Popps among backbone of Leelanau farmers

By Rebecca Gearing Carlson

Sun contributor

Part four of our Leelanau Farming Family Series. 

In the early 1980s, Richard Popp and family enter our Orchard Log Books. Like clockwork, late July or early August, the Popp family would appear at our orchard to harvest our tart cherries. The Popp family members would arrive early in the morning driving trucks, tractors, and the shaker to the orchard. My dad and aunt would get excited with all the activity beginning the tart cherry harvest. The cousins, who were sprawled out in the living room from wall-to-wall, would crawl deeper into their sleeping bags, pretending we didn’t hear anything—it was just another day at the orchard. This lasted until the call to arms came to dress, eat, and grab your weapon of choice—tennis or badminton racket—for a day of cleaning cherries, then it was everyone for themselves!

When I contacted Rich and Betty Popp for an interview, Betty agreed to speak with me but she wasn’t sure if their small family farming story would be of interest. I said to Betty, “The Popp family farming is exactly the story I wish to share.” This family figured so prominently in our Orchard Log Books for more than 15 seasons of cherry harvesting. My dad and aunt both note the “hardworking Popp family” in our log books. These small farming families are exactly the type of story I want to continue highlighting for this series. Families like the Popps are the backbone of the Leelanau Peninsula farming community.

The Popp family name begins to appear on the 1900 Leelanau Plat Map. Rich Popp’s grandfather, Joseph Popp, owned 40 acres just southwest of Provemont (Lake Leelanau). The family farmed cattle, potatoes, and cherries. Rich’s parents, William and Ruby (Crocker) Popp, continue the farming tradition raising their nine children (four boys and five girls) on this same farm. To date, this original farmstead is now in the fourth generation of Popp family owners. Rich’s favorite memories growing up on the farm include the transition from work horses pulling wagons and farm equipment to the invention of tractors. Rich added, “Hayloaders were the greatest thing,” which led to an animated conversation between Betty and Rich about their childhood memories of “Thrashing Parties” that took place in summer months.

Betty, daughter of Willard and Elizabeth (Stallman) Houdek, shared the story of her father Willard, who owned a Threshing machine that was shared with several of the surrounding families. According to the website metroparks.net/blog/threshing, “A threshing machine was used in the final stage of harvesting grain such as wheat, oats, barley, buckwheat and rye. This machine separates the head of a stalk of grain from the straw, and then further separates the kernel from the rest of the head.”  A heavy cylinder in the machine “thrashes” (or beats) the stems and husks of grain or cereal husks. Emma Keaton, at the Leelanau Historical Museum, shared pictures of various versions of the threshing machines from horse-powered to steam powered to diesel. Each summer, Willard would drive his threshing machine farm to farm alleviating the hard work of his neighbors of threshing by hand. This became a cause to celebrate, and thus the “Thrashing Party” materialized.

Both Rich and Betty explained that the farmer’s wives would put together a huge dinner for all those working the various parts of this summer harvest. The Metroparks Threshing Blog explains, “The threshing meal was the social and culinary staple of the grain harvest. It provided family members and neighbors a chance to come together to reaffirm friendships and bonds, and even promote courting and marriages among men and women. There was a strong sense of comradery among the threshing ring and their families, all sharing in the responsibility of the grain harvest.” According to Rich and Betty, a typical ‘Thrashing Feast’ included beef, pork and chicken roasts, fresh vegetables, mashed potatoes with “lots of pies” for all the “good eaters.” Furthermore, both agreed these collaborative parties were among the best memories of growing up on the farm.

Richard Joseph Popp and Betty Houdek crossed paths for the first time in Suttons Bay at a wedding dance. A contemporary of Marv Schaub and fellow basketball player, Rich attended St. Mary School in Lake Leelanau, while Betty Houdek attended school in Leland. The two happen upon each other at a wedding dance above what was Morey’s Grocery Store. As Rich and Betty explained, the wedding dances were yet another facet of the communal ties within the Leelanau Peninsula. A couple would hold a marriage ceremony followed by a private family reception ending in a “wedding dance” at one of the local halls: Morey’s, VFW, church, or someone’s barn. The wedding dance would be open to all.

After serving a few years in the armed forces, Rich returned home to a construction job working as a mason for the next 39 years. In a similar story to Donny Herman, Rich worked construction by day and farmed his land in the evenings. Rich stated that he “couldn’t wait to finish construction [for the day] and begin farming.” He added that farming is “a good life.” Both Rich and Betty emphasized this point several times. Their love for farming is evident in the numerous stories and pictures they shared with me.

The very hardworking Popps raised six children on their 100-acre farm: four boys and two girls. At the height of the farm’s productivity through the 1980s to the 2000s, Rich and Betty owned two properties totaling 118 acres of tart cherries, apples, peaches, blueberries, apricots, and nectarines. They also handled the maintenance and harvesting of five other farms while Betty managed five different farm markets a week during season. Astoundingly, they worked this difficult but rewarding schedule for more than 30 years.

Today, the Popp family still farm their orchards and run a fruit and vegetable stand at their home. Their children went on to college and successful careers outside of the Leelanau farming community. As in the case of the Herman Family, Rich and Betty may be the last generation of farmers in their family as well. Rich lamented how the life of the “little farmer” is ending because, “farms being handed down” to children and grandchildren is not a reality anymore. While farm land has a high value, farm equipment, expenses, taxes, and the day-to-day hard work are a deterrent to younger generations taking over the farm from their parents. What will it take to prevent the continued decline of these smaller farming families?

In the same vein as Marv and Edie Schaub (married 70 years) and Donny and Teresa Herman (married just shy of 60 years), the Popp marriage of 62 years is a testament to hard work, dedication, and love. As I listen to more and more farming stories, there are so many similar threads connecting these wonderful people: a dedication to community, church, school, celebratory gatherings, shared struggle, survival, and humility. In sharing an expensive piece of farm equipment like the threshing machine with other families, this action alone speaks volumes as these farmers realized they were a stronger community when everyone succeeded. Weekend farmers like my family would never have survived without the help and support from the local neighboring farming community. My family cannot thank you enough.