The Joys of Historical Research: A Mysterious Grave in Yuba City

by Julie Schopieray

Unless you are already aware of its existence, or happen to pull off the highway on a little side road that was once a part of the old highway, you’d never know it was there. A small gravestone stands alone under a large pine tree, just off US-31 near the ghost town of Yuba in Acme township, Grand Traverse County. It belongs to two-year- old William Leith, who died in February 1859.

This lone little grave has stirred much curiosity, including mine. Its solitary status has led to assumptions about its origin, which has resulted in stories designed explain it . After seeing this gravestone, I too wanted to know about it.

Obituary of William Leith, from the "Grand Traverse Herald," 1859.
Obituary of William Leith, from the “Grand Traverse Herald,” 1859.

Starting with just an internet search, I found one author who reported that this was “the oldest known Caucasian grave in the northwestern region of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula.” Another website gave an account of the family traveling in a wagon train through the area when their son became sick and died. They buried him along the road and even with their grief, had to continue on their journey.

This particular tale raised the question: Why would anyone be traveling in a wagon train in Northern Michigan in the middle of the winter? It did not seem likely.

My next step was to search digitized issues of the Grand Traverse Herald. The search brought up three hits with the name Leith. The first was from Dec. 1858, which described a very large chicken belonging to Mr. Crawford Leith, a resident of Whitewater. The second was an obituary for William Leith, the son of Crawford and Elizabeth Leith, who died of scarlet fever. The date matched the gravestone exactly. (The third hit was in April, 1859 with election results mentioning Mr. Leith running for commissioner of highways—he lost the election).

Leith family, ca. 1880. Image courtesy of Leith family ancestors.

My curiosity then took me to the county deeds office to check just where this family lived. I knew that in 1859, this area of the county at Yuba was still called Whitewater. My first thought was that when Willie died, he was buried on their own property, which was a common practice at the time, especially since there was no established cemetery nearby. [The Yuba cemetery, across the highway from this grave, wasn’t established until 1904.]

Vincent Crawford Leith purchased 160 acres in Section 26 of what is now Acme Township. The dates on the land records were a bit confusing. The land grant was dated 15 August 1862, but on the very next page of the liber was a warranty deed where Mr. Leith sold this same property to a Mr. Price in Aug. 1859. It may be that the transaction took place much earlier, but was just not recorded until 1862.

Strangely, the spot where Willie is buried is not the property the Leiths owned. Since Willie died in the winter, a burial may have been delayed until the spring.

Now I had more questions than answers: What did they do with his body until the ground thawed? When the Leiths moved to Ohio later that year, did they have someone place the stone for them, and if so, did those people put the stone on the wrong spot? Why would Willie be buried on property they didn’t own and so near the road?

A thorough search of the 1860 Federal Census shows no sign of Mr. Leith or his family, although I suspect they moved to Allen County, Ohio after their property was sold in 1859. They may have been traveling during the census, and were not counted.

Mr. Leith volunteered and served as a musician in the 118th Ohio Infantry from September 1862, until the end of the Civil War. They spent the next 45 years in Allen County, Ohio. Basic genealogical research shows that this is indeed Willie’s family.

Willie Leith’s gravestone. Image courtesy of the author, captured in the summer of 2011.

There is a romantic feel to the legends that have evolved around this stone. The statement that it is the oldest known grave in the region may be true. It can be documented that others died in the area before this, but grave locations are either unknown, unrecorded, or were later moved.

The reason for the location of the solitary little grave remains unanswered. The truth however, is that this little boy’s family were area residents for a few years, not just passing through. The fact that the child is separated from the rest of his family, is a reality which pulls at the heartstrings of those who see the stone. The little boy’s resting place has been lovingly cared for over the years. The stone has been broken in several spots, but an anonymous person has made a gallant effort to cement the fragments together to keep it in one piece. Artificial flowers and small trinkets surround the stone, left by kind-hearted, nameless visitors.

