Big Read Machine count: 1,200 books to 200 readers

That big red and white school bus around Vicksburg this summer was the Big Read Machine, sharing summer reading options with youth throughout the Vicksburg Community Schools district.

The Big Read Machine is a bookmobile – a free mobile library for area youth to check out and return books. Kids do not have to be Vicksburg Community Schools students to use the bus, which follows a schedule, parking at key locations throughout the district. This last summer, the Big Read Machine circulated over 1,200 books to over 200 area youth.

Inspired by Vicksburg Community Schools administration, this project was undertaken by the Vicksburg Community Schools Foundation (VCSF). Donations of time, money, materials and of course books made the Big Read Machine a reality.

Volunteers staff the Machine. They include VCSF trustees, a librarian, a bus driver, and several Vicksburg High School students in the National Honor Society.

One volunteer recalled several comments from visiting youth:

“This is Heaven!”

“Reading Makes You Stronger!”

“I’m lucky because I have three libraries: The Vicksburg (District) Library, my school library, and the bus library.”

The Big Read Machine schedule, with locations and times, is managed by Bob Willhite, VCSF trustee. Ideas are welcomed to help the literacy project reach as many area kids as possible during the summer. Suggestions can be sent via email to ra.bob.willhite@gmail.com.

While many may wish to donate books, at present the catalog is nearly full. Throughout the summer, kids suggested books that the Big Read Machine does not have, so the team is building a shopping list to improve the book supply. To help with future needs, the group asks that those wishing to help consider a cash donation to the Vicksburg Community Schools Foundation, and note that the contribution is for the Big Read Machine.

The Machine’s organizers thanked foundation trustees, donors, bus drivers, volunteers and all of the kids and families that visited during the summer.

Bob and Kathy Willhite, community volunteers

Kathy and Bob Willhite.

The success of the Big Read Machine is due in large part to the commitment and expertise of Bob and Kathy Willhite. The Willhites pair their separate skill sets and love of community service, resulting in the completion and launching of this literacy project.

Bob is the Big Read Machine’s coordinator. He arranges the loading of the books, schedules the volunteers, identifies the stopping locations, and publishes the schedule. Bob retired from Pfizer after 33 years in information technology and compliance. He brings management and organization skills to the effort.

Kathy’s focus is building the bus library circulation. After receiving 5,000 books from local families during a book drive over three years ago, Kathy cataloged the titles, classifying and labeling each book. Kathy was the Vicksburg District Library Director from 1991-1995 and served as the children’s librarian at Kalamazoo Country Day School from 1999-2010.

On bus days, the Willhites greet volunteers and patrons and welcome everyone aboard. They explain the Vicksburg Community Schools Foundation, which helped fund the project and continues to sponsor it, and assist children looking for books. The catalog is on a web-based platform and is maintained by the couple.

Keevin O’Neill, Vicksburg Community Schools superintendent says, “Bob and Kathy have committed countless hours to this important community project, and their skills and enthusiasm helped make the Big Read Machine a reality.”

Bob and Kathy are two of many people in our communities whose volunteerism and commitment make South County so special.

Miracle Field opens in Schoolcraft


A new baseball league is playing its first innings on a new diamond in Schoolcraft.

The Southwest Michigan Miracle League started its first season Sept. 18 and will continue on Saturdays at 10 a.m. and noon through Oct. 23. The Miracle Field is on US-131 adjacent to the Dome Sports Center.

It’s open for kids from 5-19 to play regardless of abilities. The field has a flat rubberized surface to eliminate barriers to players using wheelchairs or who are visually impaired. Dugouts are wheelchair-accessible. Volunteers – “buddies” – work one-on-one with each player, helping them run or wheel around bases or helping them swing a bat.

“We partner every player with a buddy to ensure the player remains safe and has a good time,” said co-founder Jud Hoff. Buddies are over 14 unless they’re from a player’s family. The opportunity to assist players attracts volunteers. “It’s the experience of most miracle fields,” Hoff said. “They have long waiting lists. High school baseball and softball players, church groups and employee groups – they want to be buddies.”

One of the more memorable sights may be the joyful faces of the players.

Hoff saw that before the fundraising for the Schoolcraft field began. “When we were considering building this field, we visited one in Rockford. A kid clearly was suffering physical disabilities. He couldn’t swing a bat. He was in a wheelchair. As his buddy was pushing him down to first base, the look on his face was similar to any kid who hit a home run – a beaming smile!

“I turned to my partner. ‘We’re building one of these!’”

