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Palmer Woods: A Family’s Legacy


Dr. Dan and Helen Palmer at Palmer Woods.

Dr. Dan and Helen Palmer at Palmer Woods.

Dr. Dan Palmer grew up in Frankfort, and enjoyed camping out on the dunes north of town in a place called Devil’s Armchair and on the Sleeping Bear dunes. His daughter, Bridget Holthus, says she imagines him lying under a star-filled sky, dreaming about his future and filled with wonder about the universe. It is Dr. Palmer’s unending curiosity, she says, rather than ambition, which has propelled him to accomplish so much in his 85 years—from a distinguished medical career to publishing a renowned book on the ferns of Hawaii and writing a Michigan fern and lycophyte flora (not yet published) to amassing the largest privately owned forestland in Leelanau.

“His was not an easy life,” says his daughter Erin Palmer. “His father died when he was very young and his family had limited means, but he had, and still has, such a sense of wonderment about the world.” He went off to the University of Michigan where he met his wife, Helen, who was in pharmacy school with him. He later earned his M.D. in Ann Arbor and after a stint in the Air Force and at the Mayo Clinic, he and Helen moved to her native Hawaii, where they raised four children and he enjoyed a busy and rewarding dermatology practice.

It was on visits back to Frankfort to see family that he began to acquire forestland, first in Benzie County and later, near Glen Arbor.  Over 40 years, on trips back, he steadily acquired 22 contiguous parcels just beyond Miller Hill.

“I’ve always liked forestland. Even when we lived in Rochester, I was always out in the woods,” says Dr. Palmer. “Mrs. Palmer and I have seen forestry practices over much of the world—in Malaysia where they were cutting the trees down to grow palm oil and rubber trees, and in the Soviet Union and soviet occupied Hungary when forests were poorly managed, where they cut every good tree and left the junk. The northern hardwood forest we have in this part of the world is unique in that the native trees are growing faster than they are being harvested and they are now spreading back in areas they previously covered.”

Dr. Palmer with fern specimens.

Dr. Palmer with fern specimens.

The Palmers winter in Hawaii, but come May, Dr. Palmer, 84, can be found buzzing around the family’s forest in his ATV. He stops often to check on his trees or the lycopodiums and ferns he finds along the way.  “My parents have spent decades stewarding this land,” says Erin. “My dad has treated it like a garden and he is the world’s most patient gardener” says Bridget.

Dr. Palmer has practiced sustainable timber harvest methods with the help of forester Dick Cooper. Done responsibly, he says, this yields a healthy and beautiful forest. He proudly points out once-barren areas that are now filled with towering maple and cherry trees.  “He’s in it for the long haul,” says Erin. “He’s nurturing trees that take 80 years to mature—trees that neither he nor I will ever see reach full growth.”

Often one or more of Dr. Palmer’s seven grandchildren accompanies him on his forays through the woods. The Palmers spend their summers here, and their home off Wheeler Road—designed by Erin, who is an architect, — is where their far-flung family connects. Two of the siblings live in Honolulu; two live stateside in Seattle and Minneapolis.

Those connecting visits are also rejuvenating. “To be in Michigan is so relaxing,” says daughter Bridget Holthus. “I have my most quiet, restful sleep there.” She talks of standing under the stars last summer with her Dad at two in the morning, looking for a meteor shower.

“Other memories include spectacular firefly shows just out the back door, Mrs. Palmer’s delicious meals made from freshly gathered ramps and morels, campfires and scavenger hunts where Dr. Palmer would hide caches of old coins, collected over decades, in hollow trees for grandchildren to find.  Without this land, Erin adds, cousins would not have gotten to know each other so well.

Because none of the children plan to live in Michigan, the time has come to decide what to do with the land. Erin, who is an architect, said the family has considered everything from residential development to a golf course. But in the end, no one could bear to see that happen.

The family decided to work with the Leelanau Conservancy to find a way forward that would be good for both the land and those who own it. “We are so impressed with the Palmer family’s stewardship of this beautiful land and grateful to them for giving us the chance to forever protect it,” says Tom Nelson, Executive Director.

“I’m really happy to see where it’s going,” says Erin. “I’m just so grateful that the property where our kids walked with parents and grandparents will be there for generations to come. And it’s wonderful that something my parents built over decades will remain and endure with the help of the Leelanau Conservancy.”

Published in the Summer, 2015 Leelanau Conservancy newsletter.