For 80 years Rex Dobson farmed a piece of Leelanau County ground, along the way saving artifacts, memories, and insights to share with a future world. Before passing away in 2011, Rex made sure Ruby Ellen Farm would be preserved as a working farm available to the public, educators, historians, and apprentices. His longtime friend Nancy Kotting shares the story of the Leelanau County farm and the extraordinary man behind it.
What is it that makes a man extraordinary? Sometimes it is simply mastering the art of living an ordinary life with perfection, weaving himself into the memories of all who call him a friend.
Over the course of another long Northern Michigan winter I listened to the life stories of one such extraordinary man. Recorded over a period of four years, and filling over 700 pages when transcribed, the interviews of a bachelor farmer looked back over his life of 80 years on the same Leelanau farm, homesteaded just north of Bingham by his great grandparents and called Ruby Ellen Farm.
Laborious? Not really. Rex Dobson had been my friend. He had passed in 2011 while I was away from the peninsula, and upon returning, I welcomed the chance to pay my respects in some small way. And so, the long winter was spent in my studio, hour after hour with my transcriber at my side, my headphones on, and through them, the cadenced voice of an old friend gently telling me the story of his life.
All photography: Todd Zawistowski
Through the snows of January, the frigid but sunny days of February and on into the hope of March the stories filled my mind, revealing a life encircled by the four seasons, anchored by a responsibility to land, beast, neighbor and family. As I worked my way through the seemingly endless cassettes, the curious attributes of Rex slowly revealed themselves. I was listening to a man who did not put himself out into the world to seek his fortune, conquer his far-flung dreams or build his empire. Rather, Rex was a man who spent his life in just one place. He remained obedient and subservient to nature, his life spent as a humble partner with, rather than dominator of, the world around him. In the end, I realized I had known a man who was once a boy and had grown into a wise elder under the tutelage of Leelanau itself.
He had picked up where his father and mother left off after they had done the same with their parents. Each generation built upon the previous generation’s knowledge and skill at the details of creating a life from the soil, wood and water that surrounded them.
Through Rex’s steady voice, I came to realize that neighborly teamwork in barn building, harvesting, threshing, silo filling and child rearing—which I had often thought of as sweetened nostalgia—were in fact integral to the survival of every family whose farmsteads stretched along South Center Highway, the main north/south route up through the county.
This interdependence of neighbor farmers rendered mandatory the maintenance of relationships in real time. Today so many of us navigate the day-to-day in relative solitude, from both a physical and emotional distance: in a chair, at a computer, in a cubicle. By contrast, Rex and his peers shared life shoulder to shoulder. Romances were seeded, alliances formed and squabbles settled with vendettas rarely surviving beyond the changing of the seasons.
It was this easy, daily interaction with Rex that those of us in his orbit savored in him. He carried his mother’s graciousness forward through himself into us, teaching us that no matter how far apart time and the modern world may render us from one another, simple rules of courtesy and caring can be a sustaining thing of beauty between us all.
Page by page I typed out the decades of labor and laughter, discovery and the inevitable changes that marked time in the life of a 20th century farmer. Rex was the product of nature’s firm hand in defining a farmer’s life, and therefore the farmer himself. He had learned long ago to respect her cycles, find ways to leverage her gifts and above all never make assumptions as to her plans.
There came a period in the interviews where a fundamental change became apparent, a change that brought many social traditions to an end: the first of seven tractors arrived at Ruby Ellen. The mechanization of labor had begun and with it, the increase in productivity it promised and the loss of time it hadn’t disclosed.
There followed the slow unraveling of the social web that held the labor of homesteading in the realm of communal. Interdependence became independence. Rex and his peers were now able to work from “can to can’t” (see the sun), and an era slowly closed behind them. Farmers were no longer limited to the productive capacity of a team of horses to accomplish the day’s work. The world of commodity farming, with its relentless demand for higher yields, lower prices and the temptation to borrow from the banks for one’s ever increasing land and equipment needs permeated the lives of Leelanau’s subsistence farmers. For Rex and others at the time it was welcomed. Thinking back on that evolution from work bees to mechanized independence, Rex had this to say:
“Everybody was doing that, raising the same crops … they would need the help too, so they’d help you and you’d help them, right around Bingham Township … It’s kinda nice to be a little more independent and I know the house [wife], she’s real glad she don’t have to cook for all those people who used to come here and work, to have a great big meal prepared at noon and then sometime it’s supper time too, … it’s a big chore to prepare all that food, maybe two days in a row if they didn’t get done in one day … combine would do the threshing and a lot less work besides … Same thing with silo filling, with the corn. Used to be silo fillers, that took a lot of help, that took more help than threshing grain, had to have a lot of men so that was quite a chore, and it was a lot of hard work, near the fall of the year getting close to October, quite often the weather was wet with rain, cold sometimes to be working with the corn shocks … So help, I think that was the biggest reason everything got mechanized because of the shortage of help. That’s what happened to the cherry industry too, of course, used to hire help to pick the cherries, and help got so sparse, and rules and regulations got so strict you just didn’t hire help anymore, buy a machine that would do it instead. That’s the way the farm evolution progressed.”
While Rex embraced this independence, he worked just as hard to retain the memory of the old ways, stashing away photos and artifacts as time moved forward. Somehow he understood the world might someday have a need to know.
