Sometime between the year I was born and now, the Old Mission Peninsula earned a reputation as a place where rich people live. If you talk to people who don’t live here, you’d think we’re all millionaires trying to figure out what to do with all our cash.
I’m here to tell you that’s just not true. Yes, there are wealthy people who live on the Old Mission Peninsula. Really wealthy. But there are also people like my husband and me who just didn’t know any better to move away and who work hard and pay their bills by the skin of their teeth every month.
I’m not sure when the Old Mission Peninsula came to be known as a “rich” community, but I guess it’s when this little strip of land began to shift from being a farming community to a resort and retirement community.
But aren’t we still a farming community? And haven’t we always been a resort community? And where do all the year-round locals fit in? Let’s dive into it.
Dating back to the 1800s, the Old Mission Peninsula has always had pockets of “old money” resorts, from the Neahtawanta Association (once known as the Universalist Resort Association) to the Old Mission Resort on Forest Avenue to the Illini Resort off the north end of Peninsula Drive. And we’ve always been a vacation destination, with large passenger ships bringing visitors north from Chicago and depositing them at the Haserot Beach dock, where they’d travel the short distance to the Old Mission Inn for summer respite away from the city.
But I wouldn’t say that the folks who lived here year-round during those early years were wealthy by any means. It was a farming community. Even after I was born in 1960, I often heard the term “land rich and cash poor,” meaning you might have a lot of land, but not a lot of cash. My dad, Walter Johnson, actually worked three jobs when I was a kid – he was a farmer, a lieutenant commander in the Coast Guard Reserves, and a mechanical engineer with the State of Michigan. My mom worked as a registered nurse until I came along – the last of four kids – and then she worked on the farm.
To put things into perspective, the year before I was born (1960), my dad’s farmer buddies wondered why on earth he would want to buy property in the village of Old Mission. And what purpose would 300 feet of frontage on East Bay serve? The property wasn’t great for farming, after all. It was only ten acres, and the sandy soil wasn’t ideal for planting a cherry orchard.
But my dad, always the forward-thinker (he helped to create the Purchase of Development Rights program in the 1990s and was the first farmer enrolled in the program), forked over $8000 in 1959 for the ten acres of not-great farming land in Old Mission and proceeded to build a house for his growing family.
Keep in mind that this land was five miles away from the “home farm” just north of Mapleton. So not only was the land not great for farming, but it was quite a distance from the main farm during a time in OMP history when we weren’t as connected to other parts of the Peninsula as we are now. No longer would Dad be able to cross the road to milk the cows or hook up the tractor-trailer to pick up cherry lugs in the orchard. Now there was travel time involved.
To make matters worse, he bought ANOTHER piece of land in the village of Old Mission, this time five acres behind the Old Mission General Store, just across the field from the original ten acres where he built the new house. Again, the soil wasn’t great for farming, and the land included more of that useless frontage on East Bay.
But things change over time. Visitors started to realize that this 18-mile Peninsula might be a great place to live or retire. Soon we had doctors, lawyers, investment bankers, retired GM executives and assorted wealthy business owners and corporate CEOs moving in next to the farmers and populating the Old Mission Peninsula.
And I’m not saying there’s a thing wrong with that. Some of these folks are great friends of mine who help the Old Mission Peninsula community in amazing ways (including helping my family through some very tough times). Plus, they’re needed now more than ever, since we have some big things happening on the Peninsula right now, including a new library and a new elementary school. Some of the wealthier residents of the OMP have given a lot of money to ensure the success of these much-needed projects, and for that, we can all be grateful.
But I’m here to tell you that not everyone on the Old Mission Peninsula is rich, or even close to it. There are some of us out here who barely scrape by. My husband and I high-five each other after we make our mortgage payment every month, astonished that we still have a home here.
We do not fall into any of the aforementioned groups – doctors, lawyers, wealthy CEOs, old-money resorters, etc. We don’t take vacations, we drive an 18-year-old car, and our house will never be finished (we built most of it ourselves because we couldn’t afford to have someone else do it).
We don’t have a pension, a 401K or a portfolio of investments, unless you count the change jar on the shelf in my office. Despite my dad’s best efforts to nudge me into a lifelong corporate career with benefits and a pension (and honestly, do those even exist anymore?), I’m afraid I’m too much of a renegade to go that route. Sorry, Dad. But at least we’re still on the OMP, doing our best to protect the historical legacy of which you were a part.
My husband and I have somehow managed to carve out a living on the OMP with assorted self-employed revenue streams, despite that aforementioned plethora of trials and tribulations along the way. I know there are other creative types here who’ve also blazed their own entrepreneurial trails.
In fact, when I look around and start talking with other OMP residents, it’s clear that we’re not the only ones who survive on sheer wit, resourcefulness and God’s grace. So why are we still here? Why didn’t we move away and create a less expensive life with a cheaper mortgage elsewhere?
Because when you grow up on the Old Mission Peninsula and your family history goes back many generations, living anywhere else just isn’t an option. At least, it wasn’t for us. So we struggle along every month and revel in the fact that we somehow get to live here, despite the lack of cash. Just like my father’s generation of farmers, we’re land rich and cash poor.
And let’s not forget that the Old Mission Peninsula is still a farming community. The scenery has changed over the years; now there are vineyards and hop farms sharing property lines with cherry and apple orchards. And that’s ok.
Thankfully, the aforementioned Purchase of Development Rights (PDR) program that my dad helped to start has preserved some of the Peninsula’s farming heritage. During a farm tour with Indiana Farm Bureau members earlier this year, my brother, Dean Johnson – who still farms Johnson Farms along with my brother Ward Johnson and niece Heatherlyn Johnson Reamer – said they would not have been able to continue farming without the PDR program in place.
Likewise, Peninsula Township Supervisor Rob Manigold, said that after he moved back here from college, he didn’t know if farming would be an option. “Development pressure was high and farmers didn’t know if they could afford to continue working their land,” he said. “The Purchase of Development Rights program was absolutely key in preserving the Peninsula’s farming heritage … Protecting the working farms and the scenic views has turned out to be a true win-win for the entire community.”
And it’s been a true win-win for everyone, including my husband and me, who still get to call this Peninsula home. Despite the fact that we’re not millionaires, or even thousandaires, for that matter.