Smiling on the Walter family farm, Leelanau’s oldest centennial farm

By Rebecca Gearing Carlson

Sun contributor

Part 11 of our Leelanau Farming Family Series.

Every time I walked into Eddie’s Village Inn restaurant in Suttons Bay (currently the V.I. Grill), the black and white vintage photos on the walls created a time capsule effect. Eddie and Mary Lou (Walter) Rothgarber carefully curated this amazing collection that they shared with every guest who walked into their restaurant. As the tapestry of pictures narrated the story of Suttons Bay and the surrounding area, the restaurant served as a semi-historical museum. I am sure I rudely walked right into a table or chair over the years while gazing at the photos because I could not help myself. Therefore, I felt so fortunate when Mary Lou invited me into her and Eddie’s home for our interview and gave me the opportunity to view, first-hand, the treasure trove of historical photos carefully arranged on her coffee table. It was difficult to select the photos I could use for this story as Mary Lou’s priceless collection is extensive and would make a fantastic addition to a Suttons Bay History Museum. With Mary Lou’s lively story-telling of the George Walter family history, I knew I was in for an entertaining afternoon.

Charles Walter

“The official date of the arrival of Harry Chittenden Sutton to this place [Suttons Bay] is November of 1854. He was not here long before other settlers began to arrive. The Lees, Dearwoods, Palmers, Alwards, the Manseaus, Bates and Quackenbush are names that belong in the [18]50’s group. Then in the [18]60’s came the Steimels, Kohlers, Walters, Smidt, Hawkins, Deuster, Bahle, Einerson, Thoreson and others” (Shrader, “The George Walter Genealogy,” 1982). Specifically, in this second group of pioneers are George and Catherine (Tröst) Walther (the last name goes through several spelling changes over the following years to Walters and Walter). After leaving the Baden area of Germany to emigrate to Canada, they make their way to the Suttons Bay area with three tightly-knit families: Kohlers, Fehrenbachs, and Kaltenbachs. A tailor by trade, George embraced farming as his new occupation when arriving to the area and building a large farmstead to the west of Suttons Bay. George’s wife, Catherine, served her adopted community as the local mid-wife and is a respected member of the community, as described in Shrader’s Genealogy: “Mrs. George Walter was good, kind and helpful to her neighbors. She was a mid-wife and only doctor in the area. She would help anyone who was sick and even stay with them.” George and Catherine have six children who all became dedicated members of the local community.

Thirty years after arriving in Suttons Bay, George Walter and his three sons not only successfully managed a large farm, George expanded the family’s interests outside of farming by investing in the Suttons Bay business community. From a local newspaper clipping in 1890, “Ground was broken on Broadway in Suttons Bay for the erection of a grand hotel and summer resort. Geo. Walter Sr an old and respected citizen of the town will be the new owner, and his son-in-law C. Simmersbach, is the proprietor-elect.” According to Mary Lou Rothergarber, George’s great-granddaughter, upon George’s death the original farmstead was split into 40-acre parcels, one for each of his children. The original farm plot was inherited by his son and daughter-in-law, William and wife Katherine (VerSnyder) Walter.

The Walter Farm continued successfully with the second generation under William and Katherine (Kate) Walter’s stewardship. They raised 11 children, expanding their farm through crops, livestock, and production. Along with cattle, chickens, pigs, geese, and ducks, a large, self-sustaining vegetable and herb garden, and apple, pear, peach, and cherry fruit orchards, the farm thrives under William’s care. Mary Lou pointed to a charming three-generation picture taken around 1915 on the Walter Family Farm. It is the last known picture of Catherine (Tröst) Walter, along with Kate VerSnyder-Walter and 10 of Kate and William’s children on the large front porch. Curiously, several of the children are smiling, making it unusual from other pictures taken at this time in which no one smiles. Mary Lou suggested that no one usually smiled in old photos because everyone had bad teeth. William’s unexpected death in 1911 forced the question of who would take over the management of the farm for the whole family. This leadership role fell to his son, Lawrence.

