ST. JOSEPH — Val Hafer considers the term sand rabbit to be a badge of honor.
She feels this way so much that she decided to organize a reunion for all the former sand rabbits who grew up in the sandy community along Lake Michigan in St. Joseph.
“We wanted to see how many people we could get together,” Hafer said. “This is the first time we’re getting together.”
Hafer said more than 40 people plan on attending the reunion, which is set to take place on July 7 at Royalton Township Park.
The idea to hold a sand rabbit reunion came about when Hafer and her brother were talking about a friend who had died recently. The two struck up a conversation about the group of kids they hung out with throughout the summers.
“We were outside from sun up to sun down,” Hafer said. “We had Silver Beach and the amusement park back then. There were so many kids down there. We were just a group of kids who hung out and swam together. It’s not like that today.”
According to St. Joseph real estate agent Pete Jorgensen, sand rabbits was a nickname the Twin Cities community applied to the people who lived down where the sand blew onto the yard below the bluff.
“That’s where the poor folks in this community went to live,” he said. “The German immigrants that worked in the factories, would walk to work across the State Street Bridge that used to connect to the other side of St. Joseph.”
The term began sometime prior to World War II. Jorgensen first picked up on the moniker in the 1960s.
Jorgensen said the homes were built with substandard materials and design.
“We couldn’t save all of them,” Jorgensen said. “But the ones that were built following a building code, we could gut them and reconstruct them.”
Jorgensen said he grew up as a beach bum and was naturally drawn to the area despite the perception of the area.
In 1976, Jorgensen got his real estate license. He became sales manager at an agency a few years later and broke down portions of the Twin Cities area into sections. From there, he assigned them out to real estate agents who would do door-to-door sales pitches.
However, no one wanted to take the subdivision below the bluff that was referred to as the “ghetto by the beach.”
So, Jorgensen chose to represent the sand rabbit neighborhood himself.
Among the 144 properties down there, Jorgensen said he’s had a hand in selling more than half of them at some point over the last 40 years.
He also lived in the neighborhood from 1983 to 1993. He moved in after buying 810 Lions Park Drive for about $25,000.
After Jorgensen rebuilt a house along Lions Park Drive, appraisers began taking another look at the neighborhood below the bluff. Property values skyrocketed between the late 1980s and early 1990s.
In 2019, Jorgensen said it’s now for sale for $650,000.
Hafer grew up in a house along Vine Street.
Her parents sold the house in 1980 when they decided to move to Florida. The four-bedroom house that was close to the tracks sold for $40,000.
“If I knew then what I know now,” Hafer said. “Houses down there are now going for $700,000. But how could we know? We were in the slum area of St. Joe.”
Hafer has since visited the house that she once called her childhood home. It’s changed so much that it’s barely recognizable.
With the reunion less than a month away, Hafer is keeping herself busy by creating booklets from newspaper clippings for attendees.
Hafer’s efforts began in January, when she sent out feelers to former sand rabbits. She has since created a Facebook page and passed out flyers.
Anyone who wishes to attend is asked to email Hafer at firstname.lastname@example.org by June 23 to RSVP.
“We’re just going to see how it goes,” Hafer said when asked if she wants this to be an annual get together. “If we can get enough people, maybe we’ll do something every four or five years.”
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