Past deeds meet future needs—rich Poor Farm land is best ever


Susan Zenker shows off her plow horse Finn at the Poor Farm. Photo by Mike Buhler

By Linda Alice Dewey

Sun contributor

“It was always a real special place for me,” said Rick Watson of visits to see his grandparents who ran the county’s Poor Farm on CR 616 near Maple City. Charlie and Mabel Coleman were caretakers for 25 years.

“As a kid we’d look forward to weekends when all of us would stay there at one time,” he recalled. He had lots of cousins from downstate. “Grandma was a great cook. There [were] always baked goods—fresh doughnuts and bread.”

When the new Maple Valley Nursing Home was built next door in 1960, his grandparents retired. The house and outbuildings were demolished, leaving only the barn as a lone reminder of what had been.

Fifty-seven years passed. Then, early last year, the county announced its intention to tear the barn down, causing concern in among many community members.

Watson’s concern went far beyond his own personal ties to the place. “I was really upset about it because, in my opinion, it could have been a museum or a farm museum or something they could share with the whole community. It was a landmark, and once it’s gone, it’s gone forever.”


To the rescue

Winter passed, the barn still stood, and things were quiet on that front until May, when Watson received a call from his cousin who said, ‘Hey, they’re having a plow event out there!”

That event was to be sponsored by a group trying to save the barn, the newly formed Leelanau County Historical Preservation Society (LCHPS). Last fall, the Sun covered the history of the farm and the group’s genesis. The nonprofit had just petitioned the county commissioners to be allowed to lease the building for 25 years and make repairs that would ensure it stands for a half century.

After six months of negotiations, and with help from County Administrator Chet Janik and Commissioner Casey Noonan, LCHPS signed the lease in April.


Partnering up

Meanwhile, the LCHPS board decided to go ahead and make plans for Summer 2018.

“Early fall last year we were discussing what activities we could have that would highlight the original use of the farm,” said LCHPS president Steve Stier. In thinking about that purpose—a farm which cared for the poor—he said, “Chris Skellenger and Buckets of Rain immediately came to mind, as their vision is feeding those in need, the same as the original mission of the Poor Farm.”

Skellenger’s Buckets of Rain (BoR) ran an urban farming program in Detroit’s Highland Park as well as in Guatemala. The Detroit project is supported by the re-created vegetable garden at the old Allison Farm at the corner of Fowler Road and the Benzonia Trail (CR 677) in Benzie County. In addition, students at Glen Lake High School have been starting BoR seedlings for the past five years.

Knowing all this, Stier reached out to Skellenger, who explains what happened next. “He probably knew we have a recognition and sympathy for these old 100-year-old farmsteads. If you’re looking for good soil, that’s where it is.”

However, said Skellenger, “I had no idea that this project was happening, so he had to convince me. For a while, I didn’t know if the Poor Farm was a figure of speech. As I learned more about it, that sold me on the idea.” Now he feels that the way the two projects line up is “as romantic it gets.”

Skellenger visited the farm to look for the best soil spot for the garden. “I looked at the farm and saw different vegetation, where they probably pastured the cows.” This farm had been self-sustainable; it had fed its own 35-or-so patients, so it had to have a large vegetable garden. When he found extremely rich soil, he knew he had struck gold.


Full circle

Saturday, May 26, dawned bright and warm, a beautiful day to plow a field. When Rick Watson and his Coleman relatives arrived at the farm, they were floored to see where the draft horses were going to plow.

“My gosh! They put the garden exactly where Grandpa’s garden was!” Watson exclaimed.

“That’s some of the best ground we ever found,” Skellenger told Watson.

“We grew corn and hay and vegetables,” Watson recalled. They had a chicken coop with laying hens, hogs that they butchered occasionally, dairy cattle, a few beef cattle. They did all the farming with horses. “Grandma used to hire three different women to help with cooking and cleaning,” he continued. “A lot of the men who came there to live were capable of working, so he would use them working on the farm, and that offset the cost.”

