Cross over the rickety bridge and one can be sure to find flocks of waterfowl frolicking in the river, nibbling on bits of bread tossed by children. The picturesque scene is complemented by the quaint antique and old-fashioned candy store across the way, reminiscent of a Charles Dickens novel.
Take a stroll into those years gone by, in which pioneers labored from sun up until sundown and simplicity was the way of life. Step into the Byers Homestead, one of the great historical landmarks in the lakes area. Stretched across 2.5 acres in Commerce Township, the “miniature Greenfield Village” is being revitalized and tended to with care to preserve its stake in history.
The Byers Homestead site, located at 213 Commerce Road, near South Commerce and Carroll Lake roads and nestled along the banks of the Huron River, is believed to be the site of the first white settlement in Commerce Township. Initially the site only to a humble log cabin built by German immigrant Abram Walrod in the 1820s, the property later sprouted multiple structures thanks to the Byers family.
“It’s one big woven tapestry of history,” said Mary St. Louis, a member the Friends of Byers group and an event planner for the site.
The Friends of Byers, a not-for-profit group of volunteers, was formed to preserve the historic Byers Homestead as a cultural, educational, and recreational resource. The 14-member group espouses an allegiance to the legacy of June Byers, who was the last of the Byers lineage to own the property privately.
“It was June’s dream to always have a museum for kids — a place to learn and play,” St. Louis said. “We want to make the homestead into a walking museum for teas, weddings, historical events and school projects for children to learn history.”
According to a recent homestead preservation report by Ronald Campbell, a principal planner with Oakland County Planning and Economic Development, that was adopted as the site’s master plan, Walrod sold the property to the Gould family in 1850 and a farmhouse was built afterward, sometime between then and 1860.
The property traded hands several times before the Byers family purchased it in 1949.
For decades after the Byers family bought the property, the family gradually added several structures to the farm. The homestead site is currently comprised of a farmhouse; the main barn; a duck barn; a pantry; an outhouse; and a storage shed.
The Byers family owned the property for the second-longest amount of time since it was developed, and under their ownership, made the largest contributions to the homestead.
Their daughter, June, later became synonymous with the site and was thought of as an icon in the community. Before moving back to Commerce, June was a voice-over and sound effects actor for the “Lone Ranger” radio show, and a writing and acting instructor who reportedly taught Academy Award-winning actor George C. Scott.
Working on the “Lone Ranger” radio program that aired on WXYZ radio from the Fisher Building in Detroit between 1935 and 1942, Byers became an acting instructor based in Ferndale. She eventually moved into the township with her parents and became a beloved figure while running the country store on the Byers Homestead site.
Byers sold the property to Commerce Township for $300,000 in 1998. She died of complications from Alzheimer’s disease in May 2007.
Between 2004 and 2006, the township and the Friends of Byers group were embroiled in a feud surrounding June’s residence, not the familiar white house that’s still on the banks of the Huron River and visible from Commerce Road. The group wanted to maintain the home where she resided, whereas township officials thought the residence should be demolished and removed from the historic site off of Commerce Road.
By August 2005, only June Byers’ residence — not the farmhouse or barn at the Byers Homestead site — was targeted for demolition.
A report by Sanit-Air, an Oakland County company which specializes in air quality systems, suggested that the house be deemed “unacceptable for human habitation” due to the presence of toxic black mold.
Subsequently in February 2006, Byers’ home was demolished and the historic marker at the site referencing the Byers Homestead was sent back to Lansing.
“Without that house, there is no connection to the Byers name,” state Historical Preservation Society Director Laura Ashlee said at the time.
Friends of Byers Secretary Ellen Smith said the bad blood that had been between the township and the Friends of Byers is a figment of the past. Both groups have set aside their grudges and have entered into a collaborative relationship.
“We’re all on the same page now and the township is moving forward and working with us as partners,” Smith said. “Emily England, director of senior programs and parks and recreation, has been extremely helpful making sure things run smoothly and as a liaison between the township board, parks and recreation and our group.”
Commerce Township Supervisor Tom Zoner echoed Smith’s sentiments.
“The relationship has changed because their stewardship and philosophy changed based on them realizing it’s township property and (they’re) following the rules and regulations,” he said.
England said her main objective was to build up rapport between township officials and the Byers group so they focus on restoring the property, which is part of Commerce Township Park.
“I tried to keep everything positive and have both groups agree on projects and move forward with those projects,” England said.
