Celebrating a sweet century

Former Michigan Sugar Company grower Chet Leppek turns 100

Former Michigan Sugar Company grower, Chet Leppek, celebrates his 100th birthday on Monday, April 16, 2018.

By Rob Clark | rob.clark@michigansugar.com

This letter from Michigan Sugar Company, sent in 1960, informed Chet Leppek he had grown the largest sugarbeet in 1959. The beet weighed in at 22.5 pounds.

RUTH, MICHIGAN – On March 3, 1960, a little more than one month before his 42nd birthday, Chester “Chet” Leppek received a letter from Russell S. Wait, a field manager for Michigan Sugar Company working out of Croswell.

“Dear Chet,” the letter began. “I would like to take this opportunity of congratulating you on the delivery of the largest sugar beet at Port Hope under the 1959 ‘LARGE BEET CONTEST.’ In fact this was the largest beet delivered at the Croswell Plant.”

Leppek’s 22 ½-pound sugarbeet that year won him 100 pounds of sugar, but did not come with recognition at the company’s annual meeting.

Change was in the air.

“This is the last year the ‘LARGE BEET CONTEST’ will be held …” the letter continued. “The reason for this is that the Company has found that beets of this size generally do not have as high a sugar content as the smaller beet. With this in mind, every effort is being made to grow a larger number of beets per acre.”

To this day, that letter remains in Leppek’s possession – a proud keepsake from his days on the farm and a reflection of the many changes he has been witness to over the past century, especially those pertaining to agriculture and technology.

‘The years fly by’

Leppek was born April 16, 1918, in the small Huron County community of Parisville, near Ruth. He was schooled through the eighth grade in a one-room school house about a mile and a half from his home. Leppek Road, which runs into Parisville, is named for his uncle, Walter Leppek, who owned the hotel and bar in town and frequently put up visiting pheasant hunters for the night.

Clara and Frank Leppek, Chet’s parents.

The son of Frank and Clara Leppek, Chet grew up on a farm along with his brother Ira, sister Vivian and half-brother Tyrus Mzyk. Frank Leppek was in the threshing business and lived to be 92 years old. Clara Leppek lived to be 87 and Vivian, who lives in Ubly, is set to celebrate her 99th birthday in July.

To help put Chet Leppek’s life into perspective, the day of his birth is the same day the Bolsheviks, under the leadership of Vladimir Lenin, executed Czar Nicholas II and his family in Yekaterinburg, Russia, bringing an end to the three-century Romanov Dynasty.

Also on that date, the United States Congress passed the Sedition Act, a law that, according to history.com, “imposed harsh penalties on anyone found guilty of making false statements that interfered with the prosecution of the war; insulting or abusing the U.S. government, the flag, the Constitution or the military; agitating against the production of necessary war materials; or advocating, teaching or defending any of these acts.”

The act was repealed by Congress in 1921.

Chet Leppek takes a “selfie” with Rob Clark of Michigan Sugar Company.

Fast-forward 10 decades, and Leppek looks on in amazement as a reporter sits with him at his kitchen table looking up these facts about his birthdate on a smartphone. Later, he is astonished that same device can take a photo called a “selfie,” for which he eagerly poses.

“The years fly by,” he says.

‘Sugarbeets paid the bills’

Martha (Grifka) Leppek and Chet Leppek

After spending his youth working on his family farm, Chet Leppek married Martha Grifka, a farm girl from Michigan’s Thumb, in 1940 at St. John’s Church in Ubly. They had met as teenagers at a local dance hall, an activity they continued for years to come. The Hungry Four band from Bay City played at their wedding.

The couple had four children – Nancy, born in 1941; Tom in 1944; Carol in 1946; and Doug in 1950. The family grew over the years to include four grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.

Martha died on Oct. 15, 2016, at age 98, just 11 days before the couple would celebrate its 76th wedding anniversary.

The Leppek farm is seen in this aerial view of Sigel Township, near Parisville, Michigan

In 1947, the Leppeks started their own farm in Sigel Township near Parisville. They grew hay, wheat, oats, navy beans and corn and had some livestock as well. Chet affectionately gives much of the credit for the farm’s success over the years to his wife.

“She was half the farm,” he said.

In 1952, Chet Leppek began growing sugarbeets for Michigan Sugar Company and he later served on the Grower Board from 1964 to 1984, stepping down shortly after selling his farm to the Maurer family.

As a kid, Chet had used a horse and plow on the family farm. When he started on his own, he said he used a one-row McCormick beet harvesting machine.

“If I dug 50 tons per day that was a good day,” he said. “Now, they do that in 15 minutes.”

At the height of his operation, Leppek grew 40 acres of sugarbeets on his 300-acre farm. He said he averaged about 10 to 20 tons per acre.

Chet Leppek’s hands saw many years of working on the farm.

“Sugarbeets paid the bills,” he said. “The rest of the crops took care of all the other stuff.”

Highlights of Leppek’s life of farming dot his memory to this day:

Like a period of time in the 1960s when Michigan Sugar Company tried to drum up additional interest in growing sugarbeets out in the Thumb.

“We needed to keep the Croswell plant open,” Leppek recalls.

And the 1980 growing season.

“It was a year of tremendous rains,” he said. “We had lots of water in the fields. We left some beets in the ground that year.”

Through it all, Leppek said he really enjoyed farming.

“It was hard … a lot of work,” he said. “There were good and bad years, but overall it was very rewarding.”

Chet Leppek stands inside a pole barn he built on his former farm in Huron County.

Celebrating a century

On his birthday this year, Chet Leppek will have been alive for 36,515 days. He has lived through the Roaring ’20s, the Great Depression, World War II, the birth of rock and roll, the Civil Rights Movement, and the dawn of the age of technology.

Wearing his Pioneer Sugar hat, Chet Leppek stands outside his home in Parisville.

What’s the secret to a long life?

“You’ll have your ups and downs,” he says. “There’s no secret but to keep active … and three meals per day.”

Small and large gatherings were planned to celebrate Leppek’s 100th birthday.

He celebrated with his closest family and friends on Saturday, April 14. The “big party” is planned for Saturday, June 23, at the Knights of Columbus Council 1546 Hall in Bad Axe, where Leppek is an honorary member.

“Everybody’s invited,” joked Debbie Leppek, Chet’s daughter-in-law.

Chet Leppek sits at his kitchen table with a painting of “The Last Supper” done by his wife Martha behind him.

Sitting in his kitchen under a painting of The Last Supper that his wife painted by numbers some years ago, Leppek reflects on how he intends to spend the days ahead.

He’ll probably play some cards – Euchre is his favorite game – and he’ll likely remain as active as possible at St. Isidore Parish in Ruth, where he is an honorary member of the Usher’s Club.

But there’s one other activity on his to-do list that might surprise you.

“I started golfing at age 65 and the game really got into me,” Leppek says as a little sparkle enters his eyes. “If the good Lord lets me, I’ll get out there again this season.”