In 1997 my husband Neil and I began to gaze into the future to envision what our retirement might look like. We did not want to reach that point and then start to think about what to do with ourselves for the rest of our lives, or for at least as long as we could be physically active. We had retirement accounts but our immediate resources were meagre and consisted of a small amount of money I had inherited from my aunt and the equity in our house.
My husband had been a free-lance writer. Neil Allen Productions had its fingers in a number of pies. It produced educational filmstrips, slide shows for the Hall of Photography at the Smithsonian Institute, various types of employee communications involving training and benefit packages, speeches, even legal briefs as well as the occasional ghost written piece. During the recession of the mid-80’s, however, most of Neil’s customers—Sears, International Harvester, and others —backed off and he turned to gardening for a neighbor and in our own postage-stamp front and back yards for something to do until the hoped-for upturn in the economy. Neil was not someone to do things by half measure. Once smitten by gardening he took classes on botany and soil at the Morton Arboretum and installed a water lily pond replete with carp out back. He had been a Classics major in college and always insisted on referring to plants by their scientific, Latin names.
I, on the other hand, had loved to paint flowers, often in watercolor and sometimes in oil. I painted a shimmering purple-blue wisteria blossom on a tree Neil planted; I painted the pink, in- your-face lotus with its huge slowly sinuous leaves planted in the water lily pond he created; I painted the wildflowers—turtleheads, pearly everlastings, butter-and-eggs and the elegantly simple blue flag irises—along the roadsides around Eagle River, Wisconsin where we vacationed at his parents’ cabin on Meta Lake.
The two passions, particularly Neil’s passion for gardening, became the focus of what we wanted to do in retirement. We felt it would keep us physically active as well as possibly make us a little money. Neil initially at least wanted to name his dream nursery The Artist’s Gardens and Gallery with the idea that artists would be encouraged to come and paint the plants and that I would show their and my works on the premises.
Retirement was still a few years off, but we were pre-baby boomers, born during not after World War II; we knew that the baby boomer generation was fast behind us and many would be looking for a nice piece of real estate in the country when they decided to retire. That would of course push land prices up. So, we set out with some urgency to find property we could afford right then.
Neil and I knew that we could only be weekend gardeners on whatever plot we purchased and so that it needed to be within an easy driving distance of the southside of Chicago where we lived. We figured a 3-hour drive was about the maximum we could handle each way. That left out looking north towards Milwaukee as with the congested traffic in the Loop we would not get very far into the countryside of Wisconsin. It also left out looking west as the western suburbs were overgrown. This left south, deeper into Illinois and west, into Indiana and Michigan.
For some unknown reason we never looked south, perhaps because we knew the rich brown farmland of downstate Illinois would be beyond our pocketbooks. Instead we gravitated east and spent many a weekend exploring areas in northern Indiana and southwest Michigan. We sometimes just got off the expressway and leisurely toured by-roads enjoying the greenery, assessing the land and looking for “For Sale” signs. Farms were being broken up into small plots, usually about 10 acres, which was more than enough on which to grow flowers for a nursery. Sometimes we picked up magazines of real estate listings and visited ones that appealed to us. Our goal was a 10-acre piece of land that had decent soil and hopefully a house that did not need too much work to fix up.
Our wanderings in Indiana did not turn up anything suitable. The farmland there was rich, like in downstate Illinois, and we learned that it was going for $10,000 an acre, far beyond our means. So, we began to focus on southwest Michigan. After looking at one particularly miserable piece of land in Allegan, Michigan–all forested, slopping down into a boggy area, and divided between two sides of a road—we decided to take the plunge and put ourselves in the hands of a realtor.
We had seen a listing in one of the real estate circulars for a 10-acre property with a house that needed work and contacted the realtor. We described what we were looking for and ended up spending the day driven around by him from property to property. Of course, we went first to the listing we had seen advertised. It turned out to be a real lesson for us. The land was a poor, muddy mess and the old wood house had been stripped down to the lathing, which of course meant new plastering would be needed, but the owner had decided to install a whole house vacuum cleaner system instead. We realized right away that we would end up spending all our precious time fixing the place up rather than concentrating on developing and planting the land. So, having a house was removed from our list of property priorities. We spent the rest of the day looking at various plots, some in watery areas, others with extremely sandy soil from which the rain would leach the vital nutrients for flowers, many were flag plots. Flag plots are so called because access is provided by a road (the staff of the flag) to reach a plot of land at the rear (the flag). Several flag plots would be nestled from one large piece of land.
At the end of the day, the realtor asked us which property we liked best—a smart sales ploy because we of course might not really have liked any—but the fact is we had fallen in love with a piece of land. It was far more acreage than we needed, some over 27 acres, but what made it not the best farmland for corn and soybeans, the major crops in the area, was what appealed to us. It was rolling land with a wetland in front that rose to a hill and then extended far back to rise yet again with a gentle slope down to the small drainage ditch beyond which was a forested area. There was more forest area to the west and the houses of neighbors on either side were not close enough to make us feel we had to be more than neighborly. The forested area in the back shielded us from whatever was done with the land beyond.
Not only did the property have no house—it had been sectioned off from the land where the old farm house stood—it had no road, no water, no electricity, just an interesting, spacious expanse that was inviting. We wanted to take it on. The realtor asked us to put in our best bid, that there was somebody else interested. Whether this was true or not, we did not know but we put in our best bid and on Valentine’s Day, February 14, 1968 learned that our bid had been accepted. Not wanting to have two mortgages to pay, we refinanced our primary residence so that we could buy the land outright. At the closing we met the owners and learned that they had planned to raise horses on the property, thinking that the wetland area I the front could provide the needed water but that did not prove to be the case and they had not paid property taxes for two years.
Maybe in hindsight we could have gotten the property for less, but we did not care. As soon as all the paperwork was over, we drove to the property and “walked” the land, leisurely skirting the whole property with forays to the top of the hills for the views, which because of the rolling nature of the land changed dramatically from different angles. The whole walk took about an hour. We were to do this at least twice a year for the next almost 20 years.