Rex Dobson Ruby Ellen Farm connects community with history

By Abby Chatfield

Sun contributor

The first time I noticed the farm on South Center Highway in Bingham Township seemed like I had discovered a treasure but also a scenario that caused me suspicion. Would a landowner really invite the public to hike on their private land by posting a hand painted sign at the intersection of their farmhouse’s driveway and the highway, advertising Hiking Trail Entrance? It took me a while to find the courage to stop there, because for some reason the movie Bates Motel kept coming to mind.

What I later learned to be named Ruby Ellen Farm (REF) is actually a picturesque treasure belonging to the local community and now a regular stop for my family when we need to get outside during any season. This 165-acre tract of land is home to more than 100 species of birds, all thriving on the farm due to the abundance of native plants found there. With a paddock garden planted by volunteers, various other on-site gardens, and wild flora, the property was named “Certified Bird Habitat” by another Leelanau-based nonprofit called Saving Birds Thru Habitat.

Four hiking trails loop around the farm between long lines of evergreen windbreaks and wheatfields, views of cherry orchards and corn fields framing the periphery. There are 15 historic buildings and a vast collection of farm artifacts. A gift shop, at one time the Cookhouse, is open from noon-5 p.m. on weekends from May through mid-December.

This is where I found Peggy Core volunteering her time in the gift shop, where she crafted next to a woodstove and shared stories about her cousin, the late Rex Dobson, a man celebrated for pioneering agricultural land conservation efforts in Leelanau and gifting REF to the community. Core recalled that Dobson was approached by developers, often weekly, offering big bucks for the land, but he resisted. She said, “Rex always had one foot in the dirt.”

In 2004, local filmmaker Richard Brauer filmed the movie Barn Red at REF. According to Core, the movie mirrors Dobson’s own struggle to preserve the cultural and physical agricultural landscapes.

His great grandparents homesteaded the land in 1865, shortly after his great grandfather served in the Union Army during the Civil War. Dobson moved to REF in 1927 with his parents, Harvey and Ruby Ellen (Core) Dobson. He would ride his bike, walk, or ski from the farm to the Bingham School, a roundtrip journey of about two miles every day. Following the death of his father in 1969, Dobson took over all farm operations and remained committed to the land until his own passing in 2011. He was passionate when sharing the farm with people and loved to tell tales about his family’s life there.

Dobson envisioned REF to not only remain a working farm into the future but to be utilized as an educational center offering hands-on opportunities focused on farm life. In 1999, he became the first person in Leelanau County to enter into Michigan Purchase Development Rights, a voluntary program that compensates owners of agricultural land in return for a permanent deed restriction on the land that limits future development for non-agricultural purposes. Leelanau Conservancy assisted him throughout the process.

The following year Dobson organized the Rex Dobson Ruby Ellen Farm’s Board of Directors, and by 2001 the first public gathering took place on the farm. The Board would foster the farm’s natural and cultural resources to educate and inspire stewardship, self-sufficiency, and balanced relationships with nature and the community.

The nonprofit just stepped back into hosting events for the first time since Covid-19 emerged. This year, the nonprofit hosted a guided forest walk with District Forester Ellie Johnson and Plow Day with Northwest Michigan Draft Horse and Mule Association. Building and grounds work addressed this year includes cleaning and reorganizing outbuildings and repainting part of the farmhouse, with its white clapboard siding and red shutters.

The annual Roast Pig Lunch & Pie Auction is back as well, previously feeding more than 150 guests. The nonprofit will host the public on Sunday, Oct. 8, from noon to 4 p.m., for a delectable meal and family friendly activities. Attendees can expect an auction of homemade pies and baked goods, live music in the barn, skill demonstrations, cider making, farm equipment and tractor displays, bean bag toss, a petting zoo, and a special appearance by miniature horse Westley. The farm’s hiking trails will be open to explore, along with two on-site museums. Tickets are available at the event and children under five years of age are free.

The fundraiser is one source of revenue the nonprofit counts on to keep the farm in operation. And indeed, REF is still a working farm just as Dobson envisioned. Hay sales contribute a significant amount to the farm’s budget, followed by revenue sharing with a farmer who manages the orchards, gift store sales, events, investments, and donations. Twelve to 15 core volunteers consistently contribute their time and expertise, along with others who lend hands and knowledge upon request.

While volunteers tend to the trails, gardens, and other physical duties, the nonprofit is in need of assistance with documenting museum items, preserving photographs, and performing archival work. The nonprofit wants to add content to its website but is unable to do so without volunteer help reviewing countless hours of audio and video recordings of Rex storytelling.

REF is currently in need of a volunteer coordinator and an executive director. The nonprofit supports a small staff but is 95% volunteer dependent. Although they are maintaining, according to Core, the nonprofit is not currently growing because of the need for more helping hands.

A fun event organized by the nonprofit in 2017 was a photo discovery day, when the public was invited to gather at the farm to view the thousands of photos in its archives. The event was a call to find people who could identify faces in photographs spanning back more than 150 years. Progress was made, but there are still many photos with people left unidentified, available for viewing upon request.

“Rex had a camera in his hands almost all the time,” Core reminisced. “He never said a bad word about anybody, and he knew how to make people smile. In the spring, he would always buy the first daffodils from the store and bring me one. Same with the last roses of the summer. In his last few days, several of us gathered around his bed stand and found out others had also been getting them. He knew how to make people feel special.”

You can visit Ruby Ellen Farm any day of the year at 5946 S. Center Highway and find out more at: