Global True Lithuania Encyclopedia of Lithuanian heritage worldwide

Custer / Ludington, Michigan

Unlike in all the rest of the USA, Lithuanians did not become industry workers in the Custer / Ludington area. Rather, they became farmers just as in their old country, possibly using the money they earned in temporary industrial works to buy their land. At one time, this Lithuanian "colony" used to be referred to as "New Lithuania".

Lithuanians became a major force in all the villages in the area by the early 20th century. In 2000 census those were still among the most Lithuanian villages in Michigan and Mid-West. For instance, Irons and Custer were 4% Lithuanian, Fountain and Luther were 3%, Scottville and Free Soil were 2%.

"New Lithuania" was a brainchild of a Lithuanian real-estate tycoon Anton Keledis, and, at its highest point, Lithuanians are said to have owned 360 farms in the area. Many of them are still owned by the descendants of Lithuanians.

Lithuanian-owned barn with a Lithuanian decor in Custer area

Lithuanian-owned barn with a Lithuanian decor in Custer area

Lithuanian farmers' heritage in Custer area

Unlike elsewhere, Lithuanians never established their ethnic parishes in the "New Lithuania"; however, they had no need to as they simply dominated the Catholic churches anyways. Custer and Irons churches had Lithuanian priests and masses for a long time. Custer St Mary's Church, while built in the late 1960s, has an Our Lady of Vilnius bas-relief right over its main entrance (with a Lithuanian inscription) and Our Lady of Šiluva statue inside (right side of the nave), both Maryan devotions associated with Lithuania. The church also had a Lithuanian architect - the famous Jonas Mulokas; he is known for his "modern Lithuanian style" which merged the traditional ethnic elements with modern materials, however here, as the parish was not officially Lithuanian, there are not so many Lithuanian details as usual, even though the "barn form" reminds of the agricultural traditions of both Lithuania and Custer area.

Custer St. Mary church

Custer St. Mary church

Our Lady of Vilnius symbol over the door of St. Mary church of Custer

Our Lady of Vilnius symbol over the door of St. Mary church of Custer

Another major remnant of the Lithuanian farmers' era is the Andrulis cheese factory that still manufactures Lithuanian (Baltic) Farmer's Cheese according to the recipe of the current owner's grandmother. The cheese factory has been established in the early 1940s and still operates in the same building with few changes in technology. The same family still owns it, with the 4th generation since establishment (5th generation since immigration) now beginning to take the helm. It is possible to buy the cheese at the factory entrance and, with prior arrangements and small groups, to get a factory tour. The factory, however, now operates irregularly: only when there are orders, as Andrulis cheese lacks preservatives to make it suitable for long-term storage. John Andrulis, one of the owners of the factory, by the way, was the one who donated the Custer church's entrance, as the plaque on the church marks.

Andrulis cheese factory

Andrulis cheese factory

Andrulis cheese

Andrulis cheese

Andrulis cheese factory interior

Andrulis cheese factory interior

There are more Lithuanian descendants who farm. Lithuanian farming heritage is celebrated by Lithuanian quilt, a barn decorated by Lithuanian flag colors and Lithuanian symbol in Fountain village. The barn owners participated in the barn beautification project "Mason County Barn Quilt Trail" which led to some 11 barns being covered with such artworks, often relating to the area's heritage or goals.

Lithuanian Quilt

Lithuanian Quilt

Rakas Lithuanian scout camp

The largest Lithuanian institution in the area is undoubtedly the Rakas Lithuanian scout camp, covering some 83 acres (33 ha) of a rather pristine forest (40 acres are used).

Lituanica building, one of the buildings of Camp Rakas sub-camps

Lituanica building, one of the buildings of Camp Rakas sub-camps

Every summer, the camp holds the "main" 2-week long scout camp that draws some 250 scouts mainly from Chicago, as well as various smaller side-camps. In addition to the regular scouting ideals, the Lithuanian scouts of America also put a strong emphasis on the Lithuanian ethnic traditions: songs, dances, etc. The architecture of the camp is, therefore, very Lithuanian. There are multiple chapel-posts, each building is also covered in ethnic motifs.

Larger chapel-post (koplytstulpis) of Camp Rakas

Larger chapel-post (koplytstulpis) of Camp Rakas

A small chapel-post (koplytstulpis) in Camp Rakas

A small chapel-post (koplytstulpis) in Camp Rakas

The buildings are few and far between, however, as the scouts sleep in tents. The largest monument is near the entrance: it consists of a tower with a traditional scout symbol on top and 2018 renovation donors list nearby and on the bricks. There is also a memorial plaque that thanks Frank (Pranas) Rakas for the generous gift of land where Rakas now stands (actually, a 50 years lease paying 1 dollar a year; the land was bought out by the Chicago scouts afterward).

Camp Rakas main monument

Camp Rakas main monument

The camp consists of four sub-camps, each with its own kitchen. All are named in Lithuanian: Kernavė (after Lithuania's first known capital, est. 1966), Lituanica (after the Darius and Girėnas plane they used to become the first Lithuanians to cross the Atlantic), Nerija (after the Curonian Spit), Aušros Vartai (after the gate of dawn in Vilnius Old Town). There are additional buildings, such as the first-aid post, each with ethnic details.

Kernavė sub-camp main building in camp Rakas

Kernavė sub-camp main building in camp Rakas

A Vyčiai square with ethnic decor is dedicated to the lifetime scouts.

Vyčiai square in Camp Rakas

Vyčiai square in Camp Rakas

Lithuanian symbols at the Vyčiai square in Camp Rakas

Lithuanian symbols at the Vyčiai square in Camp Rakas

The territory of the camp is usually locked outside of the season and cannot be visited. During the main camp, some 250 people participate, 66% kids and 33% adults. At one time, the numbers stood at 1000.

The map

All the Lithuanian locations, described in this article, are marked on this interactive map, made by the "Destination Lithuanian America" expedition (click the link):

Interactive map of Custer area Lithuanian sites

Click to learn more about Lithuania: Michigan, USA Leave a comment
Comments (0) Trackbacks (0)

No comments yet.


Leave a comment

No trackbacks yet.