Tribute to Former Michigan First Lady Helen Milliken

Former Michigan First Lady Helen Milliken, who passed away last week at her Traverse City home, was an ardent supporter of women's rights and the environment. If there was a worthy cause in Northern Michigan, you could almost bet that Helen Milliken had lent time and/or inspiration to it. This 1997 Traverse Magazine article about the preservation of the Seven Bridges natural area near Kalkaska is an example of one of the many wonderful projects she helped to set in motion.

It was a beautiful day for a picnic.

Three old friends were on their way toward Rapid City and a web of creeks called Seven Bridges. “You’re not going to believe this place,” Lou Ann Taylor told Helen Milliken and Virginia Sorenson. They were destined for a place that Taylor had visited for the first time a few weeks earlier.

As the women chatted, Taylor turned the car onto Valley Road and, after a few miles, pulled off on the shoulder. “Well,” she said, gathering the picnic basket and a blanket, “here it is.”

Just a few steps from the car awaited one of the most stunning areas the women had ever seen. Under a canopy of tangled cedars, four channels of the Rapid River—a blue-ribbon trout stream—unite in a watery braid. The soothing sound of rushing water fills the air; streams curve and double back, tumble into one another and plunge over an old, broken dam. Crude wooden bridges cross the streams in several places; one leads off to a meadow and, beyond, a five-mile two track through wildflower-filled woodland. “I had not seen anything like that in all the streams my husband and I had fished in Colorado and the U.P.,” says Sorenson, who had long owned a cottage on the Manistee River a few miles away.

Taylor explained that the 291-acre Seven Bridges area had been privately owned and maintained by the Peschke family since the mid-1800s, but had always been open to the public. Weddings had been performed on the bridges Gordon Peschke built, and it was a popular spot for picnics and graduation pictures.

The three spread their things out, then took a walk. “It was a revelation to find this kind of pristine wilderness,” says Milliken. “It was extraordinary that it had survived all the development that has exploded everywhere else. I had never heard of it and had lived here 50 years.” They hiked under deep blue skies over the bridges and through woods full of nesting birds and wildflowers, exiting out onto Valley Road. On their way back to the bridges, they spotted the little pink flags and stakes of surveyors. Within moments, the significance of the markings registered: The land was being platted for development.

“It was very disturbing to all of us,” says Sorenson, who was then chairwoman of the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy. Taylor was a trustee and Milliken, wife of former Gov. Bill Milliken, had long been involved in environmental causes. As the women ate their lunch, they talked of what could be done. That picnic spawned an effort to save Seven Bridges that illustrates what can be accomplished when the state, business leaders and scores of individuals who love a place work together and never give up. This month, if all goes according to plan, the state will close a deal on all 291 acres and its mile of Rapid River frontage, buying it from developers who had intended to slice it into 29 home sites. A determined group led by the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy has—despite one obstacle after another—ensured that Seven Bridges will be open to the public forever. The conservancy might never have triumphed, however, had one family not been so generous with its land for decades.

In the channel between the second and third bridge, a fallen cedar stretches across the stream. When the stresses of raising four children or the August heat overcame her, Norma Thornburg, who lived just up the road from Seven Bridges, walked out onto the log to sit and dip her feet into the frigid, spring-fed waters of the Rapid River. Thornburg calls it “the most beautiful place on earth.” She is just one of many Kalkaska-area residents who have frequented Seven Bridges over the years. Every Saturday, a fishing pole on his handlebars, Ty Ratliff would ride his bike to Seven Bridges from his aunt’s house near Rapid City. For hours, he and his friends sailed homemade boats, cast for trout and “island hopped.” Tennis shoes slung over their shoulders, the boys leaped from bog to bog or waded the shallow waters. Sometimes they hung from cedar branches in the swifter parts to feel the current’s pull. The water was always icy, even on the hottest days. Says Ratliff, now 26, “You couldn’t stay in long or you would go numb.”
There was rarely a day he came home dry. Later, when he was old enough to drive, Ratliff taught his three little brothers to fish there. Now a land specialist with the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy, he says, “This area means more to me than you can imagine.”  On those idyllic days splashing around the Rapid River, Ratliff often ran into Gordon Peschke, the man whose altruism made it possible for Ratliff—and so many others—to enjoy the area. Gordon and his sons built and maintained the bridges, dug silt from the streams so they would run free and planted thousands of blue spruce trees on the once-logged land. A deeply religious man, Gordon viewed Seven Bridges as one of God’s masterworks. He saw his role as steward of the land, and his mission was to share his Creator’s beauty with others. He made his living as a tool-shop supervisor near Detroit, but he visited every summer during his two-week vacation and on scattered weekends throughout the year with his wife, Cece, and his five children.

