New Book by Benzie Author reveals Crystal Lake History

Your Editors at Grand Traverse Journal look forward to publications of local interest, and 2015 has kicked off with a winner in Dr. Stacy Leroy Daniels’ The Comedy of Crystal Lake

The Comedy of Crystal Lake is the type of regional history we long to read, filled with descriptions of true characters that cultivated our immediate surroundings. Perhaps you too have driven through the quaint village of Beulah and wondered, “Who is Archibald Jones, and why does he deserve his own day?” Or, having read the 1922 account of The Tragedy of Crystal Lake, you were left saying, “If you ask me, it’s the present asking prices of homes on the shore that are the tragedy, not the rapid lowering of the lake level way back when.”

This tome answers a number of these questions and curiosities of life on Crystal Lake, and to our joy, Daniels’ robust scholarship more than stands up to scrutiny. Within, you will find a number of contemporary accounts that introduce you thoroughly to the people and their thoughts in 1870s Benzie County, as well as historical records, some of which were found hilariously serendipitously! Your Editors would reveal more, but instead, we encourage your patronage of local authors of history: Pick up your copy today! ~Amy Barritt, co-Editor

Dr. Stacy Leroy Daniels presented the following summary of his work to Grand Traverse Journal, at the request of Your Editors. Information on purchasing your own copy is found at the end:

Shortly after settlement in the 1850s, Michigan’s peculiar travel needs were apparent: to improve the land-locked entrances of drowned river mouths along the eastern shoreline of Lake Michigan  by creating “harbors of refuge” for shipping, and inland waterways to access the interior of the State. Many natural river outlets were straightened and new channels dredged to navigable depths to connect nearby inland lakes by “slack-water” canals to Lake Michigan.  These included: Saugatuck, Holland, Grand Haven, Muskegon, White Lake, Pentwater, Ludington, Manistee, Portage, Frankfort, Charlevoix, and Petoskey.  The attempt to connect a canal from Frankfort Harbor to Crystal Lake proved to be the most ambitious of its kind.


Published earlier this year, The Comedy of Crystal Lake, by Dr. Stacy Leroy Daniels,  details the  real-life drama of the lowering of Crystal Lake (Benzie County), which resulted from an attempt to build a slack-water canal to nearby Lake Michigan.  It is a sequel to “The Tragedy of Crystal Lake”, a classic pamphlet by William L. Case (1922).*

Daniels covers this part of Benzie County history with a focus on Archibald Jones, “the man who (allegedly) pulled the plug at Crystal Lake.” Jones founded the Benzie County River Improvement Company in 1873, to improve waterlots on Crystal Lake, remove obstructions and construct slack-water canals between Crystal Lake and Lake Michigan, and build a steamboat to facilitate shipping of settlers and goods to and from the interior of the County to the nearby port of Frankfort.  

Crystal Lake outlet dam with three people standing in the lake (ca. 1920). Image courtesy of History Center of Traverse City.
Crystal Lake outlet dam with three people standing in the lake (ca. 1920). Image courtesy of History Center of Traverse City.

By Jones’ maneuverings, the level of Crystal Lake was dramatically lowered in an attempt to construct a slack-water canal between it and Lake Michigan in 1873.  Most other canals had differences in level of only a few feet; The original level of Crystal Lake was 38 feet above Lake Michigan which made it especially attractive for a canal.  Unfortunately, the whitecap waves of Crystal Lake washed out a temporary dam before a permanent canal could be completed.  The level of the Lake dropped precipitously by 20 feet and 76 billion gallons of water poured down its outlet. 

Although a canal system was never realized, the lowering of the Lake exposed a 21-mile perimeter of sandy beach where none had previously existed. This made possible: the founding of the Village of Beulah, the coming of the railroad, installation of telegraph and telephone lines, development of lakeside resorts, construction of 1,100 cottages, all connected by an infrastructure of perimeter roads and trails. 