Julie Schopieray is a local author and history buff, who enjoys debunking local historical myths.

Bruce Catton Historical Awards Reception Celebrated Students April 8th

The Ninth Annual Bruce Catton Historical Award Reception was held at Mills Community House on Wednesday, April 8th.   Families of the freshman authors and community residents came to honor the young authors and their teachers, Ms. Rebecca Hubbard, English teacher, and Mr. Dave Jackson, history teacher who inspired the authors. The students were assigned to write about a special event in their life, trying to create a memorable experience that would delight an audience. The readings given by ten adult readers proved the students had succeeded. Similar to Bruce Catton’s memoirs that included many of his life experiences as he grew up in Benzie County during the early years of the 20th century (WAITING FOR THE MORNING TRAIN), the students included many descriptive details in essays that reminded their audience of similar experiences in their own lives. The final reader of the program, Bob McNabb, mentioned how many essays related to the wonderful waters that are such a big part of the lives of Benzie residents.

The students who were honored as the Top Ten Authors were: Sam Buzzell (Snow Day on Cliff Face), Gabe Johnson (Days Off), Shianne Knoch (Walking in the Footsteps of the Past), Peggy Morrow (Simple Things) Emily Perkins (A Pluviophile’s Dream) Genevieve Pomerleau, (What Goes Up Must Come Down,) Matthew Stefanski (A Cold Day on Lockhart Field) Keziah Stockdale (The Incident) Olivia Tomaszewsi (Fudgie to Local) , Bowen Stoops (Dredging).

Steve Elrick, President of the Mills Board of Directors, assisted Kay Bos, (Coordinator of the Awards) with presenting the awards. The First Place winner was Genevieve Pomerleau, Shianne Knoch took Second Place, and Third Place was awarded to Sam Buzzell. All students were presented with certificates for participating in the contest.

Shianne Knoch: 2nd Place, Genevieve Pomerleau:1st Place, Sam Buzzell: 3rd Place
Shianne Knoch: 2nd Place, Genevieve Pomerleau:1st Place, Sam Buzzell: 3rd Place

Members of the Mills Board of Directors served refreshments at the end of the program.

Deep appreciation to Kay Bos for the article, photographs, and for encouraging our children to be excellent in all they strive towards. Thank you also to Stewart A. McFerran for the header image, taken at the Bruce Catton Award Reception on April 8, 2015. On the far right is Kay Bos, Coordinator of the Bruce Catton Awards, then Steve Elrick, President of the Mills Board of Directors, with student winners.

Courthouse Bell Set to Ring, but how old is the building?

If you’ve missed the peals of the great bell at the historic Grand Traverse County Courthouse as much as your editors have, you’ll be pleased to know that we once again have a bell to be proud of!

A Restore the Bell rededication ceremony will be held this Saturday May 2, starting at 11:15am at the Courthouse building, corner of Boardman and Washington. The bell will ring for the first time since 2008 at noon. Please gather at the north lawn and bring your own chairs. Event is free and open to the public, and will include a number of speakers.

Preservation is all about Perseverance and Patience; Grand Traverse Journal salutes the success of that fine group of citizens who got the bell ringing again!

So here’s this month’s mystery: What decade was the Courthouse built?

Perhaps you’ll attend the ceremony and find out!

Image courtesy of photographer Jimmy Emerson,

Ornate Lightning Rod is a Mystery No More!

An ornate lightning rod appears in Traverse City on a building that was formerly a church. It now serves a different function entirely. Do our readers know on what building or street this lightning rod can be found?

The lightning rod appears on one of the two churches that make up the Probate Court building on Washington Street behind the Park Place.  At the turn of the twentieth century the lightning rod market was hot, salesmen visiting farmers, churches, schools, and businesses to sell their products.  Not just adding flair to the architecture, the most ornate ones were said to work better than simpler models.  There is no evidence to support that selling point, however.

