J.M. Peterson and Lake Bluff Farm

The beginning of a new business venture is always the most uncertain phase of a larger process. “Will it work?”, “Will it go as planned?”, and roughly hundreds of other questions are often asked with a future seemingly up in the air.

John M. Petersen began Lake Bluff Farm around the turn of the 20th Century. The farm was purchased by the Gray family who morphed the fruit farm into a full working farm that included many crops and horses.

John M. Petersen began Lake Bluff Farm around the turn of the 20th Century. The farm was purchased by the Gray family who morphed the fruit farm into a full working farm that included many crops and horses.

In the early 20th Century, a local bookkeeper, who probably asked himself similar question to the ones mentioned above, decided to undertake a new venture on a piece of land located a little ways out of the city limits. Little did he know when he first started that this venture would grow and after several decades morph into something else. Today, that piece of land once again finds itself on the precipice of another venture.

On Feb. 2, 1859, John Marius (J.M.) Petersen was born in LundforLund, Slayelse, Denmark. Growing up he continued to reside in his birthplace where he completed school and later attended college at the University of Copenhagen When he was 19 years old, he entered the Army and served for over one year at the Royal Officers School. Upon turning 22, he found himself in America where he settled in Greenville, MI.

Due to his studiousness, Petersen graduated in four and a half months from Grand Rapids Business College and shortly after accepted a position as a bookkeeper with the Buckley and Douglas Lumber Company in Manistee.

It was here where Petersen began his career and where he eventually worked his way up the “ladder” within the Buckley and Douglas corporation. After a year working as bookkeeper he was promoted to head bookkeeper of the mill office and was later given the charge of overseeing the company store formerly located on Ramsdell Street. A while after, he became the purchasing agent for the Manistee & Northeastern Railroad where he attended to all the companies’ supplies, receipts, and bills.

In 1896, he married Belle Hansen in Greenville and together the couple first made their home at 113 Maple Street.

Around this time, J.M.’s business interests (or rather a hobby) piqued in a different direction. Just around the turn of the 20th Century, he purchased several acres of land, located past Orchard Beach on Lakeshore Road, where he decided to grow fruit. Naming this new venture, “Lake Bluff Orchard” (also known as Lake Bluff Farm), Petersen’s gamble eventually paid off as he began to grow more and more fruit including: gooseberries, pears, apples, peaches, plums, etc.

It would later be printed in the Manistee News Advocate on October 10, 1939, that Lake Bluff Farm was a “model fruit farm” and was “one of the showplaces of Manistee County”. The farm was also, “noted for the quality of its fruit”.

For over 20 years Petersen continued to operate Lake Bluff Farm (which for all intents and purposes was called somewhat of a “diversion” for him) while also continuing his work as general manager of the Buckley and Douglas Company.

The year 1916 saw J.M. and Belle move from their home on to 461 Fifth Street. The couple purchased the home from the family of Ernest Salling and were the second couple to move into the large home.

In 1920, fire destroyed the Buckley & Douglas mill and upon its ruins was constructed the Ruggles and Rademaker Salt Company. Petersen helped oversee the construction of what was marketed as, “The World’s Largest Salt Plant” and after it was completed, he was hired as the purchasing agent and sales manager of the firm, a position he would have for the next eight years before retiring in 1928.

Over the next several years, J.M. continued to work on the farm and vacation with his wife in Florida, Texas, and California.

Three years before his death in 1939, Petersen sold the farm to Gertrude (Trudy) and M.E. (Eddie) Gray who brought with them some new plans for the farm. The Grays constructed a then modern two-story brick house on the property and transformed the former orchard to a working farm complete with chickens, cows, pigs, vegetables and (of course) fruit.

According to a “History of Lake Bluff” written by Margaret (Gray) Vickery and Bob Gray (the children of Trudy and Eddie) dated January 15, 1989:

“The dairy and poultry products were shared with neighbors and friends and bartered for the family’s groceries at the Economy Food Market in Manistee. The fattened beef and hogs were slaughtered for use by family, friends, and neighbors or sold at auction in Sparta, Michigan. The gooseberries and sweet cherries were shipped to “Stop-And-Shop” in Chicago while the sour cherries went to the cannery in Onekama. The rest of the fruit, the potatoes and tomatoes, went to the local Manistee fresh produce market.”

The farm would later be expanded to include stables with the “clomp, clomp, clomp” of horse hooves able to be heard more and more frequently as the years passed. By 1960, the Grays added to their population of equestrian tenants in the form of Arabian horses. Over the years, the Arabians often drew crowds of people to the farm as well as become a staple in the local festival parades.

On December 22, 1987 Lake Bluff was donated to the Michigan Audubon Society by the Gray family and for the next nearly 30 years the grounds and majestic trees (including a Sequoia) of the farm have been admired by thousands of sightseers and birding enthusiasts.

In October 2016, the Michigan Audubon closed the facilities at Lake Bluff. The following year a group of like-minded individuals interested in protecting the history and integrity of the property met to see what could be done to insure that Lake Bluff is still around for future generations.

As such, this group has put together a corporation called Lake Bluff Farms, Inc. and are currently in the process of forming a non-profit in response to the Michigan Audubon Society issuing a Request For Proposal in order to transfer ownership of the property. Lake Bluff Farms, Inc. is one of the applicants hoping to preserve the property of the farm.

The corporation’s vision statement is stated as: “Because the hallmark of Lake Bluff is protecting the flora, fauna and inherent history not just for today, but for all future generations, Lake Bluff Farms will place a concentration upon preservation, education, protection and upkeep of the homestead and immediate surrounding areas.”

As the decades have passed, Lake Bluff has grown to become one of the distinct places in Manistee County with a history all its own.

While several questions were probably going through the minds of the people involved with the farm throughout the years; questions like, “Will it work?”, “Will it go as planned?”, etc., another question (albeit…a rhetorical one) comes to mind: Who would have thought that after nearly 120 years, people would still be interested in a place that began simply with a local bookkeeper and some property located outside the city limits?

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Posted by Mark Fedder

Mark Fedder is the executive director of the Manistee County Historical Musuem. He can be reached at (231) 723-5531 ormanisteemuseum@yahoo.com.

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