The Subdivision that Got Away
How Don and Earldine Brokaw's twenty-five riverfront acres fell into the city's hands.
by David Swain
From the March, 2014 issue
"The situation was going downhill rapidly," Dan Ezekiel remembers. It was the spring of 2009, and the Forsythe Middle School science teacher had gone out to 3013 W. Huron River Dr. to meet the property's owner, Don Brokaw. Ezekiel was a member of the city's greenbelt committee, and Brokaw's best friend, John Alexander, had set up the meeting to discuss a possible conservation easement on the land. With him were Dave Szczygiel, head of the public schools' outdoor education program, and Ginny Trocchio, from the city's acquisitions department.
"Unbeknownst to any of us, Mr. Brokaw's mental condition had deteriorated since the appointment had been set up," Ezekiel recalls. Brokaw, then in his late eighties, suffered from Alzheimer's disease. "We could tell immediately that he was in no mental condition to discuss legal issues.
"Abandoning any hope of acquiring a conservation easement, we just started chatting with him about what a beautiful piece of property it was," Ezekiel remembers. "However, he got the idea maybe we were scammers trying to bilk him out of his land."
"He said, "I think I better go get my gun,'" Szczygiel recalls. "Dan thought that was a good time to depart. I said, 'Dan, don't you want to see if he can remember where his gun is?'"
Before Brokaw had a chance to test his memory, Ezekiel spotted John Alexander's name and phone number written by the telephone. "I asked Mr. Brokaw if John was his friend, and Mr. Brokaw allowed that he was," he recalls. "I said that John was my friend, too. I asked if I could call John, so that John could vouch for us.
"Luckily, John was home and calmed Mr. Brokaw down over the phone. John told Mr. Brokaw to sit tight and later on he would come over to take him for a haircut. We beat a hasty retreat."
Joseph Donald Brokaw was born in 1919. His parents, Roscoe and Eleanor, had a dairy farm on Geddes called The Meadows.
The property caught the eye of wealthy industrialist Harry Boyd "H.B." Earhart and his wife, Carrie. They bought the place and in 1936 built their mansion there. Concordia University owns it now, and built its campus on the rest of the property.
The Brokaws moved west to another farm on the Huron River. That, too, was later developed. The senior Brokaws' last residence was 615 Riverview, near what is now Gallup Park.
Don Brokaw graduated from University High School in 1938. Among the fifty-one seniors that year were future architect David Osler and Osler's future wife, Connie Lorch. Osher's parents lived on what is now Glazier Way, not far from the Brokaws. David recalls going swimming with Don almost every day during the summer at the millpond on Fleming Creek, now Parker Mill Park.
After graduation, Don attended Parks College of Aeronautical Technology in East St. Louis, Illinois. In World War II, he served as a fighter mechanic in England. As a mechanic, Don was extremely adept. As a soldier, his independent streak got him in trouble.
According to John Alexander, Don "never registered in [with the military] when he got there .... So they didn't know he was there. This went on for months. He got a bicycle and would ride around the countryside."
"That's Don. He made his [own] rule. They wanted him to sign in. 'Why do I have to sign in? I'm already here.'"
Don married Earldine DePlonty on Christmas Eve 1947. The newlyweds first lived with Don's parents but soon bought a house in Burns Park. Then, in 1952, the couple bought twenty acres on Huron River Drive from Louis and Julia Wallraff for $16,800. In 1958, they bought another five acres from Detroit Edison for $2,500. Sometime in the mid '50s, they built what was supposed to be Don's workshop. They would live there for the rest of their lives.
John Alexander is the fifth generation of his family to farm land in Webster Township that his great-great-grandfather bought in 1826. "My parents were pretty good friends" with the Brokaws, Alexander recalls.
"When they built their house, my dad helped dig the basement. As time went on, Don would ride with me in the combine. And anybody who rides in a combine with you, you learn a lot about them.
"Don was very handy, very skilled at so many different things. And I used him as a resource as well, as he would come out and help me with things, especially electrical work."
Don also did some refrigeration work and worked in his brother Roscoe's machine shop. He wasn't in the least bit lazy, but he had his own way of doing things, and he didn't take kindly to direct supervision.
Earldine worked for the phone company. She believed that people had tremendous untapped potential, and she was an avid seeker of esoteric knowledge. Don loved the outdoors. His niece Bonnie Calhoun and nephew Gary Brokaw both recall that birds and squirrels would come into the house to get food and that Don could go outside and call birds down from the trees.
Leo and Dianna Fox first met Earldine at Soybean Cellars in the early 1970s. In 1979, when they started Arbor Farms, Earldine was a regular customer. Don would wait outside in their little Renault while she bought staples like honey and whole wheat flour. Dianna remembers Earldine as very conservative but open-minded, and very interested in health and nutrition.
Sue and Carl Van Appledorn live on Parkridge behind the Brokaw property. Sue recalls that Don was always out on his land and was extremely protective of it. A small creek runs through the property, and one day Don discovered a couple of kids playing there, building a dam. He went to their parents to read them the riot act. On other occasions, Don was known to fire a warning shot from his ever-present shotgun to get his point across.