Zoner added that the Friends of Byers group continues its mission of preserving the site.
“The obvious and reasonable thing they are doing is preserving the farmhouse and barn, and doing proactive fund-raising because the township can’t do it all,” he said. “It certainly helps that the group is maintaining the property. They’re certainly doing their part.”
Today, plans are under way to improve the sites buildings — and some upgrades have recently been completed — thanks to Campbell’s report. Now that the township owns the property, renovations can be completed using Parks and Recreation millage funds. Bids are required for any project.
“The Byers group has limited resources, so we might agree to pay a lot more than what they have in their piggy bank,” Zoner said.
No formal audit has been conducted on how much money the group has in its coffers.
“There’s been no evaluation of how much money they’ve made there, but I do know they have $8,000,” Zoner said.
“We get one project approved at a time,” Smith said. “It’s an on-going process. The only reason there’s money now is because of the parks and open spaces millage.”
The millage is set to expire in 2014. Smith is encouraging people in the township to approve a millage renewal down the line to help prevent the property from deteriorating.
“The township is doing the right thing right now, but we will need the parks and recreation millage renewed or we won’t have the money again,” Smith said.
Some project costs are split between the township and the Friends of Byers group. The non-profit organization solicits funding from local businesses for food at events and building improvements.
“We kick in money when we have it and donate labor and services because we’re a 501(c)(3) and have skilled tradesmen willing to do the work,” Smith said.
St. Louis has been making the rounds throughout west Oakland County soliciting other skilled workers to help with improvements at the site.
The most important necessity that the homestead lacks is running water. Before the Byers residence was demolished, there was a well on the property, but it was capped during the Byers home demolition.
“Right now there’s no running water and we have to take the water from the river,” St. Louis said.
It’s also in need of additional parking to accommodate event visitors.
“Without parking it’s very difficult to hold festivals,” Zoner said.
The adjacent vacant lot on the front, north side of the Huron River would be a perfect site for patron parking, and was included in the township’s master plan should that property be available for purchase.
“It’s never come up for sale so we just watch it,” Zoner said.
The existing white farmhouse at the site is believed to have been built around 1949 or as early as 1837 in Greek revival style. It recently received a new furnace.
The lower level was remodeled in the 1960s, with the most notable changes occurring in the kitchen. However, apparently this room has the greatest amount of deficiencies, including kitchen flooring.
“We envision getting the kitchen completed in the house and possibly bringing in a whole Michigan section to help our locals out, including jams, jellies, and photos, and we also need to fix the water damage in the upper quarters of the home,” St. Louis said.
A new roof was installed on the house in the late 1990s.
The farmhouse exterior also needs to be hand-scraped and the wood needs repair, in addition to repainting due to excess moisture in the wood siding. Water damage has seeped into the home’s bedroom, which also needs repair.
Other needs include electrical work, drainage work, a door replacement, and tree removal. It also requires landscaping such as trees and bushes.
Some of the repairs will begin soon. On Tuesday, Dec. 13, the Commerce Township Board of Trustees approved repairs to the northeast corner of the farmhouse, based on Parks and Recreation Committee recommendations. The $5,600 project will include wood replacement, paint and sill plate work, gutters with underground drainage, block repairs, and replacement of the kitchen door.
“The first priority of the 10 priorities Campbell recommended was the northeast corner of the farmhouse,” England noted. “We will continue with improvements to restore the house and keep it to period. We don’t want to lose it.”
Campbell also recommends converting the upstairs bedroom into a restroom to service the farmhouse, since it isn’t handicap-accessible, nor does it have a toilet or shower facilities.
St. Louis said the plan is also to add period furniture to the farmhouse. A spinning wheel was donated and sits in the second-story bedroom. Some of the other notable items currently in the farmhouse include an 1800s Regina music box, a 114-year-old organ, and a 1900s pie safe and Greek revival stove.
The rest of the property is maintained by the Friends of Byers.
“We want to keep the other buildings restored to the periods they were built, but they are not a priority because they’re in good condition,” England said. “The main focus is the farmhouse.”
The duck barn, built in the mid-1970s, was partially destroyed by a fire in 2008 and rebuilt in 2010 on the same location.
“Kids were smoking in the barn and it caught fire,” St. Louis explained. “The kids were caught and the parents had to pay. Volunteers from the fire department rebuilt it.”
