Altenburg Lilacs are blooming in Old Mission | Jane Boursaw Photo
Altenburg Lilacs are blooming in Old Mission | Jane Boursaw Photo
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It’s always a thrill when the Altenburg lilacs start blooming every year. Located just past the Old Mission General Store in the village of Old Mission, this spectacular wall of lilacs – and the home where they’re located – is iconic in Old Mission history.

When I was a kid growing up in Old Mission (about a quarter-mile south of the Altenburgs), George and Helen Altenburg lived in the stately house. George passed away in 1976, and Helen in 1994. Helen was a Pratt, and her parents were William and Mary Pratt.

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Entire books could be written – and I believe have been written – about the Pratt’s long history on the Old Mission Peninsula. Suffice to say it’s extensive, and the family dates back into the 1800s. Helen’s grandson, Steve Sobkowski, and his wife Nikki live there now.

Altenburg Lilacs are blooming in Old Mission | Jane Boursaw Photo
Altenburg Lilacs are blooming in Old Mission | Jane Boursaw Photo

I perused through some Traverse City Record-Eagle archives and pulled out a few stories where the Altenburgs are mentioned. In this first one, dated March 31, 1969, Helen is one of the models for a fashion show hosted by the Bowers Harbor Junior Woman’s Club.

And as per usual for just about every event back then, my mom, Mrs. Walter Johnson, provided the background music – on an organ loaned for the event by the Lowrey Organ Studios. The proceeds were given to Camp Roy-El. Remember that? My sister, Carol, spent a summer volunteering there.

Old Mission History: Altenburg News
Old Mission History: Fashion Show hosted by the Bowers Harbor Junior Woman’s Club; Traverse City Record-Eagle, March 31, 1969

And here’s a story dated April 30, 1964, about the time the Northwestern Chapter of the Michigan Botanical Club placed a placard on a huge American chestnut tree on the Altenburg farm.

The story notes that the family took over the farm in 1849, and the tree was there at that time. I wonder if the tree and/or placard is still there. Maybe the Sobkowskis can jump in and answer that question in the comments section below.

Old Mission History: Traverse City Record-Eagle
Old Mission History: Altenburg Chestnut Tree Dedicated; Traverse City Record-Eagle, April 30, 1964

Here’s one more story, dated Dec. 24, 1954, and I might run this separately around Christmas if I remember. It talks about how the residents of Old Mission had decorated their homes and village for the holiday season. The Altenburgs placed the Star of Bethlehem on their rooftop, and a large blue-lighted tree was at the doorway.

Check out all the other names, though. An entire chapter of my childhood resides in those names. Also note the author. Molly Sobkowski, George and Helen’s daughter, was the Record-Eagle’s roving reporter for Old Mission at that time. (It’s in two parts because I couldn’t get the whole story in one screenshot.)

Old Mission History: Traverse City Record-Eagle
Old Mission History: Homes decorated for Christmas; Traverse City Record-Eagle, Dec. 24, 1954
Old Mission History: Traverse City Record-Eagle
Old Mission History: Homes decorated for Christmas; Traverse City Record-Eagle, Dec. 24, 1954

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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 the Gazette is mainly reader-supported, I hope you'll consider tossing a few bucks my 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. Check out the donation page here. Thank you so much for your support. -jb

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  1. Thank you Jane for posting this. A flood of memories come forth seeing all the names and locations. I would love to find any books or articles on our history!!!! Do you know where I should begin to uncover these?
    So grateful for your work!
    Mary Rokos Stegman

    • Thanks so much, Mary! I bet the Sobkowskis might have some good book suggestions about the Pratts. I’m thinking there’s probably something in Elizabeth Potter’s book, The Story of Old Mission, too. I’ve got a copy around here, the location of which is a mystery at the moment.

      But this would be a great story for the Gazette – a list of books about Old Mission. I’ll work on that.

      In the meantime, this is from Sprague’s History of Grand Traverse and Leelanaw Counties (that’s how they spell it), which you can actually find online here: (reproductions are available on Amazon, but from the reviews, it seems that some of the text and images are pretty blurry – I’d like to get my hands on one of the original books at some point.)


      Success comes not to the man who idly waits, but to the faithful toiler whose work is characterized by intelligence and force and who has the foresight and keenness of mental vision to know when and where and how to exert his energies, and thus it happens that but a small proportion of those who enter the “world’s broad field of battle” come off victors in the struggle for wealth and position. Some lack perseverance, others business sagacity and still others are dilatory or negligent, but Mr. Pratt possesses the undaunted spirit and business enterprise which has been the means of developing this great state of Michigan. He is numbered among the pioneer settlers of Grand Traverse county and is also one of its native sons, his birth having occurred in Old Mission, on the 25th of September, 1857. He has here since resided and as he neared manhood he entered upon a business career that has been alike honorable and prosperous.

