In 1988 Sylvia Ball, the Conservancy’s first Midwest Regional Director, met with Ben and Bob Samels, two septuagenarian bachelor farmer brothers who owned a 86-acre farm on Skekemog Point near Traverse City, Michigan.
The Conservancy was interested in the Samels farm because it encompassed at least two highly significant archaeological sites, including one listed on the National Register of Historic Places. One one was is an Early Archaic site and the other is Late Woodland period. The brothers were interested because, having no heirs, they were looking for a way to ensure that after their deaths that their property would contribute to the general public good rather than being parceled into lake-shore condominium lots.
The Samels family were among the earliest white settlers in the Skekemong Point area. Frank Samels, the father of Ben and Bob, purchased the land in 1889 when it was literally a field of stumps. Previously the land had been owned by a timber company that cut all the old-growth timber, then moved on, putting the denuded land up for sale. Frank, equipped with a horse-operated stump puller (still present on the farm) and considerable pioneer resolve, proceeded to create the farm that would support the family for the next century.
The Samels family was a bit unusual in that they were “technology-adverse”. The buildings on the farm — the house, barn, and other principal outbuildings — were all constructed during the period 1895 to 1917. Furthermore, they continued to farm using horse- and steam-operated equipment well into the age of industrialized farming, and what equipment they didn’t continue to use, they stored in barn. As a result, in the late 1980s it was apparent that the Samels Farm had largely become a relic of a past era.
Fortunately for all, a local man, Warren Studley, who knew the brothers through his work as the county soil conversation specialist, recognized the importance of both the prehistoric and historic resources on the farm and their worthiness of permanent preservation. He arranged for Sylvia Ball to meet the brothers, and he was instrumental in brokering an agreement whereby the Conservancy would become the owner of the property after the death of the brothers and would manage the open land as a permanent archaeological preserve. The Conservancy would also act as a caretaker for the farmstead building and equipment until Studley and other locals could form another nonprofit organization to take ownership of the farmstead and manage it as a “living history” farm.
In 1999 Ben and Bob Samels passed away within six months of each other, and the Conservancy became the sole owner of the 86-acre farm along with all the buildings and farm equipment. Meanwhile, the local supporters of the living history farm created the nonprofit Samels Family Heritage Society with the intent of taking ownership of the farmstead. To everyone’s frustration, SFHS soon encountered the “Catch 22” that faces new nonprofits: Foundations are reluctant to fund new organizations without a track record of successfully carrying out the activities that they need the money for, and of course, without funds it is difficult to build that track record.
Fortunately, what SFHS lacked in finances they made up for with dedication, passion and considerable hard work. By growing carefully with public activities and outreach to school groups and otherwise raising their profile in the community, SFHS was able to reach a point where they felt institutionally and financially secure enough to take sole ownership of the farmstead and maintain the living history farm as an ongoing concern. Consequently this winter the Conservancy donated to SFHS 19 acres of land encompassing the farm buildings and a portion of non-archaeologically sensitive land that they can develop for parking and other needed infrastructure. In addition the Conservancy transferred one-half of the modest endowment that we received from the brothers to SFHS to help defer the costs of maintaining the farmstead.
Going forward, the Conservancy and SFHS will continue to cooperate with SFHS taking the lead role in public outreach allowing the Conservancy to concentrate on its core mission of managing the archaeological research preserves, both keeping our promise made to the Samels brothers now 30 years ago.
~Paul Gardner, Midwest Regional Director
To learn more about the archaeological significance of Samels Farm, see “In the Wake of the Ice Age”, American Archaeology 3(2):34-35, Summer 1999. https://www.archaeologicalconservancy.org/?wpfb_dl=23.
To learn more about visiting the farmstead and SFHS, see http://www.samelsfarm.org/.