Lakewood Farm and Zoo – Holland’s first big attraction gets historic designation

DeZwaan Windmill, the Cappon House, Van Raalte Farm, Marigold Lodge, and other Holland-area cultural treasures have a new neighbor on the National Registry of Historic Places.

On Nov. 25, 2020, the National Park Service approved the prestigious designation for a 4.23-acre property at 264 Lakeshore Drive in northern Park Township that was the heart of the public space at Lakewood Farm.

Lakewood Farm, which grew to include 250 acres of Lake Michigan shoreline, began as a fruit and poultry farm, but achieved regional notoriety between 1915 to 1933 when owner George Getz, a Chicago coal magnate, developed it into one of the largest private zoos in the nation. At its peak, Lakewood Farm attracted as many as 8,000 visitors on summer weekends and established Holland as a tourist destination.

The three-story Stick Style stucco mansion in which George F. Getz and his two sons once lived was purchased in 2006 from the three sons of longtime owner Esther Vandenberg by Zeelanders Ken and Patti Bing. 

The Bings, with help from family and friends who are skilled tradesmen, worked nights and weekends for six years to restore the home to its 1910 splendor. The Bings’ property also includes a carriage house/garage, a guesthouse, and the stone fountain that was the primary gathering point for visitors.

Valerie van Heest includes many photos that have not been seen beyond the Getz family in "Lakewood Farm & Zoo," courtesy of Bert Getz. The cover photo shows George Getz with his beloved elephant Nancy, who is carrying guests to Lakewood Farm.

There are no tours of the property, but people wishing to learn more about Lakewood Farm and its local legacy can order the most comprehensive and richly illustrated book on the subject, “Lakewood Farm & Zoo” by Holland-based historian Valerie van Heest from in-deptheditions.com.

Van Heest and her exhibit design firm Lafferty van Heest and Associations also created an exhibit on Holland’s earliest amusements that includes artifacts from Lakewood Farm. The exhibit is on display at the Historic Ottawa Beach Society’s Pump House Museum on Ottawa Beach Road, near the entrance to Holland State Park. The exhibit will be up through 2022. The museum is open seasonally.

“I always felt this work was put before us for a reason,” said Patti Bing, who sought out van Heest’s help to nominate Lakewood Farm for the National Registry of Historic Places, wrote an afterword for van Heest’s book about the restoration. “We still ask ourselves why, but we may never know. What I do know is the excitement I see in the faces of kids learning that there was once a zoo right here on the shores of Lake Michigan.”

A curiosity

Patti Bing’s fascination with Lakewood Farm was kindled early.

Growing up, Patti loved staying overnight at her grandparents’ home on Lake Michigan at Idlewood Beach because her grandmother told amazing bedtime stories about lions living along the very lakeshore where she was being tucked in.

As a young girl, the late Elizabeth Van Koevering had lived in that same house, which is just south of the stretch of sand dunes, orchards, and woods that operated as Lakewood Farm, which became a private zoo. 

This collage shows a few of the exotic animals that resided at the Getz Zoo and the crowds they drew.
Stories about Lakewood Farm -- also known locally as the Getz Zoo– seemed fantastical to little Patti. Imagine, more exotic animals had once lived just up Lakeshore Drive from Idlewood than there were at John Ball Park Zoo in Grand Rapids or the Detroit Zoo!

But Patti believed her grandmother’s stories of hearing lions named King and Prince roar on still summer nights. Patti and also seen black and white pictures in her grandmother’s photo album labeled “Getz Zoo.” Patti’s grandfather, Nelson Van Koevering, also had a unique spiraled green cane in his cane collection that Patti later learned Getz gave guests at a large barbecue he held at Lakewood Farm in 1926 to boost Republican Fred Green’s gubernatorial campaign.

Bing said she knew the stately white concrete pillars on Lakeshore Drive, just a smidge north of Lakewood Boulevard (renamed for the farm in 1928), was the main entrance to Lakewood Farm, However, she said she never wondered about the 8,000 square-foot mansion where Getz spent his summers because one can’t see it from the road.

She never thought about the mansion, that is, until the day about 15 years ago that she and her husband, Ken, resolved to buy it and restore it.

Museum exhibit

It’s been almost 100 years since the stock market crash of 1929, which rendered Getz unable to afford the upkeep on his large menagerie, which drew as many as 500,000 visitors each summer, even though there were only deplorable, unpaved roads to get there. 

