Samels Farm: A Never-Ending Source of History
Preserving the Past, Forging the Future
By Ross Boissoneau | Aug. 20, 2022
It’s unlikely the first—or second, or maybe even third—generation of the Samels family ever considered themselves historians or thought of their farm as a future historic site.
Yet that’s been the case for more than a half century. The family farm in Williamsburg has been an archaeological dig site as well as a working demonstration farm. Today, the farm hosts numerous events, including a history program with Elk Rapids Schools.
“The Samels brothers were interested in keeping things as they were,” says Mary Anne Rivers-Friese, one of the members of the Samels Family Heritage Society, an organization dedicated to preserving the farm and showcasing how life operated there.
167 Years of History
It all dates back to 1855, when William and Mariam Samels moved to the Williamsburg area from Canada to begin farming. In 1889, their son, Frank, bought 64 acres on Skegemog Road, and he and his wife Mary raised four sons on the farm: Amos, Dennis, Ben, and Robert. Amos died at an early age, while the other three never married but remained farmers for the rest of their lives.
The second generation of the Samels family raised a multitude of crops including beans, potatoes, oats, wheat, alfalfa, timothy, clover, and corn, some of which served as livestock feed for their horses, cows, hogs, and chickens. They set up their own blacksmith shop and a wood shop, creating a nearly self-sustaining operation on-site for the cycle of farm life.
The brothers remained dedicated to preserving their traditional way of life, not purchasing a tractor until 1958 or hooking up to electric service until a year later. “Their dad didn’t allow electricity on the farm,” says Friese. It wasn’t until after Frank had passed away that they acceded to some aspects of modern life.
Despite all that newfangled electricity, the farm has remained firmly vintage in the ensuing 60+ years. Which is fortunate, considering the land could have been developed had it not been for the formation of the Samels Family Heritage Society in 2003. Rivers-Friese says the organization formed when a plan to build condos there saw neighbors band together to instead preserve the property. The farmstead museum today offers classes, workshops, and other events to bring the days of yore back to life.
Digging into the Past
Well before that, however, the farmland was already serving as an archaeological site. Dr. Charles Cleland, now retired from his position as professor of archaeology at Michigan State University, first visited the farm area in 1966. He worked there every summer until his retirement in 2000 and is now writing a book on his experiences and discoveries. “It was a lot of mosquitoes and sunburn, and a hell of a lot of fun,” he recalls.
The work centered on the remains of an indigenous village on the shore of Lake Skegemog dating back thousands of years. Lake Skegemog is part of the Chain of Lakes waterway, a 75-mile long series of connected lakes and rivers which starts in the Intermediate River and traverses Lake Bellaire, Clam Lake, Torch Lake, and Elk Lake before emptying into Lake Michigan.
It has long served as a passageway, and the settlement occupied a midway point on the waterway. Cleland says it was a strategic location. “It was occupied as early as 10,000 years ago,” Cleland says.
Cleland says the site is important not solely because of its history, but because of what it can tell us about how the people dealt with the various seasons and the vagaries of the weather. “There’s a lot of interest in what happened in our landscape, what it was like here, especially with climate change,” he says.
He says questions about what formed the diet of those people, what structures they lived in, and how long they lived in the area are all important to those who study the past. “It’s the essence of archaeology. It’s not just artifacts, but trying to learn about the culture and the time before there were written records. Their technology, homes, food, the size of their communities.”
In keeping with that archaeological link, the farm hosted its inaugural Artifact Identification Day earlier this summer. Visitors were invited to bring their own artifacts to the farm for identification and examination. It also served as an opportunity for the Samels Family Heritage Society to release its new book, The Fascinating Archaeology of Skegemog Point and The Samels Farm. It describes discoveries by the Samels family and those by Dr. Cleland and his team.
The farm itself serves as a reminder of a past that many can still remember, and one of the most engaging facets of the preservation is the involvement of Elk Rapids Schools. Eighth grade students work with members of the Heritage Society to learn about various aspects of life on the farm, then act as docents to students in third and fourth grades.
“[The eighth graders] write the script and take on a persona of their choosing. One kid could do an English accent, so he [became] a visiting Londoner,” says Rivers-Friese. “This is the big deal, to help the younger generation understand what life was like on a subsistence farm.”
That program is far from the only workshop or event the farm hosts. Open houses, farming bees, a quilting workshop, photography workshop, and other gatherings allow attendees to observe and learn traditional skills while enhancing the feeling of community.
Among the most popular workshops are those on blacksmithing. Ted Ewald, another Heritage Society member, took his first blacksmith classes at Greenfield Village in Dearborn 25 years ago. He later attended an open house at the farm and saw the open blacksmith shop, but sadly, there was no blacksmith.
Not for long. Ewald was invited to be on the Heritage Society’s board and began to make use of his skills demonstrating how people like the Samels lived a century ago, when farms had to be self-reliant with just about everything from food to tools.
“I’m more of a fix-it guy than buying a new one,” Ewald says. “That’s the reason for the [farm’s] blacksmith shop. Back then, there were no hardware stores. It took all day to get to town.” So whether they were making or repairing the farm’s tools, building wagons, or forging horseshoes, the Samels brothers did it themselves.
Ewald’s demonstrations have evolved to include actual blacksmith classes. He offers both the public classes on specific dates on the Events page of the Samels Farm website and private classes as well. “I do classes and mentoring. This year, a cardiologist called and had five people for a class.” The classes include everything from an introduction to the craft to lighting the forge fire to working with the high-carbon steel and learning how to bend, twist, and taper it into the desired shapes.
The board members are hopeful that the school programs, classes, and other events will boost interest among the public. Rivers-Friese says they are concerned that as the members of the Heritage Society grow older, they won’t be replaced by younger people. “We’re terrified if we can’t get some 50- to 60-year-olds [to join the board]. We hope kids grow up and want to help,” she says.
To learn more, go to samelsfarm.org.