according to its 2011 Historic Landscape Management Plan. Yet the pristine area, 4 miles northeast of Glen Arbor on M-22, is still a largely untapped, locally accessible treasure waiting to be utilized as a teaching tool: not only a demonstration of living history, but also a historical guide for how to live now.

Jim Kelderhouse has both a vision and a practical plan to adaptively reuse the farm his grandparents Rolland and Agnes Kelderhouse once called home, which is now part of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. He has been an organic farmer in Elmwood Township for more than 20 years, returned to school five years ago to pursue an environmental studies degree, and is working on a graduate certificate in historic preservation. His daughter Kim earned a degree in nonprofit management, and the two have established an organization, Port Oneida Community Alliance, with the initial goal of adaptive reuse of the Port Oneida schoolhouse and the Kelderhouse farmhouse (see “Reimagining Port Oneida” by Jim Kelderhouse, June 10, 2014 in the Glen Arbor Sun).

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is currently considering the Alliance’s proposal to create a teaching farm at Kelderhouse. But the Park moves at a molasses pace. Meanwhile, across Port Oneida Road, the old schoolhouse appears to languish under neglect. The schoolhouse is currently owned and maintained by Glen Lake School District. Over the last decade its roof and structure appear worse for the wear.

The 56-year-old descendant of 19th century Port Oneida pioneers describes his own youth immersed in the rhythms of rural life: “I’m the fifth generation with a connection to this place, starting with my great-great-grandfather Thomas. It’s not about ownership for me. My life was shaped by meals in this house, work in these fields. I’ve tapped these maple trees in the yard. I became interested in farming because of my grandparents. I thought I was going to carry a legacy here of farming.”

“The culture here is so community-minded, [but] that disappeared for me when I was 15-16 years old, and the Park came in,” Kelderhouse continues. “His grandparents accepted a 10-year lease from the Park, in part because of his grandfather’s failing health. “Those two events at the same time — losing my grandfather in 1975 and losing the land — were devastating to me and my cousin, who both wanted to carry on the farm.”

“I’d made peace with the fact that [the farm] was going back to nature,” under the Park’s initial “let it molder” policy in the 1970s and early ’80s. But attitudes about preserving the history of ordinary peoples’ lives began to change. In his thoughtful book A Nationalized Lakeshore: The Creation and Administration of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Theodore J. Karamanski writes, “Far beyond the conception of Philip Hart or Allen Edmunds, park units like the national lakeshores, which were carved out of private land, found themselves managing not just ‘islands of wilderness’ but also time capsules of regional history.”

“In 2002, I heard about Port Oneida becoming a Historical District,” says Kelderhouse. “That same year, I took a class, started writing poetry. It really hit home on a trip to North Manitou, looking toward Pyramid Point in the early morning — really powerful — looking from the island to my home place. It was really emotional for me … I didn’t realize I would feel this way, I thought I’d left it all behind,” his voice trembles.

“We as people have lost that sense of community,” borne not only of necessity but also close proximity and shared purpose. He tells how his grandfather Rolland spent 10 years in the Coast Guard, first at Glen Haven, then downstate aboard the icebreaker Escanaba. As a result of hearing loss, he returned to Port Oneida in 1936 to farm the family land. In 1939 the school, situated across the road on land that Rolland’s grandfather had donated in 1865, closed, and he decided to create the Port Oneida Community Club. He presided over monthly potlucks, social gatherings, workshops for the elderly, and Bingo — all pursued with great enthusiasm by local families for over three decades, until the Park’s creation dispersed the close-knit group.

The Port Oneida Community Alliance wants to recreate that sense of shared purpose through stewardship of the land. He feels that teaching and learning reconnection to the land, the families, and communities it nurtures “can help you find your vocation,” or purpose, perhaps even the means to creating a rich, satisfying livelihood.

“For my grandparents, it wasn’t about making a lot of money. They farmed here.” He gestures to the remnants of the apple orchard, the chicken coops, the sugar maples’ sweeping embrace. “They took care of peoples’ cottages on Glen Lake. My grandfather was the sexton of Cleveland Township, he took care of all three cemeteries. My grandparents sprayed a lot of the orchards here for the neighbors; they had the sprayer. To me, a big part of bringing back this landscape was knowing the people: the cultural memory of the people.”

“Being back here,” working the ancestral farm again, “I’ve begun to see the rationale for things my grandparents did,” Kelderhouse says. “Life is seasonal: I helped them plant the potatoes, and each year, we’d take down the storm windows, paint or repair them. The winters and the weather can be brutal here. A second thing — they shaped the fields for erosion control. The first generation exploited the land. But they were trying to survive. Each generation after had a consciousness that’s grown. Now, we have an agricultural space that’s alive and growing and accessible. I want it to be an educational space, to pursue a dream I’ve had since I was a teen. I feel so driven by this: it’s our land — by ‘our’ I mean collective.”

