The Telgards and tales of a Leland legacy

, ,

Photo: Jim Telgard in a go-cart he made with his father, Martin.

By Abby Chatfield

Sun contributor

Change is difficult for many people, but it is also challenging to lead change. This is what the Telgards have been doing for five generations in Leland and how they became a local legacy family influential in protecting the town’s heritage and character. Common threads throughout the family’s history are forward thought towards its future generations’ ability to thrive and the important role they play in providing a social hub for the community. Their reputation is based on a foundation of consideration for their community’s needs—not an easy role to maintain for well over a century.

Skip, Lynn, Carolyn and Derek during the Bluebird demolition.

What may recently come to mind when people think of the Telgards is the demolition of The Bluebird Restaurant and Tavern (The Bird) in downtown Leland. A lot of feelings are attached to it, both for the public and the Telgards, who have lived in Leland full time since the early 20th century and established the beloved restaurant almost a century ago. In fall 2022, when news of demolition plans reached the public, Shari Fouch Prevost’s heartfelt response summed up a sentiment many shared. Shari worked at The Bird for almost ten years as a teen and young adult. “It was the only job I ever showed up to early and forgot to punch in. I learned the love of cooking here, how food should be, from the heart,” she posted on social media. “RIP Bluebird… you were so much to so many, a refuge, a home, bottom line…. a family. We have shown up at The Bird when life was good. We showed up at The Bird when life was bad. Oh, we made so many friends.The Bird has been a place where we have fallen in love and outta love just as fast.  We were pool sharks and cool kids. We have met famous people and locals even more famous.”

Tearing down The Bird was not an easy decision for the Telgards. Skip Telgard, third generation proprietor, had to deal with feelings connected to what was basically his childhood home. Skip and his family deliberated for years over the direction of Leland’s development and what their choices would mean for the future of both the community and the family. Their decision is something they feel can provide a future for their family and an enjoyable gathering place for the community. “We didn’t want to be the last generation,” said Lynn Telgard, Skip’s wife and business partner.

The Bird may be at the center of the Telgard legacy, but the family has brought even more to the table over five generations in Leelanau. Emigrating from Scandinavia in the 19th century, the Telgards first found their way as Northport-based boat builders. Martin and Fred Telgard built custom sailboats like the Lita, a 60-foot racing schooner custom made for George Eastman Dryden of Northport Point. “At the time, it was one of the grandest boats built in the county,” Skip said. According to Leland Historical Society archives, Martin, Fred, and Ted Craker were all involved in Lita’s construction. Years later, Skip was contacted by the schooner’s new owner, who was racing it in Australia, and sent him a photo of Lita in the 2000 Sydney Olympics boat parade. You can view the boat and learn more about it in local author John Mitchell’s book Wood Boats of Leelanau: A Photographic Journal.

Martin Telgard married Leone Carlson, a member of another Leland legacy family. According to Skip, the Carlsons lived on North Manitou Island until 1906 when they walked across the ice to the mainland, and Leone was born sometime around then. The Carlsons started the fishery in Fishtown and owned much of the land near the Leland River’s outlet into Lake Michigan until they sold it to Fishtown Preservation Society, a nonprofit formed to assure public access to Fishtown while maintaining its historical integrity and working waterfront.

Martin and Leone started The Bluebird in 1927 as a seasonal sandwich and soda shop, the same year that future proprietor, Jim Telgard, was born. It grew to be a restaurant and community hub. The couple and their three children lived above The Bird. Their daughter, Eloise Telgard (Fahs), established the original Village Cheese Shanty in Fishtown and operated it for decades.

It seems everyone views Leone as the heart and soul of The Bird. One telling tale about Leone’s warm nature involves the late artist, David Grath. In the 1950s, David attended Michigan State University’s summer art school in Leland. The story goes, as many tell it, that David arrived in town without a place to stay, so he spent the night on Van’s Beach. He stumbled into The Bird the next morning, hungry and covered in sand, right into a hot meal and a warm embrace from Leone.

She was close with her sister-in-law, Rita Carlson. According to Lynn, these women alongside their female peers, and eventually Nancy Telgard, spent hours of their lives in kitchens – washing, peeling, and cutting vegetables and other foods. They canned in the winter, prepping and cooking all summer. Their skills became the foundation of The Bird’s food reputation, forming signature recipes and dishes still loved today, such as the famous cinnamon rolls born from Rita’s original recipe.

Although The Bird closed for two years during WWII so Martin could build boats for the war effort, Leone joined him downstate in Trenton and worked at a restaurant called Sibley Gardens. The Telgards think some of The Bird’s well-known recipes were brought back there.

Dinners at The Bird became quite an event for many after WWII. Sally Biggs was a young child in the early 1950s when she first dined there. A full-time Leland resident for decades now, her family summered in East Leland and rarely visited the actual village of Leland. One exception was a traditional end-of-summer dinner at The Bird attended by many summer families.

Sally also reminisced about going to Jim Telgard’s ice cream bar as often as possible with her friends as a teen. Jim started the business in the east end of the building. The Bluebird Bar took up the middle, while Eloise ran a beauty parlor out of the west end. The original tile from Eloise’s beauty salon was found during demolition earlier this year.

