John Houdek’s legacy in Leelanau County

By Rebecca Gearing Carlson

Sun contributor

Part nine of our Leelanau Farming Family Series.

Visiting the Leelanau Historical Museum is like going on a treasure hunt with each visit. I send my email request to reserve a time to review plat maps and other research materials; I arrive to the museum and find that Kim, Emma and Elizabeth have laid out ‘pieces’ of history, treasures in manilla folders, along with books, and the wonderful plat maps. Everything awaits as I begin my search. The information within the folders is in the form of hand-written notes, letters, pictures, and in the case of the Willard Houdek Family, a charmingly written essay offering a snapshot of farming life. Let the treasure hunt begin!

In researching the various Bohemian Families, the book I have been using more often is The Gills Pier Bohemians (1979) with the extensive genealogy research done by Robert Ellis Schrader. At times, some of the information is problematic and hard to verify. However, as I began to search for The Houdek Family, the exhaustive ancestry work that Schrader performed revealed itself through the names and dates of all the family members. The information is not perfect, but creates a foundation on which to begin my search. In this case, I am searching for the parents and grandparents of Willard Houdek. Betty (Houdek) Popp graciously agreed to a second interview to discuss her dad and memories of farm life. And, with nicknames like ‘Big John’ and ‘Poker Joe’ in the Houdek Family, the treasure hunt takes a wonderful turn. If anyone knows the back story of these nicknames, I would love to hear them.

John Houdek, Sr arrives to the Leelanau area in the 1860s with wife Barbara and brother Wenzel, all from Bohemia. The brothers settle and homestead in the area north of Leland and south of the Gills Pier Saw Mill, owning around 400 acres of land, according to the 1880 plat map. The farms and acreage of these two brothers gets passed down through the next three generations. John and his wife Barbara are parents to nine children who become integral parts to the family farm and Gills Pier community.

John, Sr and Barbara’s son, ‘Big John’ Houdek, Jr, continues working the family farm. He marries Mary Roubal who arrives to the Leelanau Peninsula from Prague in the late 1890s according to Shrader. However, this seems problematic in that her mother is listed as a Kolarik in The Gills Pier Bohemians. Shrader also notes that Mary never “spoke English.” This piece of information raised more questions. It suggests that ‘Big John,’ a first generation Houdek, must have been able to speak Bohemian and English. Were his parents able to speak both Bohemian and English? How many of the succeeding generations could speak Bohemian?

The parents of seven children, ‘Big John’ and Mary’s sons and daughters are raised to carry on the Houdek family business of farming. It is son number six that is the object of my search, and for the past few months, during one interview after another, one name is repeated as playing an integral part of the Gills Pier farming community: Willard Houdek.

Willard Houdek meets Elizabeth Stallman at a cousin’s wedding and they soon follow to the altar. Willard and Elizabeth, living and working the original John Houdek, Sr farmstead, have six children, all of whom continue in their ancestor’s footsteps working the family farm. Betty (Houdek) Popp, daughter of Willard and Elizabeth, remembers “work[ing] hard” hauling hay, gathering eggs, milking cows and cleaning the barn. She explained the job she disliked the most was “removing stones” from the various fields before planting. Her favorite memory is of her grandmother, Mary Houdek, “making donuts.” It is also Mary Houdek who assists Elizabeth in delivering four of her six children. “My grandmother usually came up and helped my Mom deliver the kids, and [Grandma] would help around the house,” explained the Houdek family history essay. The last two children of Willard and Elizabeth are delivered in a hospital in Traverse City.

It is Willard’s threshing machine that plays such an important role in helping his Gills Pier neighbors during grain harvest. According to the family history essay, during the late summer and fall, the men “worked with horse-drawn plows, which took days on end to complete [harvesting crops such as] corn, hay, oats…[which would be] sold in Suttons Bay [to a] warehouse [and] shipped out by train or boat.” The essay further explains, “My dad and brothers had the only thresh machine in the area, so they would use it to thresh other farmers and they would pay my dad a little for gas and doing it.” What followed a day of threshing was a “big feast.” This same story was shared several times by Julius Kolarik and several other families I have interviewed. In sharing his threshing machine, Willard helps the other Gills Pier farmers and the community succeed.

