A day in history at Moonlit Woods Farm

RICHMOND TOWNSHIP – Numerous pictures of Wava Woods’ ancestors hang on the wall of her Richmond Township home.

Books packed with the history of local farms sit on her table and a collection of old cast-iron bells line the fence outside.

Each piece of historical memorabilia holds a special meaning for the life-long resident and serves as a way to preserve the past for the generations to come.

“History is fragile if you just leave it in your mind,” Woods said, quoting one of her favorite sayings. “Unless you write it down, it’s gone and lost and no one will ever know it.”

Woods and her husband, Dale, own Moonlit Woods farm in Richmond Township. The farm includes more than 1,400 acres spread across six farm locations - five on 200th Avenue from Two Mile to Three Mile roads and one on One Mile Road.

Along with harboring a plethera of historical items and stories of area pioneers, Moonlit Woods farm also is a historical landmark itself.

With two of the farm’s properties established in 1862, Moonlit Woods is the first farm in Osceola County to remain in the same family for 150 years.

Woods’ great-great grandparents, Henry and Mary (Alles) Bittner, came from Germany in 1862 and established the two farms. They aquired two other plots in 1867 and 1869. The pair passed the farms down to Woods’ great-grandparents, William, and Cathereine (Wilhelm) Bittner.

The Bittners passed the farm on to two of Woods’ great-aunts.

Dale and Wava then purchased the farm from the family estate when they were married in 1962 after her great-aunts passed away.

In their first few years of marriage, Dale worked at Tubelite and Wava worked as a nurse. Their day jobs left them with only the evening time to complete farm work, which led them to name the farm Moonlit Woods.

“Whatever work we got done on the farm was done by moonlight,” Wava said.

When her parents passed away in the early 1980s, the loss instilled desire to learn what she didn’t know about her family’s history and preserve the memories.

“When I was about four years old, our house burned,” Wava said. “We lived in a little tar paper shack for two years until there was lumber and nails and hinges because all the metal had to be used for the war. The pictures that my mom had were all lost in that fire.”

As an only child, Woods set out to research who her family members were by asking long-time neighbors for information and old photographs. As Woods’ photo gallery expanded, so did her understanding of who she was.

“Then I was able to piece together who my relatives were,” Woods said. “It’s just like a crossword puzzle. You get at it and you can’t leave it alone.”

And Woods didn’t leave it alone.

In 2003, she began contacting other local centennial farmers and setting up a display of their family lineage, photos and stories of the farms at the Mecosta and Osceola County fairs.

“Eventually I had so many stories, and didn’t know what I was going to do with them,” she said.

So she put together two books with 1,200 total pages of stories, journals, photos and family lineages from 114 farms in Osceola, Mecosta, Mason, Wexford, Lake and Manistee counties.

The Osceola County Community Foundation funded the placement of the set of books, published in 2009, in each of the libraries and museums in Osceola County.

“In this day and age, everything is ‘Throw it away and get something new just because it’s old,” Woods said. “When people have held on to their farms for 100 years through all kinds of struggles - like low milk prices right now - it shows something of their character and they need to have a little bit of congratulations shown to them.

“They stuck with it.”

Today, like the longevity of other family farms Woods’ celebrates, Moonlit Woods still is a family affair.

Dale and Wava’s son, John, and his wife, Kathy, and children, Kaitlin,9, and Austin,6, live down the road and help with the work on the farm each day. Their daughter, Sharon, and her husband, Mark, and children, David, 11, Eric, 8, and Tiffany,6, live in the farmhouse on the farm’s site on Three Mile Road and also work daily on the farm.

The farm has 450 cattle, separated among the farm locations. About 115 milking cows and 54 calves stay on one farm, 30 beef cows have their own farm on which to roam and the rest are split up between the “vacation home” where cows go during their dry period and the other farm locations.

Each of Dale and Wava’s grandchildren plan to show their own animals in the Osceola County 4-H FFA Fair. Eric, their eldest grandson, said working with the animals - such as Missy, his award-winning cow- is his favorite part of living on the farm.

“I like that I get to work a lot and I get to be with a lot of different animals,” Eric said.

Eric and the next generation of her family and others are the reason Wava does what she does.

“One hundred years down the road, no one will ever remember these people, and if I can do something to change that,” Woods’ said. “A memory written down today will become priceless tomorrow.”