With his white beard, porkpie hat and generous girth, he reminded people of Burl Ives. “He was a really quiet, smiley guy who never announced he owned the property,” says Ratliff. When he ran into Gordon, Peschke always asked the boy what he was up to. Then he would remind him to pick up any litter he saw. “He always asked, ‘Are you having fun?’ Of course I would tell him I was,” says Ratliff. “ ‘Good,’ he would say. Then he would leave.”

At the first bridge off Valley Road, the Peschkes posted a sign welcoming visitors, asking them not to litter, pick wildflowers or build fires. Near the sign, the Peschkes kept a guest book. Cece has filled several scrapbooks with the sheets from it. Many visitors have written her to say that they had come to Seven Bridges as children and were now bringing their grandchildren to visit. All 50 states were represented as well as several foreign countries. During the late ’80s, Gordon considered closing the property because of liability concerns. Somehow he just couldn’t.

Across the road from Seven Bridges, on a gentle knoll, sits a small white cottage. Paint curls off the clapboard siding, and the windows are boarded. The house has been abandoned since 1989, when Gordon, under pressure from his siblings who owned the land with him, had to sell the property.

Out back is an outhouse, a water pump and a clearing where Gordon once nurtured tree seedlings he ordered from catalogs. After the seedlings had grown two or three feet, Gordon transplanted them. “He’d fill a wheelbarrow full,” says Gordon’s widow, Cece. “Then he’d go through the property, and when he saw a wide-open space, he’d start planting. It was his life.” Under a grove of trees near the house are the remains of a wooden bench Gordon built. Here, he listened to the birds and looked out over Seven Bridges, watching for visitors. Just under the cottage eves, a Pennsylvania Dutch emblem has not lost its colorful design. Appropriately enough, it says “Wilkommen.”

The house was built by Gordon’s four great-uncles, eccentric bachelors who lived together all their lives. Years earlier, the uncles’ parents had homesteaded there in a log cabin. Cece still has the deed signed by Ulysses S. Grant. The uncles, known as the Ricker brothers, were loggers. In 1882 they built a sawmill and dammed the river at Seven Bridges, creating a holding pond for logs floated down the Rapid River. Their prosperous mill produced 10,000 board feet a day, which they shipped via railroad that stopped at the mill. As a child, Gordon and his father and brother made annual pilgrimages to Rapid City to look in on the old uncles. His childhood memories of these men have become local lore.

Gordon, it is said, loved heading north to wander the Rapid River and visit his uncles. Cece says Gordon talked often of falling asleep on the living room floor and awakening in the night to the sound of his uncles’ thoughtful conversations as they stoked the fire. “He found them to be very deep thinkers and believed that the twins particularly were philosophers,” says Cece. After the last uncle died, the property passed on to Gordon’s father, then ultimately on to him and his three siblings. For the next 40 years, Gordon, Cece, their children and later, grandchildren, treasured the place locals had named Seven Bridges. Although Gordon’s siblings enjoyed the property, none was as attached as he. As the years passed, there was talk of selling. By the time the siblings reached their 70s, one had moved to Chicago, another was physically unable to visit the property, and the taxes were a burden. The pressure on Gordon to find a buyer was mounting. “We knew if one of the four died, the heirs would be that person’s children,” Cece says. “Then we would have 16 owners instead of four. You can’t get that many people to agree on anything.”

