The Korson Family: Angel harvesters

By Rebecca Gearing Carlson

Sun contributor

Part seven of our Leelanau Farming Family Series.

“The harvesters are angels.” (Matthew 13:39)

I needed family pictures for this family farming article on the Korson Family. After attempting to contact Martin Korson through phone and email with zero luck, figuring he was ghosting me, I decided I could track him down at church. Stalking? Maybe. But it also allowed me to see Martin serving as Deacon at St. Wenceslaus Catholic Church. So, I enlisted the support of a friend to attend Mass with me. What better way to ask Martin face-to-face for family pictures? I would brave the 8:30 a.m. Mass for my story.

As I approached the late gothic revival church, Martin was greeting parishioners as they entered. When he saw me he smiled, knowing I wanted something. “Martin, I was hoping to get some family photos from you.” He responded, “Isn’t it better to meet in-person rather than over the phone or by email?” He kept smiling and gently shook my hand. It was almost like he knew that I would have to track him down to get the pictures. Full disclosure: I haven’t attended Mass in many, many years.

As I watched Martin offer the Introductory Rites and Opening Prayer, his dedication to his faith was palpable. The Gospel reading was Jesus’ parables of the Weeds and Mustard Seed. As both topics were so appropriate to my articles, I found myself sitting in awe wondering “How?” and “Why”? The other topic offered in another reading was how God moves in mysterious ways and people come into our lives for a reason when we need them most. Sitting next to my friend, there were no truer words. A chance meeting just a few months earlier had reconnected us; we had not seen each other since college.

Looking around the interior of St. Wenceslaus, I noticed all the gorgeous stained-glass windows. At the bottom of each window is the name of the person who had donated the funds for the window. Four of the eight windows were donated by various Korson ancestors—all related to Martin. After the service, I asked Martin to choose one to stand in front of for a photo. He chose the window sponsored by his grandmother, Catharine Korson. The window features a sheaf of wheat as its symbol. Again, kismet struck me, (divine intervention?), of attending church to write about a farming family, the readings all directly connected to my writing topics, and seated next to a dear friend I had not seen in many moons. The magic of the moment was not lost on me.

Martin’s great-grandfather, Martin Korson (1), was one of the Bohemian families who settled the Gill’s Pier area. Korson, pronounced Keer-shan, first settled and worked in Leland at the charcoal foundry that fueled the steam ships running Lake Michigan. Then the work became about clearing the land for homes and farms. Thus, timbering and the saw mill at Gill’s Pier gained importance as the community grew. Once the land was cleared, the focus shifts to settling farms. Martin Korson (1) and wife, Katherine Preye, married in Prague, had seven sons and homesteaded the area on Novotny Road as the original farmstead. This farm remains in the hands of the Korson family to this day.

Martin’s grandfather, Wencil M. (2), and grandmother, M. Catharine (Sedlacek) Korson—parents of eight children—helped build the original Gill’s Pier Church, which later became St. Wenceslaus Catholic Church, the heart of this community. The Bohemian families not only settled their farmsteads, they created an active, thriving community through their faith that continues to flourish.

Martin’s parents, Martin Joseph (3) and Helen (Kolarik) Korson, were both active in the community as well. Aside from managing their farm, which included seed peas, potatoes, dairy cows, and, later, beef cattle, Martin worked for the Leelanau County Road Commission, as did Donny Herman’s father helping to create the system of roads throughout Leelanau County. As did the Schaub, Popp, and Herman Families, the Korsons also sold their dairy products to a food co-op to bring in extra money. Martin J. (3) and Helen were parents to 13 children. Their son Martin P (4) loved being part of a big family. Martin said there was always “somebody to play with” on their farm. When Martin was 10, his big brother was sent to fight in the Korean War, which left a spot to fill on the farm. So, Martin learned to drive horses and a tractor at an early age, which he enjoyed. The farm life Martin refers to in the interview sounds idyllic with fishing, vast fields to play in, freedom to roam in the safe environment of Gills Pier, and siblings enough with whom to get into a little trouble now and then. Martin recounted when he and a brother decided to make their own corncob pipe and smoke it. They packed the pipe with their father’s tobacco and headed off away from the house. They smoked it and became very sick. “I never smoked again.” I asked if there were any punishment. “No.” Illness was the punishment.

Martin P. (4) and his wife Phyllis (Newman) Korson, a nurse at the State Hospital, met on a blind date. Their love story begins in Traverse City at a movie. I asked which movie, but Martin could not remember. However, he recounted a few different date activities: such as “play[ing] tennis and cross-country skiing.” When I asked how the younger people in Gill’s Pier dated, Martin noted “wedding dances at the VFW Hall” in Lake Leelanau and Cedar, similar to Rich and Betty Popp. Martin and Phyllis married at St. Wenceslaus and just celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in March of this year. They raised their three children, the fourth generation, on a 140-acre farm not far from the original farmstead on Novotny Road.  A fond memory of Martin’s is cutting down a Christmas tree each year on their farm with his children. For the future, Martin’s personal wish is that his children “stay in farming,” remaining connected to it however possible.

As for the future of farming in Leelanau County, Martin simply stated, farming “is in transition.” These farmers are faced with huge increases in day-to-day expenses for equipment, labor, fertilizer, and seed. Crops that used to be productive are waning. He added it is not different from times past when farmers had to adapt to changing needs. Furthermore, farmers must “find a niche” to succeed in the current environment.

For Martin, a man of devout faith, being a part of the Gill’s Pier Bohemians means “the Church” which “draws us together.” At the beginning of the interview, Martin mentioned the Chicken Dinners that most of the local Catholic Churches in Leelanau County hosted as being an integral part of community events. In fact, St. Wenceslaus just celebrated their 112th year of hosting these Chicken Dinners. There is so much more to these dinners than a meal; they are a part of the fabric of the county. Sadly, in recent years, these Chicken Dinners are disappearing. Martin stated reasons for the decline, “lack of volunteers” as “everybody in this generation works,” so there is no time to offer to the church. Furthermore, the retirees who used to help are no longer able. At one time, the Chicken Dinners, a fund-raiser for the Catholic Churches and the local community, were a favorite for politicians who wished to socialize with constituents and parishioners. As these dinners fade, so does a facet of the communal ties of Leelanau County.

The Mustard Seed Parable Martin offered in Mass is a fitting explanation of the Gills Pier community. This parable “explains the growing of the kingdom of God from the smallest beginning” (Bible Gateway). Martin explained the Gill’s Pier community “grew up together” through four generations and counting, and he was “related to most of them.” This tight-knit farming community was forged by a small group of immigrants like his great-grandfather and great-grandmother and the other families who first settled in the area in the late 19th century. Through nurturing, structure, and communal ties, this community grew. There is the beauty.

Leaving the church, I shook Martin’s hand and asked him about the family photos I still needed for the article. “I’ll see you next Sunday at Mass.” He smiled and walked back into the church.