- Associated Press - Monday, May 5, 2014

EATON RAPIDS, Mich. (AP) - Hidden gems aren’t always small. The seven acres of historic property in Eaton Rapids is vast and home to a handful of period buildings and too many significant pieces of community history to count.

Ask members of the Eaton Rapids Historical Society about the Miller Farm and they’ll impart two key facts about the property, according to the Lansing State Journal ( http://on.lsj.com/1rwRIL5 ).

First, it was once one the largest businesses in Eaton Rapids. Dennis and Minnie Miller ran about 30 Miller Dairy stores throughout the mid-west from their factory and farm there, where they sold Miller ice cream from the late 1800s until the business closed in 1985.

Second, today the farm is possibly the largest historic property in Eaton County. Under the care and ownership of the city’s historical society since the 1990s, the local land has become a historic attraction and sanctuary for area history and artifacts.

It’s taken the group 20 years and an investment worth over $1 million to add a period church, one-room school house, and string of shops that display community history to the land. While the schoolhouse was transported to the property, the church is a period reconstruction containing historical pews and other items.

The string of period shops containing countless historical displays is known as the “Jean Kline Building,” and was constructed in 2010 with a $75,000 donation made in honor of its namesake, a historical society member who died after her battle with cancer. The building includes an old-fashioned photography studio, general store, print shop and funeral home.

The additional structures complement what was already there - the now-restored, 3,500-square-foot Miller home, its factory that now houses a fully functional ice cream parlor and museum, the original dairy barn and water tower.

“It’s literally become a village,” said historical society vice president Deb Malewski, on a walk of the grounds. “You can go back in time by walking through. We’ll probably never be done with it.”

Malewski and other society members say the group’s involvement with the Miller farm is simply a labor of love. Taking care of it is a grand undertaking.

Just to maintain and operate the property as a sort of local museum costs $23,000 a year. The hefty price tag means constant fund raising, volunteer work and commitment from the nonprofit.

“All of us do physical labor,” said Carol Williams, the society treasurer. She is part of a core group of 30 active historical society members and volunteers who are largely responsible for the property’s upkeep.

Malewski admits the group will “do anything to make a buck.” That includes renting two studio spaces inside the Miller factory to local businesses, as well as an apartment on the upper floor of the Miller home.

The group also holds about five fundraisers at the Miller property each year. The nostalgic events include “Christmas on the Farm,” a fall “Heritage Festival,” and this summer’s annual “Dam Festival” on June 21.

Then there’s the fully functional Miller Ice Cream Parlor, located inside the property’s factory, that’s open three days a week to anyone with a craving for a period-style brownie fudge sundae or malt.

Historical society member Nancy Smith oversees the parlor’s operations. Standing behind its old-fashioned ice cream counter she says every task, from shopping for ingredients to greeting customers, is a worthwhile endeavor.

“It’s kind of a five-days-a-week job,” said Smith. “I love it. The kids that come in might not know about the building’s history but I hope they take some of that with them. I hope so even if it’s just a couple of things. I want them to tell their parents and come back.”

Making sure local residents know about the Miller farm is a bigger challenge than people might realize, said society President Tom Baker.

Baker has been involved with the group for 15 years and says there’s a common misconception in Eaton Rapids about who owns the property and how it’s funded.

“Ever since I’ve been here we’ve always had to think about how we could raise money,” said Baker. “And a lot of people think this is a public piece of property and that it’s publicly funded.”

The assumption is false, said Baker, but many residents still insist on believing that their tax dollars already support the property.

Then there are those residents who are simply unaware of everything the land contains. Historical society members point out that the property’s dairy barn blocks several of the property’s buildings from view off State Street.

“We get people in the ice cream parlor all the time that are just amazed,” said Smith.

Baker said he sees the same reaction every time residents enter the farm for the first time. “I would say almost every time that we hold an event we open somebody’s eyes to this place,” he said. “That’s the reality of it. People who live right near here don’t know it exists.”

Williams said the more people who know about the Miller farm and the historical niche it fills, the better. Awareness and involvement is key, she said, to preserving its value.

“I don’t like to drive past places like this and see them abandoned and rundown,” she said.

Malewski agreed and said society members won’t let that happen. “We do it because we want to,” she said. “You just feel responsible. Somebody’s got to do this and so we take it on. A lot of people assume Eaton Rapids had no history before now. This is proof that isn’t true.”

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Information from: Lansing State Journal, http://www.lansingstatejournal.com

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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