In the 1930s, Lawrence (Loren) Walter, did not return to school after the sixth grade.  He began apprenticing under the tutelage of Con Lather, the village “Horseshoer and Blacksmith” in Suttons Bay.  Mary Lou shared a wonderful photo of her father, Lawrence, standing in front of the Con Lather Blacksmith Shop. According to Mary Lou, her father earned “$5 a week,” and “gave over half of it to his mother to help out financially.” Lawrence developed a talent for blacksmithing and opened his own shop, “L.J. Walters Horse and Auto Livery.” His blacksmith shop operated off of a side street to St. Mary’s in the same area where Jon’s Barbershop exists in 2023. Although Lawrence found his calling in blacksmithing expanding into carpentry work, William Walter’s death created a void that his son Lawrence had to fill to keep the family farm alive.

Lawrence and wife Lois (Eddleman) Walter move into the original farmstead in about 1944 as the third generation of the farming family. Along with Lawrence’s mother, Kate, the young couple raise their eight children on the farm in this multi-generational home. As this was in the 1940s during World War II, three of Lawrence and Lois’ sons Albert, Earl, and Gerald, joined the fight, while the eldest James and youngest Charles stayed behind to help their parents run the large farm. Mary Lou fondly remembers helping around the farm as a small child. The youngest two of the eight siblings, Mary and Vera, would gather eggs and feed the chickens. She also recalled many, now infamous, Thrashing Parties. As in previous interviews, Betty Houdek Popp, Donny Herman, and Julius Kolarik all re-affirm the stories of these parties. Mary Lou, like Betty Popp, remembered all the hard work her mother put into a Thrashing Party. Katherine would plan on feeding around twelve to fourteen men. The food consisted of various stews, roasts, salad, coleslaw corn bread, potatoes, and lots of pies. Mary Lou’s most cherished memories of the farm include, “Going for walks in the hills and finding new varieties of apples and pear trees that [my grandfather] George had planted. The crab apples were delicious.” At the height of the Walter Farm under Lawrence’s caretaking, he managed four farms (over 160 acres at the time). He also continued to manage the blacksmith and carpentry shop. Many of the buildings and businesses in Suttons Bay in 2023 are places Lawrence Walter helped to construct such as Boone’s Prime Time Pub.

Unfortunately, the current local environment does not lend itself to a positive future for small farming families in Leelanau County. When Mary Lou considered my question about the future of farming in Leelanau County, she responded with a simple answer, “I am worried for some of my friends and their farms.” According to the USDA, “The most endangered type of farm is the small family farm as a place that produces and sells at least $1,000 of agricultural products per year and has a gross income of $350,000 or less.” Furthermore, small family farmers “face unprecedented and relentless challenges that threaten their income, reduce their outputs, constrain their resources, and damage their mental health.…[Thus,] smaller farms are becoming increasingly fragile economically. Most small family farms have an operating profit margin of less than 10%, which creates a high financial risk whenever anything unexpected happens” (Food Revolution). How can the next generation take on the skyrocketing costs of successfully managing the small family farm? From numerous interviews over the past six months, the answer is dismal.

Supporting our local farmers in Leelanau County benefits everyone. Buying and endorsing local food sources from small family farms creates opportunity and sustainability all around. Local people + Local food + Local money = Local Support and Growth. The long-term benefits for the community are substantial. Preserving the unique personality of the Leelanau Peninsula and its people must be given priority and will only happen by advocating for the local family farms.

Lastly, the original Walter Family farmstead is one of the oldest sesquicentennial farms in Leelanau County and still held by the family in the fifth generation. Mary Lou proudly offered this fact in the interview. As with other local farming families who are in the fourth or fifth generation of ownership in Leelanau County surviving and surpassing many obstacles over the years, this is a remarkable achievement which should be championed and celebrated.