Willie VanNortwick: Centennial farmer

April 26, 2023

Willie VanNortwick

Willie VanNortwick: Centennial farmer

By Rob Alway, Editor-in-Chief

Editor’s Note: Wilbur O. VanNortwick, known to most as Willie, will turn 100-years-old on May 2. To celebrate, his family is holding a birthday party for him on Saturday, April 29 from 2 to 5 p.m. at St. Paul United Methodist Church, 3212 W. Kinney Road in Riverton Township. Friends are asked to stop by for cake and conversation. The family requests no gifts. Cards may be mailed to PO Box 274, Fountain, MI 49410.

LUDINGTON — Wilbur “Willie” VanNortwick grew up in Pere Marquette and Riverton townships and farmed there most of his life. Today, he and his wife, Audrey, live on their own in the northwest side of Ludington. Willie was born 100 years ago on May 2, 1923 on the family farm in Pere Marquette Township near the corner of Chauvez and Brye roads. His parents were Ory Orlando (1893-1985) and Ruth Emily (Nelson, 1895-1983) VanNortwick. He had one brother, Marshall (1917-1992). He attended Sutton School (located on Chauvez Road, half mile east of what is now Pere Marquette Highway) and then ninth and 10th grades at Riverton Township Unit School. He attended 11th grade at Ludington High School, but then decided he had had enough of high school. 

Willie and Audrey have celebrated 73 years of marriage.

“We farmed fruit and my dad had milk cows,” Willie says. “I feel that I was lucky to grow up in the carefree days of the 20s and 30s, and the first part of the 40s.”

In his early years as a child, the farm relied on horses and a lot of manual labor to do the work. 

“Farming has certainly changed since I started,” he says. “We used to pick fruit and put it in crates. Now they use boxes. We would pick up the crates with our arms. Now the farms use forklifts. I actually built my first forklift from scratch. He also built his first cherry picker, which was used until the family sold most of their farm land to Daryl Peterson. 

“I remember my dad buying our first tractor, it was a Fordson (built by Henry Ford & Son Inc. as part of the Ford Motor Co.). My first new tractor was a 1947 McCormick-Deering 0-6 orchard tractor.”

Willie also bought a new car in 1947, a Buick convertible, which he credits for winning over a young lady who would latter become his wife. 

“It was a girl picker-upper,” he says, with a sly smile, about the car. 

“He likes to tell the story differently,” Audrey, 93, says, also with a smile — and perhaps a slight nudge to her husband. “I was 17-years-old, he was six years older. It was a Sunday and I was walking out to the mailbox on Rath Avenue. He pulled up. I didn’t know him but I knew the other boy who was in the car, who was a friend of one of my brothers. I like to tell the story that if it hadn’t been for my mother I probably never would have married him. I had heard a lot about this boy. I guess he was kind of wild. My mother said, you’ll never know unless you go out with him and look what happened.”

After three years of dating, Willie proposed to Audrey on Christmas Eve. They were married Feb. 17, 1950 and recently celebrated 73 years of marriage, which has  resulted in five children: Pam (and Bill) Bernard, Kim (and Nancy) VanNortwick, Lesa (and Barry) Petrucci, Laurie VanNortwick (deceased), and Gail (and J.W.) McCormick; nine grandchildren; and 11 great-grandchildren, with one more arriving in May.

“It’s been a good life,” Audrey says. 

Audrey was born on June 30, 1929 to Clayton (1901-1952) and Blanche (Jensen, 1905-1967) Crampton. She lived most of her childhood in Hamlin Township, attending school at Hamlin Township School District No. 1 (South Hamlin), Ludington First Ward School (Lakeview), Ludington Third Ward School (Luther Foster Elementary). She graduated from Ludington High School in 1947.  She had two brothers, Richard (1927-1990) and Howard (1936-2003). 

The wedding of Audrey and Willie VanNortwick, Feb. 17, 1950

Before that wild boy picked up that girl in his new convertible in 1947, he had spent two years in the Army.

