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Barn Razing

Traverse Magazine, July 1998

December 1, 1995 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Nowhere else in the Midwest does natural beauty and an agrarian landscape unfold with such magnificence as in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Scattered about the 71,000-acre park, old farmsteads stand between the blue waters of Lake Michigan and the dense forests of Leelanau county. The historic buildings are reminders of the steady rhythm of field work and human community that existed here for more than a century.

Soon, though, many of the buildings may be gone. The eroding grip of winter winds and hard rains is caving in roofs and undermining foundations. The Interior Department, though, has little sympathy. It spends less than $9 million annually for historic preservation in all 366 parks that make up the National Park System.

Caught between unyielding forces of nature and government, the leaders of Sleeping Bear Dunes are drawing up a new plan this summer for managing the park’s cultural landscape, including whether to save or demolish hundreds of historic buildings. The prospect that important buildings could be lost has prompted an agonizing debate about what Sleeping Bear Dunes will look like a century from today.

Among the most interested are several families who were forced to leave the area after the National Lakeshore was established in 1970. In letters to the Leelanau Enterprise and to the Park Service, they have said that the best way to preserve the old buildings is to return them to their former owners. The Park Service, anticipating such a response, says the original law to establish the park rules out using any of the buildings for residences or summer homes.

Meanwhile proposals to restore buildings for such attractions as living farms and museums has invited questions about the effect on the park’s environment. Will traffic congestion increase? Will there be a need for new parking lots? The Park Service says it has no plans to mar the landscape with large transit facilities. But it acknowledges that directing more visitors to historic and natural areas that are now mostly off the beaten path has the potential to change the park experience.

In short, deciding the fate of farm houses, barns, and log cabins – some of which date to the 1850s – has tested the National Lakeshore. Disagreements have erupted among staff members. What changes, they ask, can be tolerated without harming the unique union of topography and history?

"The reality of our situation is that we can’t restore all the buildings, nor do we need to," said Ivan Miller, the park superintendent. "The best thing we can do is to focus on one or two areas. We need to be innovative."

First proposed in 1961 as part of the Kennedy Administration’s plan for 12 national lakeshores and seashores, Sleeping Bear Dunes represented a new era of public lands management. Unlike Yellowstone or Yosemite, which preserve breath taking scenery and expansive wilderness, Sleeping Bear’s role has been to showcase the glacial landscape that gave rise to distinctive agrarian and maritime communities.

To date, most of the preservation energy has focused on maritime interests. For instance, the Cannery, General Store, and blacksmith shop in Glen Haven have been repaired.

Kimberly Mann, the park’s historic architect, says now it’s time to preserve farm culture. "People come here from all over the country to see the natural beauty. But after they arrive, most of the questions they ask are about the farm structures," she said. "They want to know how people lived and what their lives were like in this setting."

The place where its easiest to imagine fires banked against the cold, books taken down in the evening and quilts mended is in the Port Oneida district just north of Glen Arbor. First settled by northern European immigrants in the 1850s, the district still contains 18 historic farmsteads, 13 of them owned by the National Park Service. Among the most stunning is the farm built in 1900 by John and Engeboad Thoreson, Norwegian immigrants who met on a ship traveling from their homeland to England. The 160-acre farm includes a handsome white farm house, milking barn, corn crib, machine shed, stone barn, and granary.

The Park Service has solicited help from community groups and a number of promising ideas have been hatched. The Glen Arbor Art Association wants to take over the Thoreson farm and use it as an artists colony. American Youth Hostels is studying the expense of restoring the 105-year-old Burfiend farm on Port Oneida Road for a hostel.

"These are great structures in a great setting within a protected National Lakeshore," Mann said. "The last thing we should do is look for ways to tear them down."

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