The home, he said, “was always a combination of infirmary and poor home. Grandpa would get a call that someone was down and out. He would go and check and find that person had [for example] mental illness and was living in squalor, and they’d make arrangements with that person or the family to bring them over the farm. At that point, they would divide up the assets to pay for room and board. Any surplus went to the family or county.”

“I remember one gentleman whose brother passed away, and he was living alone,” he added. “His house was filled with beans. He was harvesting them and didn’t have any place to store them, so he just brought them inside the house. That was quite a cleanup to be done.”

Watson and the rest of the Coleman clan weren’t the only ones to show up at the plow event who had ties to the past. Five women dressed in big Kentucky Derby hats from the nursing home were wheeled down the curving sidewalk that links to the farm next door. They watched the two triple-teams of draft horses plow the field, then listened to the speakers. They unconsciously completed a circle linking elements of the past to the present and the future—the barn, the patients, and future food for the needy.


The key

In reality, this new use for this barn and the land it’s on has only just begun. Food produced at the new garden will feed the needy. Half will go downstate; the other half will be distributed to local food pantries. There may even be a vegetable stand on Cold Spring Road, just off the main highway, said Skellenger, “if it looks like we’ve got the ability to man it.”

That’s the thing. Finding good volunteers and help will be key for this project to proceed. BoR and LCHPS don’t have nearly enough help although there have already been many wonderful givers.

“Alton Smith, who bought Peter Phinney’s farm (corner of Cold Spring Road and 616), has offered his equipment and his manure pile,” laughed Skellenger. “It doesn’t get any better than that.” Maybe it does. Casey Noonan hauled his manure over himself.

The Envirothon team of five students from Glen Lake School who grew seedlings for this and the other BoR gardens were there Saturday, along with teacher Karen Richard, to erect raised garden beds. They felt it was important for the community.

Even so, it’s going to take more. “This is a community garden,” declared Skellenger. “We need the community’s participation in it.” That’s why Skellenger hired Glen Lake graduate John Viswat as volunteer coordinator. He and Leelanau County’s Tom Patton, a Master Gardener, will be rounding up people to man the stand and work this garden.


A good start

Both Skellenger and Stier are happy with their partnership. “The very successful event was a great beginning and we expect our partnership will continue to flourish,” said Stier. “The Poor Farm will serve its original purpose again.”

Watson is happy, too. “I’m really glad that the effort was put forth to restore it or save it,” he said. “It’s something that should [benefit the whole community.]”


Coming up: More past in our future

There’s a lot to come with this Poor Farm Barn project.

The first of a series of “Discovery Days” will take place Saturday, July 14, at 10 a.m. at the Kasson Township Hall. The public will be invited to share any stories, documents and pictures they have about the Poor Farm, about which we really know very little. (In fact, it wasn’t until the Coleman family shared it on Plow Day that local historian and LCHPS vice-president Barbara Siepker learned that the farmhouse had a beauty parlor and barber shop in the basement.) Discovery Days are also partially funded by the Humanities grant. The Empire Historical Museum, Leelanau County Historical Society and LCHPS will collaborate in the effort.

A second Discovery Day in August will feature stories, pictures and documents shared by the Coleman family that may be unknown to the rest of us. According to county documents, patients numbered up to 20. Watson says there were 35. We have a lot to learn from each other.

Barn repairs are slated to begin later this summer in spite of the fact that fundraising, which went very well in the beginning, lagged over the winter. As of June 1, only $45,000 of the estimated $70-100,000 needed to repair the barn has been raised. (There have been 100 donors so far.) Siepker says they will have to determine how to move forward on that campaign. Anyone wishing to donate funds or volunteer at the garden can call her at 231-334-4395 or email Barb at siepker (AT) aol (DOT) com. You can also like the Facebook page, “Save the Poor Farm Barn,” to donate and/or receive notification of current events.