"A sleepy village that's just starting to come to life": Dixboro honors the old and embraces the new

Recent years in Dixboro have seen the reinvigoration of a beloved restaurant, the establishment of a farmers market, and the founding of a school for traditional arts and crafts.
"When you think of Dixboro village, you talk about the Humane Society of Huron Valley, you talk about the Dixboro General Store, and then you talk about the restaurant that was once here, the Lord Fox," says restaurateur Sava Farah. 

After a four-year renovation of the former restaurant's historic farmhouse, Farah has given locals a new reason to visit Superior Township's historic hamlet of Dixboro. This summer she opened The Boro, a luxurious Napa Valley-inspired fine dining experience – and she's far from alone in her attraction to Dixboro's small-town charm. 

"Dixboro is an old-fashioned community where people know each other. They walk around and visit each other. There are people who have lived here for generations," says Superior Township Supervisor Ken Schwartz. "It's a sleepy village that's just starting to come to life."

Preserving the old, introducing the new

Farah, who lives nearby The Boro, was drawn to the storied site as she drove by. It had operated as a restaurant since 1934, but then fell on hard times. The menu features ingredients from Plymouth's Gateway Farm, prepared by chef Louis Maldonado, and desserts by pastry chef Annemarie Maldonado. Picnic tables and outdoor seating spread across the rustic property, which stretches down to Fleming Creek. Those who prefer to dine outdoors can order pizzas, salads, and pastries from The Boro To Go, a side-door takeout operation. 
Sava Farah inside the future Dixboro House space.
"I just had a connection with what I saw there. Maybe I was sensing some of the history, but what I also saw was so much potential in the village and the property," recalls Farah. 

She began daydreaming of what it might become. When she learned it had been sold to a venture capital group and was bound to be transformed into office space, "it didn't sit easy with the restaurateur in me," says Farah, who also owns Sava's and Aventura in Ann Arbor. She acquired the property, now known as The Dixboro House, in 2017 and set forth on realizing the vision that had come to her the first time it caught her eye. 

Area resident Jason Gold has also been heavily engaged in preserving Dixboro's past while introducing new assets to the community. One day while taking his children out for ice cream at Dixboro's Moonwinks Cafe, he overheard a conversation among patrons about how to revitalize the village green. One idea that rose to the surface was a farmers market. Before he and his family had gotten their cones, Gold had enthusiastically joined the conversation. That group formed the Dixboro Village Green, a nonprofit that provides community programming and restoration of the village's original one-room schoolhouse. 

The market started the following spring with seven vendors, who all sold out within two hours. Over the coming years, the market would grow in popularity. Today it hosts 15-20 vendors who set up on Fridays from 3-6 p.m. The market runs from Memorial Day through the week before Halloween. The Dixboro Artisan Market joins the farmers market on the last Friday of each month. The Dixboro Village Green also hosts musical events, an annual car show, and a holiday market in December. The nonprofit's efforts have raised funds to build a pavilion and put a new roof on the schoolhouse, paint its interior walls, and restore its belfry. The schoolhouse bell now rings at the beginning and end of every market.

Given Dixboro's reverence for history and its population of local artisans, Gold realized it would be the perfect place to open a craft school like the many he and his wife had traveled to around the country. In 2012 they started the Michigan Folk School, which offers classes ranging from blacksmithing and stained glass fabrication to how to make your own arrow or macrame hammock. 
Jason Gold at the Dixboro Farmers' Market,
"I feel privileged to be able to work with such creative and gifted craftspeople who are imparting the old ways of doing things mixed with a modern edge," says Gold, who is a furniture maker and blacksmith himself. 

Since opening the school's doors, Gold has been joined by 27 other instructors. The Michigan Folk School now partners with the Washtenaw County Parks and Recreation Commision. 

Looking to the future

There are more exciting developments in the Dixboro area's future. The University of Michigan (U-M) Matthaei Botanical Gardens is no newcomer to the area, having been dedicated in 1962. But the garden, which is also a research site and educational hub, is also pursuing new frontiers. As new Director Anthony Kolenic's team develops a strategic plan, Kolenic looks forward to increasing the gardens' capacity for formal and informal learning. He says the gardens are already engaged in food sovereignty and environmental justice initiatives, and he hopes to do more along those lines.

"We are also committed to deepening our work with our tribal partners and expanding the visibility of that on premises," Kolenic says. "We're also committing to thinking about and more actively pursuing the things we can do off-site. Instead of primarily bringing learners and students to our site, [we're thinking about] how we can engage with other communities – go to where they are, instead of bringing them here. We're moving away from a 'we serve the public' modality to one where we co-create."   
Matthaei Botanical Gardens Director Anthony Kolenic.
Back at The Boro, Farah is also thinking about landscaping and the next steps of her plan. Now the restaurant is open for business, Farah is turning her attention to the overall Dixboro House property. A culinary garden is in the works, as is a playscape for children and a restoration of a 1920s barn, which will be transformed into a guest house. As we spoke, she was scouting the property for a good place to plant fig trees.

"I think one of the biggest blessings was that it took four years to get this restaurant open," Farah says. "It allowed us time to connect to the land and connect to the neighborhood and the history, rather than just come in and build a restaurant and get open. We had time to settle."

Thanks to funds from the American Rescue Plan Act, Superior Township is also planning to make some new investments in the village. Schwartz says the township will invest in the schoolhouse as a future pandemic center, stocking it with personal protective equipment and turning it into an education center for public health.

"If there's a health emergency of any kind, the one-room schoolhouse would be the command center," he says. 

Schwartz also plans to install a generator at the schoolhouse. Houses in the area have wells, and there's no public water or sewage. A generator will enable people to come to the schoolhouse to fill up five-gallon buckets of water if power goes out in the area.

The township is also looking into options for expanding municipal parking and adding non-motorized pathways. While Schwartz notes that the area is attracting interest from the business community, he says, "we're going to keep its village-like character for the foreseeable future."

Jeanne Hodesh is a freelance writer based in Ann Arbor, where she covers small business, food, and culture. She holds an MFA from Hunter College. Her essays and articles have appeared in Lenny Letter, The Hairpin, and Time Out New York, among other publications.

All photos by Doug Coombe.