“I was drafted into the Army in 1945,” Willie says. “I spent my boot camp at Fort McClellan in Alabama. While I was there, the United States dropped the atomic bomb on Japan. I remember were were doing our daily PT (physical training) and we were tossing logs back and forth when we got word about the bomb. We all dropped our logs and started cheering. But, basic training didn’t quit. I was later sent to Fort Riley in Kansas and then to Fort Belvoir just outside of Washington, D.C. in Virginia.”

Willie was assigned to the 701st Military Police Battalion. He says he was in training for two months and then had an opportunity to re-enlist and go to China. 

“I decided that the war was over and it would be a good experience. So, I went to China for a year.” 

He was stationed in Shanghai and Beiping (now known as Bejing). 

“I’ll never forget the boat rides there and back,” he says. “It took 27 days to go from Seattle to Shanghai on a boat that wasn’t much bigger than the Badger. We were in the northern Pacific and it was so rough. We also had to constantly be looking out for mines that were still floating in the water. Sailors would spot the mines and then would call the Coast Guard to come in and destroy them.”

While in China, Willie held the rank of corporal and was in charge of 20 men. His unit was often posted to guarding dignitaries, which included the president of China. Most notably, his unit was assigned to guard a party being hosted by former President Herbert Hoover.

“President Hoover invited me to join the party,” Willie says. “After thinking about it, I declined, because I really wanted to get home and didn’t want to get into trouble. It was neat to be able to speak to a president, though.” 

Ruth and Ory VanNortwick, parents of Willie.

He was able to see many of the sites of China but also experienced a culture that handled crime much different than the United States. Willie says he witnessed public executions of people who committed petty crimes. 

It’s likely his time in China helped spark his taste for adventure.

“We have been to all 50 states and every province in Canada,” Willie says. 

Willie says his favorite place to visit was British Columbia. Audrey says her favorite place has been Vermont. “It was just the most beautiful place I had ever been to,” she says. 

They speak a lot about their many vacations, mostly with their children and then later, after their children grew up. Willie also speaks about his adventures as a legendary canoeist on the Pere Marquette River and throws in some hunting stories (mostly true) as well. 

Willie’s sense of adventure and excitement also meant being a single-engine airplane pilot when he was younger (which also involved buzzing his Riverton neighbors) and then jumping out of a plane with son-in-law Barry, when Willie was 87-years-young. He also participated in an Honor Flight to Washington, D.C., which payed tribute to World War II veterans. 

Willie was a pioneer in the Mason County fruit industry and helped — with friends — build the legendary Ludington Ski Hill on Morton Road (see related story here). 

He was a founding member of the Ludington Fruit Exchange (now Indian Summer Co-Op) and an early customer of Mason County Fruit Packers. 

Though most of the family farm was sold, son Kim still owns the original homestead, located on 20 acres on the southwest corner of Brye and Chauvez roads. 

Kim says he remembers living in the house with his grandparents when he was a child, until the family moved to Kistler Road. After daughter Gail graduated from Mason County Central High School in 1988, Audrey and Willie moved out to their cabin on the Pere Marquette River in Branch Township, where they built their first retirement home. They also began wintering in Florida and North Carolina. Eventually, they made the decision to sell their river home and move into Ludington. After a few years of apartment living, they decided to live alone in their own house, where they are today. 

Willie says he still has a workshop out on the farm, though some recent injuries have kept him from being overly active there. 

Like with most, life has had its ups and it’s had it’s downs. In 1984, Willie was diagnosed with a brain tumor, which was removed. When traveling back from the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, he and Audrey got into a car accident in Wisconsin (the result of a faulty part on their vehicle), which caused a set back in his recovery. Just after the two moved into Ludington, Audrey suffered a heart attack. And, in 2022, their 60-year-old daughter, Laurie, passed away.

But, their faith and love of family and friends keeps them going. Willie has been a member of the 151 year old St. Paul United Methodist Church his entire life and Audrey has been a member since their marriage.

“We grew up in the Great Depression and we came from families that were poor,” Audrey says. “Being poor taught us the value of working for a living. I decided when I was very young that I wouldn’t live like that and that I would always work to better myself. Willie was raised on a farm and knew the value of hard work. I think that’s been one of the secrets to a long life, along with a loving family and lots of friends.”


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