Monday, June 6, 2011

Traveling at home: Lonnie Compeau, honey, and the Old West Side

A few days ago, I heard from Barrie and Elana that there is a house on the historic Old West Side of Ann Arbor where you can get honey from, right off of the porch. They said it was close to Bach Elementary. I immediately set out by foot. I arrived in the Old West Side, and ran into the famous Jefferson Market and Cakery
Jefferson Market and Cakery
One thing that to me is very distinct about Ann Arbor compared to the other places I have been to is the sheer number of big trees. Now of course there are big trees in places out West, but I'm talking about big trees all along residential roads, just feet from these homes. Not pruned, artificial-looking big trees like you'd find in Birmingham or some other rich suburb of Detroit, but big trees just left to grow. So nice.
Big trees...
 I found the home I was looking for because I spotted the sign hanging off of the porch awning.

I rang the hand-bell on the door, but no one opened. But I decided to come back to meet the person collecting this raw honey. I did stay to take a few pictures, and get some honey, which any one, any time, can pay for by putting money into the little locked box.
I went back yesterday (without a camera) to see if someone was home, and Lonnie Compeau was sitting on his porch, fully welcoming. (Quinn Davis of the Washtenaw Voice recently wrote a long piece about him in the Washtenaw Voice.) I spoke with him for about two hours. He had a lot to say. He makes and sells raw honey, and used to sell to many stores, like the Mediterranean Market, Ed's Bread, and other places. Not anymore, though. Just off of his porch, since he's in his seventies now. But his honey is taken by his regulars everywhere, from Alaska to Algiers and Lebanon. He has worked all over, doing nuclear-related work, with tons of stories of working on campus over several decades.
A photo of Lonnie Compeau taken by Jocelyn Gotlib
Where do you live, and where are you from?
"This is the Old West Side of Ann Arbor, where many people are doing so many interesting things, where the houses are named after people that used to live here. I bought this house in 1967. I am originally from Livonia. I left high school when I was seventeen, I didn't finish, and I joined the Navy working on submarines and diesel engines. When it came to applying to college, my high school didn't want to support my application because I didn't actually finish high school, but a high school in Mississippi, where I was working, supported by application and gave me a GED. I came to the University of Michigan, flunked out of Mechanical Engineering, and went to Eastern Michigan University to study Physics. I came back to UM to get a Master's in Public Health, and then I went to work for Bechtel."

What do you love about where you live? What is unique about where you live?
"All sorts of things happen in college towns, doesn't matter if it's Madison or Ann Arbor. There are other parts of Ann Arbor, though, where uppity people live. Not here. Here you'll find students and anthropologists, social workers and architects. There is more a sense of community here and people are down to earth. On Potter St., there is an old lady that has run the Boston Marathon. I put a big zucchini out one time, and it came back in the form of zucchini bread made by her. She just left it on the porch. The houses are four feet from the sidewalk, so you have to interact with people that walk by. Not like in subdivisions, where houses are further back. Those are sterile communities."
How has this place changed over time?
A lot of the family homes now have just one person living in them, or are rented out. There aren't too many children on the street. As nice as it still is right now, there has been a loss of community. There was more neighbourliness. For example, the lady across the street would hem my pants, and I'd do odd jobs in her house in return...just as a neighbour. Nobody protests anymore, either. Regarding the environment, if you look at birds as an indicator organism, some species like the nighthawk don't lay here anymore. But populations seem to have gone up since we stopped using 2,4-D as a dandelion killer. We have more nut hatches, more wrens, more coopershawks and more woodpeckers. Since people don't leave food out anymore, though, animals like raccoons don't live around here anymore.


  1. Does anybody know what has happened to Lonnie Compeau? He was still there before the summer, but when we walked by a few days ago, the house looked uninhabited.

  2. Lonnie Compeau passed away in June 2016. He was a great friend and neighbor, and he will be sorely missed by many.