Setting the clock back a century
Enthusiastic and knowledgeable volunteers are transforming the Rentschler farm on the edge of Saline into a teaching tool. They're restoring the house to show how a farm family lived at the beginning of the century, bringing in livestock to demonstrate the working of the farm, and re-creating a kitchen garden to teach children how to grow plants—all with the unusual advantage of having the last owner of the farm nearby to answer questions.
The farm is on Michigan Avenue, just east of the Ford plant. It was built in 1906 by Matthew Rentschler on 216 acres that his brother, Emanuel, had bought two years earlier. The land would eventually be farmed by three generations of Rentschlers.
The last was Warren Rentschler, who lived on the farm almost all his life. "We had sheep and chickens, sold eggs at the door, had pigs; we grew corn, hay, wheat, oats," Rentschler says. "We sold hay to the horse trade."
As the city of Saline crept up to the farm, Rentschler gradually split parcels off and sold them, starting with a field for the Ford plant in the 1960s. A few years ago, then-mayor Rick Kuss heard that Rentschler was about to sell the last of his farm to Farmer Jack for a shopping center. Kuss talked to him about selling the house and outbuildings to the city instead.
Rentschler was delighted with the idea. In spring 1998 the city of Saline bought Rentschler's property at a discount, and the Saline Area Historical Society went to work at the farm right away.
The restoration of the house's interior is being organized by Janet Swope, antiques dealer, teacher of antiques classes, organizer of the Saline Antiques Fair, and former owner of the Pineapple House. Swope's plan is to restore the home to the way it looked between 1900 and 1930. "We may have some older things," she says. "People inherit things. But we'll have nothing newer than 1930."
Her goal is to "restore it to what a farmhouse would be like—not real affluent, middle class, but nice." This winter she hopes to finish the downstairs rooms: the master bedroom, dining room, and parlor. If time allows, she and her fellow volunteers will also work on the hired man's room upstairs. The master bedroom will be decorated with a historic Saline wallpaper design, found in the Bondie house on Maple, that's being reproduced by the Thibaut wallpaper company. Next spring, Saline resident and former county clerk Bob Harrison plans to re-create the front porch, using a 1910 photo for guidance.
Cathy Andrews, master gardener and historic furniture restorer, created a kitchen garden with help from area schoolkids. She laid out the beds in long, narrow rows, as the Rentschlers would have in the 1930s, and planted vegetable and flower species common for that period, such as a tasty, pinkish beefsteak tomato and a very red variety developed at Rutgers University that was considered good for canning. She kept the rhubarb and horseradish she found at the farm.
Rick Kuss and Jeff Hess, among others, are tending the animals already housed in the outbuildings. Roosters, ducks, and pigeons were donated from Animal Rescue, while Domino's Farms provided two miniature goats. A local farmer gave two piglets, which have since grown big enough to knock Kuss down. "I liked them better when they were babies," he jokes.
Wayne Clements, president of the historical society, bought two lambs for the farm at the 4-H fair. Others followed his example and began donating their prize lambs to the farm to save them from slaughter.
Today, Warren Rentschler lives on the north side of Saline. What does he think of what's happening at his old farm?
"I like it fine," he says. "They'll preserve it. Who wouldn't want that? My granddad and dad worked so hard to keep it up, and I spent a bit of time too."
Photo Caption: Elizabeth and Emanuel Rentschler with their children. Alma, Alvin, & Herman, in front of their farmhouse around 1910.