In early 2018, Hoff and three others formed a board of directors and sought and received a 501c3 non-profit designation to receive tax-deductible contributions. He recalls some initial resistance. “People thought it was just sports. It wasn’t just sports.” The kids “formed bonds, relationships, shared experiences. It provided a place in the community for people who don’t participate in sports.”

The fundraising netted $1.2 million, and Hoff and his partner, co-owners of the Dome, donated the adjacent property.

It can accommodate more activities. “We’ve got an additional 15 acres” perhaps for golf, soccer and volleyball. “We’re filing for a nonprofit community center.”

The Miracle League so far has fielded four teams of 10-12 players. “We hope to have 10 or 15 teams that play on the weekend” for an eight-game season. After the kids’ teams are “up and running, we’ll open to other groups, disabled veterans and elder groups.”

The range of disabilities to be accommodated in the Miracle League is wide. “Any kid can play.” And for a quadriplegic youngster? “A robotic bat,” Hoff said.

More information is available at the league’s web site: swmimiracle.org

Museum curation process explained

The Strong School, pictured here, is part of the historic village.

Donating an Item to the Vicksburg Historical Society?

A museum curator evaluates a collection of items, decides what’s important to the museum, cares for the items and creates paperwork to document them. Maggie Snyder, curator and chairperson of the Vicksburg Historical Society’s Collection Committee, joined Kathy Bach and Bonnie Holmes in 1990, when the three began care of the Vicksburg Historical Society’s collection.

Snyder says, “Our focus is narrow. We confine our collection to the area encompassed by the Vicksburg school district, and whatever items we think may help us tell a story inside the buildings of the Historic Village.”

Snyder outlines the careful process below:

When an object, including paper and photographs, is received, a deed of gift is filled out and signed both by the donor and the person who has done the intake. By signing the document, the donor relinquishes all ownership of the item.

That paperwork and the object(s) go to the curator, who decides if it will be accepted into a collection.

If accepted, a collection number is assigned to the object. The first four digits are the year (2021). The next digits indicate the number of collections accepted so far in that year. Let’s say 30.

The curator or another staff member completes an accession form, making a detailed written description of the item: dimensions, color, what is it and what is it used for, where it was used, date if known, approximate date if there’s good reason to make a guess, and condition from very poor to very good.

If there are multiple items in a particular collection (remember, we’re dealing with the 30th one for the year) then the numbers 1 through whatever are assigned to each item and a full description (as above) is written for each item. (Example, 2021.30.1 – item 1 in this collection, 2021.30.2 – item 2 in this collection and so on.)

Each item is also assigned a storage location, be it a numbered box or a location in the Historic Village.

Spaces on the accession form are checked as to date received, who received it, who accessioned it, when data entry was done, and so on.

The items are marked with their collection number. Sometimes tags – metal or cardstock – are used, sometimes acid-free labels are used, sometimes a cardstock tag may be pinned with a brass safety pin to the label already attached to clothing, etc. All labels are rated suitable for archival use and therefore approved for museum use.

The item(s) are cleaned lightly, if needed, and placed in acid-free bags or wrapped in acid-free tissue or both, and put in their designated storage location. If they go in the Historic Village they are placed there.

The accession form and deed of gift are turned over for data entry – currently Donna Seilheimer, who is assisted by Office Manager Leah Richard.

Data entry is done using PastPefect, a well-known collection database system used by many museums. A thank-you, if needed, is generated.

The deed of gift and the accession form are filed. Deeds of gifts are kept until the item is de-accessioned, if it ever is.

The archives housed in the Depot are readily available, and there is much information to explore digitally by watching slide shows or accessing information at the Information Station. Specific collections housed in the storage area require an appointment.

Individuals wishing to donate or request a tour can contact info@vicksburghistory.org. or call 269-649-1733 and leave a message.

Longtime employees to run Mackenzies Vicksburg


Five months after Vicksburg native Chris Moore acquired the assets of Kalamazoo’s MacKenzie’s Bakery, the bakery, now called Mackenzies Vicksburg, has announced that two longtime Kalamazoo staffers, Jill Younger and Cris Najar, will run the new bakery.

Younger, the new production manager and a Portage resident, began her career at the bakery’s retail counter in 2000, learning the importance of taking care of customers. Jill progressed to her current role as production manager, where she leads a team of bakers. In her two decades helping to grow the company, Jill has welcomed a community of regulars and new customers through the doors.

Najar, the head baker, and a resident of Kalamazoo, is a skilled baker with a passion for incorporating art into pastry-making. He began his career in the culinary industry at a variety of restaurants in his hometown of Chicago before making the switch to baking. Cris began his career at Mackenzies Bakery in 2009 as a bench worker and expanded his skill set to become head baker. Cris is thrilled to return to the kitchen and continue serving specialty breads, where he puts his artistry into practice with intricate designs and flavors.

