2017-10-05 / Life in Leelanau

Working with ghosts of island pioneers

Keeping Manitou farms open
By Joe Kruch


JOE KRUCH fell in love with the lore of the agrarian lifestyle of South Manitou, volunteering as a tractor operator to restore island farm fields. JOE KRUCH fell in love with the lore of the agrarian lifestyle of South Manitou, volunteering as a tractor operator to restore island farm fields. Editor’s note: The story below was written by a West Branch resident, who grew up on the farm where he now resides. He changed from avid backpacker to a keeper of South Manitous lore after getting to know island inhabitants. Mr. Kruch devoted most of his vacation time over 11 years to the restoration of abandoned farmsteads that at one time played a national role in agriculture due to their isolation from the mainland. Here is story.

Farming history is being restored and retained at the Conrad Hutzler and August Beck farmsteads on South Manitou Island.

About 20 acres have been cleared at each of these farms along with a remnant orchard, hillside looking down from the Hutzler grave, and uncovered foundations at the sites.


JOE AND Nancy Kruch are shown South Manitou. on JOE AND Nancy Kruch are shown South Manitou. on Now the farms give a semblance of the once-thriving farms joined by two track trails in this 19th century rural setting.

More importantly is the Conrad Hutzler farm with its national significance. George and Luis Hutzler propagated prizewinning Hybrid Rosen Rye seed and Michelite Pea Bean seed crops. Michigan State College, now Michigan State university, in circa 1918 began working with island farmers to grow these seed crops because of the islands’ isolation from mainland pollens and the farmers’ tight-knit community.

The result led to the eventual quadrupling of the nation’s Rosen Rye production and national prominence of the Michelite Pea Beans.

It was estimated in 1946 that at least 80 percent of all pea beans were of the Michelite variety and derived from seed stock grown on South Manitou Island.

As a frequent backpacker to South Manitou since 1979, I now feel fortunate to have met and witnessed the final years of many of the people who made the island their summer home. This leads one to greatly appreciate the island’s human history along with its natural beauty and solitude.

All islands are a world onto themselves, bound by their shorelines. Ironically, it was my first trip to the Smokey Mountains National Park in 2004 while visiting Cades Cove known for its large collection of regional log structures that made me aware of the uniqueness of our Port Onieda Historic District and South Manitou Island for their farmstead architectural and rural cultural landscape. Seeing the widespread graffiti of names scratched into the logs, the chinking of walls and ceilings of Cades Cove cabins and even graffiti on the lecterns and framework of churches belonging to Smokey Mountains National Park left me with disgust. But I also left with a desire to make a positive mark by giving something back to our Manitou Islands history .

With fields and trails disappearing over the years due to little human activity and prolific plant growth, the island was becoming increasingly inaccessible. I started volunteering in 2005 with the good folks from Preserve Historic Sleeping Bear with partial funding from Manitou Islands Memorial Society (MIMS). I sought to clear fields as a tractor operator, and ultimately was the primary mover in clearing some of the fields at the Hutzler farm. I worked with like-minded volunteers with the use of NPS equipment and some of my own.

After that first year, I came back as a Volunteer in the Park (VIP) then under the Manitou Islands Memorial Society. A sense of purpose had taken root, which led me to spend the majority of my annual vacation time from 2005 until June of 2016 on the island. Some times I worked in 80- to 90-degree heat and rain with poison ivy everywhere. But I felt a great camaraderie with a brother and a friend, fellow long time Manitou island back packers. At other times with my spouse, leading MIMS volunteers in restoration of the nearby August Beck Farm House.

I also found myself often working alone with the ghosts of those pioneer farmers. Cutting with saw, putting into piles the bushes and trees too big for the tractor mower, and mowing the regrowth year after year until now the field can be mowed by other volunteers and NPS maintenance staff. I salute their continued efforts.

The Leelanau Historical Museum in Leland presents an informative display including a discovered container of Rosen Rye seeds that speaks to the role of islanders and Rosen Rye from a historical perspective. Unlike the graffiti of names on our cabin heritage of Smokey Mountains Cades Cove, I take pride in the signature I’ve put on the landscape of South Manitou Island with the camaraderie and support of like-minded volunteers and ghosts of the island’s past.

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