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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.

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Walter Johnson with lugs of cherries on Johnson Farms’ Crescent Hill Fruit Farm, July 1952 | Mary Johnson Photo

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 throughΒ 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.

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32 COMMENTS

  1. I’m told that the townies looked down on the peninsula kids. I can certainly attest. We are Not rich. Sometimes not even hundredaires. I grew up on a farm in Indiana but after 40 years seen so many changes. Thanks Jane for sharing.

  2. When my great grandparents (Mead) bought farm land on East Shore over 100 years ago it was considered the poor part of town. Too far from downtown and too rocky to farm. Just 52 cents a foot! We have been grateful ever since!

    • Keen, My parents built on East Shore Rd 1952. They knew Louis, Sanford, Elizabeth & their parents, though I forget their names. Which is your family line?

  3. Everyone who is fortunate enough to live on Old Mission Peninsula is rich. Maybe not wealthy, but rich in a love for this place we call home. We dreamed of living here for almost 30 years. Our dream came true and we feel rich just to be here.

    • AJN – Have you considered that referring to an article that is obviously important enough for someone else to write as “a very silly subject for an article” may be an extremely selfish and ignorant perspective? Perhaps it’s time to open your heart and widen your perspective to include things that are valuable to others…

    • Because we hear this all the time from friends who live off the peninsula aynd elsewhere in TC. Our friends often talk of the proposed wall at the base of the peninsula. I am so embarrassed to hear of this often. We are considered to be a bunch old curmudgeons who want the wall built. Jane’s article is so spot on and so timely. We are just now having our planning commission rewriting our zoning ordinance. It is being revised. And do you think it will allow residents to be better positioned to work at home or have an environmental friendly way to produce income? Time will tell but residents need to pay attention. So for me personally as a retiree living on OMP while I have a pension I make it a responsibility to be able to produce income. So I am a consultant for the plastics industry. And two years ago it was sizeable but not in the last year. So now this year in addition to really high summer taxes our association was tagged with a SAD ( that is a special assessment district) to kick in funds to repair a county road. Are you kidding me? We had to pay $600 per year for the road improvement for the next 20 years on top of our taxes and it is a county road: not private association. Ary you kidding me? And further most residents where I live have to pay also for a SAD for a drainage district at a price much greater than the $600 per year. So personally I like to be able to make enough money that I do not have to dip into savings. And I feel that our twp government is not totally looking out for how our residents can make money to support living here. So tonight ( it is a hobby I state) I made $125 driving for lyft. But it will help pay for that $600 SAD. So Jane’s article is spot on. We need these discussions here. Thanks Curt Peterson

      • Thanks for the note, Curt! Right – that zoning ordinance rewrite is so important. And thanks for your note about the special assessment districts. I think a lot of folks probably don’t really know how they work or what’s involved. I’ll put that on the list for an upcoming Gazette story.

  4. Thanks for the article, Jane. I loved it. I grew up in the summers at the Old Mission campground. I grew up on a farm and my family could barely afford it, but it was important to my parents that we have a good safe place to spend our summers near the water and learn to fish and about nature. Old Mission taught us a lot and gave me great friends that I still have today and am thankful for. Nice to know that there are still real people out there. πŸ™‚

  5. Thankful that your Dad and others had the foresight to put protection in place for the farmers.
    I had no idea there was this misconception about the peninsula until my first day of Junior high. We had to tell the class which elementary school we were from. There were gasps, then kids would whisper in the hall to other kids she’s from old mission , must be rich…. This was in the early 90’s, so I can only imagine what it’s like now.
    Also had it happen last year at my husband’s Christmas party (everyone at our table was from Grand Rapids). They all stared at me in awe and wanted to hear what it was like to grow up in such an enchanted place (which it still is of course).

  6. Thanks for the great article, Jane! I moved here right after college and have been lucky enough to tough-it-out since, so that I can live in the place and community I love.
    Since day one, I’ve always had to add when saying that I lived on The Peninsula, “I built my own house with my own two hands and am surrounded by cherry orchards.” in order to hopefully dispel the idea that I was “rich” and living in a mansion on the bay. There is definitely a misconception that comes with the territory. Heck, even a lot of people that live with bay frontage are far from rich.
    Maybe some people don’t recognize it, but I’ve noticed those popping eyes or comments from people since I was 23 years-old (25 years ago). I love The Peninsula and my friends among this community. It is hard to imagine living anywhere else!

  7. Jane – I was driving home in the San Francisco Bay Area this evening when I heard Dean being interviewed on public radio about the lack of workers in your orchards. I was going to look up your name to see where your land is. And the serendipitously I see your article! I have lived in OM every summer since I was born in 1953. My grandparents came in 1903 and my parents built my cabin. OM is so important to my life and that of my family. However every year it is a struggle to come up with the out of state property taxes. So many interests have to be balanced. Orchards and farming, rentals and taxes, and development. As I drive and walk around to my favorite haunts each year and revel in the woods and water – the sights sounds and smell of the woods, I am so appreciative of all of us who value our totally unique and special place , and strive to preserve it. Thank you for your article. (BTW – my daughter is a biologist and we have identified over 40 species of birds and animals in old woods!)

  8. Very nice article Jane. Appreciate the history and your fathers part in development rights and foresight. We purchased in 94 ,transitioning to retirement over the last few years from downstate and feel SO fortunate to call OMP home!

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