W. Michigan landmark is a blooming labor of love

10/8/2012 1:15 AM
By Associated Press

SILVER LAKE, Mich. (AP) — If you have ever approached Michigan's Silver Lake sand dunes area from the south, you know the big hill on County Road B-15 (a.k.a. "Scenic Drive") that offers you a first glimpse of not only Silver Lake, but Lake Michigan in the distance.

It's a profound sight, an "Ooh-aah" moment that can take your breath away.

But if you're attentive to detail, you'll recall something else at the brink of that hill, perhaps not as profound, but certainly part of the Gateway to the Dunes, and for those of you who may have been wondering, here are the four words you need to whisper next time you make that delightful descent:

"Thanks, Louis and Madeleine."

Neither had anything to do with the formation of the dunes. That's Mother Nature's ongoing postcard.

But for the better part of 100 yards alongside Scenic Drive as it funnels toward that majestic destination, you'll find a labor of love that, even after Louis' death nearly two decades ago, Madeleine Blanchard continues to share with friends and strangers alike.

There, you'll find nine significant isles of flowers and shrubs and topiary, free-formed landscaping comprised of vegetation, borders, rock and more.

Madeleine doesn't even know the names of most the growth. But Madeleine knows this: That her Louis would have been proud to know she's kept it up, and at age 84, no small task, given the breadth of the project.

The beds were Louis' idea, and it was in the early to mid-1980s that he decided he could beautify the shoulder alongside their property way better than any brush hog might.

Today, nearly 30 years later, it's not unusual for a car-load of people bound for Silver Lake to stop and say thanks.

"All the time," says Madeleine. "People will say, 'We've been coming by for years, and we just want to tell you how much we appreciate what you're doing.'"

She smiles. "That encourages me."

Madeleine was born in New Bedford, Mass., and moved to the Detroit area so she could live cheaply with an aunt and uncle while attending Marygrove College. A woman in her aunt's bridge club arranged an introduction between her son, Louis, and Madeleine. They were married less than two years later.

Louis served 12 years as a Detroit cop, then landed a job in management with Chrysler.

Some of Louis' relatives worked fruit farms in Oceana County, and lured him and his bride across the state on vacations. Eventually, they bought property. Today, Madeleine winters in Florida, spending the rest of her time in the large mobile home she and Louis bought in 1968, perched on land that used to serve as a peach orchard.

Traveling Scenic Drive, it's easy to whizz by the home, darkened by woods. But the oases of landscaping are hard to miss -- mowed and manicured and for many people a source of wonder, as in "Who would go to the trouble?"

Madeleine shrugs. "Louis just loved to do landscaping."

Most of the larger rocks were pulled from excavating performed on the nearby Fox farm property. As for the smaller stones -- tons of them in all -- Madeleine is at a loss. "I don't even know where Louis got them all," she says.

Louis retired from full-time work in 1985, and it became his quest after that to dress up the road, one pod at a time.

"In those early years," says Louis' widow, "everyone would wonder what he was going to do next."

Once nine islands were up, Louis stopped creating, then turned his attention to preservation. He weeded and he mulched and he pruned and he watered and he mowed.

At times, Madeleine confesses being a bit overwhelmed. She can't pay as much physical attention to it as she's done in the past. She's thankful for younger kin who visit and pitch in from time to time with trimmers and other tools.

"I don't try to improve on anything, just keep it up," says Madeleine.

Its beauty isn't lost on the locals. Barbara Bull, who owns the Cherry Point Farm & Market just uphill and around the corner from the Blanchard place, says the roadside art reminds her of a quote from Cicero, which goes something like "Every farmer creates his own self-portrait of his land ."

She remembers Louis as "a marvelous, warm, gregarious person," and lauds Madeleine for taking up the yoke to keep it beautiful.

Louis died 17 years ago from the effects of esophageal cancer. Madeleine has been tending to his work ever since. She stands staring into his handiwork as a slow-moving tractor passes, its driver raising a gloved hand.

Madeleine hardly notices the farmer, absorbed in Louis' work, just says, "He left me quite a legacy."

___

Information from: The Grand Rapids Press, http://www.mlive.com/grand-rapids


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