It’s a cold, clear November morning at the Ann Arbor Farmers Market, and vendor Bill Hoppe watches from his booth as bundled-up shoppers mill about the long aisles, occasionally eyeing the unusual homemade crafts he sells. As he has for the past twenty-five years, Hoppe (pronounced like hoppy) arrived in the pre-dawn darkness to set up “a little bit of everything.” Among the items for sale this Saturday are intricate wheat weavings made from grain grown in his garden, baby hats knitted to look like vegetables, dishcloths embroidered in Swedish cross-stitch designs, and German Lebkuchen cookies. Hoppe’s wife, Shirley, makes most of the items, but she doesn’t come to the market. “I leave the selling to him,” she says. “He loves the people.”
Hoppe, seventy-three, waves to a young man who walks by and recalls, “I remember when he was just a little boy. He used to be fascinated with my whiskers!” He laughs. With his light blue eyes, bushy white beard and eyebrows, and a mop of white hair beneath his olive green fedora, Hoppe has more than a passing resemblance to Santa Claus. That comes in handy for his other job: for about thirty-five years, he and Shirley have run a cut-your-own Christmas tree business near Chelsea, on the farm settled in 1866 by his German great-grandfather. Before Thanksgiving he’ll close up shop at the market until spring to devote his time to tree sales. But for now, Hoppe’s got his market goods to sell, the most popular of which are the baby hats.
“I’m always looking for something unique, and I think these are adorable,” says Ann Arbor resident Jeanie Schultz, who’s picking up a special order, a pink cupcake hat and cactus hat, for her twin grandbabies in Colorado. Hand-knit by Shirley, they’re $20 each. A woman takes an Osage orange from a big bucket and asks what she could do with the lumpy green native fruit that Hoppe gathers and sells for 50c apiece. “They repel spiders and mice–but I make no guarantees,” he grins. The fruit’s aromatic and decorative, he explains, “but you wouldn’t want to eat it.” The woman buys a half dozen, and he records the transaction in his pocket-sized notebook.
Another woman browses the hearts, crosses, rings, and other symbols Shirley weaves from wheat straw. Called “corn dollies” in Great Britain, they’re an ancient craft rooted in pre-Christian Europe. “We farmers have many ways of thanking the grain goddesses for our harvest, and this is mine,” Hoppe tells the browser, who–after being assured they are not made in China–buys two.
Bill and Shirley call their business “Spruce Cottage” after the blue cottage-like home they built six years ago within a forest of trees planted by five generations of Hoppes on Bill’s great-grandfather’s land. (The couple moved there from Jackson, where they raised their two children.) Married fifty-one years, they first met at age ten when their fathers took a fishing trip together and brought Bill and Shirley along. In the mid-1950s, when Bill was in basic training in California–“quiet years for the Army”–his mother sent him the Chelsea newspaper, in which Shirley’s picture appeared (she was Jackson High’s salutatorian). He wrote her, and they dated when he had a home leave. They married when he left the service.
Hoppe got both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in forestry at the U-M and MSU and worked for the state for twenty-eight years–“giving good advice to the private landowner” on managing woodlands. When budget cuts threatened his job, he took early retirement. Now he manages his own land. That includes selling up to 150 Christmas trees a year.
“I’m a lumper, not a splitter,” he says–charging by the tree, not by the foot. His price is twenty-five dollars per tree, and he hasn’t increased it in at least five years. “Things are bad enough without raising prices on Christmas trees.”
His two black cats follow him as he walks the mowed path through his land. This, he gestures, is “Hidden Valley,” where he plants a new batch of white and blue spruce each year. (It takes about ten years to grow a Christmas tree.) In the next field, he points to his boyhood home, since sold, a circa 1837 farmhouse. At the time, his family still grew wheat and raised cows, pigs, and chickens.
The youngest of three brothers, he was the only one who felt the pull of the land. In the early 1960s, his mother divided up the 140-acre farm among the three of them. His brothers eventually sold their property, but Hoppe retained a portion of his.
Cars whiz by on I-94, which borders the north end of his twenty acres. When he was a boy this was US-12, where he’d sell strawberries to passing motorists. He points westward in the direction of the old United Methodist church where his great- grandfather and other family members are buried and where he and Shirley attend services.
The Hoppes’ children have settled far away, which he accepts philosophically. “They had places to go and things to do,” he says. “You don’t tie people down.” His daughter is dean of optometry at Western University of Health Sciences in California, and his son teaches creative writing at Austin Community College in Texas. Bill smiles when he talks about his kids’ return visits to the farm and points out a dried-up berry bush. “I remember when my grandson picked these raspberries and sold them for some crazy price when he came with me to the market.”
But he seems to look forward more than he looks back–talking about his next ideas for the business: he’s planted blackberry bushes and hazelnut and Chinese chestnut trees. “Maybe they’ll be ready to sell at the market in the next few years,” he says, as he stands beneath his family’s towering white pines.