Byers used the duck barn to nurse injured waterfowl to recovery, releasing them back into the wild after they were rehabilitated. The shanty also stored supplies and grain.
The pantry building, or Granny’s Pantry, was built by Forest Jewel and Earl Croten, caretakers and friends who lived in the farmhouse from the late 1960s until the late 1980s.
“They built it as a gift to June. It was a melding from many barns,” St. Louis said.
Granny’s Pantry was used as a kitchen/concession stand for baked goods which were sold during on-site events that Byers regularly held, ranging from teddy bear picnics and animal rescue events to gardening and arborist interests.
“Structurally it’s OK, but it has carved beams that are rare and need to be protected,” Smith said.
The outhouse building was one structure not built under the lineage of the Byer family. Initially built in the 1800s, it was later reconstructed sometime between the late 1920s and 1940s, and was functional until the early 1960s.
It only needs to be repainted.
A pair of sheds are located on the rise just south of the main barn. The larger shed is known as the “Teddy Bear Barn,” and the other is referred to as the storage shed, both constructed by Jewel and Croten during the 1980s. Neither are historically significant, but both are in good condition.
The Teddy Bear Barn was used to store and sell teddy bears. Ultimately that led to the popular children’s activity on the site — the teddy bear picnics — during the 1970s.
“It needs to be repainted to reflect an old vintage or rustic look,” St. Louis said.
The main barn is not original to the site, but was moved there in the early 1900s. The gambrel roof-styled barn was built with hand-hewn lumber mortise and tenon construction, a method commonly used during the 1830s.
It now serves as the site’s antique and candy store.
“Much of the items (there) June donated to the store,” St. Louis said.
St. Louis visits estate sales looking for prime inventory to acquire for the site. She recently acquired an 1860s Grand Opera advertisement with Abraham Lincoln’s picture on it, a rare find.
The barn was once rumored to have been a blacksmith shop at one point, but the evidence for such a claim is not available.
In July, the barn received a new roof. The $10,000 expense was split between the township and Friends of Byers group. Immediate concerns include repainting the barn and recovering the south side with plywood.
“We’re hoping this will be done this year,” St. Louis said.
Other needs such as safety lighting are on the wish list, and the barn received a new furnace and new door last year.
The Byers Homestead is known across the lakes area for its seasonal events like the Easter Egg Hunt held each spring and a Boo Bash held each October.
“This year we had 100 kids for the Easter Egg Hunt and 400 kids on the grounds for the Boo Bash. We’ve never had so many,” St. Louis said.
Every summer Friends of Byers holds a mid-summer fest complete with an ice cream social, food, entertainment, crafts and games.
In keeping with the Christmas holiday, the friends group holds visits with Santa in the barn. This year the event was held on Sunday, Dec. 11.
“We made over $300 from snapping photos. We sold corn for (feeding) the ducks and had hot chocolate and old-fashioned penny candy and took (the children) on a mini-tour,” St. Louis said.
Scavenger hunts and group tours are also conducted at the site.
“The big goal when the weather gets better is for younger children to come down and have reading sessions and then come into the store and have candy before heading out to feed the ducks,” St. Louis said.
“Still we would like to get more ideas from other groups,” she added. “We hope to add tables outside to bring in more crafters to sell their wares.”
The Friends of Byers group would also like to expand their 14-volunteer membership so fresh ideas are generated. In the meantime, St. Louis has been working with Milford Historical Society member Lee Johnson.
“She has been showing up at our events and talking to other members and is thrilled to help us out,” St. Louis said. “They also are talking to scout groups to help us with the repainting and replacing wood on the barn.”
Conversations between St. Louis and Johnson convened after Johnson mentioned she knew how to operate a spinning wheel and offered to take a peek at the one in the farmhouse to make sure it was operational.
“I’m going to be an extra body to help out,” Johnson said. “There’s not a formalized deal but I’ve spoken with some of our members. I don’t think a lot of people knew (the Byers site) was even open. It’s a magical place to be.”
The Milford Historical Society has also extended its help by donating antiques for the farmhouse and barn. Those items placed in the barn will glean dollars to help build up the Byers fund.
The Friends of Byers is encouraging community members to pitch in to help preserve and operate the historic site. Talented people are needed to help in a variety of ways, including organizing events; public relations; operating the barn country store; carpentry, plumbing and painting; fund-raising; tree trimming and gardening; and graphic arts.
“We feel very optimistic about where we are going from here,” Smith said.