So much time has passed that many Hollanders today don’t know the colorful past of Lakewood Farm. That’s why the Historic Ottawa Beach Society (HOBS) featured Lakewood Farm in the Pump House Museum exhibit that debuted in 2020. A grand opening is tentatively planned for summer 2021 when it is hoped that travel concerns related to the COVID-19 pandemic will have subsided so George Getz’s last surviving grandson, Bert A. Getz, can attend the event.

A taxidermied lion from the Getz Zoo collection is part of the Pump House Museum collection. (Kym Reinstadler)

The exhibit shows how George Getz’s menagerie started with poultry, which he exhibited at the fair in Holland, and grew to include exotic animals that had never been seen in the area, such as monkeys, camels, an elephant, and, of course, lions.

In 2019, Bert Getz was the guest of honor at a 1919-themed party for invited guests hosted at the renovated Getz mansion that raised money to produce the Pump House Museum exhibit. 

At that event, which featured live wild animals with handlers, Getz presented Patti and Ken Bing with an old green bottle. Getz explained that, with Prohibition looming, his grandfather had a batch of whiskey distilled, then buried the bottles under the porch of what is now their home.  

Getz’s sons, George Jr. and James dug up the bottles in 1939 – the year after their father died at age 72 – before selling Lakewood Farm to a Chicago trust company, which subdivided it into many plots.

Although the affable George Getz – nicknamed “the man who knew 100,000 people “– was not much of a drinker himself, being a good host was very important to him. He lived to entertain, relishing the company of celebrities and common folk alike. George Getz buried the bottles to assure future guests had what they wanted.  In presenting the vintage whiskey, Bert Getz thanked the Bings for honoring his grandfather’s local legacy.

Lakewood Farm, in context

Obviously, George Getz was altruistic. His benevolent actions also meshed with Progressive era values of his time, van Heest points out in her book.

In the early 1900s, many men were leaving family farms for urban centers, where jobs were plentiful. The exodus was so dramatic that elected officials were concerns that there might not be sufficient food production during World War I.  

As a remedy, President Theodore Roosevelt, Liberty Hyde Bailey, and other influencers promoted the idea of “gentlemen farmers” who affirmed the value of country life.  These men made their fortunes in the cities but reinvested their wealth in rural areas to benefit rural people.

This historic postcard shows the buildings that occupied George Getz's Lakewood Farm. (Holland Museum)

Getz – born into a poor Pennsylvania farm family himself - embodied this ideal. His exhibits at the county fair were created to instruct and inspire small farmers. When he learned the fair was struggling financially, he acquired and exhibited exotic animals, hoping ticket sales would skyrocket. As his animal collection increased through purchases from traveling shows and safaris to Africa, Getz also began inviting Hollanders for an Independence Day picnic at Lakewood Farm. 

Then, thanks to travel articles published in regional newspapers, tourists from near and far began visiting Lakewood Farm on summer weekends to enjoy the animals, flower gardens, orchards, and of course, beautiful Lake Michigan. Getz didn’t begin charging admission until he offered to sell Lakewood Farm to the state of Michigan and was hoping to prove the attraction could be self-supporting. The state declined. 

End of an era

A horrific storm that struck the lakeshore in 1933, uprooting trees and damaging many animal enclosures, sealed Lakewood Farm’s fate. 

Getz donated his entire critter collection —which had grown to 141 mammals, 201 birds, and 15 reptiles -- to the Chicago Zoological Association, which was collecting animals for Brookfield Zoo, which would open the following year. 

There are animals at Brookfield which are descendants of animals that lived at Lakewood Farm.

The Getz mansion circa-1910 — after George Getz purchased the farm from Ida Fay, but before he put a big addition to house summer guests.

The 250 acres that were once Lakewood Farm are now divided into 174 residential lots, (34 with lake frontage). In addition, an 18-acre parcel became Tunnel Park. Five lakefront acres adjacent to Tunnel Park are owned by Park Township. A 26-acre parcel is owned by the City of Holland for water supply. A 14-acre parcel belongs to Lakewood School, which Getz started to educate his sons and children of his employees.

Because of the popularity of Lakewood Farm, and George Getz’s persistent efforts to make it easier for visitors to travel there, Alpena Beach Road was paved and renamed Lakewood Boulevard.

The bombshell

Van Heest’s investigation into the history of Lakewood Farm to prepare the National Registry of Historic Places nomination led to a surprising discovery.

Based on articles in historic newspapers that included quotes from George Getz himself, it was long assumed that when Getz bought acreage for a summer home along Lake Michigan in 1910 that the land was undeveloped.

Van Heest’s research of Ottawa County deeds revealed that what Getz actually purchased was a working poultry and fruit farm and with a large stucco house that was constructed in 1903. 