Mackenzies Vicksburg intends to open in early 2022 at 103 E. Prairie Street, in downtown Vicksburg.  The 1,700-square-foot location will serve as a kitchen and distribution facility, but the bakery may eventually offer retail products from a small storefront space.

Moore, rehabilitating the mill in a mixed-use development at the southwest side of the village, grew up enjoying Mackenzies baked goods and jumped at the chance to revitalize the brand and help bring more business into the area. Moore has said his vision is to create a “thriving Vicksburg;” placing the bakery outside of the Mill property was intentional.

“There is a lot to be determined regarding this transaction, but one thing is for sure, downtown Vicksburg is going to smell great with the aroma of Mackenzies bread,” Moore said. He resides in Seattle where he operates Concord Technologies and Old Stove Brewing but frequently visits Vicksburg.

MacKenzie’s Bakery ended operations at the end of 2020. The brand, web domain name and equipment were purchased soon after by Smutek. Moore’s Vicksburg leadership team, led by chief operating officer Jackie Koney, was approached by a mutual acquaintance who connected them to Smutek. An ongoing dialogue led to a deal to transfer ownership to Moore.

All equipment from the closed bakery was transferred to Vicksburg, where Koney’s team will work to complete renovation plans.

“We are looking to bring Mackenzies bread into stores and dining establishments across Southwest Michigan, so our immediate focus is to gear up for large-scale bread production,” said Koney. “Once we get settled, we’ll evaluate expanding product offerings and delivery channels.”

Mackenzies Vicksburg expects to share more information soon on its website, www.mackenziesbakery.com, about opening dates and product offerings.

Denney retires; Burr purchases vet practice

Dr. Matt Burr at left and Dr. Stacy Denney at right.

By Kathy Oswalt-Forsythe

After over 37 years in veterinary practice, Dr. Stacy Denney is retiring effective October 30. Dr. Denney grew up in Athens and attended Michigan State University, graduating in 1984. She worked as an associate veterinarian until 1988 when she opened her own veterinary practice, working out of her home and traveling to farms.

In 1994, she built the current home of Denney Veterinary Service in Vicksburg, saying she chose a small town because she could get to know her clients better.

Wendy Burr, current practice manager who has worked with Denney for 24 years, describes the retiring veterinarian as “the strongest, most determined person she has ever met.” This drive is clear in Denney’s desire to acquire further training and certification. She obtained a master’s degree from MSU in small business administration, became certified in equine breeding in 2004, and most recently became certified in animal acupuncture, massage, and herbal medicine. She currently lives in Fulton but is relocating to Arizona.

Dr. Denney sold Denney Veterinary Service on November 2, 2020 to a familiar face: Dr. Matt Burr. A life-long area resident, Burr worked as a veterinary technician for 11 years before graduating from Michigan State University in 2010. Burr choose veterinary medicine because he loves animals, but he also enjoys the variety and diversity of the job: “It’s never the same thing two days in a row.” He resides in Schoolcraft and is excited about becoming a practice owner. 

Dr. Burr said the community can expect the same level of care, similar hours, and an additional associate veterinarian in the future.

What do artists need?


By Alisha Siebers, Executive Director, Vicksburg Cultural Arts Center

What do artists need? To find out, I sat down with Cindy Krill in the spacious, airy historic barn at Prudential Nursery, built in 1915 for the nursery’s storage and shipping. Surrounded by Cindy’s beautiful horsehair pottery and accompanied by her friendly barn cats, Kiki and Susie, we thought about what fuels creativity and productivity.

This November will be the 30th anniversary of Cindy’s Annual Holiday Art Sale, so we reflected on how the annual sale and her art career have grown over the decades. When she started the sale, she created flyers and sold only her own work from her small barn. The next couple of years, she added her sister’s dried flowers and her sister-in-law’s quilts. Today, the sale features local artists’ work in woven and crocheted fiber arts, jewelry, stained glass, found metal sculpture, photography, paintings, and, of course, a wide range of pottery.

Cindy advised that, in order to create, you need a block of time. She explained that “the best thing for being creative is to carve out the time and to be dedicated to it.” She also noted that artists need patron support. Artists need to sell in order to buy more art supplies. Cindy remembers when she sold her first ceramic pieces: “It feels good that someone likes it enough to want to use it every day. Some people say they like it so much, they put it away in a cupboard to keep it safe. But they should use it!”

Community is also crucial for artists. Many of the artists who sell at Cindy’s sale have been her friends for decades. Cindy pointed out, “Community helps. You encourage and inspire each other: you’ll see something and think ‘Oh, that’s really cool’ or ‘I’m going to try that.’”

