FLINT, Michigan, 2018 – Nearly four decades have passed, but Todd Bakos still remembers the flutter of nerves he felt the very first time he set foot on the storied grounds of Applewood Estate.
He was 16, still in high school, and had high hopes of being hired as part of the landscaping crew at the historic Flint home of the late automotive pioneer Charles Stewart Mott.
After asking to speak to the estate director, Bakos detoured through the magnificent gardens before finding his way to a truck and trailer that had just arrived, dripping with fresh manure. Despite the messy distraction, the young Bakos introduced himself, inquired about work opportunities, and explained that he had a great passion for landscaping.
He didn’t get an answer right then, but to his surprise the estate director called the very next day and asked if he could start immediately. In retrospect, he should have guessed what his very first task would be: Hauling and spreading that truckload of wet, stinky manure.
“That was my initiation,” Bakos says now with a laugh. “I had to move all that manure by myself with a pitchfork in the Rose Garden. After all that, I still came back to work the next day.”
Thirty-seven years later, Bakos is still working at Applewood Estate, and he has recently been promoted to his dream job. The Ruth Mott Foundation appointed him Director of Estate Operations to succeed Deb Elliott, who retired after 39 years at Applewood.
To spend a lifetime employed at one location is rare, but that’s not so at Applewood, where several staff worked for the Mott family and have decades of experience at the estate. Bakos will be one of the first to tell you it’s because Applewood is a special place.
“It’s a beautiful place. It’s a peaceful place. It’s a place where history was made. It’s a place where horticulturists love practicing their art,” said Bakos, of Linden. “There are so many roots here – deep ones that have had an impact on our country. Why wouldn’t you want to spend all that time here?”
As Director of Estate Operations, Bakos is a senior member of the Ruth Mott Foundation’s staff. In this role, he will oversee and coordinate maintenance of Applewood, including the gardens and grounds, security and facilities.
Ruth Mott Foundation President Raquel Thueme said Bakos’ knowledge of the grounds and its needs is encyclopedic.
“Todd’s innovative ideas and creative and colorful landscapes illustrate his desire to showcase Applewood as a welcoming community resource, just as Ruth Mott intended,” she said. “He has spent a significant portion of his lifetime carrying out our founder’s wishes and has demonstrated himself to be an experienced and dedicated steward of Applewood’s resources.”
Bakos is the latest director in a long line of Applewood caretakers. The position has roots dating back to Applewood’s earliest days, when the Mott family hired staff to manage the gardens and grounds. When C.S. Mott’s wife, Ruth Mott – the last person to live at Applewood – passed away in 1999, ownership of the historic estate was transferred to the Ruth Mott Foundation and staff became employees of the Foundation.
The Ruth Mott Foundation still operates the estate today as a historic site open to the public, and the meticulously tended grounds, trees and gardens are a main attraction during Applewood’s open season from May through October.
Bakos started working at Applewood in 1981, long before it was no longer a private residence and seven years before the most recent member of the full-time horticulture staff was even born. He started as a part-time gardener and climbed the ranks with his commitment to his work, taking on various roles that included Lower Garden Manager, Upper Lawn Horticulturist and, for the past eight years, Operations Project Manager.
Bakos says his love for landscaping began when he was young, taking charge of the family yard and other outdoor responsibilities.
“I took a special love in the lawn,” he said. “I wanted to have the best lawn in the neighborhood and I would try to do different things to maintain the yard and make it look better than everybody else’s.”
He even went as far as manually digging trenches with a shovel to install his own sprinkler system.
“I love being outside and working outside,” he said. “It’s visually satisfying. It’s making beautiful things.”
Bakos carries with him many special memories from the 18 years he worked for Ruth Mott, or “Mrs. Mott,” as staff refer to her. Bakos would often drive her to events or to run errands, and she was a very cautious passenger who didn’t like to go through yellow lights or travel at more than 25 miles per hour. Her directions were always firm, but gentle, he said.
Mrs. Mott attended his wedding and his college graduation, and was always quick to inquire about his children. She meant so much to the Bakos family that when his first child was born, their first stop on the way home from the hospital was to Applewood so that Mrs. Mott could share in their joy.
She was truly a genuine person who treated everyone with respect regardless of their status, he said.
“I don’t want to disappoint her,” Bakos said. “She knew my passion and I want to see her vision and her dreams and her hopes for Applewood become a reality. This is personal to me.”