The Brokaws were incredibly frugal. In the summer, they kept a large garden. In the winter, they heated with wood, which Don cut on the property. During the visit from Ezekiel's group, there was one light bulb in the house, and it was on a dimmer so that it gave off about as much light as a candle. John Alexander says their electrical bill was only three or four dollars a month.
When the Brokaws moved to 3013 Huron River Dr., it was the middle of the country, but in the ensuing years new houses went up on much of the surrounding land. The neglected Wallraff farmhouse became a sore point in the neighborhood. It was finally vacated in 1963 and burned down that same night. The timing was suspicious, but the general feeling was good riddance, and there was no investigation
Naturally, the Brokaws' twenty-five acres also drew attention from developers. A document Earldine compiled in 1999 suggests that initially they weren't averse to the idea. But they didn't trust the would-be buyers:
We know that developers have been to the title co. searching for ways--discrepancies in our deed--any way to cheat us! One of them said repeatedly "Maybe you don't own it."--We are aware that our deed was written, at the time we purchased the property, in a way that is not very clear. That applies to part of our land--5 acres of the most valuable part of our land--high on a hill overlooking the entire bend of the Huron River.John Alexander says the confusion about their title related to the parcel they bought from the electric company. "The fire department thought that it was still public land, because it was never completely recorded. So the fire department was talking about building a station out there. At that point, Don had to go in and say that he owned it. Prior to that, they didn't know he owned it. They had to come to an agreement on just how they were going to take care of some of the taxes.
We talked with a man at the title co. a few years ago who said that in his opinion there should be no problem. He is no longer employed there. I talked with someone else recently, who seemed reluctant to talk with us, probably because she has been talking with developers and does not want to have problems with them and wants to stay out of it.
We believe that developers have a monopoly or consortium--highly inappropriate! They do not deviate from what they say--almost verbatim--like playing a record over and over.
They also refuse to bid on property, insisting they can not guess what it is worth until they test! Perking, etc? They say it would take months--5 to 9 months--some leave the time open--machinery would be brought in to dig deep holes--tree roots would be damaged--maybe trees destroyed! We would have to sign agreement permitting them to do this. Perking should be no problem. Our land is very sandy, an abundance of gravel stones. Enough sand should be supplied when basements are excavated.
Homes have been built all around us. Land has been completely developed all around us in recent years--with no apparent problem!
If we permit them to "test" our land, we would give away every last protection that we have. They could tell us whatever they choose to tell us about our property and we would be left with their "findings" as "fact," "irrefutable proof"! Which would then be documented and filed at township office and court house, and wherever such records are filed, probably title co. also!
They do not bother to deny any of this, when I tell them I am aware of what they are doing. They continue to insist on testing.
Several years ago we drove for miles around attempting to get a surveyor to survey our property. Not even one of them would even talk with us! That told us very clearly what is going on.
"He wasn't going to make a big thing of it as long as there wasn't any fuss. That's Don. He wasn't going to make a thing of it, until he needed to."
Earldine died on April 18, 2003. The next year, Don started a foundation "to receive and administer funds for operating a park for the use of the general public." He transferred both the twenty-five acres and almost half a million dollars stashed in various bank accounts to the foundation. ("Don was always very clever with money," Dave Osler says.)
"As time went on, he knew that he was slipping, as many people do, and it was troublesome to him," John Alexander recalls. When Don began wandering off his property, Alexander had him carry a note with Alexander's phone number on it. "I got a couple of calls. Once, the last time, he had his gun. The deputy [who called] said, 'He could have ended up being shot.'"
At that point, Brokaw's attorney, Don McHenry, asked Alexander to take away Don's guns. He did, but "Don knew I had his guns, and that didn't go over well with him." Eventually, Don had to move to a nursing home, and the hard feelings faded: "As he got older he would just smile when he saw me." Don died on May 27, 2010.
By then, McHenry had also passed away and William Drollinger had taken over as the foundation's lawyer. Drollinger approached the Ann Arbor schools to see if they wanted to take on the property. The school system didn't, but Sczyzgiel was interested--he saw it as a permanent site for the field trips he leads. He met with Drollinger, and expected to meet again when the attorney returned from a trip to Europe.
But Drollinger died while traveling. With no living trustees or representative, the foundation slipped into legal limbo. Property taxes went unpaid, and eventually Michigan attorney general Bill Schuette's office got involved.
"Our office did its best to follow-up any leads so that the property could be distributed consistent with the foundation's purpose and its dissolution clause," emails Schuette's communications director, Joy Yearout. Unaware of Szczygiel's contacts with the foundation, the attorney general settled on the only party he knew was interested: the city of Ann Arbor.
After a brief court hearing in October, judge Tim Connors granted the property to the city, along with the balance in the foundation's $489,000 investment account after paying back taxes and legal fees. The city still has to remove the buildings and other material on the site before it can become a park or nature area, but with the Brokaws' "endowment," that should be no problem.
Don Brokaw often told John Alexander how he wanted to die. "He would go out to his woods, sit with his back to a tree ..., know it's time, and just pass away. Sadly, that's not the way he went. But I do believe that he's there, in spirit."
[Originally published in March, 2014.]
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