Old Mission History: The Pelizzari Family

Legacy of the Pelizzari Natural Area

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You can’t pick a bad trail to hike on the Old Mission Peninsula – they’re all gorgeous – but there’s a certain “ancient forest” feeling associated with the Pelizzari Natural Area.

Part of it’s the terrain itself, 62 acres of woodlands, meadows, wetlands, and shoreline that makes it seem like you’ve time-traveled back a few centuries, when there weren’t quite so many people on the Old Mission Peninsula.

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In fact, as the sign at Pelizzari Natural Area notes, this land, like all Old Mission Peninsula land, was formed by the last ice age 12,000 years ago. “Indigenous peoples occupied the Peninsula as early as 10,000 BC,” notes the sign. “European settlers arrived in the mid-1800s, first to log the forests and then to farm.”

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Pelizzari Natural Area | Jane Boursaw Photo

The other part is that I grew up with the Pelizzari kids, so when I hike the trails there, it feels like I’m hiking with an old friend. Ann Pelizzari and I were in the same class, and she was one of my buddies at Old Mission Peninsula School some 50 years ago.

Whenever I think of her, I think of one snowy day in the late 1960s, when we laced up our ice-skates and skated out in front of their house on East Shore Road. It was one of those clear, cold days in mid-winter, when the ice was smooth as glass and you could see straight through to the water below.

There are two other kids in the Pelizzari family – Dave, who I knew because he played piano for the musicals when I was in high school, and John, who still lives on the OMP and is the chief operating officer for Burnette Foods, a Michigan-based food processing company with facilities in East Jordan and Elk Rapids. They make assorted products like applesauce, canned fruits and veggies, apple cider and more. They also owned the Peninsula Fruit Exchange for a time.

Maxine and Gene Pelizzari – Ann, Dave and John’s parents – were the second generation of their family to farm the land we now hike, securing it from Gene’s parents, Armando and Virginia Pelizzari, in 1954. Armando acquired the land in the early 1920’s.

The photo at the top of this story shows the Pelizzari family farming the land, circa 1939. I’m not sure who’s who in the photo, so leave a comment at the bottom of this story if you can provide some info there.

During Gene and Maxine’s ownership, they graciously allowed the neighbors to hike the property. When they retired and sold the land in 1991, neighbors and other OMP residents petitioned the Township to create the Pelizzari Natural Area.

The process of acquiring the land took more than a decade of work by dedicated volunteers, in collaboration wtih the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy. A Township millage election secured most of the funding for the land in 2008.

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Glen Chown, Executive Director of the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy, and volunteer Mary Van Valin celebrate the passage of Peninsula Township millage in 2008 | Pelizzari Natural Area Photo

Gene passed away in 2010, and Maxine in 2016, and I’ll always remember them as being lovely, welcoming OMP neighbors. Maxine’s parents were Otto and Urina Bohrer, and she was Aunt Maxine to my longtime friend Ruthanne Bohrer-Agosa.

Maxine worked at Kroger Grocery Store as a cashier in high school, graduated from Traverse City High School in 1945, then worked at the Traverse City State Hospital in the bookkeeping department and later Underwood Farms. She was always involved in running the farm, from managing the finances to planting, pruning and picking the various fruit trees that covered their property between East Shore Road and Center Road.

Gene attended the McKinley School on Center Road through 8th grade, then Traverse City High School. The 1940 “Pines” yearbook captioned his senior photograph with “Men of few words are often the best.”

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Gene Pelizzari, lower right, Pines Yearbook 1940 | Jane Boursaw Photo

After graduation, Gene worked for Michigan Bell Telephone, digging holes for telephone poles, and in December 1942, he enlisted in the Army Air Force, which would take him to Scotland, England, France (where he debarked at Utah Beach about 10 days after D-Day), Luxembourg, Belgium, Holland and Germany, and earn him the Bronze Star, the Belgian Fourragere, and other citations.

After being honorably discharged in 1945 with the rank of Staff Sergeant, Gene enrolled on the G.I. Bill in the Aeronautical University of Chicago and received his B.S. in Aeronautical Engineering in 1951, marrying Maxine that same year. However, he passed on a job offer in California, instead returning to East Shore Road to farm with his dad. If he had not made that decision, I wonder if we would have the beautiful Pelizzari Natural Area today.

So the next time you walk the beautiful trails at Pelizzari Natural Area, think about the land’s legacy and give a big thank-you to the Pelizzari family, the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy, Peninsula Township, and all the many volunteers who helped to conserve the land and who continue to manage and protect it today.

Read more about the land’s Management Plan in the “Peninsula Township Recreation Plan and Pelizzari Natural Area Management Plan” here.

And feel free to share your own memories of the Pelizzari family in the comments section below this story.

SUPPORT YOUR INDEPENDENT LOCAL NEWSPAPER: 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.

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  1. My grandmother was Armondos sister….my father Tino Caviggiola was Genes cousin and best friend growing up…the part of the story missing is how Armondo and my grandmother came from Italy in the belly of a ship. They loved this country and the peninsula….John and siblings have given a great gift to all of us….

  2. I have known the Pelizzari family for many years when we attended the same church in Traverse City. Maxine and Gene were indeed wonderful people. So gracious and fun. The kids were great too. David was indeed talented and Anne was so pretty. So glad John stayed here in town. That was indeed a wonderful gift they gave the people of this community. Even though I have not walked the trails there, I would like to some day. Jane, great article, very informative.

  3. Thank you for paying tribute to my Aunt Maxine and Uncle Gene. They truly were wonderful people. I worked in the orchard in High School and I still say it was the best job I had and it was a lot of fun. I am glad their property can still be enjoyed!

    • Thanks for the note, Tim! I feel like those of us who worked on a farm as kids really learned a good work ethic early in life. You worked hard and were able to see the immediate results of that work. That’s not always the case with non-farm jobs where paper just gets shuffled from one place to the next and you can’t really see the end result. I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately, and feeling fortunate to be a farm kid.

  4. My name is John Pelizzari. My biological father was George Batista Pelizzari (his mothers name was Della and sisters name was Johnetta). My mother, Brigitte was from Germany. They had settled up north in the Tennessee / Ohio region and I was curious if we may be related. I tried connecting before. I understand that I have a stepbrother name David and a stepsister named Connie. Anyways, it doesn’t hurt to ask. My e-mail is [email protected]. Thanks.


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