We have frost warnings as I write this. That’s the beauty of living in northern Michigan, right? It could be 80 degrees one day, and the next, you’re hauling plants indoors and stashing them in your front hallway to keep them from freezing outside overnight.
But one thing that never seems to be deterred by frost is the lilacs, which bloom beautifully on the Old Mission Peninsula year after year, no matter the weather. In fact, they’re blooming right now.
Help Support Old Mission Gazette - Click Here
A few days ago, we stopped into Helen Vogel’s place on Montague Road – she has a little bee issue around her front door we were consulting on – and her gorgeous lilac bush was blooming in front of the old Wilson farmhouse where her ancestors lived. Here are a few pics…
Helen told us that her lilac bush is at least 80 years old, and it made me think about all the ancient lilacs still blooming around the Peninsula. There are some at Tim’s grandparents’ house on the corner of Bluff Road and Boursaw Road (which we call “the farmhouse”), and there are still lilacs across the road from where my family’s old farmhouse once sat on Center Road, on the home farm north of Mapleton.
That farmhouse burned down in 1964, and yet, the lilacs still bloom there. I don’t know when they were planted, but possibly in the late 1800s or early 1900s, dating back to the beginnings of my family here on the Old Mission Peninsula.
I think that’s true with many of the old homesteads where our parents and grandparents and great-grandparents lived. The lilacs are still there, even if the old farmhouses are long gone. The remaining lilacs are a vestige of the hard work that went into farming and raising families on the Old Mission Peninsula several generations ago. I would not be sitting here writing this without the hard work and dedication of my ancestors, who remained on the Peninsula when it might have been easier to move elsewhere and find a less challenging way of life.
And you see those ancient lilacs not just on the Old Mission Peninsula, but everywhere across northern Michigan. A big lilac bush happily blooming each year, seemingly out in the middle of nowhere. Chances are good there was probably a farmhouse next to it at some point, a place where perhaps a young couple tilled the soil and raised a family, optimistically hoping for the best and bravely carrying on when pests and blight and frost killed off their crop.
And of course, there are some legendary lilacs scattered around the Peninsula, like the massive bank of lilacs at the old Altenburg house in Old Mission, where Steve and Nikki Sobkowski live now. Steve’s mom was Molly Levin, who was George and Helen (Pratt) Altenburg’s daughter.
Those are not quite in full bloom as I write this (here they are last year, blooming the first week of June 2020). These lilacs are in the northern half of the Old Mission Peninsula, which as we all know, has its own climate system. (Helen Altenburg once tasked Tim with pruning and cutting those lilacs, but that’s a whole other story perhaps he’ll tell one day.)
The other thing I love about lilacs is that they migrate around the Peninsula. The ones I mentioned at our old farmhouse north of Mapleton … when my parents, Walter and Mary Johnson, built their new house in Old Mission in 1960, Mom dug up some of those lilacs and planted them at the new house.
When my grandparents, Lester and Stella Johnson, moved to their new house on the corner of Peninsula Drive and Kroupa Road around 1950 (so that my parents could move into the old farmhouse after they got married in 1946; they started married life in the house on Peninsula Drive where Doug and Erin Kosch now live), sure enough, some of those old lilacs from the home farm were dug up and planted at my grandparents’ new house.
Here’s a couple pics of those lilacs – and one adorably fuzzy bumblebee – on the corner of Peninsula Drive and Kroupa Road, across from the Peninsula Fruit Exchange (PFE).
Likewise, when Tim and I built our house here on Bluff Road around 1990, we brought some of the lilacs from my parents’ place in Old Mission and planted them here.
I guess they’re generational lilacs, in that sense, making their way around the Peninsula, as the families grow and have kids and build new homes. On the outside chance that our son finds a home on the Peninsula (we’re looking; let us know if you have one that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg; fixer-uppers welcome), I will dig up some of these lilacs and plant them wherever he lands. And they will have come from the home farm, because that’s where their lineage started.
And it’s always nice when newcomers plant their own lilacs, carrying on the lilac tradition around the Peninsula. A few years back, I was taking pictures of some lilacs on the south end of the Peninsula, and Marty Lagina pulled up next to me in his truck and said he was honored that his lilacs were getting their picture taken, and that he’d planted them about 20 years prior. I had no idea who he was at the time, so thank you, Marty, for letting me take pictures of your lilacs and post them here on the Gazette.
This Memorial Weekend will be a great time to take a drive around the Old Mission Peninsula and check out some of the lilacs blooming here, there and everywhere. Some of them might even have been planted – or transplanted – by your ancestors.