Gordon searched for ways to keep the property open and still get his siblings their inheritances. Though he wished he could buy them out, he lacked the resources. In 1981, he wrote to the DNR, hoping the agency would buy the land. His efforts were in vain. A few years later, he met Dave Mahan, a Ph.D. stream ecologist with the Au Sable Institute in Grayling who was enthralled with Seven Bridges and its teaching possibilities. “Most of the river is private and there is little public access,” he says. The two worked on a plan for the institute to buy the land. Gordon thought he had solved his dilemma.

But the deal fell through when the institute could raise only $90,000 for land valued at $150,000. Gordon begged his family to accept the offer. “When you love a piece of property as he did, the dollars don’t mean as much,” says Mahan. “But it wouldn’t work for his siblings. You can understand that. His sister said to me at one point, ‘This is our inheritance. We just can’t give it away.’” In a final effort, Gordon tried dividing the property equally to save the bridge area. But the precious braid of waters was too valuable for the deal work without it. In 1989, a Realtor named Bernard Schueren offered the Peschkes $180,000, intending to develop the land into home sites. Gordon’s siblings jumped at the offer. To keep peace in the family, he went along with it.

But the deal, Cece says, broke his heart. “At that point he couldn’t do anything about it. He wouldn’t talk about it anymore,” she says. “We still came up every summer to see friends and we would drive by. But I couldn’t get him to get out of the car. He’d just look straight ahead with a big lump in his throat.” Cece pauses and her voice breaks. “I’d tell him, ‘Look, honey, your work is here, you’re leaving a good thing behind you. You’ll go on living here forever in the 3,000 trees that have sprung from your hands.’” But her reassuring words were in vain. Once the property was sold, Gordon never walked the bridges again.   Even after Schueren bought the property, people continued to visit. Few were aware that it had even changed hands, until Sorenson, Taylor and Milliken came upon Rapid River Estate’s pink flags that day of the picnic.Schueren planned to build a retirement home along the Rapid River one day. With three sons in the building business, he thought the property a great investment. To raise the $180,000 to buy Seven Bridges, he mortgaged his house in St. Clair Shores. He also took on a partner, Ronald Reblin of Rapid City, and named the venture Rapid River Estates.

The plan was to divide the 291 acres into 10-acre lots, each with frontage on the river. It took time to develop the plans and survey the land. Schueren, meanwhile, had suffered a host of health problems, including kidney and heart disease. He left much of the property management to Reblin, who he says has invested only about $7,000 in the project. Rapid River Estates was prepared to put the lots on the market when Virginia Sorenson and Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy Director Glen Chown walked into Reblin’s office. The conservancy wanted the state to buy the property, but the conservancy first needed to know if the developers would sell. After consulting with Schueren, Reblin named a price of $450,000 (the property later appraised at $465,000).

Chown and Sorenson thought the land was a natural for state acquisition. But before submitting a proposal to the Natural Resources Trust Fund Board, the group that allocates oil and gas revenues for land buys, the conservancy had work to do. It would need to fund-raise to cover up-front expenses and to confirm local support. “We knew [people] would be for it, but we wanted to do it officially,” says Sorenson. “We talked to Rotary, to Kiwanis—any group that would let us in,” says Sorenson. Most knew of Seven Bridges. Those who didn’t were urged to visit it.

The Kalkaska County Commission and Clearwater Township quickly gave their support. “I never talked to one person who was negative about buying it,” Sorenson adds. “That says a lot about Kalkaska County.” By December 1994, the conservancy paid Rapid River Estates $9,000 for a 10-month, non-refundable option to keep the land undeveloped and off the market while the state pondered the purchase. It was risky business. The conservancy could lose the $9,000, plus an additional $4,000 spent on surveys and appraisals. Chown says he knew the property would stack up well against the Trust Fund Board’s criteria, which assign points for high water quality, the presence of endangered species and natural beauty. But there was one caveat: The state prefers to buy lands that abut or are already inside designated state forest boundaries. Seven Bridges met neither requirement but was close to state lands. Still, Chown says he was optimistic.

