2011 and Earlier / Special Interests

'Iconic' Dobson dies at 87

A Leelanau County icon is gone.

Rex Eugene Dobson, a Bingham Township farmer and a leader in the farmland preservation movement in Michigan and the U.S., died last Thursday at the age of 87.

A fourth generation farmer, Dobson lived on the farm his great- grandfather, William Core, homesteaded in 1865, on Center Highway in Bingham Township.
REX DOBSON, left, converses with Oscar-winning actor Ernest Borgnine during a film shoot on Dobson’s farm in 2003.REX DOBSON, left, converses with Oscar-winning actor Ernest Borgnine during a film shoot on Dobson’s farm in 2003.
In 1999, he was the first farmer in Leelanau County to protect his farm by selling development rights through the State of Michigan’s then-newly established Purchase of Development Rights (PDR) program.

His farm was so picturesque that it became the location of a feature movie production, Barn Red, starring Oscar-winning actor Ernest Borgnine who played a character very much like Rex Dobson himself in the movie.

Notified of Dobson’s death last week by movie producer Rich Brauer of Traverse City, Borgnine told the Enterprise this week that he learned much about playing the character of the farmer in the movie by watching and listening to Dobson.

“Rex was a real gentleman and he made us all feel so welcome on his farm,” Borgnine said.

“We had great conversations together,” the 93 year-old actor said of Dobson. “What impressed me most about Rex was how he quietly represented real American values of hard work and honesty and caring.”

Brian Price, director of the Leelanau Conservancy, had similar observations about Dobson. The purchase of development rights deal he helped broker on Dobson’s farm was a watershed event for the Conservancy which since then has gone on to preserve thousands of acres of land in Leelanau County.

“He really did reflect, in a very quiet and modest way, his deep values and his love of the land,” Price said this week. “Even though he lived where he grew up for nearly his whole life, I think it’s accurate to say that Rex was a pioneer by being the first one in our county to protect his family’s farm in this way.”

Dobson named his farm after his mother, Ruby Ellen (Core) Dobson. He had no children.

In 2002, Dobson and some of his relatives and close associates formed the Rex Dobson Ruby Ellen Farm Foundation as a nonprofit organization to ensure that his family’s historic farm would be permanently preserved for charitable purposes.

His cousin, Peggy Core, has served on the board of directors of the foundation since it was formed. Core is also the elected Clerk of Bingham Township. Her office is located in the historic Bingham Schoolhouse which Rex Dobson attended as a youth.

“I still live right next door to Rex’s farm,” Core said this week. “For as long as I can remember, Rex was just always there,” she said – before taking a moment to compose herself.

“He was already in his 20’s when I was born,” said Core, 64. “If my mom was ever looking for her kids, she knew she’d probably be able to find us over at the Dobsons. Rex was always so nice to us; and we were sorry to leave him when our mom started ringing the dinner bell.”

Film producer Brauer said he, too, will miss Dobson, with whom he maintained a close relationship after the 2003 film shoot at Ruby Ellen Farm.

“I’d already written the screenplay for Barn Red when I met Rex,” Brauer said. “He’d just established the Ruby Ellen Farm Foundation and we were interviewing him about that on the farm when I suddenly realized — this is the farm where we need to shoot that movie, and Rex Dobson is exactly the character I had in mind when I was writing the screenplay.”

This summer, the Leelanau Conservancy held its annual Friends Picnic at Rex Dobson’s Ruby Ellen Farm. Price said it was clear that Dobson was in poor health, and no one expected him to do more than put in a brief appearance at the picnic.

“He ended up staying at the picnic for hours,” Price said. “He seemed to enjoy having so many people visiting his farm and having such a good time there. He was always just delighted that people loved his farm as much as he did.”

By Eric Carlson
Of The Enterprise staff

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