TRAVERSE CITY — There’s a good chance you’ll find at least one barn while driving around Garfield Township.
Clara Moon noticed them too.
Her life in Traverse City started during the Spanish flu and ended amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.
The art she spent her life crafting, though, is timeless.
Moon documented the agricultural lifestyle that the Grand Traverse Region thrived on for decades with thousands of paintings. She spent her nights when she was young at the Northwest Michigan Fair showing her artwork and selling the crops she brought to life on the family’s self-sustained farm.
Her family members say she didn’t just appreciate agriculture, she wanted to preserve what the way of life meant to her, for others for years to come.
“She’s painted practically every barn up in rural northern Michigan,” said Sally Eichenberger, Clara’s daughter. “She would paint all the barns, whether they were falling down or they were in good shape.”
Sally says Clara was initially self taught when it came to art, then took classes when she moved to Detroit in the 1940s. At that point, she began to teach others about watercolor painting.
“Her art was making beauty of what was just around you,” Sally said. “As the seasons changed, she would talk about shadows and light and what was growing at the time, or what was not growing anymore. It was just everything she saw through her own eyes.
“When she was a kid she’d look out at the fields and and look at the grains, kind of the ways they go back and forth. She wanted to paint that and draw that and it’s something she wanted to do one day as a kid and she looked at it that way back then.”
Ralph Moon, Clara’s youngest son, thinks her art served a bigger purpose.
He said Clara recognized that the rural northwest Michigan lifestyle she was raised on would not stay forever.
It didn’t take many years for her guess to be right.
“The barns for instance, that occupy the Grand Traverse Mall — that was a huge farm at one time,” Ralph said. “She recognized that with growth, that these farms would be converted to either developments or to commercial enterprises.”
She’d display her work at the fair as a child, then in local galleries as she became more well known in the community. The fair for Clara in the early 20th century, however, didn’t feature fudge, bright lights and Ferris wheels.
Clara didn’t leave the farm much during the winter; there were no cars to venture into town.
So Clara would tell Sally stories of her having picnics at the fair in the summer, seeing it as the center of the community. It was the time of year where she’d see friends, neighbors and people that lived in town that she didn’t see all winter.
“It was a big deal,” Sally said. “It was a community gathering that reacquainted each other with everybody at the end of the summer.”
That lifestyle is one today’s Traverse City may not fully understand.
“There’s been four or five generations of kids that have been raised in the Traverse City area that won’t even relate to agriculture then and the circumstances that were prevalent when she was in elementary school and junior high,” Ralph said.
“I think it was an effort to sustain that way of life through paintings.”
Clara Fromholz Moon passed away during the early morning hours of June 26 at age 102 at her home overlooking East Grand Traverse Bay on Traverse City’s Old Mission Peninsula — on land where her late husband Bill Moon’s family had tilled the soil for generations.
Ralph sat beside his mother the day before she died.
“Thank you for being a great mom,” he said.