Cindy’s coterie of artists shared new techniques, went to workshops together, sold at the same shows, and even attended national ceramics conferences together. Today, now that their busy group doesn’t share studio space, the Annual Holiday Sale is their main way to reconnect and see what everyone is doing.

You’re invited to come out and see, too! Cindy’s cleaning up the barn right now to get ready for the 30th Annual Holiday Art Sale at Prudential Nursery, which will be held Saturday, November 6 from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Come join their community for the morning and get inspired, educated and enriched!

Vicksburg historic district nomination under review

Historian Cheri Szcodronski at work. Photo by Leeanne Seaver.

By Kathy Oswalt-Forsythe

Cheri Szcodronski, architectural historian and owner of Firefly Preservation Consulting, LLC, has completed her draft nomination and recommendation that a Vicksburg historic district be added to the National Register of Historic Places. She has submitted her draft to the National Register Coordinator at the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO).

Szcodronski was hired in 2019 by Paper City Development to research the architectural history of buildings in the village and to prepare the historic district nomination. The National Register program does not impose any regulations or restrictions on private property owners, and the program is used to determine eligibility for financial incentive programs. Michigan’s historic tax credit program was reinstated effective January 1, 2021, opening the opportunity for both state and federal tax credits to help with eligible building preservation of commercial and residential properties within the historic district.

This National Register nomination process is long and detailed.

After this initial review, SHPO’s coordinator will return the draft to Szcodronski, with edits and suggestions. Szcodronski will revise and return the draft, then wait to present the nomination during a meeting of the State Historic Preservation Review Board. This board meets in January, May, and September and gives final approval at the state level for all National Register nominations.

Public notice will be given to all property owners within the proposed historic district boundary no more than 30 days prior to the review board’s meeting. During the local public meeting, someone from SHPO will talk about the National Register program, Szcodronski will talk about her findings and the historic district nomination, and property owners and community members will have a chance to ask any questions they may have about the nomination.

Szcodronski will then present the nomination to the state review board, and once approved by that group, the SHPO staff will have 45 days to forward the nomination to the National Park Service, who will have 45 days after receiving the nomination to review it. 

So for now, Szcodronski’s waiting for the return of the first draft.

Watch for updates in November’s South County News.

Cedar waxwings: Year-round beauties

By Jeanne Church

The cedar waxwing is one of the prettiest birds I’ve ever photographed in Michigan. I love the buttery yellow color of their bellies, the bright yellow tip of their tails, and the crimson red highlights on their wings. But the one feature that really sets them apart is their distinctive black mask. Even the juvenile cedar waxwings, who have none of the other brilliant characteristics of their adult counterparts, have black masks.

The “cedar” part of cedar waxwing refers to their passion for cedar berries; the “waxwing” part refers to the red, wax-like drops on the tips of their wings that are the result of a diet based on berries rich in red pigments. The number of wax tips and their size increases as the bird gets older. Individuals with fewer waxy tips, say 0-5, are younger and those with 6-9 are older. The exact function of these tips is not really known, but they may play a part in attracting mates.

Cedar waxwings are one of the few North American birds that specialize in eating fruit. In fact, they can survive for several months at a time on fruit alone. This ability to survive on a diet consisting almost exclusively of berries has allowed the cedar waxwing to make it through our cold Michigan winters. In the warmer months, they will add insects, such as beetles, caterpillars and ants, to their diet.

Berry eating, however, is not just a source of nourishment for cedar waxwings, it also plays a part in their mating rituals. Courtship begins when a male dances for a female and gives her a piece of fruit, or flower petals, or insects. If the female is interested, the “gift” will be passed back and forth several times before she eventually eats it.

Fruit also plays a part in at least one of their social activities. Cedar waxwings will line up along a branch to pass a berry down from one bird to the next until one of them finally gulps it down. Occasionally, though, cedar waxwings will eat so much fruit that they become intoxicated or even die because the berries they consumed were overripe and starting to ferment!

In my search for more interesting facts about cedar waxwings, I was quite surprised to find that adult birds can fall prey to common grackles as well as bullfrogs! Also surprising was the fact that juvenile cedar waxwings and the eggs of cedar waxwings can be eaten by blue jays and house wrens! I had no idea that bullfrogs could even swallow a full-sized bird, or that a charming little house wren would have the temerity to eat the eggs of bigger bird!

