Pehrson family celebrates farm’s sesquicentennial

August 1, 2023

Connie Wiles, left, and her brother, Ron Pehrson, stand in front of the farm’s centennial sign, which now features an additional sign honoring its sesquicentennial.

Pehrson family celebrates farm’s sesquicentennial

This Mason County history feature is presented by Mason County Historical Society in partnership with Mason County Press.

By Rob Alway, Editor-in-Chief

VICTORY TOWNSHIP — The City of Ludington is not the only Mason County entity celebrating its sesquicentennial this year. On July 25, members of the Pehrson family gathered at the home of Connie and Don Wiles on the southeast corner of Sugar Grove and Amber roads and celebrated 150 years of their farm being owned by the same family. 

Michael McDonnell

Of the original 80 acre farm, purchased on July 25, 1873, Connie and Don own 20 acres and Connie’s brother, Ron Pehrson, and his wife, Katie, own 60 acres. For the past several decades the farm has been owned by various siblings, the children of Marjorie (McDonnell) and Richard Pehrson. 

Elizabeth Moran McDonnell

The farm was originally purchased by Michael and Elizabeth McDonnell, Canadian immigrants. 

Michael McDonnell (1841-1910) was born on July 27, 1841 in Buckingham, Quebec, Canada. He was the son of Anthony (1819-1859) and Margaret (Jordan, 1811-1886) McDonnell.

In 1861 he lived in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada and in 1863 had immigrated to the United States by way of Detroit. In 1864, he stood in (was paid) to replace D.H. Willete of Grand Rapids and served in the Michigan Volunteer Infantry Co. H 14th Regiment in the Civil War. He participated in General Tecumseh Sherman’s “March to Sea.” 

John McDonnell

On Sept. 16, 1869, he married Elizabeth Moran (1839-1914) in Montebello, Quebec. Elizabeth was born on Nov. 9, 1839 in Grenville, Quebec, the daughter of James Moran (1798-1896) and Bridget (McAndrews, 1804-1880). 

Helen Gilding McDonnell

Their first son, James Anthony McDonnell (1870-1953) was born in Pentwater on July 4, 1870, followed by a daughter, Mary Elizabeth McDonnell (1872-1939) in Grenville, Quebec on Nov. 12, 1872. 

According to Connie Pehrson Wiles, family historian, and great-granddaughter of Michael and Elizabeth, the young family initially settled in a lumber camp in Grant Township, possibly the Old Free Soil camp. 

On July 25, 1873, Michael and Elizabeth purchased 80 acres of land for $520 from the Flint area & Pere Marquette Railway in the northwest corner of section 35 in Mason County’s Victory Township (the southeast corner of modern Sugar Grove and Amber roads). More children were born, including John Charles McDonnell (1874-1945), Rose A. McDonnell (1876-1879), Nellie Mae McDonnell (1878-1966), Francis Martin McDonnell (1880-1881), and Frank Lester McDonnell (1895-1985). 

Majorie McDonnell Pehrson

The family homestead was built in the early 1880s. John Charles eventually took over the farm. Neither of his brothers, Edward or Frank, were interested in the farm Edward moved to Washington state and Frank moved to Chicago. Michael passed away on April 2, 1910 while visiting Edward, in Seattle. 

Richard Pehrson

John did not transition immediately to farming as a young adult, however. Instead, he fell in love with the school teacher, who taught school at Victory Township’s Star School, located across the street of the family homestead on the southwest corner of what is now Sugar Grove and Amber roads. 

Helen Roselle Gilding (1877-1956) was born on March 8, 1877, the daughter of John Jabez  (1838-1893) and Helen (Chalker, 1839-1915) Gilding of Custer Township. At 16, she was hired to teach at the Star school and lived with the McDonnell family, which included 19-year-old John. 

Connie Pehrson Wiles said Helen taught at Star School for a year. Eventually, she attended Michigan State Normal College (now Eastern Michigan University) in Ypsilanti to receive a formal teaching certificate. Normal colleges were training facilities for educators. According to Wiles, John followed Helen to the various towns she lived in until they finally married on April 17, 1912 in Chicago, where she was living at the time. They then moved to the family farm. 

John and Helen had four children, Evelyn Marie (1913-2010), Elizabeth “Merle” (1916-2015), Edward “Erle” (1916-1989) and Marjorie Helen (1917-1984). Daughter Marjorie and her husband, Richard Pehrson (1915-1996) eventually took over the farm. 

Tragedy struck the McDonnell family in January 1925 when the original farmhouse was destroyed by fire. 

Ron Pehrson, grandson of John and Helen, said the fire is part of family lore. He said the fire occurred during the day when school was in session across the street. Several of the boys from the school helped fight the fire and remove valuables — while the house was burning — and retold the stories for many years after. 

John and Helen designed the present house. While it was being built, the family lived in the barn, for about a year. 

Marjorie and Richard Pehrson took over the property and phased out of farming, leasing the tillable land to Larsen Farms. Three generations of Larsens have farmed the land, beginning with Harold Larsen, who, along with his son, Warren Larsen, started Larsen Farms in 1957. Today, Burke Larsen is the third generation to farm the land. 

“It’s a great feeling knowing that this land has been in our family for 150 years,” Ron Pehrson said. “With people moving around more and more, it’s a nice legacy to have.” 

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