Patti and Ken Bing have worked to restore their home that was once home to one of the area's biggest private zoos.

The large house that a Holland Sentinel reporter described as “modern” would today be described as “open concept.” It has a great room with windows that frame the lake and large bedrooms that are paired with private baths. It set in contrast to most turn-of-the-century houses, which featured small rooms connected by narrow doorways.

But the most unusual thing about the 71-acre farm that George Getz bought was that a woman-owned it. A female property owner was rare in the days before women had gained the right to vote.

Ida Fay was an unmarried woman in her early 40s with New York roots who had been living in Chicago. She bought the property in 1902 from a couple who lived in a two-room cabin constructed of logs felled from the forested dune. She had the big house constructed the following year. She planted orchards in the sandy soil and raised pigeons to sell their meat. It was Fay who named the place Lakewood Farm.

No photographs of Ida Fay have been found. Van Heest could find scant details to explain why Fay started a farm in Michigan, or why she sold it eight years later to Getz, who enlarged the house a couple of times and bought adjacent parcels to expand the farm.

Living in Chicago around the turn of the 21st Century appears to have caused Fay, like Getz, to embrace the Back to the Land philosophy, van Heest said. It also seems that spinster Ida and her widowed sister Minnie Roney were what was then called “spinsters” or “New Women.” These were women whose goals were not confined to marriage, homemaking, and raising a family.

Fay used proceeds from the sale of Lakewood Farm to invest in the Hershey Arms, a luxury hotel on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles.

Time capsule

Van Heest said the Lakewood Farm mansion is truly a time capsule of the last century because Ida Fay, George Getz, and Esther Vandenberg’s heirs all sold the place with furnishings included. Wicker patio furniture on an enclosed porch facing Lake Michigan that was believed to have been added by George Getz, for example, now seems to have first belonged to Ida Fay.

Vandenberg, a fashion model, and her husband, William, a Muskegon car dealer, purchased the 19-room mansion and its accompanying outbuildings in 1945 after it had sat unoccupied for several years. When the couple divorced, Esther kept the house, often running it as a bed-and-breakfast and renting out her lawn for parties until she paid off the mortgage. 

The collage shows the Getz home and a crew of workers transporting a snake that was part of the zoo's menagerie. (Holland Museum)

Except for a second marriage to an executive at ABC in New York, Vandenberg lived on Lakewood Farm until her death in 2003. She said in a 1998 interview that she made few updates to the mansion because she liked how it was. In her later years, Vandenberg chose to live in the tiny chauffeur’s cottage on the property, where everything she needed was “handy.”

The mansion had not been lived in for several years when the Vandenberg brothers accepted the Bings third purchase offer, which was accompanied by a promise not to demolish the century-old house.

Patti Bing mused that when she and Ken were presented with a key to the front door at closing, it was an ancient-looking skeleton key.

Restoration

Patti Bing said she and husband Ken, who owns the electrical and technical company Town and Country Group, knew that restoring the mansion to its most notable period – when George Getz owned it – would be costly and challenging. The foundation was cracking. The roof was leaking. The stucco was chipping. The plaster was cracking. The wallpaper was peeling. Ivy vines were growing through the window frames and into the house. There was evidence of rodents. The Bings even found a raccoon skull in the house.

Fortunately, the Bings were able to accomplish many of the renovations themselves, with years of help from a dedicated crew of friends and family members adept in skilled building trades. The Bings spent their first night in their new home on Sept. 8, 2012, their wedding anniversary.

Ken and Patti Bing at a 1919-themed fundraiser the couple hosted in their restored mansion in 2019. The event raised money for the Historic Ottawa Beach Society's exhibit about Holland's earliest amusements, which includes Lakewood Farm.

The house was lifted so a larger basement could be dug and a new foundation laid. The chipped stucco was removed and replaced with pebble-cast stucco with wooden detailing, known as stick work. The footprint of the master bedroom was enlarged. The kitchen was modernized. State-of-the-art fire protection was added. An elevator was also installed, in case the mansion might one day again have a civic purpose.

While a massive renovation of a monumental house never feels quite done, it certainly has come together, Patti Big said.

“Living here is just great,” she said.

Occasionally people ask Bing whether her historic house is haunted.

Truth be told, there was a night when she was awakened by muffled sounds of happy people that were wafting up from the grand porch, and she turned to Ken and asked, “When are they going to be quiet?”

There was no party downstairs, leaving Bing to wonder whether the laughter that awakened was from one of George Getz’s palatial parties a century ago.
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