In spite of those kinds of losses, cedar waxwing numbers have been increasing for many years, partly due to the use of berry-producing trees in landscaping and the conversion of agricultural land to forest. And cedar waxwings are protected under the U.S. Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

You can find cedar waxwings in a variety of habitats, from deciduous and evergreen woodlands to orchards, suburban parks, and backyards. My favorite spot for finding them has been the Wolf Lake State Fish Hatchery near pond number nine!

If you want to attract cedar waxwings to your yard, plant lots of berries! In the summertime, the best ones to choose are serviceberries, strawberries, mulberries, dogwood and raspberries. In the wintertime, you can’t go wrong with cedar berries, juniper, mountain ash, honeysuckle, crabapple and hawthorn.

Keep your eye out for these beautiful birds! They will be here all winter!

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New artists for Fall Prairie Ronde residency


By Kathy DeMott

One of the goals of the Prairie Ronde Artist Residency program is continuing to broaden Vicksburg’s vibrant art scene. “It’s very exciting to be engaged with different artists from all over the world, said the program Director John Kern. “As we wrap up our fourth year of the program, we are attracting high quality artists.”

The residency provides housing, a stipend and allows artists to spend four to seven weeks to create art that is inspired by Vicksburg and The Mill. Part of the agreement includes community engagement and leaving behind a tangible piece as part of the permanent collection of Prairie Ronde.

The October artists include Sandra Gibson and Luis Recoder of New York, who have been collaborating since 2000 as “expanded cinema artists.” With backgrounds in experimental film-making, they are known for their inventive re-purposing of obsolete cinematic materials such as 16 and 35 mm film, reels and projectors versus the actual camera. “With the introduction of digital video at the turn of the century, there is a gradual disappearance of the materiality of media,” Recoder said. Self described as “media archaeologists,” they work to discover the affinity of the past and present in their installation pieces. Discovering the industrial side of the Mill, its paper production and community will be their inspiration.

Gibson and Recoder have works in several major art museums, including the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. They have multiple awards and commissions including the Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center in Italy. They lecture in media departments at several universities and art residencies.

Another, Asante Amin, describes himself as an artist-musician, Hip Hop producer and educator, but most importantly, a healer who helps others create and tell their own stories. “I am here for the stories.” Amin has performed and conducted classes extensively at Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall and the Apollo Theater. He is the musical director and co-founder of Soul Science Lab. Its latest endeavor is a comprehensive show called Make a Joyful Noize, a documentary, visual album and arts curriculum, all working together to highlight the power and dimensions of black joy.

“I am looking forward to being in nature, hearing the rhythm of water and sounds specific to Vicksburg,” said Amin, a New Orleans native. “Coming to a more agricultural environment is not merely a luxury but a necessity to find some reprieve from the pressures and pace of the city, to make space to create.” He’s looking forward to connecting with the community, sharing life experiences and being inspired to create in the process.

Arriving November 1 from Pontiac, Jeff Schofield a sculptor and installation artist, uses found objects, natural materials, and discarded plastics to create large scale pieces.

“My multi-disciplinary artworks probe the intersections between sculpture, architecture, installation and land art to comment on humanity’s complicated relationship with nature.” Schofield creates environmental artworks which speak to sustainability and the visual aspects of climate change and the impact on the earth.

With a background in architecture, art training in Paris, and as art director for Gallery 76 in Dubai, diverse experience is part of his ongoing artistic development. His work has been exhibited in various galleries, public institutions, and hotels in New York, Paris, Rome and Dubai. “Attending artist residencies across the country offers different microclimates to explore local ecological narratives.” Schofield is also a forest therapy guide, a practice of immersing yourself in nature walks for health and wellness benefits, also known as “forest bathing.” He often incorporates this as part of his community engagement.

A Brooklyn-based orchestral-pop duo, Gracie and Rachel, fuses suspenseful baroque sounds with contemporary melodies. The lyrics are often autobiographical and speak of personal and relational tensions, societal issues, and self-empowerment. Gracie Coates, a singer-songwriter keyboardist, and Rachel Ruggles, a classically-trained violinist, met in high school in Berkeley, California. Their self-titled debut record was chosen as one of Bob Boilen’s Top 10 Albums on NPR Music, while the duo’s sophomore album, Hello Weakness You Make Me Strong, released last year on Ani DiFranco’s Righteous Babe Records, elicited an invite back for their second NPR Tiny Desk Concert as well as features with All Songs Considered and Strings Magazine.

The two are now embarking on their next chapter of sonic-exploration and look forward to being out of the urban setting to experience a rural community where they can be surprised by a fresh environment in which to create new textures and ideas.

Rachel said, “We want to push beyond our training and what we’ve done in the past and let our creative flag fly during our stay.”

To learn more about the Prairie Ronde Artist Residency, visit the website or social media for updates.