Better together: Leelanau Conservancy and EMU partner to save historic farm

At 145 acres of farmland, the historic Campbell- DeYoung Farm is a quintessentially "Up North" property. With its nearly two-centuries-old farmhouse and barns and mile of Leelanau Peninsula coastline, it's hard to imagine such a pristine, rural setting has ever been, or would ever need to be touched by the bustle of life down south in "the city."

When the aging farmstead changed hands for only the third time in its history in 2005, however, the Campbell-DeYoung Farm was in need of assistance to reclaim its status as a working farm. Luckily for the property, and for its new owner, the Leelanau Conservancy, a big city college from Ypsilanti needed its help too. And that's where the partnership between the Leelanau Conservancy and Eastern Michigan University's Historic Preservation program began.

"These buildings looked like a time capsule," says Jenee Rowe, director of Conservancy Owned Lands for the Leelanau Conservancy. "There were dishes in the dish rack. There were piles of napkins in the drawers from the Depression era."

Preserving the property was a perfect job for the Eastern Michigan University's historic preservation experts, and an opportunity for its students. The Ypsilanti university program is one of the largest and most comprehensive of its kind in the United States, but the opportunities to work on such a unique property such as the Campbell-DeYoung Farm are rare in Metro Detroit. Despite sitting 250 miles north of EMU, it became the perfect project for the university's long-running field school, which gives historic preservation students in-depth, hands-on experience.

"It had always been my dream, since I’m a conservationist/preservationist, to do something that merges the two worlds," says Ted Ligibel of the Department of Geography and Geology and Director of the Historic Preservation Program at EMU. "Brian [Price, executive director of the Leelanau Conservancy] and I got to talking one day and said, it would be great if we could work on something together, but it would have to be the right property."

For five years now, 20 to 25 EMU students from all over the country have made the trek up north to work on the historic farm. Projects have included masonry work on building foundations, replacing windows, stabilizing structures and cataloguing items in the farmhouse.

"It was the most amazing week of my life," says EMU historic preservation graduate Lindsey J. Wooten. "We were repointing the foundation of the lower barn. It was kind of like puzzle solving, and then also, really hard labor."

Having grown up in Troy, Wooten had long been interested in history, but also wanted a hands-on career. Spending a summer working on Mackinac Island sparked her hope that she could have both, and her week at the Campbell-DeYoung Farm confirmed it.

"It's something you don't think about unless you're at Greenfield Village and you're looking at the glassblowers," she says of the historic trades she learned during the field school. "It's a dying art. I took away an appreciation of the work that went into these historic buildings we want to save."

If the Campbell-DeYoung Farm has benefited the academic cityfolk, the historic property has realized the reciprocal effect.

"If you watched the property over time, you'd notice some dramatic changes," says Ligibel. "The house is now functioning, and people can use it for meetings."

Rowe says the EMU preservationists not only physically renovated the historic property, but also shared their preservation knowledge with the Leelanau Conservancy, emphasizing the ethics of not rushing through restoration projects, doing no harm and leveraging the expertise of many.

"Partnerships make projects like this better than they could be on their own," Rowe adds. "Historic preservationists and land preservationists, we have this unbelievable common ground."

The preservationist goal most visibly instilled into the property is that of finding new, active uses for historic properties. As if a project that benefits a university from the city, a historic property up north, a new generation of preservationists and visitors to the farmstead through its public access trails wasn't enough of an all-around win, Rowe explains how one of the greatest outcomes of the entire project are these young farmers who now actively work the land.

"They attended the field school, they love history, and they're experienced farmers," she says. "Without EMU, we wouldn’t have had the opportunity for these young farmers to take a stab at doing some work there. They're now farming about 12 acres, and are starting to fix up some of the other structures."

Keeping a historic farm in working condition, let alone in productive use, is clearly no small task. But with a cross-state partnership and years of hard work, EMU and the Leelanau Conservancy have not only honored the long history of the Campbell-DeYoung Farm, they've made it possible for a new chapter to begin.

Natalie Burg is a freelance writer.
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