The DeVries Nature Conservancy preserves the land and buildings that were once the home of veterinarian J.R. "Jack" DeVries and his wife, Frances. Their legacy allows the public to share in the land's seasonal beauty and take part in programs that explore the wildlife, geography, and history of rural Michigan. The story of DeVries is the story of Jack and Fran.
Jack was born Joseph Rinke DeVries in 1910. He was the paternal grandson of a farrier from the Netherlands and the maternal grandson of a French horse breeder. Jack spent much of his childhood with his grandparents and developed a passion for horses. He rode a chestnut gelding to school in Howell, Michigan, where he attended the ninth grade, and kept him in an old barn during class. After school he often rode out to the local fairgrounds, where there was a half-mile race track, to see the Standardbreds. He helped out the stable keepers and drivers with petty chores just to be around the horses. Eventually one of the drivers took a liking to him and gave him a book, the "Magnes Horse and Stock Book." He devoured it, reading all about how to take care of sick horses and livestock, and decided to become a veterinarian. His father, who worked as an auto engineer for Studebaker, didn't approve. He considered veterinary medicine a low-class profession and tried to force his will upon his son, but Jack had already made up his mind. He worked multiple jobs and saved his money to attend Michigan State's school of Veterinary Medicine. While he was a student there he married his classmate and high school sweetheart, Frances Louise Williams. Together, they established a modest veterinary practice in Owosso in 1936 that would provide veterinary services to the people of Shiawassee County and beyond for the next 44 years. The practice steadily grew along with his professional reputation, but even though his skills with show horses were eventually sought as far away as Virginia and Kentucky, he never left Owosso. In his spare time, Jack loved to ride horses and show them in competition; he was a member of the Michigan Horse Show Association and the American Saddle Horse Association of Michigan, and he won many awards and distinctions at horse shows throughout the 1940s and '50s. He passed away in 2001.
Fran was born Frances Williams in Howell, Michigan, in 1911. Her upbringing was far different from Jack's; she was the daughter of a prosperous businessman, Harry Williams, and his wife, Lucy Mae (Chapel). Her childhood was privileged. She was always dressed in beautiful clothes, and her summers were spent memorably at the family cottage on Lake Chemung. It was there, where she swam, sailed, and fished with her father, that her lifelong love of the water was born; in their later lives the DeVrieses would install an indoor pool in their house for Fran, and she would swim in it nearly every day. She met Jack in ninth grade and took a special interest in him, the boy who rode a horse to school. Her interest quickly grew into affection, and when Jack's family moved away they kept in touch by mail, staying close despite lives that seemed to be going different ways. After graduating from high school, Fran's father took her on a European tour, and in France she developed an interest in the French language, deciding to study it at Michigan State. While a student there she reconnected with Jack, and they picked up right where they had left off. They were a curious couple, Fran the privileged and fun-loving social creature, Jack the modest auto worker's son and veterinary student, but their bond was strong. They got married while Jack was still a student. Fran's plan was to teach French, but an unfortunate student-teaching experience with an older woman who disapproved of her lighthearted teaching style steered her into social work instead. She worked for Livingston County, often up to 80 hours a week, until Jack graduated. She knew he would need a lot of help to get his practice off the ground, so she took up the business end by handling reception and bookkeeping. Veterinary work was hard to make profitable in those days, and without the business acumen she had picked up from her father the practice might not have survived. She even assisted him with surgical operations when necessary. They made a great team, and their hard work eventually paid off. In her free time Fran enjoyed riding with Jack, but she also loved music; she played several instruments and sang regularly. The love of animals that she shared with Jack was expressed most clearly through her instrumental work in establishing the Shiawassee Humane Society. She passed away in 2004.
Words can only do so much to help us understand who Jack and Fran really were, but the story of their lives is told in more than words. It's told in full through the legacy they leave behind. Their virtues and their values live on in everything we do here at the DeVries Nature Conservancy: their love of nature and all living things, their warmth, generosity, hospitality, and above all their passion for this community, all these things run through our walls and along our trails. They inspire our programs and activities. Their mission is our mission, and our mission is their gift to all of us. So come and see what we have to offer, to walk, run or hike, to work, to play, to garden, to learn from us or teach others what you know. It's what Jack and Fran would have wanted.