The following fall (1995), Seven Bridges made the cut and was put on the legislative docket for approval the following June. Chown and his Seven Bridges Committee were ecstatic. The conservancy wrote another check for $10,000 to extend its option through October 1996. But just two months after the DNR approved the purchase, the agency reneged. The reason: Seven Bridges was outside of existing state lands. Chown’s worst fears were realized. He phoned Sorenson, and within days, the two gathered a committee to speak at the Natural Resources Trust Fund Board’s final meeting of the year. If the committee didn’t secure approval in Lansing, then the purchase would have to wait another year for the board to reconsider it.

December 13 dawned with the beginnings of a blizzard. Chown had already gone to Lansing the night before to prepare for the meeting. As luck would have it, Sorenson had just bought a four-wheel-drive Jeep. She drove with Ty Ratliff and Rick Waterman, a postman and chairman of the Clearwater Township Zoning Board who had lived along the Rapid River all his life. Kalkaska County Chamber of Commerce Director Terri Crandall made it a foursome.

In Lansing, each spoke passionately about the need to save Seven Bridges. Crandall impressed the board with statistics showing how vital recreational areas like Seven Bridges are to the local economy. Waterman, who was nervous and unaccustomed to speaking before such a large group, had board members leaning forward in their chairs to hear him speak of Seven Bridges and Kalkaska’s heritage. Sorenson showed pictures and gave the history of the project. Finally, Ratliff talked of his childhood on the river and how he had taught his three younger brothers to fish there. “Last night,” he told the board, “my little brother asked why I had to go to Lansing. I said I was going to try to save Seven Bridges. If I didn’t, we might not be able to fish there anymore. ‘Then where will we fish?’ he asked. I said I didn’t know.”

“We were all captivated,” says then-board member Wendy Potts. “I had just finished reading The Bridges of Madison County and was really taken with the photographs of how beautiful this place was.” She made the motion, and the board voted unanimously to grant the funds. The following summer, Gordon Peschke died. “He went with the knowledge that Seven Bridges would be preserved,” says Cece. “He was so pleased because his greatest desire was that it should be open to the public, treasured and appreciated for what it was. The thing he most worried about was that they would subdivide it and make some kind of commercial mess out of it.”

Bureaucratic red tape and haggling between the estranged developers would hold up the closing for almost two more years. As of this writing, the conservancy is hoping for a July closing as lawyers work to settle disputes between Schueren and Reblin. The issue is money. Schueren claims he is entitled to most of the sale proceeds ($450,000) because he invested the $180,000 to buy the property. He says interest payments and surveying costs will eat up most of the profits. Also to be deducted from the proceeds is $25,000 the partnership owes the conservancy for 600 trees that were logged on the property last July—a violation of the conservancy’s option agreement. Schueren claims Reblin ordered the logging, then pocketed $10,000 in cash from the sale. A tape of a conservation between Reblin and the logger, Dave McKernan, substantiates Schueren’s claims. Reblin, who would not return our calls, has since filed personal bankruptcy. Profiting off Seven Bridges—to whatever degree—is something that did not sit well with Gordon Peschke. His spirit will no doubt hover over those who, by summer’s end, will begin to carry out his life’s work. For starters, the conservancy, with help from the Kalkaska Rotary, will rebuild the bridges and lay paths to make the area accessible to people with disabilities.

In May, Gordon’s son Art came to Seven Bridges to dig up a tree to plant at his family’s church in his father’s honor. As he passed over the third bridge, he remembered a rustic sign his father had built that had stood there for years. On it was this psalm: “Let the rivers clap their hands, and let the hills ring out for joy before the Lord.” Thanks to Gordon Peschke and the group led by the Conservancy, the celebrating will continue. T

Carolyn Faught was managing editor of Traverse, Northern Michigan's Magazine, when she wrote this story in 1997.

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