Repurposing may be a modern trend, but the descendants of William and Alexander Macomb have been using that principle successfully since 1776, reinventing, redefining and repurposing their family farm across three centuries and eight generations.
On July 6, 1776, just forty-eight hours after the United States was declared an independent nation, brothers William and Alexander Macomb — the family for whom Macomb County was later named — purchased Grosse Ile on the Detroit River from the Potawatomi indigenous people. The handwritten bill of sale, in elegant script and bearing simple drawings of fish and animals, remains on display at the farm today, 244 years after it was signed.
Nearby, Erica Jackson, manager and eighth generation descendent of the Macomb brothers, rushes about what is today Westcroft Gardens & Farm. It’s a June afternoon, peak time for gardening sales, and she’s answering phone calls, managing the garden center and overseeing the final touches of the newly constructed Azalea House.
How does a family farm survive nearly 250 years, two world wars, the Great Depression, and the ebb and flow of changing times? Through flexibility, family loyalty and savvy business decisions.
A couple who wanted to marry in the gardens in 1966 and an old barn looking for a new life sparked recent changes responsible for portions of the farm’s income today. Yet a lot of history stands between that first land purchase and the building of the Azalea House this year.
Westcroft’s first crops were hay, pears, apples, peaches, cherries and grapes. They also had livestock on what was then a 150-acre farm. Hay was a staple bringing the most income, sold in Detroit to feed horses that pulled carriages in the 1800s and early 1900s. Then came the invention of the automobile. Cars came in, horses went out, and with them, the family’s main cash crop.
In the decades — and centuries — that followed, Westcroft changed with the times. The family sold off parcels of Grosse Ile, once owning the entire island and now owning the current 27 acres.
During the Great Depression of the 1930s, Jackson’s great-grandfather, Ernest Stanton, planted rows of junipers and yews, advertising “anything you can fit into your car — $2.” He lost money on the venture and had to reduce his workforce from 100 workers to 50. His daughter later told stories about eating rabbits during the Depression and the telephone service being cut off.
Stanton served in the military during WWI, where exposure to mustard gas damaged his lungs, leading doctors to advise working in fresh air. He went to Cornell to study horticulture, which led to marked success with azaleas and rhododendrons and recently to the newest building on the property being named for him.
“This is our 101st year as a plant nursery farm. It was my great-grandfather who changed it to a nursery farm. He was a world-renowned hybridizer of azaleas and rhododendrons, so (naming the Azalea House) is to honor him,” Jackson said.
During WWII, Stanton tried to re-enlist in the military. Turned down because of lung damage, he spent the war years raising thousands of turkeys on the family farm. Once the war ended and the last turkey was gone, he vowed there would never be another turkey on the farm. Today, Jackson’s great-grandfather would be proud of her business acumen. Along with the new Azalea House to bring in revenue by hosting events, the addition of 60 sweet cherry trees this year is set to bring in U-Pick business. A pollinator garden was recently added in hopes of becoming a certified wildlife habitat in today’s fight to support bees and other pollinators, and Jackson plans to introduce a lavender field in 2021.
Jackson’s cousin, Kyle de Beausset, whose father and mother currently own the farm, lives in the family farmhouse on the property, where he and wife Jennifer are raising the ninth generation, one-year-old son, Alexander. “Azalea House is this beautiful, unique space. We’ve come up with what we’re calling ‘community-use days’ when the space is available to nonprofits and community groups. We’re really hoping it can be not only a space for weddings, but for the community to come together,” said Jennifer, Westcroft’s events planner.
Will baby Alexander one day run the family business? Kyle and Jennifer are determined to let him choose his own path. Either way, Jackson is confident a relative in his generation will step into the role when the time comes.
FROM HAY TO NUPTIALS
From its beginnings as a hay farm to a turkey farm to a garden center, Westcroft has risen to the challenges of changing times. While other farm owners are just now offering on-site nuptials, the Westcroft history of on-site weddings goes back over 50 years. A couple who wed there in 1966 returned in 2016 to celebrate their fiftieth wedding anniversary. While an occasional wedding or two took place in the following years, Jackson recognized the potential in opening the gardens-farm as a wedding destination.
Grosse Ile resident Dan McGowan and his wife were married there in 2010.
“I have a long relationship with Westcroft,” McGowan said. “As a kid I played in the gardens. There was a huge swath of woods, all us neighborhood kids played there. It’s a really special place, there are trees that have been there for hundreds of years, it’s beautiful, it’s secluded… I still run into people who talk about how great our wedding was.”
Like Kyle and Jennifer, who are busy booking weddings and events for the new Azalea House, McGowan is enthusiastic about this new addition. “I walked by (Azalea House) on my anniversary and Erica was out planting around it,” he said. “It’s nice. It’s airy, has a high, hoop-like structure, I think a lot of people will like it. The importance of Westcroft to this community and to the larger downriver community will only grow.”
With the addition of Azalea House, Westcroft Gardens & Farm continues as a blend of old and new. Nearby stands what Kyle calls “the white barn,” built in 1925, home to the very first event designed to bring a new stream of revenue to the family farm: fall hayrides. Begun in 2000, the annual hayrides offered from the last weekend in September until the day before Halloween continue to support the farm. In 2019, over 3,000 tickets were sold.
“Hay rides were one of the things to start profiting,” Kyle said. “Last year was one of our biggest years.”
With profits on an upswing, Jackson, who took over managing Westcroft when her aunt retired in 2017, jokes it was “guilt” that led her from Connecticut and an engineering career back to the family farm in Michigan where she and Kyle played together as children.
“There’s a strong sense of family pride,” Jackson explained. “It’s the oldest farm in Michigan. To walk away from that would be very hard. There’s a portion of not letting the family down, not letting the history down.”
That family pride may be what drives her to work the 70-80 hours she puts in each week during the peak season. Such is the moxie of a descendant of Michigan’s earliest settlers, fulfilling her dreams for Westcroft as her ancestors did in the centuries before her. ≈
Julie Bonner Williams is an award-winning poet and professor at Grand Valley State University.