MANISTIQUE, MI (Detroit Free Press) — The millionaire opened his barn door and was greeted by the clucks of a thousand chickens.
Jeff LaBar walked into his chicken coop, gathered the eggs that had been laid overnight and brought them into the house to wash them by hand, one at a time, before packing them up and driving them to the few local supermarkets that are LaBar Poultry Farm's loyal customers.
Earlier that morning, the 53-year-old had gotten off his 12-hour overnight shift at the local lime plant, a second job he took awhile back to make ends meet. He napped for a few hours as the sun rose, and then got up to work with his wife, Heidi LaBar, on their chicken farm.
It was like any other day. Even though it didn't have to be anymore.
Just a few months ago, his house was in foreclosure. His chicken farm had few customers. He worked constantly. Then one day, on the way to work, he stopped at the gas station in town, grabbed the Lotto47 form, penciled in the numbers 14-18-23-28-37-40, and forgot about it.
A few days later, word spread around this town of about 3,000 — small by downstate standards, pretty big by Up North ones — that someone way up here in Manistique had hit it big and won the $3.3-million jackpot in the May 21 drawing.
LaBar didn't think anything of it.
"My brother flagged me over when I was getting out here to do chores and he said, 'Did you know someone in town hit the lottery? … You should check your tickets.' "
Next time Jeff was in the house and remembered to look, he glanced at his lottery slip.
Instantly, this Up North, home-foreclosed, two-job-working chicken farmer was a millionaire.
"I found out it was me and totally I just dropped to my knees," he said. "Literally, I just prayed right there. I'm a born-again Christian, but I still played tickets and stuff, cause everybody needs a break."
He collected his winnings. Then he went right back to work.
Out of prison
Jeff and Heidi live in a house built onto an old barn just off a two-lane rural road. His mom's little house is next door. His brother lives across the street.
He's unassuming and polite, looks younger than his age and speaks with a distinct Yooper accent. His demeanor is humble.
It's a trait he developed while trying to rebound after years of getting into trouble. He was raised in Manistique, served a few years in the Navy, then came back home and became a drug user, then a drug dealer, then an inmate when he got caught and was sentenced to 10-20 years in prison. He was released after seven.
When he got out, few people wanted anything to do with him.
"Everybody turned away," he said. "My family — my brother and my mom and my dad — were pretty much the only ones that stood by me and were there for me as much as they could be. But all the people who were all my so-called friends never talked to me."
But he was a changed man, he said. He'd become religious. He sobered up. Kept out of trouble. Worked hard. Met Heidi in church and married her.
And he started his own chicken farm, something he had wanted since he was a kid, when he watched his mom raise a few birds for the family.
He loves his chickens. During good times and bad times, they've been the one reliable constant he's had.
"I've always liked chickens," he said. "And I said I'd just like to do that for a living. But up here, we're so far from any populace or anywhere that would buy the needed amount to sustain or to make a living, so it's never really panned out."
His luck always seemed bad. He got a job as a lineman for an electric company, then got hit by a truck on the job. When he recovered, the company let him go.
He fell behind on his high-interest mortgage and was on the verge of losing his house.
Even when his fortunes seemed to be changing, they really weren't. This spring, he'd bought a lottery ticket and misread the results, and thought he'd won a million dollars. He and the store clerk were jumping up and down in excitement.
Then they realized he'd won only $100. "I thought I saw a lot more zeros," he admitted.
But he kept buying tickets. Two weeks later, everything changed.
Too scared to change
"At first I was like, 'Oh my goodness, you can quit your job!' cause that's what he really wanted to do,' " said Heidi, 59. "But he's always been a worker, so chances are he'll always be working. I can't see him not having chickens. He just lives and breathes them."
Jeff admits he is too scared to change how he lives.
"I never had money to invest," he said. "So I don't know anything about that, like I'm totally lost about that. It's just such a big step to trust somebody with investing that money. And then quit your job that you already have and everyone likes you and you're doing halfway decent with that …"
The couple opted for the lump-sum payment, which brought their earnings down to $2.1 million. Taxes cut that remainder nearly in half. But it's still a lot of money for a guy who had so little of it for so long.
"It was just a relief to know that we have security in retirement now that we never had before," Heidi said. "It's wonderful."
They went to the lottery office, taking along their toy poodle Bailey because he's part of the family, too, and smiled as they were given an oversize novelty check. They've still got it in their house.
There were no big parties, no expensive toys, no long trips. The only two indulgences the couple allowed themselves were to take a family vacation to Florida to see relatives, and a golf cart Jeff bought because he thought it would make it easier for his wife to haul eggs from the barn up to the house instead of walking.
Otherwise, life goes on as it did before.
Jeff takes care of his farm, works at the lime plant all night, naps a few hours, then starts the cycle over.
On top of that, he has a car-detailing business on the farm. And his wife has her own home business, Manistique Upholstery, fixing people's pickup seats. Like a lot of people in the U.P., where there aren't a whole lot of places to work, they have different jobs during different seasons, hoping all of them add up to a decent living.
Everything is different for them, and yet nothing really is. Except now, Jeff's free to be what he always wanted to be — just an Up North chicken farmer.
"I prayed for years and years and years for some type of turnaround, a blessing somehow," Jeff said. "I don't care if I'm filthy rich, but ... maybe get it so I don't need to be going to work at that lime plant. Make it so I can get out of there and just do my farming."