A History of Lake Ann’s Disastrous Fires

by Richard Leary, Lake Ann historian

Three times the village of Lake Ann was nearly destroyed by fire. Twice, the business district was virtually wiped out. Each time the people rebuilt their homes, businesses and lives.

In addition to the three major fires, fire destroyed two prominent business structures: the Douglas Hotel and Bert Smith’s residence, black smith shop and hardware store.

The first and third of the major fires are well-known and were dramatically described in Traverse City newspapers of the day. The second major fire is far less known and the date of the fire wrongly remembered and wrongly published. The dates of the Douglas Hotel and Bert Smith’s store fires were also lost to history.

The following is an accurate account of these five fires complete with citations from newspaper stories of the period. This fascinating, if unfortunate and sad, part of Lake Ann’s history deserves to be remembered correctly.

Lake Ann’s first huge fire

The first and most devastating fire occurred in July 1897. At that time the village was large and prosperous. Its population was about 1,000, making it one of the larger towns in northwestern Michigan.  Logging was a major employer and supported several saw mills. The William Habbler Jr mill on the north shore of Ann Lake was the biggest.

The mills brought in many other businesses, from boarding houses to bakeries, grocery stores, barbers and doctors. As in any town employing so many men, saloons, pool parlors and poker games could be found as well.

Some of the buildings and homes were well built and up-to-date architecturally. Businesses were adjacent to one another in the business district. Homes and business buildings were made of wood. Lots were small – often 100 feet deep and 40 feet wide – so homes were close together as well. Other buildings, such as barns, sheds and other out buildings were more rustic and even more flammable.

Once the fire began, apparently from a spark at the Habbler saw mill, a breeze north from the lake spread the fire rapidly through the town. Within minutes it was out of control. Because nearly all the town was north of Ann Lake, just about everything was within the fire’s path.

Because it was Saturday of the Fourth of July weekend, many of the town’s residents had rowed across Ann Lake to a favorite picnic spot on Piney Point. When they saw the smoke and fire in the village, there was little they could do to return home in time to save their belongings.

According to the newspaper accounts of the fire, 50 businesses were lost and 75 homes burned. Most people lost everything they owned.

The Traverse City newspapers gave readers dramatic and complete coverage:


Holocaust at Lake Ann

Lake Ann is a mass of smoldering ruins, and there are scarcely thirty buildings left standing. The fire broke out in Habbler’s mill at 1:30 p.m. Saturday and spread through the town with lightening rapidity.

The entire business portion of the village has been swept clean by the most disastrous conflagration that has ever visited this locality.

Not less than 75 families are homeless and nearly all of them have lost all their possessions. Many were fortunate in saving their lives.

The prompt response from Traverse City brought the steam fire engine and twenty members of the department from that city. When the much needed aid arrived, the men who had been fighting fire with all their strength were nearly worn out but they were relieved by the arrival of fresh and efficient help.

When the special train bearing the engine and firemen from Traverse City entered the pall of smoke, the spirits of the discouraged and unfortunate ones arose and hopes of saving what remained were revived.

It required but a few moments to transfer the engine from the flat car to the shore of the lake, just west of the factory, and but five minutes to start two streams.

 A well-organized force manned the hose lines, and soon two heavy streams were pouring into the fierce flames which threatened to consume everything that remained.

After a half-hour’s hard work, the flames at the points mentioned were under control. It was necessary to run one line of hose along the shore among the slabs, timber and miscellaneous lumber stock, but the energetic work of the men was effective and showed good results.

The Herald continued with an enthusiastic account of the Traverse City fire department’s efforts:

Traverse City to the Rescue

     Fifty-four minutes.

That was the time which elapsed after the fire engine left the Cass street engine house before two powerful streams of water were pouring upon the destructive flames which were destroying the greater portion of Lake Ann Saturday afternoon.

When the special arrived at Lake Ann, the people were almost panic stricken and it seemed as though the entire village was to be swept out of existence. The Traverse City firemen with commendable coolness and precision immediately began work in earnest. Only a few moments were required to transfer the engine to the lake shore, just west of the burning mill and cooperage stock. A team was found at once and the engine hauled to the shore and placed upon an improvised dock of slabs. Firefighter Fulgham lost not a moment and effective streams were doing good work in a few moments.

