Swanson Preserve–Near Sugarloaf
Open to the Public–96 Acres Preserved in 2010
Iconic Sonny Swanson Farm Forever Preserved: 96 Acres, 2,000 Feet of Shoreline on Little Traverse Lake, Beautiful Trails Leading to Little Traverse Lake
For more than a half century, Sonny Swanson’s pale yellow farm stand along M-22 near Sugarloaf was a must stop for cottagers and locals alike.
Here, they found an ever-changing display of homegrown produce, from strawberries to his famous sweet corn to wagonloads of pumpkins and squash. Longtime patron Carolyn Chormann enjoyed the produce, but cherished his honor system cash box even more, with its hand-lettered sign reminding her and others: “God knows everything. Thank you for being honest.”
“I loved how he was so trusting,” she says.
The stand, built in 1931, now sits quiet and empty; the paint is beginning to peel. Sonny died in 2008 at the age of 89. But memories of this farmer and his iconic stand live on; they were once the subject of everything from a column in the New York Times to the 1999Manitou Music Festival poster.
Those who loved the stand will be pleased to know that the Leelanau Conservancy signed an option to purchase the 96-acre farm in August. Sonny’s two sons, John and Tom, inherited the land upon their father’s death. “We have no interest in farming and don’t want to see it developed and neither do the people who live in the area,” says John, a retired postal worker. “It’s hard to let it go. But after giving it a lot of thought it is the right thing to do.” (Their sister, Margaret, inherited a house on 17th St. in Traverse City.)
“This land is special to us and to the people in the area for a lot of reasons,” says Conservancy Director Brian Price. “What you see from M-22 is just a small part of what we’re preserving.” Wetlands cover most of the property, which includes 2,000 feet of natural shoreline along Little Traverse Lake. A half-mile of road frontage along the M-22 Scenic Heritage Route and a ridge overlooking the lake are also part of the picture.
Karen Viskochil, whose family has owned property on the lake for years, calls the project “a dream realized. My late brother, David, was especially eager to see this happen. It’s the last parcel of significant size of undeveloped wetlands and preserving it will help ensure lake quality, while providing significant woodland and shoreline habitat for birds and animals, with beautiful scenery for the enjoyment of all.”
Provided that the Conservancy can raise the needed funds, about 17 acres of tillable land will remain in farming while plans for trails are being considered on the remaining 73 acres. If a young farmer were to take up someday where Sonny left off, it would be a fitting tribute. “It was his life,” says Roger Favorite, who was married to Sonny’s late sister, Eleanor. “He loved to start those little seeds and see them grow.”
Sonny also enjoyed kibitzing with the customers who flocked to his stand. “He was always passing out samples to people, saying, ‘Here, try this, try that, take it home and let me know how you like it,’” says Roger. Daughter in law Sherry Swanson recalls driving up to the stand one day to find Sonny being photographed by four women, all with cameras in hand
Sonny took pride in the freshness–and price–of his produce. If sweet corn sat on the stand for more than an hour, he would pull it. He often sent Sherry to check prices at Meijer. “He was determined to be lower,” she says.
Sonny had grown up with a brother and two sisters on the farm that his parents, Robert and Ruthella, bought in the 1920s. The children attended the Shetland House School up the road, built in 1871, where their mother taught. (Today the school house on M-22 is still painted bright red but is now a private home.) Sonny and his brother, Alfred, inherited the farm but it was Sonny who picked up where his parents left off. He commuted to his fields daily from Traverse City, where he raised a family. His wife, Edna, had a job at the State Hospital and did not want to live on the farm.
“She was a people person, and did not want to get stuck out there,” explains Roger. “She had a good job and knew how unpredictable farming was.” When Sonny’s mother passed away, the home’s contents were auctioned off and it was closed up. Sonny put a small trailer on the property and on those nights when he was too tired to drive home, slept there. After his wife passed away in 1997, he would stay at the trailer until the first blizzard. “He sold every last cabbage that way,” says Sherry.
Sonny’s toiling was legendary. In addition, to truck farming, he also had a big maple syrup operation, which his father, Robert, had begun years earlier. At one time, they tapped 6,000 trees every spring and had a “syrup house with two huge evaporators and a mountain of wood outside,” says Roger. They ran it 24 hours a day, but shut down at midnight on Saturday; the family adhered to a strict branch of the Wesleyan faith called Pilgrim’s Holiness that forbade work on Sunday.
His granddaughter, Sara Swanson, has great memories of her “PaSonny.” She and her twin brother, Bob helped on the farm after school and all summer. “He had this really funny saying,” she recalls. “We’d be working and he’d say, ‘Well kids, once we get all this work done, then we can get really get to work.’ My brother and I would look at each other and say, ‘Oh man, this is gonna be a long day.’” He had exacting standards and his way of doing things. Sara, who misses her grandfather deeply, says that no matter what were to happen with the land, “the place will never be the same without him.”
Sherry has collected photos and articles about Sonny and the stand over the years. “He was a wonderful character, and as honest as could be,” she says. “But it was like he was stuck in the in the 20s and 30s and never evolved from there.”
She recalls Sonny calling her after his wife died to say he had gone through the house and found two things that he could not identify. “One was a calculator, one was an Instamatic camera,” she says. “He had no idea what they were for. He had never been through a fast food drive through until his late 80s when we took him after a doctor’s appointment.”
For decades, he rarely went anywhere but the farm and the house in Traverse. Astonishingly, although he had strong political opinions that he shared freely at the stand, he was not a registered voter. “Why would he leave the farm to go vote?” asks Sara. “It was the only place he wanted to be.”
As Sonny aged, his family worried about him when he was out at the farm. One day he fell in the tomato patch and could not get up. It was hours before someone found him and helped him to his feet. “Every year he would say, ‘This is my last year,’” says Sherry. “But he would always be back.”
After Sonny died, the family began exploring their options. John’s son Jonathan, who shared his grandfather’s passion for working the land explored taking over the farm. But the timing wasn’t right, says his mom, Susan, who adds that it was Jonathan who led the family to the Conservancy.
“We called other landowners who had worked with the Conservancy to ask them about their experiences,” says John. “It was all very positive.” He says that Matt Heiman, Director of Land Protection, has been “helpful, honest, fair and given us a lot of options.”
For the family, it’s almost too painful to think about the future of the farm without Sonny. But Susan says that even though it will be hard to drive by, “It’s a good feeling to know it can continue on. Sonny would have like that.”
Before he died, together granddaughter Sara and Sonny listed what was so solidly in his head: the varieties that were the tastiest and best performers in the field. The Tom Swanson family has a garden at their home in Long Lake Township, where they will put Sonny’s 70-some years of experience to the test.
Plants at Swanson Preserve
Click below to see a list of High Quality Plant Species at Belanger Creek along with a summary and description of the Floristic Quality Assessment outlining all plant species found on the property: Swanson FQA Table and Summary
Where to park: there is a gravel driveway about 300 yards south of the yellow farm stand. Park in the field to the right off the driveway.