Jim’s other endeavors also expanded the Telgard legacy. In the late 1960s, he established the original marine on the Leland River. What is now known as Standard Marine was originally Telgard Marine. He constructed many of the buildings and boat slips that still exist today. He also built boats in Leland. “Every Chris-Craft in town got finished by Jim Telgard at one point or another,” Skip laughed about his dad.

Jim married Nancy Alto from Traverse City in 1950. Known to patrons and staff as “Queenie,” Nancy was loved by all. The origins of the former Early Bird Restaurant are connected to her. As Skip tells it, “The Early Bird building was a Total gas station in the ’70s owned by Standard Oil in TC. Dad bought it, unbeknownst to my mother. He announced it to her, ‘I got you a birthday present…..’ We ran it as a gas station for a few years, added an ice cream business, later converted it to the Early Bird breakfast and lunch restaurant.” Nancy is also connected to the family’s acquisition of the historical brick building and attached storage units across River Street, as Jim purchased them for her as an anniversary gift. Skip and Lynn would eventually open an antique shop there called “Old Library Gifts and Antiques Store,” and eventually it became home to the Verterra winery tasting room, a business connected to Skip and Lynn.

Jim and Nancy also helped start some of Leland’s most successful school fundraisers in their time. The couple was known for supporting Leland School as prominent ticket holders at Booster Club raffles, often buying so many that they’d walk home with half the prizes. Jim and Nancy had a knack for fun as well, conjuring up popular social activities, like The Leland Snow Drifters, that many community members enjoyed. Formed in the 70s, it grew to at least 75 members who would snowmobile around the county together. Jim set up a snowmobile repair station in his woodworking shop, where people socialized and got free help repairing snowmachines.

Tourism was on the upswing in Leland in the 70s, so Jim and Nancy changed The Bird’s Victorian style to an Alpine facade. Business increased as they oversaw a 310-seat dining room. Jim ran back of house and cooked, while Nancy covered front of house. Historically a seasonal business, the Telgards turned to keeping the doors open year-round. Although the business usually ran at a loss in the winter, it helped the employees and gave the community somewhere to meet when not much else was open.

Sally reflected, “What they have provided for the community has been a place of  employment for local folks and summer kids and a gathering place for everyone. Important because there were few restaurants and bars in the county in those early years and the Telgards were responsible for excellent employee training and known for being reliable and trustworthy. The Bird was the hub of ‘downtown’ Leland and at the center of the business community.”

They raised two sons who both spent many years working at The Bird. Skip and Lynn purchased the business in 1996, but Skip’s brother and sister-in-law also invested many years into it. Cris and Kathy Telgard are best known for their business, Tampico, one of Leland’s core retail shops for over 35 years. They were also part of a small group who started the Leland Wine & Food Festival, the longest running wine festival in Michigan.

Skip and Lynn have remained steadfast partners in The Bird since the late ’70s. Their daughter, Carolyn, said, “Life for mom and dad has pretty much always been about The Bird. Day in and day out, The Bluebird has been their primary focus and where they spend the bulk of their time.” Longtime Bluebird employee, Zach Mikowski, said about the couple, “Lynn is probably the hardest working lady in the restaurant industry. Skip is one of the greatest front of house guys around. I enjoyed my time there immensely.”

Carolyn continued, “Mom is the push and the shove behind the family businesses. She is the absolute hardest worker and the most dedicated individual—to both her family and the family legacy. Without mom, I think we might not still have the Early Bird, or The Bluebird for that matter. Mom is not afraid of challenges or projects or the hardest path forward.” Despite work demands, the family meets every Thursday for dinner and organizes boxes of family slides and photographs from over the decades. “With busy lives, sometimes everyone is pretty tired by 7:30, but it is always fun and always happens. We have a lot of laughter,” said Lynn.

Their son, Derek, moved back from Tennessee, where he owned a pizza joint built around The Bird’s pizza recipe. He assists with most operations and will eventually take over the business. Carolyn is an architect and realtor. She met her husband, Michael Leaveck, in grad school at UCLA. The couple lived in a few other locations before moving to Leland to raise their family, seeking the quality of life it offered.

Michael is an architect and was involved in The Bird’s remodeling plans. In some ways, the new Bird will have come full circle, channeling its roots as a seasonal, smaller spot for people to eat, drink and gather. “Customers first take will be that it looks tiny, how large the patio is, and how close they are to the water,” said Skip.

“We’re just very excited to breathe new life into The Bluebird,” shared Carolyn. “The Bluebird as it was previously is something that we are so proud to have been a part of—and it’s something that we’ll all deeply miss. But I think what people need to understand is that The Bluebird as it was, was not something that we, as a family, could sustain anymore. And so given the choice between letting it go altogether, or pivoting to create something that was more manageable for the foreseeable future, we elected to go with the latter. The heart of The Bluebird will still be there—the food, above all else.  But it will be in a new beautiful skin, and at a new scale that we can manage.”

Many Bird patrons feel optimistic about its future. “The Telgards are an institution. Their legacy is deeply rooted in Leland. They have done a lot for the community, and I look forward to seeing the new chapter unfold,” said Zach. “I look forward to hanging out by the river, whether I’m pouring one or enjoying one.”