HOWARD TAYLOR: PLANTING HISTORY IN CRAWFORD COUNTY
2017 / by Kurt J. Kolka
GRAYLING – Today, Howard Taylor is known by many as the founder and owner of Wellington Farm U.S.A., just south of Grayling, an open air historic park recalling life and culture from the Great Depression.
“I was born over by Manton, in Liberty Township,” said Howard. So, he was used to small town living in Northern Michigan from the very beginning. After getting his bachelor’s degree from Central Michigan University, he settled in Mesick as a music teacher and developed a theater program there.
“I didn’t really become interested in theater until college.” But at Mesick it became a passion.
After five years there, Grayling School Superintendent Joe Stripe, called him up for an interview. “The reason the school wanted me was because I was so strong in theater. And Joe wanted to get a theater program going here.”
To earn his paycheck, he became the elementary music teacher and choir director. So, for years, Taylor wheeled his piano around from class to class, leading children in song. Children loved his music time where he would even teach them music from the latest movies like the theme song to “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang!”
Occasionally the school administrators had him teach other classes like sociology at the middle school level. When working for a small school system back then, a teacher was never sure what they might be called upon to do.
His great love however remained the theater.
Even into the mid 1970s, when he became the Community Education Director, Howard continued his work in high school productions.
“Howard had very high expectations of the groups that he worked with,” said Carolyn Ayers N’bunh, a former student, “and we gave him that respect back.”
“He gave everyone a chance and made each person feel important, from the littlest role to the main character.”
“When I started working in professional theatre, I was so grateful for the performance and work ethics I had learned from Howard,” former student Elizabeth Jackson also recalls. “He made every theatre experience both fun and educational.”
Upon retirement, Howard tried a couple of other job paths, but found technology quickly making them go the way of the blacksmith.
And blacksmithing was something Howard could appreciate! Over the years, he had been a collector of farm machinery and equipment. A little too much so, according to his wife, Gloria.
In the 1990s, he bought a classic H.K. Huber tractor from the Wakely family. In order to buy the tractor, however, he also had to buy the sawmill it was connected to. So, he began to dismantle the sawmill and brought it home a trailer load at a time and dropped it off in the front yard.
“Finally, [my wife] Gloria said, ‘Look, no more [stuff] in the front yard.’”
It was then they sat down to talk about his collection of farm equipment.
She said, “You know, you’ve got all this stuff. It’s not doing anybody any good. Nobody can appreciate it. Why don’t you take it somewhere and set it up so that people could see it.”
Actually, Howard did have somewhere to put it. He owned a large chunk property across the road which he bought years before.
This talk with Gloria made Howard think and after talking to some neighbors the concept of Wellington Farm began to germinate. An organization called Wellington Farm Folk was formed. The vacant acreage had more than enough room to house such a park.
Howard and his supporters decided to do a test run for the park. A one-weekend event called “A Walk Through History” was held. Press releases were sent out.
“The response was phenomenal! Overwhelming!” said Howard.
So, the following summer, Wellington opened with just two buildings, a sawmill and a blacksmith shop, and some old farm equipment. There was no visitors’ center. Leann Johnson sat on a potato crate and collected a dollar a car.
“I don’t even know how we actually existed because we had basically nothing. But we started building.”
With the help of others, including the Roscommon High School building trades class, multiple buildings were added. Some structures like the Stitsville church were moved to the park from other locations and have a history all their own.
One event which is held annually taps into Howard’s love of theater. Between Thanksgiving and Christmas, a play is performed at various buildings within the park. It’s called, “A Place Called Wellington,” and is based on actual events which took place in the community there.
Howard wrote the play himself.
Howard is thankful for how this dream has grown. This fall between 1,200 and 1,500 visitors attended the fall Punkin’ Chunkin’ event at the park — a new record!
For the former teacher, the excitement is not just about his vision though. It is also excitement for the Grayling community, a place he came to over 50 years ago and has grown to love.
More information about Wellington can be found online at www.wellingtonfarmpark.org or by calling 989-348-5187.