Old Mission History: Johnson Barn, Circa Early 1900s

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Here’s a picture of my family’s “home barn,” which is located about a mile north of Mapleton on Center Road. It was known as Crescent Hill Fruit Farm because of its location on the crest of the hill. Now it’s just called Johnson Farms. I’m unsure of the date on this photo, but I’m guessing it was sometime in the first part of the 1900s. Does anyone know when Center Road was paved? Tell us in the comments section below this post.

When I interviewed my dad, Walter Johnson, about the barn before he passed away in 2004, he said the barn was most likely built around 1880 by Robert Edgecomb, the father-in-law of his mother, Stella Smith. Stella grew up in the hollow across the road, where the Cosgrove family lived all the time I was growing up. Stella married Frank Edgecomb, Robert’s son.

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When Frank passed away during World War One from the flu, Stella ran the farm by herself until she married the hired hand, Lester Johnson, my grandfather. Lester – whose family lived in Kingsley – had hitchhiked out on the Old Mission Peninsula looking for work. I’m not sure of the exact date when he started working on the farm, but Lester and Stella were married on August 31, 1922. They had two boys, Walter and Guy, who were half-siblings to Stella and Frank’s children, Gladys and Fred (note to my family: if I’ve got any info wrong, feel free to correct me in the comments section below this post).

I believe Robert’s wife was Martha, and they had several children, including Aden (who died in infancy), Lewis (who died on the Peninsula at the age of 26), Frank,┬áHerbert (who drowned in a pond in Lake County at the age of five; prior to moving to Old Mission Peninsula, Robert worked at a sawmill in Lake County), and Nellie (who married William Strohm and moved to Leelanau County).

Robert and Martha also raised a girl, Mary B., who was “bound out to them when she was 13 months old” (according to the book “Sprague’s History of Grand Traverse and Leelanaw Counties“). I’ll write more about the Edgecombs in another post, otherwise this one will turn into a book.

My mom (Mary Louise Bohlken) and dad met at Northwestern University, where she studied nursing and he studied mechanical engineering. They were married in 1946, and she moved north to be a farm wife.

I’ve asked her what it was like for her – a city girl who grew up in the south (mainly Memphis, where her dad, James Bohlken, worked as a civil engineer on the boats along the Mississippi River) – to move so far away from her family to a life she knew nothing about. It must have been hard, but as with everything, she took it in stride, saying that dad taught her about farm life. And anyone who knows mom knows she’s lived a life of community service, so I’m sure her new Old Mission friends were helpful, as well.

The barn is a saltbox style barn (featuring a dramatic slant to the roof on one side) with a fieldstone foundation. As I understand it, the silo you see on the left of the photo was partially destroyed during a storm, and eventually taken down and moved inside the barn. I believe the cupola blew off in a storm, as well, though my brother, Dean, thinks Dad may have taken it down at some point.

The “home farm” surrounding the barn consisted of 80 acres, divided in half by Center Road. Mom and Dad kept dairy cattle through the 1950s, and Mom remembers bringing the cows up from the woods behind their house and herding them across Center Road to the barn. Word has it the cows loved to escape and wander around the neighborhood, especially on Sunday mornings.

Mom and Dad lived in the farmhouse across the road from the barn, where Stella and Frank, then Lester, lived, and prior to them, Robert and Martha. As you can see in the current photo below, that farmhouse is no longer there. In 1960, Mom and Dad bought property in Old Mission village and built a new house there. The “Old House,” as we always called it, was used by migrant workers on the farm, but burned down in 1964.

By the way, everyone thought they were crazy to buy property in Old Mission, because without much farmland attached to it, the land was virtually worthless. Dad said they bought that ten acres, which included some 400 feet of frontage on East Bay, for $9000.

Here’s that same photo of the barn, taken the other day.

johnson farms, barn, barns of old mission peninsula, edgecomb
Johnson Farms Barn 2017 | Jane Boursaw Photo

And here’s the historical photo in its frame, which hung in my parents’ room all the time I was growing up.

johnson farms, edgecomb, barn, barns of old mission peninsula
Johnson Farms Barn, Early 1900s | Old Mission Gazette Photo

A NOTE FROM JANE: I started Old Mission Gazette in 2015 because I felt a calling to provide the Old Mission Peninsula community with local news. After decades of writing for newspapers and magazines like the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Family Circle and Ladies' Home Journal, I really just wanted to write about my own community where I grew up on a cherry farm and raised my own family. So I started my own newspaper.

Because Old Mission Gazette is a "Reader Supported Newspaper" -- meaning it exists because of your financial support -- I hope you'll consider tossing a few bucks our way if I mention your event, your business, your organization or your news item, or if you simply love reading about what's happening on the OMP. In a time when local news is becoming a thing of the past, supporting an independent community newspaper is more important now than ever.

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  1. I did some digging in my “archives ” and did a general calculation on when the roads were paved. My parents bought a movie camera in 1950 and from those films on the farm (Smokey Hollow Rd.), the road was paved. We moved to the farm in 1943 and the roads ( in old photos) were not paved then. I can narrow it down to a window of about seven years. ???
    I’m sure someone will come up with more accurate information, but that’s as close as I can come.
    Loved the history of your family . Thanks.


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