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Pentwater Landmark: Gateway to Past & Present

As published in Pentwater This Week July 19, 2017
By Mary Beth Crain

It’s 1862, and the little village of Pentwater is quickly transitioning from a lumber settlement begun by Charles Mears and populated by a handful of intrepid pioneers to a real live town. Every day there are exciting new developments. Mail is coming twice a week. Stores are springing up. You can even get across Pentwater River by ferry now; just a short time ago, the only way that trek was possible was via a team of oxen owned by a Mr. W. P. Harding and used by the whole community. The ferry fee, by the way, is five cents per person, 10 cents with a horse, 25 cents for a team and wagon, and two cents each for sheep and hogs.

Lumber baron Mears has his hand in every aspect of local life. He not only provides the industry that employs virtually all of the citizenry; he owns a slew of establishments, presides over local government, and is continually expanding his entrepreneurial horizons. Among his wide-ranging interests is horticulture, and he’s currently engrossed in an ambitious experiment: importing thousands of fruit trees from Chicago to see if he can create an orchard industry here.

He succeeds with River House Farm, which will gain fame as a model fruit farm of the period. On a site overlooking Pentwater River and Pentwater Lake, Mears erects a house and a barn, for the family that runs the operation and the farm hands who board there.

Fast forward 155 years. River House Farm is long gone. But there is one remnant of that rugged, rustic time that still remains.

You can see it as you come up Monroe Road on your way into Pentwater. It’s the old red barn on your left, just past the now defunct Trading Post. Those unfamiliar with this area might not even notice it, or if they do, won’t give it a second thought. After all, it’s just another old barn, like so many that dot rural landscapes.

But to those who love Pentwater, this barn is special. It beckons with a message: you’re getting close. Pentwater is just around the corner. You’re almost home.

“The River House Barn will always be that signpost,” says Tammy Carey, executive director of the Community Foundation for Oceana County. “It will always say, ‘You’ve arrived.’ When you see the barn, you know you’re here.”

“To most people familiar with Pentwater, when they get off the highway at Monroe and see the barn, it’s ‘welcome home,’” agrees Ed Bigelow, director of the Pentwater Historical Society Museum.

That’s why time, money and resources have been invested in a mission to save the River House Barn. And not only save it, but hopefully put it to good use once again.

Six years ago, members of the Pentwater Historical Society and Pentwater Service Club joined forces with area volunteers and the Department of Natural Resources to clean up the overgrown premises on which the barn resides. Previously, the historical society had spent $40,000 to paint and re-roof the structure. This time, overgrowth brush and trees were removed. Tree expert Mike Russell donated his time and equipment, clearing out trees and bushes. Volunteers with trucks and trailers cleared the area of other debris and pulled vines off the building’s siding.

The barn is now visible for all to see. But the sorely needed facelift was just the beginning. Much still needs to be done to restore and maintain the structure, and possibly to transform it into a functioning venue.

“The barn is part of the DNR’s Parks and Recreation Division,” notes Charles Mears State Park Supervisor Manny Valdez. “We co-manage it with the Wildlife Division. Currently the park uses the barn for storage. But there’s been a lot of discussion about utilizing it for other purposes, which would have to be approved by the DNR.

“Lansing doesn’t want to put state resources into it because it’s considered more of a local landmark. So at this juncture, we want to raise awareness about the barn, to see how the community feels about putting more money into it.”

After the initial $40,000 repair job, the historical society had $7900 remaining in the budget earmarked for the barn. Not wanting to take on another long term project, they recently turned the remaining funds over to the Community Foundation, to establish a Pentwater Barn Preservation Fund.

“The historical society had its hands full with the new museum,” Carey says. “They wanted someone to hold the money and create a project around it. Since the barn needed so much maintenance, they came to us. And we said, sure. That’s our role. The DNR doesn’t have the funds for maintenance that they have for the state parks. For smaller things like this, it’s up to the community to get involved.

“The big piece that’s missing is that passionate group of people that needs to come together to re-vision the barn. That’s the message we want to send out to the community. We need a group to come together, get familiar with the barn, and put together a dream of what it could be. That’s exciting work for a community foundation.”

Carey uses the analogy of the Montague-Hart-Pentwater Bike Trail as an example of what can be accomplished with many hands working together. “It took a long time for the dream of the trail extending to Pentwater to become a reality. It took a group of people who were really passionate and could get things done, no matter what the obstacles.”

What might the barn be used for?

“The foundation’s role is to provide advice around project management, fund raising, connections to grants and other potential funders, and to steward the resources,” she explains. “So we don’t make that decision. But we can offer input. I think the barn is a fantastic opportunity as a venue within its historical context to Pentwater. There aren’t that many venues in Oceana County that barns in other places provide. And when you look at Pentwater, where can you hold events? There aren’t a whole lot of options. The barn could be a wonderful place for weddings, fund raisers, theater. Or, it could simply be a historical landmark. That’s up to the community.”

And what kind of money are we looking at?

“The main structural problem now is there’s erosion on the west side, and the foundation, stone and concrete footings are crumbling,” Valdez observes. “I did have a local barn restoration company come in, but we’re waiting for an estimate as to what it would cost.”

One thing’s for sure—it won’t be cheap. Which brings up two questions. One, where would the funds come from?

“Donations, of course,” Valdez acknowledges. “But if there’s enough community interest, we can apply for grants.”

And two, why put all this money into, when all is said and done, just another old barn?

“The mission of Parks and Recreation is to provide education, along with recreational activities,” Valdez replies. “We are a source of information about the history of the area. So many visitors want to know why we’re called Mears State Park. The barn is important because Charles Mears has such a big legacy in this county. And we’re always getting questions from campers like, ‘Where can we have a reception or a family event?’ A lot of parks have a pavilion, but ours is too small. So the barn could play that dual role, in terms of both education and recreation.”

Valdez also notes that the actual materials used to build the barn are important historical markers.  “People who know about barns marvel at the beams and the construction, because they don’t make that kind of wood or do that kind of woodworking  anymore.”

A 2011 article about the barn in the Herald-Journal describes its construction.

“Primary tools used to construct the barn were adz, ax and saw. Virgin stands of hardwoods were made into 44-foot lengths and then hand hewn into beams. Beams and rafters were then fastened together using wooden pegs. The roof rafters were made from tamarack posts. The hardwoods were trees said to have been growing before the American Revolution.”

For Carey, the reason for investing a lot of resources into the barn is self-explanatory. “Do people want to arrive in Pentwater and see a MacDonald’s? Or the old red barn?”

Indeed, too many historical icons in this country have been systematically demolished in favor of “progress.” 155 years ago, or even 50 years ago, buildings had individuality and personality. That’s what made a city or a town unique. But with chain stores, restaurants, movie theaters and other cultural mainstays going the way of generic nonentity, preservation becomes more and more crucial, as the savior of the past, and of our very identity.

“The barn was saved for a reason,” Carey reflects. “It was re-roofed for a reason. It was re-painted for a reason. It became the property of the DNR for a reason. And I don’t think that reason is going away.”

If you’re interested in becoming involved in the Pentwater Barn Preservation  Project, contact Tammy Carey at (231) 861-8335, or Manny Valdez at (231) 869-2051,