Leelanau County Historical Preservation Society forms to save Poor Farm barn

Barbara Siepker and Steve Stier have formed the Leelanau County Historical Preservation Society to save the Poor Farm barn.

By Linda Alice Dewey
Sun contributor

Next time you drive past Myles Kimmerly Park, located on the south side of County Road 616 (Burdickville Rd.) east of 669 (Coleman Road), look at the field across the street. You might never have noticed the old white barn standing off the road, forlorn and neglected. If you did, you may have assumed she was a leftover from an old family farm, like so many others scattered about Leelanau County. But she’s not. This lady’s different.

The “poor farm barn” is the last remnant of what was once a haven for the county’s indigent residents who worked there raising crops, chickens and cattle in return for a place to live.

The poor farm was established at the turn of the last century when the State of Michigan mandated that each county must care for its own, before the federal government took over the burden of supporting those in need. Minutes of the county Board of Supervisors meeting on Dec. 2, 1901, show Leelanau County purchased the existing “Burke” Farm “consisting of 120 acres of good soil one mile from Maple City on a main traveled road in Kasson Township for $2,400. The buildings consist of two frame residences with stone foundations and cellars, one large barn with stone foundation and all the buildings well supplied with water, 70 acres of improved land and 22 acres of good timber all well fenced.”

In 1906, the two homes were replaced by a single large Victorian house designed by popular Traverse City architect Jens C. Peterson, who also designed the Empire schoolhouse and later moved to California. By 1909, William Craker was hired as the farm’s supervisor. He and his family stayed for 11 years, followed by Charles Coleman, who supervised it for another 25.

After the original barn burned down in 1911 Peterson designed its replacement, which stands today, more than a century later. Empire’s Laurel Jeris and Glen Arbor’s Barbara Siepker describe this barn in a short written historical summary: “It is a 40’ x 60’ gambrel bank barn with flared eaves and board and batten siding and Shawver-type trusses. It has a painted standing-seam metal roof and poured-concrete foundation. The top level stored hay and had an opening to the lower level to feed the cattle. The lower level has nine milking stanchions along the north wall. The original had a shingle roof, silo and a cupola which no longer exist.”

Two single-year diaries, one by Craker, the other by his wife, describe life at the poor farm in 1919 and 1920, respectively. Sadly, they only mention the “inmates” incidentally, without naming them all or describing the work they did, although they do so for the hired help. The diaries do reveal that the farm housed six of them at that time, in addition to the Craker family, one of whom had resided there for at least a decade. They only tell of calling the doctor for inmate illnesses then taking their coffins to the poor folks’ cemetery in Cedar; of an “Indian girl” who gave birth and how the baby would cry at night; and of what a good cake the girl made.

According to the Jeris-Siepker summary, that house stood for only 50 years or so, during which time the county residential support system was replaced by federal support. The poor farm became the county “infirmary” and eventually moved down the street to become the Maple Valley Nursing Home. Sometime in the mid-’60s, the county tore down the house, the outbuildings, the silo and even the unusual cupola, leaving the barn as a lone reminder to some of what once was.

Over the past 20 years, an occasional resurgence in interest in the barn and its history brought some “preservationists” together; but every time they tried to figure out a use for the barn, they came up empty once they considered what it would cost to get it back in running order.

It was not surprising when, early this year, Leelanau county commissioners voted to demolish the barn. Their request for bids to tear it down caught the attention of local historians and preservationists, who banded together. Emails went out, letters were sent to the editor, and the cause swiftly gathered community support. Their outcry, coupled with a lone demolition proposal of $66,000, caused the commissioners to listen to the preservationists and allow them six months to get their act together.

It only took five. Together, Barb Siepker (author of Historic Cottages of the Glen Lakes and former owner of the Cottage Book Shop), her husband Frank Siepker (Chicago attorney and former Leelanau Conservancy chairman), Jeris (professor emeritus at Northern Illinois University) and Empire’s Steven Stier (licensed builder with a master’s degree in historic preservation) became officers of the newly formed Leelanau County Historical Preservation Society (LCHPS). According to its mission statement, the “purpose is the preservation and rehabilitation of historic structures in Leelanau County for the education and well-being of the community.” Projects will take into account “structures important to the history and culture along with community identity and sustainability.” (The organization is not limited to this single project. “We think there are other structures in the county that need historic preservation,” says Stier.)

LCHPS received its 501(c)3 nonprofit status from the State of Michigan this summer, enabling it to receive monetary donations. As of Aug. 31, the nonprofit had received $33,875 in donations and $6,500 in pledges—one-third of the way to a goal of $100,000.

Leelanau County commissioner Casey Noonan is among those who support this cause. “I think it is important to preserve the barn,” he writes. “It is not just an old barn, it is a part of a poor farm, and I believe that the poor farms were an important part of our history, and there are very few remaining.”

But can this barn be saved? The foundation is crumbling, trusses and braces need replacing, door sills and windows are rotting … the list goes on.

“Yes, it can,” says Stier. An expert in this field, Stier currently serves as the vice president of the Michigan Barn Preservation Network. In 2015, he received a Michigan Heritage Award from Michigan State University; and this year he and his wife, Julie Avery, were given a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Michigan Historic Preservation Network.

Regarding the rotting foundation, Stier says, “I have looked at the barn several times. While it can appear very serious to an inexperienced eye, it is not very difficult to repair. There is no serious structural weakness if this issue is repaired. It affects about 10 percent of the entire foundation, and is all caused by neglect.”

At the August county commissioners’ executive meeting, Jeris, Stier and Barbara Siepker presented a proposal to lease the barn property from the county and repair it—but not get it ready for any type of use—just repair it. Stier has observed that, in the past, questions about possible uses have stymied groups seeking to preserve the barn. “We want to make sure it is structurally sound for another 50 years,” Stier told the commission.

Any type of usage can be negotiated at a future date, agrees county administrator Chet Janik, who will negotiate the lease for the county. He explains the potential deal. “In very simple terms, the Society is requesting a 25-year lease for the barn in exchange for the Society doing the fundraising and then taking the responsibility of renovating the barn at the estimated cost of $70,000 to $100,000. The goal is to create a ‘win-win’ situation where the barn is preserved without any expense to the taxpayers.” They hope “to develop a contract (within the) next couple of months,” he says.

Donations to save the Poor Farm barn may be made by personal checks made payable to “Leelanau County Historical Preservation Society” and mailed to P O Box 331, Empire, Mich. 49630. Pledges can be made in three annual payments. Donations can be made as a memorial in someone’s name. For more information, contact Barbara Siepker at (231)334-4395 or email siepker@aol.com.