Written by Marsha Buehler, with excerpts from the Omena Historical Society
Cherry Basket Farm, in the Omena Historic District, was placed on the National Register Of Historic Places by the United States Department of the Interior in 2017. The farm buildings, all painted white and sided in lap, dutch lap, and board and batten, are clustered in a hollow on the south west portion of the acreage. The acreage to the north of the structures is planted with field crops; north of that acreage are cherry orchards that were once part of the farm, but are now in separate ownership. There is a pond, still used for irrigation for the field crops, at the north east corner of the farm.
The farm that was originally Native American Preacher Peter Greensky’s was transferred in 1859 to the Hazen Ingalls family, after whom Ingalls Bay is named. In 1880 the farm was sold to lumber speculator Hiram N. Ballard. Subsequent transfers from 1884 to 1909 include to Lizzie Dorland Buckworth, Leonard LaBare, and Joseph and Ellen Kirt, each of whom held ownership for a few years. Prior to 1889 there was a small house constructed on the property- the east end of the hog barn and present day commissary appears to be the oldest existing structure, and the log and hewn beams are visible from the cellar. The east gable end of the large barn was built circa 1895, based upon construction technique and shingle wear.
With resort development in Omena around 1900 there was increased demand and opportunity for nearby farmers to provide the fresh farm products desired by the resorters. The railroad line from Traverse City extended to Northport in 1903, and both people and livestock were more easily transported to the area. Herman Hyman with his wife Anna and son Julius bought the farm in 1909. Mr. Hyman was a horse dealer from Traverse City, and based on the construction of the gambrel hay barn and Mr. Hyman’s need for hay storage, it is reasonable to date the gambrel to about 1910. The farm was referred to as the “candy stick farm” in an article in the mid 1920’s, so it is likely that the red barn with white battens was painted during this time as well.
During the 1910’s and 20’s the transition from pastures and fields to orchards was underway. As the agriculture of the area evolved and became more specialized, so did the utility of the Cherry Basket barn, which for a time during orchard years housed harvest workers and, eventually, mechanical harvesting machinery.
The Cherry Basket Farm acquired some wide notoriety in the late 1920’s. The farm was purchased in 1926 by two Grand Rapids women, Miss Enid Bailey, nurse superintendent of the Mary Free Bed Convalescent Home, and Miss Louise Taylor, owner of the Taylor Typewriter Shop. The new owners named their venture Cherry Basket Orchards, because from the road the farm nestles in a hollow of trees resembling a basket.
In spite of their career successes the two women were unable to arrange bank financing (the “rosy dreams of two women weren’t regarded as collateral at banks”). This meant they were committed to paying off the $23,500 balance over two years. At the time they purchased the 86-acre farm, 55 acres were planted in cherries, and a half-mile of waterfront along the bay was included in the parcel. The women planned to plat and sell the beachfront when the time was right. They knew nothing about farming and turned to the Graham Experimental Station of the Michigan State College of Agriculture and Applied Science (now Michigan State University) on how best to manage their 5,000 cherry trees. They were mostly sweet cherries, although there was one orchard of Montmorency tart cherries. Assisted by their farm manager, Bob Barth, they overcame enormous obstacles, received a record high price for their crop in Chicago, and paid off the farm in two years per contract.
One of the early examples of their ingenuity came in the spring of 1927 when a hard frost hit the region. Miss Bailey made smudge pots out of the baled straw in the barn and kept it from bursting into flames by throwing damp rye on it. It wasn’t luck, but her instincts, that gave her the backbone to sit up all night nursing the cherry trees. She reflected on that night, “The smoke settled over the orchard and the crop was saved, and as a result we got the top notch prices for that season’s crop. It helped make the 1927 payment.”
From that first year, they established their practice of inspecting every box that left their orchard, and promoted that fact. Only the largest and best cherries were packed. The smaller ones or ones with a blemish were sold locally as seconds. Their diligence was rewarded by the market, and, in 1929, they received the highest price in the Chicago market of $5.25 for a 15-pound crate. The crates of cherries would go by truck to Traverse City each night and from there by train to Chicago.
They installed electricity and gas, and used electricity to run their sprayer at less cost for a month than the cost of one day’s labor. They were the first in the area to use bees for improved pollination. By 1930, Miss Bailey and Miss Taylor had paid off the farm purchase price, bought a new tractor, sprayer and fertilizer, and renovated the farmhouse, including adding a bathroom.
The Herald reported, “That two women should make a success of raising cherries at all is phenomenal; but that two women who knew absolutely nothing about country life, to say nothing of fruit culture, two women who had spent all their lives in cities…should do what dyed-in-the-wool dirt farmers have a hard work doing, was not to be expected.”
The story of the farm property is representative of many in the area. It began as a government land patent which was divided, divided again, portions sold, and then re-combined and expanded. Later owners have come, put the land and structures to good use, and moved on and away from the area. What is highly unusual is that through all of those changes in ownership and utility, the farm’s original acreage is relatively intact and still in agricultural use.
The farm changed hands 4 times from the 1940’s to 1990, with the orchard acreage retained, although the Grand Traverse Bay shore lands were subdivided into lots and sold. In 1990 The Robert Weaver family’s Sunshine Fruit Farms added the Cherry Basket to its other area holdings, and used the buildings for worker housing and storage. The Weavers replaced the barn roof and doors, which greatly helped to preserve the building.
In 2003 the remaining acres were to be divided for building lots, and a group called Cherry Basket Neighbors purchased most of the orchard land to keep it in cultivation as a cherry orchard. In 2004 the current owner, Cherry Basket Farms, LLC purchased the remaining 10 acres and buildings. The fields and pond continue in active agriculture, under lease to a local young farmer, Nic Welty of 9 Bean Rows CSA Farm. The Hog Barn is home to Cammie Buehler and Andy Schudlich’s farm-to-table catering business, Epicure Catering. The Michigan Barn Preservation Network recognized the Hog Barn as Barn of the Year for adaptive agriculture/commercial use in 2014. The award recognizes the unique qualities and preservation efforts of its honored barns. The Cherry Basket Main Barn was recognized as Barn of the Year in 2015. The barn continues to support the ever evolving farm needs as workshop and storage, with the hay barn area and cattle stall areas adaptively reused as a summer event venue on a limited basis, and Modifications over the years have been minimal and for maintenance and preservation purposes. The Cherry Basket barn is a much photographed beloved landmark on the M-22 Scenic Byway, and is a symbol of the agricultural heritage and beauty, past and present, of the Leelanau Peninsula.