The men worked with an energy characteristic of the Traverse City firemen and Lake Ann’s business men and citizens felt relieved when the excellently organized force went to work. They labored like tigers and their work immediately began to show satisfactory results, while the engine worked like a charm and threw streams which stayed the fast advancing flames.

An almost identical article appeared in the Morning Record, also Sunday, July 4, 1897. It was perhaps more sensationalist with headlines reading:


Thriving Place swept by Terrible Fire Fiend Yesterday
and Nearly Wiped Out


Aged Mrs. Masters Cremated In attempting to Save
Valuable Personal Property

Entire Business of Town in Ruins – Fifty Buildings Destroyed

Seventy-five Families Rendered Homeless and Deprived of

Necessities of Life, also Employment – Traverse City

Responded Promptly to an Appeal for Aid

One can imagine seeing this on the cover of a paper beside the check-out in any grocery store today.

"Ann Lake" plat map, 1901. From Charles Edward Ferris' "Atlas of Benzie County, Michigan," made available online by the University of Michigan,
“Ann Lake” plat map, 1901. From Charles Edward Ferris’ “Atlas of Benzie County, Michigan,” made available online by the University of Michigan,

Lake Ann’s second major fire

The date of Lake Ann’s second major fire has been incorrectly known for many years. Even the newspaper report of the third fire, in 1918, gave the wrong date, saying it occurred in 1907. More recently the date has been given as 1914. In reality, it happened in 1902.

The second fire also destroyed most of the Lake Ann business district but it was much smaller than that of 1897. It is clear that little of the village had been rebuilt following the devastating fire in 1897.

Again the Traverse City papers gave it prominent coverage.




Business Portion of the Town Again Destroyed


Lake Ann Jan 28 — Again last night the business portion of Lake Ann was laid in ashes, and nothing but cinders remain of four of the principal businesses places of the town. The saloon building and stock of Dan Willard, the store building of A. B. Huellmantel, the livery barn of W. J. Shilliday and the store building occupied by S. S. Burnett, were completely destroyed and the stock of A. B. Huellmantel and S. S. Burnett were greatly damaged.

    “The fire started in the saloon of Dan Willard about 9:30 o’clock. The saloon had been closed for the night and Mr. Willard had gone home. The fire had been banked for the night but in some way a blaze started from the place where the stove pipe passed through the second floor.

Once again, the people of Lake Ann rallied and the village survived and rebuilt.

Douglas Hotel fire

Soon after the fire, a large, elegant hotel opened in the center of town. The hotel, being across the tracks from the M. & N. E. Railroad depot, perhaps served as a destination for people coming on railroad excursions from Manistee or Traverse City. The hotel was close to the shore of Ann Lake and maintained a number of small boats for guests to use on the lake.

Sadly, in 1910 the Douglas Hotel burned to the ground. Fortunately, no one was injured but it was a great loss to the village. A Traverse City newspaper gave complete coverage:










Origin of the fire is unknown but it started in the roof – Loss on building is $2,500 with insurance of $1,200.


Lake Ann, Mich. May 13. — The Hotel Douglas, the only all-year-round house in Lake Ann, was totally destroyed by fire at 6:00 o’clock this morning. The house was well filled with guests but all escaped, although some lost their personal belongings. The loss on the hotel is $2,500 with $1,200 insurance. The insurance on the contents is $1,200 but as some were saved, L. E. Knoedel, the landlord, is unable to give his loss.

The fire originated in the roof near where the two buildings came together. The alarm was quickly given and a bucket brigade was soon on the scene, the men doing very effective work. Fortunately, the wind was from the north, blowing the fire toward the lake, else it is very likely that the entire business street would have been destroyed. It was only by the great effort that the home of Dr. Shilliday and the house and store of S. S. Burnett were saved from destruction.

