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Wollenweber: Near Northport

The James C. Soper Preserve: Wetland Preserve Nearly Doubled in Size With Addition of 38-Acre Wollenweber Property

From our 2008 Fall Newsletter

Perhaps Norman Wollenweber has said it best. The 70-something Northport native who spent nine years in the U.S. Army and a career as a fleet service crew chief for American Airlines says his life has taken him to “every place you can think of.”

“You name it and I’ve been there,” says Norman. “And there isn’t another place in the country that can hold a candle to Leelanau County. It is the most beautiful county in the United States.”

Norman’s passion for Leelanau inspired him to protect 38 acres his grandfather homesteaded that also contains the headwaters of Northport Creek. This fall, he sold the land to the Leelanau Conservancy for half of its market value because it is important to him to see a beloved swamp and surrounding upland forever protected. The acquisition is special for another reason; it doubles the size of the Conservancy’s adjacent Soper Preserve, known for its showy lady slippers. Norman’s is just one of nine land protection projects the Conservancy has completed so far this year.

The project off E. Johnson Road near Northport will protect the headwaters of Northport Creek and surrounding wetlands. “We’re grateful to Norman Wollenweber, who loves this land, and sold it to us at half its market value in order to see it forever protected,” says Tom Nelson, Conservancy’s Director of Farmland Programs. “Mr. Wollenweber is a real conservation hero in our book.”

Wollenweber, who lives in Ft. Worth, Texas, will retain a four-acre parcel on the south side of Johnson Road overlooking the preserve. He visits the area every summer, and plans to one day build a small rustic cabin and observatory on his land. “I’d like a nice porch and to clear some brush and just sit there and look at all the land and the critters,” he says. On the land across Johnson Road that he sold, he adds that he’s happy his view will not include houses that could have been built there. Instead, the land will remain in its natural state for future generations.

Wollenweber’s memories of growing up on the land include helping his grandfather to tend cattle raised on what was largely pasture land. They also grew grain to feed the cattle and raised chickens, which they sold to Anderson’s IGA in Northport. “Mr. Anderson, who owned the store, was married to my grandmother’s sister,” says Norman, one of five children.

Norman’s father also helped tend cattle as well as orchards on the land, but had a day job selling “Watkins” products all over Leelanau County. In the morning, after all the chores were done, he would leave in a van filled of vitamins, mineral blocks for cattle, household mops, washrags and other household goods, and peddle his wares all over the county.

Norman and his four siblings went to school in Northport and helped on the farm. “We cut and baled hay, planted oats and hunted during the season,” he says. The best hunting was in the swamp, which covers about half of the 38 acres recently preserved. As a child, Norman spent so much time here that Grandfather Pater nicknamed him “The Swamper.” A favorite memory or Norman’s is watching all the fireflies that congregate in the wetland. “There’s about a billion of them that light up the swamp on a summer evening,” he says. “It’s absolutely fabulous.”

When his mother, Violet, was preparing her will, she asked each of her five children what part of her 300-acre farm they would like to receive upon her passing.

For Norman, it was an easy decision. “It wasn’t the most valuable part of the property, but the swamp is valuable to me,” he says. “A lot of people don’t know that the drinking water for Northport originates in that swamp. What’s more valuable than water?”

As for the Conservancy’s plans for the Preserve, Stewardship Director Jenee Rowe says the next step is a “floristic study” and an update of the management plan “to find the best location for non-motorized recreation trails for hiking, birding, skiing and snowshoeing, and to consider the possibility of linking the trails to the Village of Northport through neighboring village property.” Hunting will not be permitted on this preserve.

“Tom (Nelson) was great to work with,” says Norman. “It was an interesting process and knowing that the swamp is going to be forever preserved makes me very happy.”

“I give Mr. Wollenweber all the credit for his foresight and willingness to partner with us to protect this property,” says Tom Nelson. “He understood that doing so will protect the water quality in this branch of Northport Creek, ensure that a diversity of wildlife and plants will have a permanent home and prese rve the rural heritage in this area to be enjoyed by generations to come. We anticipate that this expansion of our existing Soper Preserve will be yet another draw for visitors to this wonderful area. I can’t think of a better way to spend a day than to go exploring in this wild landscape and then spend a few hours visiting downtown Northport.”