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Serving: MI

Ann Arbor farm a treasure in agricultural history

Barn Spotlight: The Brookwater Farm still features all its original buildings, including a barn that was built in 1830.

Michigan had not yet gained statehood when Thomas Alexander and Luther Boyden journeyed to the territory in 1826 from Conway, Mass. — in part by way of the Erie Canal. Statehood was still more than a decade away.

Alexander, born in 1785, was the son of immigrants from Wales and England. Boyden, born in 1788, was the child of immigrants from England.

The men flipped coins to decide who would get which adjoining properties of some 300 acres each, land marked by trails of the Native Americans who knew it well and had called it home. Boyden won the coin toss and chose the parcel that was part of a main Indian trail at 3300 Joy Road in what is now Washtenaw County’s Ann Arbor.

The land that now belongs to Margaret Zeeb, great-great-great granddaughter of Alexander, who took the tract just to the north where Margaret’s nephew Robin Alexander lives today. Over the years, the land holdings for the two young friends increased to about 460 acres each.

Boyden was well-regarded for his knowledge of animal breeding practices and authoritative stance on educational and religious matters. He and his wife, Theodosia, circa 1850, built a large, impressive Italianate and Greek Revival home on their farm, often referred to as “Boyden’s Plains.” The brick house has four fireplaces, one upstairs and three on the main floor.

The land was gravelly loam, but rich in nutrients, producing excellent crops. Fruit trees, mainly peaches and plums, were said to grow in abundance.

The Boydens had two sons, John (the first child to be born in the area) and Edward. Edward’s son William remained on the farm to help his mother, according to an 1881 history book of Washtenaw County. The book states the two farmed 600 acres and raised shorthorn cattle, and the barns and sheds cost more than $15,000. 

Many township surveys document houses in detail, but often overlook more than general descriptions of barns and other outbuildings, which are the nuts and bolts of any working farm machine. 

Wonderfully, the 15 outbuildings on this farm, and a few of their many stories, are recorded in a 370-page book titled "Brookwater Farm of Webster Township, 184 Years of Agricultural Leadership," published in 2010 and written by James Baldwin Parker and Jeannette Mumford Straub (whose parents owned the farm after the Boydens). 

Brookwater Farm, first named Springbrook for a creek on the property, had an impressive array of farm structures, many of which survive — a horse barn, corn crib, lumber shed, tool barn, shorthorn barn, sheep barn, long shed, bull barn, hen house, dairy barn and granary.

One outbuilding of particular note is the ornate brick carriage barn, which like the house, was built from bricks made on the farm. Behind it sits what is believed to be the oldest barn in Washtenaw County, the “north barn” built in 1830 by Horace Carpenter, which for three years was used for local church services and at least one wedding.

The story goes, according to the book by Parker and Straub, “Luther Boyden was the first to do away with the use of liquor at barn raisings, supplying a good supper in its place. After the first bent was in place, he mounted it and told them that no liquor would be given …” 

Because the area was sparsely settled, the invitation to help build the barn had gone out for a 12-mile radius. No doubt, many at that point, after arriving on-site, were willing to work for a meal and forego the alcohol.

Roland Alexander, a descendant of Thomas Alexander, when interviewed at age 89 in 2006 recalled, “Wood for the barns was cut from the farmland. The timbers were put together with wooden pegs with holes made with a hand auger. First you put up a stone wall, then build the wooden barn on top. There were traveling sawmills that did much of the cutting.”

Building barns today, like those still standing on Brookwater Farm, would be expensive, even if old-growth timber of the scale and quality in structures on the property could be found.

Under the ownership of professor Herbert Mumford in 1907-08, “blooded” Jersey cattle and Duroc hogs were raised, with as many as 700 hogs on the farm at a time. A livestock auction at the farm might have as many as 600 people in attendance. Mumford, honored by both Michigan State University and the University of Illinois for his research excellence, is the author of “A Tribute to the Stockman.”  

“Everything needed a lot of work when we bought 267 acres of the 400-acre farm in 1963 from my father-in-law, Walter Zeeb,” Margaret says. Margaret’s husband, Donald Zeeb, was a well-regarded farmer and served as Webster Township’s supervisor for many years. 

“My husband’s friends helped with repairs,” Margaret explains. “We raised hogs, Herefords and Charolais." The brick barn has been used to store hay and to stable their daughters’ riding horses.

“Luckily, the brick barn had a metal roof when we bought the farm. We’ve been trying to keep good roofs on all the buildings,” Margaret adds. A modern silage bunker, with the addition of a roof, has become ideal for the storage of large farm equipment.

The Parker-and-Straub book notes that Margaret’s father, Chalmers Alexander, once commented, “Different barns had different functions. But all were practical and generally full. They were more likely to fall if they were empty.” 

As long as the roof is good, the barn stays dry and can be inspected for rodent or insect damage, weight and use are in its best interest.

Electricity came in the 1930s, but it was the construction of Highways 23 and 14 that brought rapid development, devouring farmland, as well as architecturally significant buildings and history. Both expressways cut into Donald Zeeb’s original farm, some of which lies beneath a triple-decker bridge.

Donald Zeeb passed away in 1997, and tragically, Margaret lost Katie, the youngest of their four daughters, earlier this year to the same genetic heart problem that took her husband.

“We aren’t certain what will happen with the farm,” Margaret says. The farm is currently operated by grandson Jacob Girbach, the seventh generation to know and love the land.

“There is no question it is an important part of this area’s history and is an increasingly rare intact farmstead," Margaret says. "We hope it can be preserved for future generations. Its history is so important.”

Arnett is the author of American Barns and co-founder of Barn Believers Community Project Fund with the Battle Creek Community Foundation. She is interested in hearing from barn owners across the state. She writes from Battle Creek and may be reached at coralan@comcast.net.

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