He sees the farm as both a rebirth in some sense of what once existed, and as a gift to the future generations, such as the one he received at Port Oneida. “This is such a great educational opportunity. Most school kids don’t have a farm, but they could come here, and dig the deeper meaning of what being close to the earth is all about. It’s a bigger vision,” says the farmer.

Kelderhouse worries over the environmental impacts that occur with greater public exposure (such as Good Morning America’s “Most Beautiful Place” designation a couple years ago, and the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail, which now reaches Port Oneida), but also sees it as a valuable teaching opportunity: “We’ve invited so many people here, but it’s not just about recreation. We need a stronger environmental emphasis; we share so that people leave here with respect, with more understanding” of how people who lived ordinary lives can have an extraordinary impact by example.

On his own farm in southeastern Leelanau County, he followed organic practices, such as planting cover crops and using locally sourced manures. At the Kelderhouse Farm’s demo gardens, “All the manure came from the Goffar Barn. I did it myself: seven trailer loads, about 60 hours. Nutrients have to be replaced somehow. For true sustainability, we’ve gotta recycle. Why not grow hay [here], bring it to the horse farms in the area in exchange for all the manure?”

Clover and rye seed garden pathways, adding nutrients to the crops while keeping the soil moist and preventing erosion. Cover crops of rye and purple vetch have been planted in the depleted rows where apple trees once stood, in preparation for next year’s planting out of the antique varieties — Wolf River, Ben Davis, Wagner, among others — now growing in a nursery bed.

Another garden area was hand-forked to remove quack grass, and now holds diverse grain varieties: oats, spring wheat, barley. “This is what the craft beer makers are growing now, after hops,” he notes of the green-gold barley feathers.

He points to another humble example that’s on trend again: preserving food. Growing up, he says, he was one of six kids with a stay-at-home mom and a dad who worked as a carpenter. “We still processed almost all our food for winter – tomatoes, potatoes, dried corn, and bushels of morel mushrooms — even living in a modern home,” in the 1960s and ’70s.

The demo “truck garden,” as such plots were called, contains tomatoes, potatoes, asparagus, and the Three Sisters of Native America: corn, beans, and squash nurturing and supporting each other. Blue “Mandan Bride” corn — most of it eaten by whooping cranes — guards heirloom pumpkins with fanciful names like “Big Bottom Squash” and “Boston Cheese.”

He laughs. “I knew what I was in for on this land.” Familiarity has bred fondness rather than contempt here.

What he hadn’t anticipated was the degree of the politics: territorial wrangling of groups that should be working together (and, to be fair, often do) over who will manage resources, receive funding, and multiple layers of bureaucracy that sometimes result in seemingly senseless decisions and shifting priorities. Meanwhile, some of the structures and fields of Port Oneida may languish, and others expire under an exhausted triage system.

“We have to help them; we assist the Park to do the things they can’t do [with longstanding budget and manpower constraints bumping up against changing attitudes toward cultural history and dramatic increases in parks usage]. We’ve got to give the Park credit; they’ve allowed us to do this demo garden.” The Park’s historical architect Kim Mann, along with Matt Mohrman, Lee Jameson, interns, and many others have been supportive, as have other descendants of Port Oneida. He also praises the many volunteers who have stepped forward, including “Friends of Sleeping Bear, other people not associated with groups. Tom Adams of the Leelanau Conservation District helped with heirloom apple grafts.”

Still, “With the adaptive reuse, there’s a lot of education required, a lot of time — I’ve put well over 1,000 hours here in the last two years.”

While waiting for a decision from the Park about the Port Oneida Community Alliance proposal, Kelderhouse seeks solace by throwing himself into the many tasks at hand: the bucket brigade of hand watering, checking for pests, reglazing and painting the window frames of the farmhouse in their original red muntins and green storms. He’s afraid that after the Port Oneida Fair, after visitors, reenactors, descendants, and farm animals all depart, the Park may shut down the Alliance’s attempts to create a teaching farm at Kelderhouse.

“I don’t know what I’ll do if they say no,” he says, looking around the farmyard and the big views of the glacial hills that cradle Port Oneida.

“All my experiences — farmer, organic farmer, environmental science degree, descendant of original settlers — all have come together in such a timely way for that maximum symbiosis. I’ve always felt that you should leave more than you take. Cultivate the young people! Find that next person to continue; true stewardship is what it’s all about.”

Jim Kelderhouse will be a presenter at the Kelderhouse Farm during the Port Oneida Fair, August 7-8.