May 26 • 04:04 AM

'Once upon a time' once again

Dryden area woman preserves Thornville acreage through nature conservancy

Joan Graham and her faithful companion ‘Watson’ shake hands after enjoying a few tunes on the piano. photo by Catherine Brakefield.
February 27, 2008
Once upon a time deer and wildlife ran freely and horses draped with buckskin, or scarlet-clad riders galloped across lanes and hillsides or trotted before buggies down a dirt lane known as Dryden Road.

Today, on occasion, drivers will spot a deer and its fawn migrating into a farmer's field or horseback riders parading down Main Street during festivals. But, usually, there just isn't time to notice such things. At other times, it's just an inconvenience when wild turkeys or an occasional fox trots across the street in front of our speeding vehicles.

We think it will never change—those dirt roads with slippery ice and snow in the winter, pot holes and slimy mud in the spring, and dust in summer. Then, in a blink of an eye, new homes pop up like gigantic mushrooms where once a knee-high alfalfa field rippled in the summer breezes and a half-dozen grazing deer roamed peacefully. Only then will we reminisce, recalling the wildlife we'd seen and the endless sea of hills rolling and dipping like molded waves, glowing in the hues of the setting sunlight.

It is for this quality of life landowner Joan Graham is in the process of preserving her 135 acres located south of Dryden Road and two miles due west of Seven Ponds Nature Center.

"I love animals," Joan says, glancing around her property in that little town that was once a thriving place known as 'Thornville.' "I like the deer, fox and wild turkeys and want them to have a place to live."

That's why she's seeing to it that her land is being set aside as a nature conservancy.

I hope people will come out and enjoy it with their cameras and their horses," she says.

The Michigan Chapter of Nature Conservancy protects natural areas and open spaces in and around Michigan. In 1990 a local group of concerned landowners launched the Oakland Land Conservancy, where people of diverse backgrounds are involved in preserving open land and the habitat for wildlife.

Joan Graham did not grow up on a farm, though an avid fox hunter, the cultural advantages of city life, especially the symphony orchestra, captivated Joan to the world of cement and suburbia. It was the same for her dear friend, the first Mrs. Graham, Bess.

Bess Graham was an avid foxhunter, she and husband John Graham lived in Bloomfield Hills. In the 1940s, the Thornville property came up for sale and Bess talked her husband into buying it.

"John was a city dude," Joan explains. "He never wanted to move anywhere he couldn't get the New York Times."

Spring Brook Farm will remain a haven for wildlife.

The Grahams purchased the house and buildings which consisted of around 1,000 acres at the time. They rented the house and leased the property to nearby farmers. There was a little house down by the Flint River and the stone house on the border of Barber and Brocker roads was the tenant house. Bess named the little cabin in the woods off of Brocker road her "Cabin in the Sky." Fox hunters and soon-to-be well-known artists like Peter Hunt from Pennsylvania came. Hunt designed a Pennsylvania Dutch table for Bess's cabin which now sits in Joan's parlor, next to her 30-year-old Jade tree.

"Bess was just the oldest young person I ever knew," says Joan with a laugh. "She was still riding in her 80s."

This love for the land would steadily grow on Joan through the years. Her beloved friend, Bess, would pass away. Joan would later marry John Graham and when he, too, passed away in 1983, she continued to rent out the large mansion and grounds, now 157 acres in size.

"I came out in the 1990s, made a cottage out of the stone granary and spent the weekends there."

She found herself looking forward to the weekends more than the symphony as weekends extended into weeks and then into months.

"The country won out over the symphony," Joan chuckles, "so I tried to bring the symphony out here."

Her concert pianist friend and a promising violinist from Philadelphia often find their way across Joan's threshold, spending an entertaining evening with her friends and her grand ebony piano, with her faithful standard poodle, 'Watson,' enjoying the camaraderie.

"The acoustics are beautiful," Joan notes, "with the high ceiling and hard plaster walls of the mansion."

As the years progressed, so did the history of this Italianate Victorian mansion built somewhere around 1865, in a remarkably unique way.

"Several months ago, I saw a man creeping along the road in a Cadillac," explains Joan. "He told me he was 92 and lived here as a little boy."

He and his parents lived in the tenant house, and as a youth he took up residence in the old windmill for a spell. It had been a big working farm then. He said they had beef and milking cows, 35 pigs, geese and chickens.

The big red barn out front, Joan would learn, was a Sears & Roebuck barn.

Joan explains that a long time ago, Sears & Roebuck made barn and house kits. The farm was owned by two bachelor brothers named Bough back then.

"The story goes that they didn't get along well together," Joan smiles. "One lived in the south parlor with his safe and one lived in the north parlor with his safe. When they went to town together, one would walk and the other would drive."

The brothers paid $2,700 to have the house built.

Joan has more than tripled that amount in renovations to the mansion, adding a sun room and garage, converting the house's pantry into a boot and laundry room, and providing an upstairs bathroom. However, her largest renovation is redefining the future for the rich rolling hillsides and woods Joan has grown to love more than suburbia.

"Jonathan Woods first got me introduced to the nature conservancy," Graham says. "I used to ride through the woods with the first Mrs. Graham and told her then, 'Gee, this is so beautiful you ought to try and protect this.'"

Graham feels that putting her acreage in the conservancy will give the successive owners an added advantage.

"It's going to be a real plus, they will only pay for the buildings and 25 acres, but they are really getting 157 acres," Joan notes.

The conservation easement will reduce her property taxes, just as long as the easement serves a public interest and preserves national resources. Because she is still the property owner, Joan can stipulate in her contract with the conservancy pertaining to foxhunting, horseback riders and deer hunters.

It was a transition process for Joan Graham, moving from beneath the bright lights of the symphony to the brighter lights of a full moon glowing across her snow-kissed fields, and lovingly renovating an ancient farmhouse brimming with history and nostalgia.

"Long, long, ago this hallway was the Thornville Library," Graham says. "But that was once upon a time."

Change has become part of everyone's lifestyle. Joan Graham believes that she can choose what is important to change and what is important to leave alone.

In an upcoming Lifestyles piece, we'll highlight the process of establishing a conservation easement and what local landowners and the Oakland Land Conservancy and Farmland Preservation are doing in the Oakland and Lapeer area to preserve open land and wildlife.

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