      Mr. Pratt is a son of Jerome M. Pratt, who was born in Licking county, Ohio, and after arriving at years of maturity wedded Miss Araminta Rosecrants, a native of New York. The father became one of the earliest settlers of Old Mission. He was sent to this place by the government as an Indian agent and continued to live at Old Mission until his death, which occurred September I1, 1891, when he was nearly seventy three years of age. He left the impress of his individuality upon the development of the county, taking an active part in all its work and progress. His wife survived him for about five years and died on the 4th of June, 1896, when seventy-three years of age, her birth having occurred on the 9th of September, 1823. Unto this worthy couple were born seven children, William R. being the sixth in order of birth.

      Amid the wild scenes of frontier life at Old Mission, William R. Pratt was reared and here he has made his home almost continuously since, having spent but a short period at different times in other parts of the country. Farming has been his chief occupation. He was educated in the schools of Old Mission and after putting aside his text books he began agricultural work, which owing to his capability and enterprise has proved to him an excellent source of income. He now owns one hundred and twenty acres of land, of which one-half is improved, and the farm products annually bring to him a good income as he finds a ready sale for his crops upon the market.

      In connection with general farming he is also extensively and successfully engaged in buying, selling and shipping fruit. On the 3d of May, 1891, at Old Mission, William R. Pratt was united in marriage to Miss Mary L. Marshall, a daughter of William Marshall, who is represented on another page of this volume. She was born in Frenchtown, Monroe county, Michigan, on the 5th of February, 1861, and by her marriage has become the mother of four children: Louise, Marshall, Carl and Helen. William Pratt and his family are widely and favorably known in this portion of the state. The members of the household occupying an enviable position in the social circles in which they move. Mr. Pratt is likewise prominent in public affairs. He has served as deputy sheriff for many years, has been township treasurer and for several years he has also been deputy township clerk. In matters of citizenship he has been public-spirited and he is always prompt and faithful in the execution of the official duties which devolve upon him. He has a comprehensive understanding of the leading questions that divide parties and in whose decisions lie the destinies of the Republic.

      His study of the issues of the day has led him to give an unfaltering support to the Republican party. The name of Pratt has always been connected with the moral development of Grand Traverse county. The parents of our subject became charter members of the Congregational church at Old Mission, and William R. Pratt has long been one of the members of the church and at the present time is serving as one of its trustees. No one in the community enjoys a better reputation for integrity of word and deed than William R. Pratt and from pioneer days his influence has been given in the study of progress, reform and improvement. No greater testimonial of his worth can be given than the fact that the position accorded him by public opinion is one of marked prominence.

    • And a couple of resources here on the Gazette:

      Info and photo gallery of the Lighthouse founding families. Jerome Pratt was lighthouse keeper.

      And here’s a story about the OMP Historical Society presenting Jerome Pratt’s 1800’s Lighthouse Journal to Peninsula Community Library (you can view it there, once they open again):

      The library has a wealth of info about the history of the Old Mission Peninsula.

    • I have several local history books for sale including “The Traverse Region”, a 1974 printing of the original 1884 book. I specialize in books and have hundreds for sale – (at THE OLD BARN ANTIQUE SHOP.)

        • I have one, but it is a “keeper”. I had priced it, so maybe I have another one SOMEWHERE … I am searching for several things I know I have -SOMEWHERE! You are welcome to come and look/ read it here…. I love all your “local history stories”. Susan

          • Thank you! I know you emailed me eons ago and I’m, as usual, super behind on responding! Thank you for the kind words and your support of the Gazette.

            And keep me in mind if you come across another Sprague’s. I guess I could print off this digital version, but it’d sure be great to have a hardcover at some point. Georgia Holman has one. 🙂

  2. Helen Altenburg (and Nikki & Steve) were my landlords 80-92 when I was luck enough to reside in their beach cottage. I used to clean “the big house” for Helen on Saturdays. The back entry had once been a store, where she killed and sold chickens, among other things. Helen told me her grandfather (?) had been the first lighthouse keeper on OMP; many of the tables had ‘guard rings’ around them, to keep things from sliding off… fascinating house, furniture, and woman!

  3. Thank you for the lovely article about the lilacs and some Pratt family history. I have several clippings of Molly’s column and you’d recognize the names. You’re welcome any time to come and peruse the family archives. I believe I mentioned the collection of letters between Jerome and Arminta Pratt prior to their marriage. And also a teacher’s grade book from the Old Mission School from around 1912. and much more interesting Old Mission history stuff.

    • Nikki, is there any way I could obtain copies of letters from Jerome and Araminta prior to their marriage? Do you happen to have any photos of them or of any of the clan?
      I’m so intrigued by our history and would love to find any material on them.
      Hope you’re well. Please say hello to your folks. It would be great to see you all again.
      Kind Regards,
      Mary Rokos Stegman

      • We’d love to see you and go over the family “archives.” The phone number for the house hasn’t changed. It’s still 223-4452.

  4. Nikki – I would love to see them so day too. My dad was John Marshall, the son of Katherine and William Marshall. Do you remember them?


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