The fire spread very quickly and while many of the guests were still asleep when the alarm came, all got out fully dressed, although some left their baggage behind. In 10 minutes, the hotel was a heap of smoking ruins.

B. E. Smith’s residence and store

Another major fire happened in 1911. Although not as devastating as the fires of 1897 and 1902, it was significant and probably spectacular.

The following appeared in the April 14, 1911 Benzie Banner:

B. E. Smith’s residence and store were destroyed by fire Monday noon; it was nearly a total loss as only a small part of the contents were saved. Mr. Smith carried no insurance. The rest of the town was only saved by the heroic efforts of the Lake Ann bucket brigade as there were several buildings which caught fire.

Some recollections mention the explosions that occurred as the building burned. The large two-story building was a combination residence, blacksmith shop, livery and hardware store. As such, it no doubt contained hunting ammunition and black powder used for reloading gun shells and blasting tree stumps out of the ground.

Lake Ann’s Third Major Fire

The village of Lake Ann had not experienced its last major fire. The third fire did not destroy the business district, as had the first two big fires. The final fire to sweep through the town primarily burned homes. Once again we look to the newspapers for a compelling account of the conflagration.

Traverse City Record-Eagle, TRAVERSE CITY, MICHIGAN
Friday April 12, 1918              Price – two cents

Conflagration Destroys Half of Lake Ann Village





Ten Dwellings, a Church, Three Barns and a Cooperage Laid Low


Half  the  village  of  Lake  Ann  lies in charred ruins today, the result of a fire yesterday afternoon,  that swept its course, leveling ten dwellings, the congregational church, three barns and the old cooperage.  Nor did the flames stop their ravaging work until every particle of inflammable material in their path had been consumed.

The fire started in the A. Frazer residence, apparently from a defective chimney.  Flames were not discovered until the fire was too well under-way that the roof was ready to fall in. A high northeast wind was howling and sparks and flames from the dwelling were carried to the next, and from that, on westward through the town.

Bucket brigades were formed, and farmers, who drove in from miles around, lent their assistance in battling the fire, but to no avail. The fire did not stop until it had exhausted the material, and the balance of the city was spared only because the wild wind did not change. 

In spite of the fires that destroyed the town’s business district, Lake Ann survived. An article in the Traverse City Evening Record in 1907 gave evidence of this perseverance.

Lake Ann, Mich. Jan. 10 —Lake Ann was twice visited by disastrous fires. In fact, both conflagrations nearly destroyed the entire town and each time, before the ashes had cooled off, the business men of Lake Ann were planning for the reconstruction and after two hard struggles a pretty village full of life and spirit remains as a result of their perseverance and pluck.

This was just as true after the third fire in 1918 as it was after the second fire.

Lake Ann business district between 1902 and 1910.

The village lives on. Habbler’s store, which survived the last two fires, is now the bustling Lake Ann Grocery. S.S. Burnett’s store, rebuilt after the 1902 fire, is now the B & M Party Store and holds down the center of town. Huellmantel’s shoe store, also rebuilt after the 1902 fire, is now a busy restaurant, the Stone Oven. Two new businesses opened in 2014 (The Red Door and Lakeview Realty and Rental Management) and another is scheduled to open early in 2015.

The village of Lake Ann survived three nearly disastrous fires, outlived logging and the M&NE railroad. It continues, in its own way, as a busy, but laid-back, friendly center of activity for locals and tourists alike.

Richard Leary is an active volunteer at the Almira Historical Museum in Lake Ann. Leary is passionate about exploring and documenting the history of Almira Township, and finds inspiration equally in studying written records and in traversing the fields.

Spring Beauty, Trailing Arbutus, and the Coming of Spring

The first wildflowers of spring are Hepatica, Trailing Arbutus, and Spring Beauty.  This year, Hepatica was the first to show a white (sometimes lavender) blossom that occasionally overtops last year’s maple and beech leaves on the forest floor.  Growing nearby, Spring Beauty came next, its white, candy-striped petals attracting a few bees and flies for pollination.  Trailing Arbutus blooms in an altogether different habitat, a forest of pine trees and oaks.  It  often conceals its fragrant white blooms underneath its tough, evergreen leaves.

