Leelanau: Drawn by the Sum of its Parts

From our 2005 Annual Report

February 2005–When my husband, Dave, and I first moved here 20 years ago we didn’t call Leelanau County “Leelanau County.” Instead, everyone I knew called it, “The County.” As if there were no other. Even the people I worked with in Traverse City would say, “We’re going out to The County for dinner,” or, in conversation, “so, you live out in The County.” We who lived here said it with pride – some might even say smugness.

It was a wilder place back then, with no stop lights anywhere and far fewer businesses open past Labor Day. On my drive home to Omena on a winter night, M-22 seemed a desolate place once I passed through a sleepy Suttons Bay. Few houses past the village were lit up on those dark nights.

The sense of place I have felt since day one here was helped in no small part by geography. We could always hold up our pinky and show who we were on the big hand of Michigan. With water surrounding us on three sides, and our independent jut out into Lake Michigan, Leelanau was and is a place with clear beginnings and endings. In our hearts, we took ownership of all of it and had moved here not because of one particular spot but had been drawn by the sum of Leelanau’s parts. The spectacular dunes and views, the wild lakeshore that surrounds us, the quaint barns and orchards bursting into bloom every May, the rolling woodlands ablaze with color in autumn. We loved every berg in it and used our weekends to explore and discover each little town, beach or hiking trail.

Since then, Leelanau has grown and we’ve grown with it. Our family now numbers four instead of two. We’ve become a bit more myopic about life, focused on what’s developing around our Suttons Bay community. We watch as four-story condos transform our village, and worry about our school’s enrollment and empty retail storefronts in town. As enmeshed as we are in our own “back yard,” we know, deep down, that the health and future of our own little Suttons Bay is linked to the overall health and future of “The County.”

I was thinking about this earlier this spring as I took a drive out to Long Lake, southwest of Traverse City, to visit a niece who had just moved to the area. I had not been out that way in years. Driving out Front Street, past new medical complexes, past where the new high school was built, I could see remnants of a landscape that once looked a lot like Leelanau. The ghosts of farms were evident in the rolling hillsides now covered with new homes of all shapes and sizes.

A beautiful, weathered barn sandwiched between two new neighborhoods seemed out of place, even though it had been there decades longer. There are still some working fields out that way, but one gets the sense that it’s only a matter of time before they, too, are displaced with housing. Surely I know that loving families reside in all these new homes, and I have nothing against them. But something precious has been lost out that way. They have lost their sense of place.

As for what the future holds in Leelanau, I’ve heard it said over and over again that the economic engines that drive the county are farming and tourism. If farming is lost, good jobs go with it and tourism will surely suffer. A way of life is also at risk, along with a microclimate that is ideal for growing fruit. Do we want to let this globally rare land slip away under our watch?

To be sure, if our beautiful, productive goose that laid the golden egg is compromised too much, people won’t want to come here any more or start businesses here. Unless we think in terms of the whole goose, we are destined to, one day, look less like the Leelanau we love and more like everywhere USA. My own Suttons Bay depends on the agricultural vistas on the back roads of Elmwood Township that attract the tourists who want to drive out past cherry trees in bloom who then eat in the restaurants and shop in the stores in my little village. I cannot worry about Suttons Bay without thinking about the wetlands that protect the water quality of our lakes that bring the summer crowds. I cannot worry about Suttons Bay without caring for the wild lands at the tip of the peninsula that draw the campers and the birdwatchers. All of the natural treasures and incredible recreation opportunities that bring people here, from the Crystal River to the dunes to our freshwater lakes and stunning hillsides, are part of the whole.

One of those treasures we’re trying to protect is the Louis DeYoung historic farm. Last December the Conservancy signed an option to purchase the 145-acre farm, which includes nearly a mile of natural shoreline on Cedar Lake. This farm, situated along Cherry Bend Road just inside “The County,” is but a few miles from downtown Traverse City. You can ride your bike there on the TART trail from downtown, or peddle the 13 miles from Suttons Bay – the trail intersects the property.

Last winter my husband and I loaded our cross-country skis into the car and drove the 30 minutes from our house to the TART trail head on Cherry Bend Road. It was a beautiful winter day with the sun breaking through just as we stepped into our skis. We hit the trail and made our way past the houses lining Cedar Lake, past the Woodwinds condominium development, past the Orchard Creek assisted living center that backs right up to the trail.

And then, there was just the land itself. We passed a beautiful stream and wetland area, then an expanse of meadow hidden under snow. We felt like we were out in the middle of nowhere and yet we were just a few miles from Traverse City. After a time, we came upon a big red barn and could see Louis DeYoung’s aging farmhouse across the way. Cedar Lake lay just beyond a thick wall of cedars. I could picture the cattle Louis had grazed here, envision them crossing the field and ambling down to Cedar Lake to quench their thirst. I could imagine the barn full of milking buckets and hay, and the old Ford Model-A delivery truck that Louis drove daily to Maxbauer’s Creamery in Traverse City.

For me, this farm is where the Leelanau County I know and love begins as you make your way out of Traverse City. It is the buffer between the burgeoning growth of Traverse and the gateway to our pastoral landscape. This is reason enough to love it and to want to protect it.

But the DeYoung farm is just one of the many parts of the whole, and the latest in a long line of special places the Conservancy has protected in its 18-year history. No more important or no less important than the 640 feet of shoreline critical to our migrating birds at the Tip, or the acres of wetlands we’ve protected on Lake Leelanau, or the beautiful Crystal River, or the doubled Teichner Preserve on Lime Lake – all of which defined our work in 2005.

When I think about all of you out there who support our work I envision that support as a metaphor of our standing side by side, arms linked around the perimeter of our beautiful peninsula. Holding on tight, in a collective embrace of this place, protecting what we love for all who come after us. –Carolyn Faught, Communications Director

This essay was published in our 2005 Annual Report.

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