Government takeover left some battle scars with sellers
The swimming spot on Good Harbor Bay bore his family name because of its proximity to his family farm. Today “Wichern’s Beach” is enjoyed by thousands each year. It’s known as Good Harbor Beach, part of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.
“We used to love going down there when the wind was out of the west ... the waves were huge,” he said.
Wichern, 74, still goes to the beach with family members but they wait until after crowds thin at the popular site on the northernmost boundary of the lakeshore. His family owned an 80-acre farm at the northeast corner of Co. Rd. 651 and M-22 that was split by the state highway.
Wichern’s grandfather Louis purchased the property in 1920 from Ole Joneson. It was turned over to Wichern’s father and mother, Edward and Lucille Wichern, in 1949. Nearly 25 years later, it was sought out for inclusion in the newly-created national lakeshore.
“The government hired a group on commission to come in and buy the property,” Wichern said. “The more people they talked into it, the more money they made.”
In his book From Bohemia to Good Harbor Norbert Bufka, whose family homestead was also taken by the Park Service, describes the agents as recalled by others approached by the land acquisition officers who followed a recently passed law regulating the purchase of private land for public use.
“These regulations required a fair market value but did not allow for much negotiation,” Bufka said. “Many of the officers were often ‘unsympathetic, unsmiling and unrelenting.’”
Wounds from the government takeover of childhood homes and family farms are still fresh for Wichern.
“It was take it or leave it. They didn’t have any choice,” Wichern said. “Take it or risk having it taken through eminent domain.”
Jerome Bufka, Norbert’s brother, grew up about a mile or so south of Wichern on the west side of M-22. Although the family would have owned the property for 100 years in 1980, a regulation which would have made the farm exempt from government purchase did not apply due to a technicality.
The Bufka’s were denied the exemption because the land was out of Bufka ownership in the 1950’s. Joseph Bufka had owned the farm in his name only and decided to add his wife, Agnes, to the deed. At the suggestion of the Register of Deeds, Joseph transferred ownership to the Register of Deeds, who in turn transferred the farm back to the Bufkas.
“We had cows (for meat and milk), horses, chickens (meat and eggs) and pigs,” Jerome said.
The Bufkas initially resisted the land acquisition officers as they had planned to hand the farm over to their six sons. But strong-arm tactics were more than the couple could fend off.
“Finally, the land guys said, ‘if you don’t sign this, you’re going to court,’” Jerome said. “I don’t like the way they ran roughshod over us.”
Bufka believes that the federal buyout contributed to his father’s subsequent death.
“I very much believe that my father’s health went downhill after this,” Jerome said. “He wanted the farm to go down to his sons. He was very upset about this.”
Jerome and his wife, Clara, were also forced to sell their property near M-22 and E. Traverse Lake Road, where they raised their sons, to the federal government. Today, they live near Maple City, but retain a cottage on Little Traverse Lake.
Their lakefront home is near the proposed route of the northernmost section of the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail. The irony of the park supporting construction of a paved path through the very land that was so special that it had to be preserved for future generations is not lost on Bufka.
“I’m fighting it,” he said. “They bought our land under false pretenses and should give it back to us.”
Today, as Wichern goes down to Good Harbor with his grandchildren, he tells them with pride about what had been his family farm. However, he turns his head when he goes past where his childhood home once stood.
Unlike Bufka, whose family homestead is preserved as part of the Bufka/ Eitzen/Kropp historic district, Wichern’s home at M-22 and 651 was torn down. All that’s left there is an old walnut tree and an apple tree. Wichern’s grandmother once made apple pies from its fruit.
“Going by that corner and seeing all the brush there makes me sick to my stomach,” he said. “The park doesn’t take care of it like we did. We would have held onto it.”