Hepatica acutiloba, ca. 2003, image taken near Traverse City.
Hepatica acutiloba, ca. 2003, image taken near Traverse City. Image provided by the author.

Hepatica is so interesting it deserves a full story by itself—that to appear in coming issues—so Spring Beauty and Trailing Arbutus will occupy us here.  It is appropriate they are paired since they both figure in Native American legends about the return of spring.  The following excerpt is taken from The Red Indian Fairy Book, published in 1917.  Disregarding its somewhat racist title (Are Native Americans really “red”?), it tells the legend of the Spring Beauty, a story attributed to the Ojibwe (Chippewa).

Legend of the Spring Beauty


An old man was sitting in his lodge, by the side of
a frozen stream. It was the end of Winter, the air
was not so cold, and his fire was nearly out. He
was old and alone. His locks were white with
age, and he trembled in every joint. Day after
day passed, and he heard nothing but the sound
of the storm sweeping before it the new-fallen

One day while his fire was dying, a handsome
young man entered the lodge. His cheeks were
red, his eyes sparkled. He walked with a quick,
light step. His forehead was bound with sweet-
grass, and he carried a bunch of fragrant flowers
in his hand.

“Ah, my Son,” said the old man, “I am happy
to see you. Come in. Tell me your adventures,
and what strange lands you have seen. I will tell
you my wonderful deeds, and what I can perform.
You shall do the same, and we will amuse each

The old man then drew from a bag a curiously
wrought pipe. He filled it with mild tobacco, and
handed it to his guest. They each smoked from
the pipe, and then began their stories.

Claytonia virginica (Spring Beauty), image taken ca. 2003, near Traverse City. Image provided by the author.
Claytonia virginica (Spring Beauty), image taken ca. 2003, near Traverse City. Image provided by the author.

” I am Peboan, the Spirit of Winter/ said the
old man. ” I blow my breath, and the streams
stand still. The water becomes stiff and hard as
clear stone.”

“I am Seegwun, the Spirit of Spring,” answered
the youth. ” I breathe, and flowers spring up in
the meadows and woods.”

” I shake my locks,” said the old man, “and the
snow covers the land. The leaves fall from the
trees, and my breath blows them away. The birds
fly to the distant land, and the animals hide them
selves from the cold.”

” I shake my ringlets,” said the young man,
and the warm showers of soft rain fall upon the
Earth. The flowers lift their heads from the ground,
and the grass grows thick and green. My voice re
calls the birds, and they come flying joyfully from
the Southland. The warmth of my breath unbinds
the streams, and they sing the songs of Summer.
Music fills the groves wherever I walk, and all
Nature rejoices.”

And while they were thus talking, a wonderful
change took place. The Sun began to rise. Again
the warmth stole over the place. Peboan, the Spirit
of Winter, became silent. His head drooped, and
the snow outside the lodge melted away. Seegwun,
the Spirit of Spring, grew more radiant, and rose
joyfully to his feet. The Robin and the Bluebird
began to sing on the top of the lodge. The stream
murmured past the door, and the fragrance of open-
ing flowers came softly on the breeze.

The lodge faded away, and Peboan sank down
and dissolved into tiny streams of water, that van
ished under the brown leaves of the forest.
Thus the Spirit of Winter departed, and where
he melted away the Indian children gathered the
first blossoms, fragrant and delicately pink, the
modest Spring Beauty.

(The same story, this time with a beautiful maiden rather than a youth, has been told about the Trailing Arbutus.  It has been attributed both to both the Iroquois and the Ojibwe traditions.)

The final paragraph was added to the story by the narrator of the legend—or so it seems to me.  For one thing, Spring Beauties have no fragrance, at least as far as I can tell.  They are not pink, but white with pink stripes, and their blossoms last for only a day or two.  Who would want to pick them?