Born in Muskegon, Rex’s arrival in Leelanau as a young boy with his father, Harvey Dobson, and his mother, Ruby (Core) Dobson, was part happy ending and part new beginning.
Around 1900, founders William and Margaret Core passed the original farmstead to their second oldest son, Julius, and his wife, Maude, his three siblings receiving adjoining portions of the then 400-plus-acre holdings extending to the south and east. Julius and Maude gave it their best, but the Great Depression was coming on and the chattel mortgages on equipment and livestock were accumulating. The day came when the Land Bank took over, and the family was forced to leave the farm.
Rex describes the reality of the times:
“The Depression didn’t strike until the ’30s for anybody but farmers. Thirties were supposed to be the years of the Depression, but it was in the ’20s, late teens and all the ’20s when there was a farm depression, prices were so depressed … nothing was hardly coming in, that was the problem, you know, couldn’t make ends meet cuz you weren’t getting enough for your produce. There was a lot of farmers went broke, you know the banks took over, you borrowed the money … at 7 percent … to operate and couldn’t pay it back because you didn’t have enough income comin’ in, and you’s payin’ the interest besides on the borrowed money, besides what you had up for collateral.”
Julius and Maude moved into Traverse City, Julius taking a position as dairyman for the State Hospital.
“Must have been quite a trauma for them to have to move away, especially to lose it, you know. Movin’ away and losin’ it is two different things. Just moving away because you want to, for another reason, but to lose it, is kind of sad, I can imagine that, but they never talked about it. Talked about living here but not moving away.”
The house and buildings, once the pride of the Core family, remained vacant for the remainder of the Depression years, a dark fate all too common.
Unknown to anyone at the time, Julius and Maude had collected a significant portion of the tools, keepsakes and artifacts accumulated on the farm over its first 50 years and hidden them high above in the ice house on the hope that they might avoid discovery and perhaps be reclaimed one day.
Meanwhile, their son Harvey Dobson’s work in a Muskegon foundry making crankshafts was short lived, and he and his young family returned to Traverse City, eventually borrowing enough money to purchase the farm back from the Land Bank, a dream of Rex’s mother. In celebration, Harvey Dobson named the farm after his beloved wife.
With the house and grounds derelict, Harvey, Ruby and little Rex, fueled by a new beginning on familiar ground, got to work cleaning, painting, turning the gardens and setting the plow. Ruby Ellen Farm woke from its slumber, setting the course of life for young Rex.
While our geographical perspective is now global at the tap of a screen, Rex’s was defined by the four cardinal directions from which his schoolmates walked each day, convening at the center of their universe in the one room schoolhouse at Bingham. His travels to far away lands occurred between the front and back cover of the family subscription to National Geographic—magazines being an extravagance a good harvest afforded.
For Rex, the opportunity to meet and learn from those of a culture not his own came to life each season with the migrant laborers’ arrival for the fruit harvest.
“1970 is the last time we had migrants. 1970 was the last year, and quite often these migrants picked the cherries were Jamaicans, they were really good workers, they came from Florida, picking oranges and when they were done picking cherries in Leelanau County they would go to Indiana and pick tomatoes and work themselves back to Florida … ”
Accustomed to hearing guarded, often biased discussion about migrant workers from my contemporaries, I smiled to myself as Rex described his encounters with a genuine sense of curiosity and wonder, innocent of judgment while very focused on an accurate telling of each small detail. I marveled at his natural objectivity and concern for the burden such a life placed upon families, burdens not unlike those Rex’s family experienced during lean years. In Rex’s world, it was the nature of labor itself that rendered those who labored as equals. No matter their origin, they were respected at Ruby Ellen for the commitment and contribution to the common effort, upon which the survival of all rested.
I never knew how thin the line between a man and his land could be until I met Rex.
I had followed him many a time as he walked his fields or contemplated the rows in his gardens, and every time I had found myself mesmerized at the sheer breadth of his peaceful empathy for all that surrounded him. It almost appeared at times to be returned in-kind by both animal and plant.
As a young boy, he had discovered the family heirlooms, hand-wrought tools and wares of the lives of his ancestors, hidden up high in the icehouse. A personal treasure he would go on to curate himself, to be shared with visitors, along with the stories one finds attached to objects bearing the marks of labor. The running history of Ruby Ellen through four generations was the film reel of his life, he the humble remaining lead character. Sitting alone, listening to his voice late into each winter’s eve, I often found myself overwhelmed with grief only to be equally overwhelmed with the warmth that came from the gift of now truly knowing my friend Rex Dobson, an ordinary man made extraordinary.
Nancy Kotting is a founding member of The Rex Dobson Ruby Ellen Farm Foundation. [email protected] The author thanks the Rex Dobson Ruby Ellen Farm Board of Directors for their generosity in sharing the archives of Ruby Ellen Farm for the purposes of this article. All excerpts in quotations copyrighted by The Rex Dobson Ruby Ellen Farm.
Ruby Ellen Farm is protected from future development permanently, remaining a working farm forevermore according to Rex Dobson’s wishes. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places and operated by a nonprofit organization, the farm is available to students, educators, historians, apprentice farmers, and others interested in learning more about subsistence farming as it has been historically practiced. A significant archive is located on the property and is made available by appointment for research purposes. The public may tour the farm by appointment. rubyellenfarm.org
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