The other crop that played an important part in the Leelanau Peninsula is the potato. This simple vegetable and an important food staple, the potato becomes a story unto itself. While interviewing Rich and Betty (Houdek) Popp, they asked if I had heard of ‘Potato Vacation.’ “Nope,” I replied. In the Leelanau Peninsula, ‘Potato Vacation’ took place in the fall (late September into early October) with the potato harvest. As many local farmers grew potatoes, their children would be required to help with the harvest. Thus, the local school systems allowed for two weeks off for the potato harvest; later this was reduced to one week, and then ‘Potato Vacation’ disappears along with the crop from the area. Donny Herman also remembered ‘Potato Vacation’ stories as they were connected to Betty Popp’s father and Uncle. Donny, between the ages of ten to fourteen, remembers harvesting potatoes for the Houdek Brothers Willard and Frank. Donny, his brother Victor, and two of their Priest cousins would head out to Willard and Frank’s farms to harvest the potatoes during ‘Potato Break’ (another name for the vacation).

Donny remembers Willard putting the boys in the attic of his farmhouse. With a smile, Donny said the only difficulty he could remember was when one of the boys had to visit the outhouse in the middle of the night. “If one had to go, we all went.” Donny explained the four boys were not exactly quiet climbing down from the attic to head outside. Donny said they worked long days but spoke fondly of the meals that Willard’s wife, Elizabeth, made for the potato harvesters each night. Recently, Mary Lou Rothgarber shared a fantastic picture of the potato wagons lined up in Suttons Bay on their way to the warehouse which illustrates the ‘Potato Vacation’ stories perfectly.

Furthermore, while the winters could be harsh and isolating, the women of Gills Pier gathered. The Houdek family essay remembers that “Grandmother [Mary] Houdek would spend the winter working with neighbor ladies quilting blankets at sewing bees. This was when all the area news would be [shared].” Betty Popp shared one last childhood memory of her father, Willard. Her dad delivered the children to the bus stop, a half a mile away, by horse-drawn sleigh in winter after a big snow. “It was too deep to walk through the snow to the bus stop.” Rich Popp said. There were “no snow days” from school when they were growing up.

Lastly, the Houdek family history essay shared a memory of traveling to The Gills Pier Church (now St. Wenceslaus) in the winter months. “Grandma [Mary] and Grandpa [‘Big John’]…would heat bricks on the stove and wrap them in blankets at their feet of the horse-drawn sleighs.” At times, if the snow was too deep “my Grandfather would just go [to church]…on skis he made himself.” Also, during the long winter months, the Christmas season was especially important as it was a time for all family members, from near and far, to gather and celebrate. “Christmas was the best because everyone was here, and I can remember going to Christmas Eve Mass…I felt tears of joy come to my eyes when we sang the Christmas carols that night…at our little ‘country church’ where we were all baptized.” Lovely little essays like the one I read at the historical society serve an important purpose as it details and fills-in-the blanks of dry dates and facts. It creates a full dimensional story. I am sure this family member had no idea that their essay offered such a treasure trove of information.

At the end of my time with Rich and Betty Popp, who were so generous to agree to a second interview to discuss Betty’s Houdek farm memories, they both discussed the importance of community support for the family farms. As they have participated in farmers markets and managed a farm stand for many years, both Betty and Rich explained the ways in which everyone can support a local farm by buying directly at farmer’s markets and the farm stands dotted throughout the county. Each time one of us stops and buys some delicious vegetables or fruit, we are supporting the local community of families and farmers, helping to maintain the unique character that is the Leelanau Peninsula.

With each interview, the interconnectedness of all the farming families in the Leelanau Peninsula are laid out more clearly. These families shared celebrations, farming equipment, and themselves in helping their neighbors to plant and harvest crops each season. These remarkable farmers settled the area, built their farms, grew their families and the crops, together.

As Margaret Walters stated recently, “We grew up in a time when you truly knew your neighbor.” Farmers are, and have always been, one cohesive community.