However, the whole plant might have been harvested for another purpose: eating.  Underneath the soil—sometimes as deep as six inches—a corm guards the life of the plant when it is not growing.  Sometimes nearly as large as a walnut, it is prized as a spring food for all who love the woods.  Without the bitterness of other leaves and roots, it can be roasted or eaten raw.  Considering their beauty, it is hard for me to dig up very many of them, but at a time before forests were cut down, they would have provided tribes with a plentiful food supply in early spring.

Spring Beauties stay above ground for only a few weeks.  Before the canopy of the hardwood trees fills in to block the sun, they complete their life cycle, bearing flowers and developing fruit before disappearing in early summer.  For ten months they sleep in the soil, only sending up shoots after the snow has melted.  Like Squirrel Corn and Dutchman’s Breeches which grow in Northern Michigan hardwoods, it is described as an ephemeral, setting seed while the sun can still penetrate the leafy overstory.  Their transitory nature makes them all the more dear to us.

Epigaea repens (Trailing Arbutus), image taken ca. 2003 near Traverse City. Image courtesy of the author.
Epigaea repens (Trailing Arbutus), image taken ca. 2003 near Traverse City. Image courtesy of the author.

Trailing Arbutus is an altogether different kind of plant.  It’s tough leathery leaves persist year-to-year, hiding the fragrant white flowers beneath.  They live in the pine forest, appearing on mossy banks, though I have seen them in wet places like the Skegemog Preserve.  Because of their beauty, their refreshing comment on the change of seasons, and the rich green of their leaves, they were commonly ripped from the ground for decoration.  Here is an article lamenting the destruction of Trailing Arbutus from the Record-Eagle dated 1923:


Woman’s Club Pleads for Vine

Great Patches of Bloom Are rapidly Being Burned By Thoughtless Persons

Some time ago, when it seemed that spring might be coming, the Woman’s Club sent out a pleas to all seekers of wild flowers to use care in picking them so as not to disturb the roots.

Now that the Trailing Arbutus is in bloom this plea is again broadcasted.

To those who can remember back but a few years, the present feeble bloom of the spring’s loveliest flower, is a most pathetic thing.  In the plots which have been picked over year after year the vine is disappearing.  Instead of a blossom which rivaled the apple blossom in size, the arbutus has shrunk to a tiny flower on a short stem.

A pair of scissors would prevent this gradual disappearance of this typically Michigan vine.  It is the constant pulling up by the roots which has made barren the great patches of arbutus which not long ago filled the pine woods, so the Woman’s Club urged all those seeking this spring flower to carry with them a small pair of scissors with which to clip the stems.

The article points out several things, both about the plant and about the times.  It was formerly abundant and more prominent than now.  From a blossom rivaling that of an apple blossom, it has “shrunk to a tiny flower on a short stem.”  Edward Voss, in Michigan Flora, states that the flowers are often nearly hidden beneath the leaves—scarcely visible to wildflower aficionados.  To those who decry the stripping of stems along with flowers, he offers the consolation that that stem and flowers emerge from a “stout, woody tap-rooted crown”, a hardy structure which may resist the savagery of collectors.  Like the Spring Beauty (which is not related), the Trailing Arbutus seeds are distributed by ants which feast upon a food coat that surrounds the growing part of the seed.

I have never seen Trailing Arbutus with its stems held up high to display flowers as large as apple blossoms.  Could it be that humans have gotten rid of that trait through genetic engineering?  That is, by harvesting the largest blossoms did we drive evolution forward in the direction of smaller ones hidden under leaves?  Clipped before they reproduce, the most showy flowers would not produce seed and would disappear over time–much as mowing has produced a variety of lawn weeds that complete their life cycles in dwarf form.  It does not take DNA technology to change the gene make-up of organisms.

