Park Service to Preserve Nature or History?

  • Farms that had been left to deteriorate are now being restored. (Photo courtesy of National Park Service)

The National Park Service not only protects scenic natural areas, it also preserves historic places. Occasionally those two missions compete. Right now the Park Service is trying to find a balance between managing a beautiful stretch of Great Lakes shoreline and restoring the remnants of a once thriving farm community that illustrates a rarely seen view of early agricultural life in this country. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Sally Eisele reports:

Transcript

The National Park Service not only protects scenic natural areas, it also preserves historic places.
Occasionally those two missions compete. Right now the Park Service is trying to find a balance between
managing a beautiful stretch of Great Lakes shoreline and restoring the remnants of a once thriving farm
community that illustrates a rarely seen view of early agricultural life in this country. The Great Lakes
Radio Consortium’s Sally Eisele reports:


Millions of tourists visit the white sand beaches of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National lakeshore in northern
Michigan. Most of them pass right by Port Oneida. There are no tourist signs for the old farming
community along the scenic lakeshore highway. Really the first thing you notice is the graveyard.


(sound of cemetery gate)


The headstones display the faded names of the German and Bohemian immigrants who settled Port Oneida
in the 19th century. From the cemetery the remains of their farmsteads can be found along the narrow park
roads that weave their way toward Lake Michigan.


“Let’s see the lake over here.” (sound fades under)


On a bluff overlooking the lake, local historian Kathryn Eckert is strolling the grounds of one of the old
family farms. She’s with a group called Preserve Historic Sleeping Bear. It’s working with the Park
Service to save these farms.


“What is important is not just the houses and the buildings but the landscape as well. You see the
spirea, the raspberries… the open fields. Over here to the east the privy…”


The remnants of the farm are everywhere. The old rose bushes have grown wild. The daylilies now peak
from behind tall field grasses. But, the original footprint of the farmstead is clearly there.


“When I was growing up there, everybody had these little farms.”


Martin Basch is the great grandson of one of the first settlers. The original family farm, not far from the
cemetery, is now in ruins.


“When the park service took over the Martin Basch farm there was a barn there, a grainery a
blacksmith shop…and these buildings just collapsed.”


For many years that was what the park service wanted. When the national lakeshore was created in the
1970’s, park managers intended to let Port Oneida return to its original forested state. Park historian Kim
Mann says it took years for preservationists to convince them the rickety old buildings were as valuable as
the land.


“Trying to preserve the beauty the scenery, also the threatened and endangered species–things like
that were really easy. It was really difficult to come in and say this corncrib is significant? This
privy? That has still been a learning curve to help people understand that you don’t just save just
the one representational privy. You want to save the collection because it tells the whole story.”


Now, the 20 farmsteads of Port Oneida are on the National Register of Historic Places. Little by little, the
Park Service is working to restore them.


(sound of hammer, chisel, and saw)


It’s a job that often involves volunteers. On this day, a group of park employees is working with
community members to save an old log cabin down the road from Port Oneida–They’re sawing a huge
beam to help shore up the building.


“This is a sill log or one of the bottom logs made of white oak. Primarily because it stands up to
weather and water better. We don’t want the bottom of the building to rot out again. At least any
time soon.”


Many of the old buildings in the park have been temporarily stabilized. But the long term plan is much less
clear. The Park Service hopes to find private sector partners who can restore the buildings and find ways to
use them.


(sound of field)


One of the first such partners is the Shielding Tree Nature Center, which renovated an old farmstead and
turned the hayfields into a nature preserve. Director Mary Rupert is hoping to sign a 60-year lease
agreement but worries as other partners come in, the character of the area may change.


“Our priority is the land. The buildings are second to that. If every farmstead had a partner it
would be too much.”


At this point though, the balancing act is to find enough partners with the money to renovate the buildings
and preserve the integrity of the land. Without the private sector, park managers say the farmsteads of Port
Oneida are at risk and with each harsh northern winter another piece of history is lost.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Sally Eisele.

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