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Barns figure into fascinating family history

Barn Spotlight: Structures are part of Tri-Lake Trails Campground in Michigan.

Jan Corey Arnett

August 20, 2019

8 Slides

It only takes “hello” and a handshake to conclude that Bob Sebring is a man in love with life. Give it a few minutes more, and the reasons are as apparent as the barns, campground, people, paintings, prose and signage that surround him. No wonder, at age 84, he is as energetic and enthusiastic as a person a fraction of his age.

Bob is the co-owner of Tri-Lake Trails Campground with sister Jean Gladstone and sister-in-law Doris Sebring. The property is south of Marshall, Mich., on Lyon Lake Road. The name was derived from three families, three lakes and 300 acres in a tri-state area.

The immaculate grounds boast sites for more than 200 travel units of varying sizes and amenities, along with space for those who prefer a bit closer contact with the Earth. And all are within a short distance of one of three small lakes — Pine, Long and Fish — and hundreds of towering, virgin-timber trees — white pine, sycamore, maple and tulip poplar. 

A white oak here is believed to be more than 600 years old. Trails wind throughout the woods. Signs at multiple locations help guests appreciate that until the land was taken from them in 1845, this once was a Potawatomi village.

Signage is posted just about everywhere. Some of it sets forth the law of the land, which all derives from the golden rule — treat others as you want to be treated.

Some of it shares wisdom such as “Life for farm families was work from sunup to sundown.” It’s on a sign, which is posted in one of four steel-sided, metal-roofed barns. Three of them are on campground property, with the remaining barn situated on the family’s nearby centennial farm.

One barn resides immediately across the driveway from the registration office for the campground, which has been in operation 43 years. Bob calls it “The Bingo Barn,” and it is open for recreation and annual events such as an August pig roast — or to delight in its hand-hewn beams and unique décor. 

The roughly 30-by-80-foot barn has been through a lot of change in its long life.

“We dismantled and moved it here from H Drive South and 14½-Mile Road 46 years ago,” Bob explains. “It was built in 1900. It had a gable roof; now it has a gambrel roof. It is 3 feet shorter now than it was then because the sills were badly rotted. But if you look here,” as he points to an overhead beam, “it says 1835. And here,” as he touches a support post, “are the initials J.F. That was my great-great-granddad John Fox!”

Bob says an unusual notch in the initial-bearing post is due to having reused sections of framing as the barn was dismantled and reduced in height. At one time, it was a two-bent (section) barn, but three bents were added as farm needs increased. 

“This barn is made of black walnut," he says with a grin. "I added that little extra color to the wood. Barns can be beautiful with a little help."

“My great-great-granddad came to this area in 1846 and to this property in 1848," he explains. "Then, my great-granddad, Sam Fox, owned the property and his daughter LaVerne, lived where the barn used to be. My parents, Roscoe and Velda Sebring, bought the homestead from Sam in 1932." 

Bob is especially proud that three immigrant German families, all related — Fox (1848), Good (1858) and Katz (1900) — all settled on adjoining land, which is still owned by their descendants.

Bob’s sister Jean, 87, greets us from her tractor mower as he stops the golf cart at two more barns. One is needed for equipment storage and the other to house family farm heirlooms going back to the days of John and Sam Fox. Bob has attached labels to many items to ensure their story is never lost. 

The final stop on the tour is at the centennial farm that Bob shared with his wife, Fay, until her death eight years ago.

“There was a log cabin here when John Fox came,” he says, gazing toward the white farmhouse sheltered by white pine at 8150 15 ½-Mile Road. “The 42-foot-by-72-foot barn was built in about 1860. Dad milked cows, but I never did. I worked at Kellogg’s."

Bob says his late brother, Jack, removed the barn’s haymow and interior support posts, then mounted angle bracing to exterior framing. While the changes allowed more openness, Bob concedes that it would have been in the barn’s best interest to have had a professional’s advice to ensure that the barn was properly reinforced. 

It had been nearly four hours since my husband and I first shook hands in greeting Bob Sebring, and he was just as animated as we shook hands in parting.

“I am happy here,” he says surveying the beauty of his yard, his pride in his trees and his bright red barns. “We have worked hard, but it is a good life.”

Arnett is a co-founder of Barn Believers Community Project Fund, held by the Battle Creek Community Foundation. She is interested in learning the stories and locations of Michigan’s most unique barns. Contact her at [email protected]. Arnett writes from Battle Creek, Mich.

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