One more thing about the article: in 1923 the newspaper editor chose to publish an article warning about overharvesting a wildflower found in pine woods near the city of Traverse City.   Would such an article be published today?  I would argue, “No”, since nobody knows about Trailing Arbutus.  By “nobody” I do exaggerate, but only by a little.  In earlier times the people of Northern Michigan were more in touch with nature: they paid attention to wildflowers and the creatures that inhabited the land around them.  Now it is an unusual person that can identify Trailing Arbutus, let alone consider picking it to brighten up the house.  Our obsession with technological gadgets—our iPads and iPhones–has replaced our connection to nature, that shift working to preserve wildflowers.  Not all components of modernity serve to attack nature—thank Heaven.

Spring Beauty and Trailing Arbutus, two very different plants that announce spring in Northern Michigan, give us a sense of community, a belongingness that join us all in nature, time, and place.  We welcome them, however different they are, because they speak of the end of cold and ice, the beginning of warmth and harvest.  Let us go out and look for them this month, but only to admire them, not to pick.

Richard Fidler is co-editor of the Grand Traverse Journal.

SNOW DAY on a CLIFF FACE: Life in Benzie County by Freshman Bruce Catton Award Winners

By Sam Buzzell, Third Place winner in the 2015 Bruce Catton Awards

After a long week of unrelenting snow and anticipation, it was finally a snow day. Our cousin was back from Rwanda for a few weeks, so we were eager to take the chance to spend the day with him. We ruled out sledding, our first choice activity, because of two feet of snow and ice that covered everything, and decided on climbing the Crater. In hindsight, this was probably the worst possible choice we could have made under the circumstances, because (1) the Crater is nearly 70 degree cliff covered in trees; (2) that slope is followed by another 70 degree cliff – at this time we would have to slide down because of the fore mentioned two feet of snow covered in ice. In all other aspects, it was a flawless plan.

Filled with high spirits and hot chocolate, we trudged across the field that separated us from the base of the Crater. As we walked, the weight of our boots forced us through the ice to the powdery snow beneath, with cracks that echoed through the silent forest like gunshots. After fifteen minutes of this, we reached the base of the slope and started climbing.

We started up the Crater with vigor, silent only because we were all out of breath. Since climbing the gargantuan hill without using the protruding trees as leverage was impossible, we did so, making slow and tedious progress. Every now and then, we would stop and stare at the terrifying stretch of cliff beneath us, and then at the even more terrifying stretch above. This became a pattern, until after ten minutes of climbing – we caught our first glimpse of the summit.

Our pace renewed, we reached the top in a flash – at least I did. When I say reached the top, I mean I came within five feet of it – until, suddenly, the ice started to grow more resistant to my weight. This was problematic, because the extreme angle of the slope, accompanied by the wall of dark trees, accented with the bright coats of my sister and cousin about twenty feet below me. This didn’t bother me at the time, so I kept climbing. This decision caused some problems, evident as I lifted my hand  to  grab the sharp ridge.

My feet started to slip; finding no purchase on the hard ice beneath them, I had nothing to hold onto as I fell back, no trees, except for the ones I was about to hit twenty feet down the slope. The glare of the sun reflecting off the ice blinded me as I picked up speed. The only indication of my location was coming from the shouts of my sister somewhere to the left, or right, or maybe up. My freefall ended abruptly with a hard impact followed by several waves of crashing snow.

I sat up, dazed, watching as the remainder of the snow slid off of the branches in small spirals. Everything was quiet for a moment; the silence was broken after a few seconds by a long bout of laughter from my sister. I looked around, trying to pinpoint the noise, and fell even farther down the slope, sending her into even more hysterics, and me into a snowbank.

I pulled myself out, laughing, and climbed up to where she and my cousin stood shaking hysterically with badly suppressed smiles. We made our way back down the slope and walked across the field to the house.

Congratulations to Sam Buzzell for his excellent essay, and his third place finish! We look forward to reading more from Sam.

Grand Traverse Journal will also publish the second place winner’s essay in the June issue, and the first place winner’s essay in the July issue.