One doesn’t get far in the county before hearing the Bahle name. Whether seeing it on the family retail boutique or recently sold golf course, the Bahles have a long and rich history in Suttons Bay and Leelanau County. We’re excited to announce that in partnership with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) through their Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP), the Bahle farm has been permanently protected.
On a warm day in May, Bahle siblings Lois, Rich and Chris enjoy coffee and
conversation in Lois’s backyard at a table shaded by a large umbrella. “Brothers Bob and Karl are away this morning,” eldest Lois explained. “It goes me, Bob, Rich, Karl then Chris.” Owen Bahle, the only child of Otto and Lena (Sogge) Bahle, is their father. He married Leila Bremer and they raised their kids to have a deep respect for the land, farming, and hard work. The family lineage in Leelanau dates to the 1870s. It was Otto’s father Lars who opened the iconic downtown Suttons Bay retail shop, which back then functioned as a general store. The Sogge family was also a large retailer in the county. That entrepreneurial spirit was no doubt passed down to Owen, along with a gift for community building. “He was Mayor, he was Fire Chief, he was doing Rotary and Chamber of Commerce, farming, all with a family of 5 kids,” said Rich.
The first family farm is off Herman Road. The road slopes into a hill, and a small road named Bahle splinters off to the farm’s location. “That’s how you can really tell if you’re local,” Lois smiled, “There’s a road named after you.” Owen and Otto grew peaches and other fruit on that farm that they shipped to Chicago. They split a second piece of land to farm in Bingham Township with two other businessmen and farmed it as a partnership. While away to fight in World War II, Owen wrote his father asking him to find farmland for sale. Otto obliged his son and bought two properties, one of 100 acres and another of 80. When Owen returned home, the Bahle family owned over 300 acres of farmland.
A close friend of Lena’s, Julia Anderson, was the last of her name in the county. She and Julia had grown up together and remained close friends throughout their lives. When a family tragedy left Julia alone, she needed to sell the farm. Owen was interested in purchasing it. “We were actively farming apples and tart cherries at the time and he wanted to expand,” Rich said. When he bought the farm in 1972 there were enough cherries growing that it was already a cash-flowing enterprise. “We farmed it, and it’s still farmed to this day. It’s a productive cherry farm on a beautiful piece of acreage,” said Chris. For his 75th birthday, Owen renovated the homestead cabin that came with the original Anderson property. Previously unlivable, now “the family uses it all the time,” said Lois.
As they reminisced about growing up on a farm the siblings couldn’t help but remember farm chores. “We had to do a bit of everything!” said Lois. Like their father, the Bahle kids worked on the family farms. They had house chores as well, and Owen was even-keeled about assigning the house and farm tasks fairly. The Bahle kids grew up knowing the meaning of hard work and family business. Their grandfather, Otto, passed in 1964. Soon after, a relative who ran one of the farms fell and broke his ribs. Rich at age 12 and Bob at 13 took on full time work for the first time at the farm. Lois was already working full-time at the retail store, though, her hours looked a little different than her brothers. When cherry season was in full swing “Full-time on the farm is sun-up ‘til sundown,” she chuckled.
The Bahle-Anderson farm is just a few miles north of the village. “We’ll head over there and take a look,” Rich said. The trio get into Lois’s car and drive a few minutes up m-22 before making a left and following a trail to the renovated homestead, where a young Bahle is temporarily staying before heading off on a trip. Closer to the road is the home of Rich’s son Erik. Erik walks over with his young son Otto perched on his shoulders. They greet each other for a moment, three generations of Bahles surrounded by family farmland. Rich smiles at Otto before telling Erik that they’re going to look at the cherries.
Deeper through the woods a path shaded from the sun is cool and opens to a cherry orchard in full bloom. “We picked the right day to come take a look,” Chris said. Masses of fluffy white cherry blossoms climb up a hill. Lois, Rich and Chris steadily walk up the sloping orchard hill for a few minutes before stopping and turning around. “Now that’s a view,” Lois said looking at the cherry trees neatly descending towards a skyline view of Grand Traverse Bay.
Though this is the first protected Bahle property, the Bahles and the Conservancy have a long history together. “I was one of the original board members,” said Rich. “Ed Collins and Carl Headland were putting together a board. I was interested in land preservation before the Leland group got going so, they wanted me on it. I was out at one of the farms pruning and this car with two guys goes racing past, then came back in the other direction, then in the other. It was a low traveled road and I thought, ‘That’s interesting.’ It was Ed and Carl looking for me.” Another reason Ed sought Rich for the board was his family’s long connection to Leelanau. Ed knew the Bahles had roots here, not only that, but they were also part of the farming community. Rich accepted their invitation and served eight years on the board.
With their history with the organization, it wasn’t a difficult decision for the Bahle siblings to protect the farm. Chris brought the idea up to his sister and brothers, and they all wholeheartedly agreed that it was something they wanted to pursue. “What people love most about Leelanau is it’s beautiful landscapes,” said Rich. “We’re getting older and they’re disappearing. We have this beautiful farm, and unfortunately, right next to it they’ve built a subdivision. It broke my heart.” Protecting their land has given the Bahles peace of mind that their farm and quintessentially Leelanau view will never succumb to a similar fate.
Chris was also thinking about the family legacy. He wanted the family to leave behind something that was not only permanent, but representative of them and the place they’ve called home for generations. “We’ve had a theater; we’ve had a golf course. When the dust settles, this land is something that we want to always be here,” said Chris.
After one more look at the view, the siblings head back. Walking down the orchard, Lois, Rich and Chris get on the path leading them back through the woods. They walk in comfortable quietness. Occasionally Rich tosses a branch aside, or a rock in the path catches Chris’s eye. The three take in the vastness of this wooded path even though they’ve walked it countless times. Still, there is always wonder. Always something new or lovely to look at. Always the orchard at the end.