By Rosemary Parker - Updated Jan 20, 2019; Posted Jun 22, 2015
COLOMA, MI -- No more train rides through the trees, nor feeding fish in a fountain and deer in a forest. No more patting baby animals or posing for funny photographs to remember a family vacation.
Though highway billboards and its Facebook page remain intact, Deer Forest didn't open this season, its telephone has been disconnected and later this month a Kalamazoo-based online auction house is listing for sale the 32-acre tourist attraction.
The animals that once helped attract thousands of tourists are already gone, purchased by a group of locals last summer and placed for adoption by a former Coloma pet store owner. Only an errant peacock that escaped capture may still roam the grounds that once served as sanctuary for hundreds of exotic deer, farm animals and other intriguing species.
According to background information posted on Biddergy.com, the land at 6800 Indian Lane in Coloma Township is zoned for commercial use and has a 2015 state equalized value -- half of the market value -- of $245,700. Property taxes in 2014 totaled $9,381.
Bidding begins at 8 a.m. June 29, and ends at 8 p.m. the same day, according to the website.
If the property is sold, and the park is not reopened, one of the area's long-standing treasures may come to a quiet end. Deer Forest opened in 1949.
Kevin Koehler, who stopped by Wednesday to snap a selfiie near the Deer Forest gates, remembers going there every summer as a child. On his way to Chicago from Ontario, Koehler took the Coloma exit off of I-94 to grab a few pictures of the park, he said, and was sorry to find it closed. He first visited the park when he was about 4 years old.
"My family has been going to the Paw Paw Lake area every summer since the 1940s," he said. "Most of my family still lives in Chicago."
During their summer stay in Michigan, "the whole family would would go to Deer Forest, and the movie theater and the Sugar Shack in Paw Paw," he said.
Although the attraction of patting deer, playing putt putt golf and riding the miniature train began to wane as he got older, Koehler has very fond memories of Deer Forest and the surrounding area. He said that when he told his mother about the park's closure, she told him her family was going there before she was born in 1947.
Ross Streu's family ran Deer Forest in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and his father had a unique method for screening potential summer employees, Streu said.
"Every spring my dad would contact Coloma and Watervliet schools and have them announce that Deer Forest was taking applications," he said. More than 100 job applications would flood in and work began the week of spring break.
The job was to rake and do general cleanup on the entire park.
"The first day there were probably 40-plus kids hired," Streu said. "As you can imagine, that leaf raking from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. isn't a lot of fun for teenagers. So by the end of the week usually about half quit or just didn't show up for work. The remaining crew worked over the summer."
Chana Kniebes, community development coordinator for the Coloma Watervliet Area Chamber of Commerce, has lived in Coloma since she was born in 1962.
Deer Forest was an important part of her childhood, she said. She went there first for school field trips when she attended Washington Elementary School. After she married, she accompanied her own three daughters on their end-of-school-year outings there.
The highlight of her visits was not feeding the deer, but riding the train that once ran through the park.
"I actually used to be a little frightened of the reaction of the deer," Kniebes said. "When you were holding a cone full of deer food they ran up so quickly to eat out of your hand -- but it was a fun experience."
Kniebes said that during her 15 years at the Coloma Watervliet Chamber of Commerce she has fielded many calls from people asking about Deer Forest or sharing childhood memories of their visits.
"A few years ago when we moved our chamber office to a roomier location I started collecting souvenirs from Deer Forest that I display in my office because it is part of our history," she said.
She still has the elephant-shaped key used to activate the audio for the displays on Storybook Lane.
The train, ferris wheel and other items were sold at auction a few years ago.
Since then, "it has just been a matter of the owners trying to make it work and trying to keep it open," Kniebes said.
The animals that were once the prime attraction of the park are gone now, too. Lizabeth Ter Meer, a former pet store owner in Coloma, is attempting to find homes for the final few.
Last summer, Ter Meer purchased 38 animals in all, using money raised by a group of animal advocates who launched a GoFundMe site to help the animals they feared would die or be sold at auction, Sheila LoPresti said. LoPresti launched the fundraising effort after picketing Deer Forest late last summer to draw attention to the condition of the animals there.
"I have gone to Deer Forest my whole life, and I have watched it deteriorate," she said. LoPresti said the current property owners were not doing anything to improve the site after the iconic train and other amusement park rides and features had been salvaged or sold.
Complaints about neglect and abuse of animals were detailed in a story about Deer Forest's decline in the November 10, 2013 edition Crain's Detroit Business, and federal agents seized the malnourished deer herd.
Ter Meer brokered the purchase of the animals with the money raised by donations and hauled the animals to her own land, seven acres near Coloma.
"She's the hero," LoPresti said. "She cared for them and kept them safe until they could find forever homes."
The animals included horses, a pony, a tree frog in a tank, a 15-foot python, a 5-foot iguana, one emu, peacocks, 12 chickens, three wild Mongolian Asses, a British Labrador dog and a cat.
"One Belgian (horse) looked like a skeleton, and we were afraid we would have to have her euthanized," Ter Meer said. But the mare fattened up nicely when separated from the other animals, and recently was adopted, along with the Shetland pony, by a zoo keeper, she said.
Ter Meer will keep the emu.
The two wild Mongolian Asses remain available for adoption but they are proving difficult to place, Ter Meer said. They chew board fences, and she has had to treat her own fences with a mixture of oil and hot pepper to try to curb the destruction.
Derek Rizor, sales manager for Biddergy.com, said that although the listing shows six parcels of land, the starting bid of $75,000 "is for the whole property, for the whole shebang."
"It's all or nothing," he said. That includes the land and a campground, picnic tables, a miniature golf course, coin-operated informational speakers for attractions such as Storybook Lane, small carousel-type rides and a variety of outbuildings.
"We have had some calls, out of Chicago area and locally, and I'm working on times for showing the property," Rizor said.
He said all properties will be sold "as is, where is" with no warranties.
The Biddergy website recommends that potential buyers inspect all properties before placing any bids. A deposit of 10 percent of the purchase price or $5,000, whichever is greater, is generally required.
Rosemary Parker is a reporter for the Kalamazoo Gazette and MLive.com.