Such is the “Comedy” of Crystal Lake – an epochal event with unintended consequences which has evolved from perceived “failure” of an “ill-conceived” project by an apparent scapegoat, to unqualified “success” by a visionary celebrated as a local hero!

Copies are available for purchase at BaySide Printing, Frankfort; The Bookstore, Frankfort;  Cottage Book Shop, Glen Arbor; Horizon Books, Traverse City; Benzie Conservation District;  Benzie Area Historical Museum; Benzie County Chamber of Commerce;  Frankfort-Elberta Chamber of Commerce; partial proceeds to local nonprofit organizations. 

You may also purchase copies direct from Flushed With Pride Press, PO Box 281; Frankfort, MI 49635; 989-750-2653; 496 pages; 46 chapters; 16 appendices, 200 illustrations, maps, timelines, & sidelights.  $49.95 + $3.00 sales tax (+ $10.00 shipping and handling if mailed).

Author and Archibald Jones-reenactor Dr. Stacy Leroy Daniels.
Author and Archibald Jones-reenactor Dr. Stacy Leroy Daniels.

Dr. Stacy L. Daniels (PhD, UM 1967), has been a practicing environmental engineer in industry (Dow Chemical Co.), academia (University of Michigan), small business (Ingenuity IEQ, Inc.), governmental agencies, and nonprofit organizations (Crystal Lake & Watershed Association, CLWA) since the 1960’s.  He has observed, participated, and directed many  studies of Crystal Lake and its Watershed, and has published a new book, “The  Comedy of Crystal Lake (2015). His activities with the CLWA have included: chair of the Education & Communications Committee, editor for the newsletter and webpage, and coordinator for the Crystal Lake “Walkabout”.  He has been a member or chair of several national science advisory committees, and has authored/coauthored over 300 papers and presentations.  He runs the Crystal Lake Team Marathon, enjoys reading history, and writing serious (and humorous) environmental poetry. 

*Several editions of “The Tragedy of Crystal Lake,” by William L. Case, as well as copies of “The Comedy of Crystal Lake,” by Dr. Stacy Leroy Daniels are available for circulation at Traverse Area District Library, Benzie Shores District Library and Benzonia Public Library.

Header image of Crystal Lake courtesy of Delta Whiskey,

How old is that Courthouse solved!

Thanks to reader Marly for her correct answer to May’s mystery photo! The Grand Traverse County Courthouse (the historic building) was completed and in operation in 1900. You can read all about the ceremony for its opening in past issues of Grand Traverse Herald, a predecessor to the Traverse City Record-Eagle, now available online courtesy of the Newspaper Digitization volunteers at Traverse Area District Library:


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,

Darwin’s Finches of the Great Lakes: Whitefish before and after commercial fishing

By Stewart A. McFerran, Benzie resident and instructor of The Natural History of Great Lakes Fish for Northwestern Michigan College’s Northern Naturalist Program.

Nets, nets and more nets. Image courtesy of the author.
Nets, nets, and more nets. Image courtesy of the author.

I took a job as a deck hand for Lang Fisheries of Leland Harbor. Ross Lang operated the Joy and the Frances Clark, both commercial fishing boats. As one might expect, a commercial operation means catching fish for profit. Unlike charter fishing operations, we worked until the ice clogged the harbor and the steel hull could no longer break a path through ice packed into Leland Harbor.

The Frances Clark was a classic high-decked Great Lakes fishing tug. Everything inside was dedicated to the lifting of nets. Nets could be set in the deepest part of the lake. When the net came in through the side near the bow, fish were taken out and put in boxes. The net was carefully stacked in a different kind of box ready for “set back” out the back of the boat.

"Lifter," equipment used in Michigan tugs to pull up nets full of catch, sometimes going down several hundred feet. Image courtesy of the author.
“Lifter,” equipment used in fishing tugs to pull up nets full of catch. Image courtesy of the author.

The crew, Ross and I worked at a table near the “lifter”. Ross steered and I stacked the net in a box. On days when there were lots of chubs in the net, it was slow going, sometimes taking from first light until the afternoon to lift.  The chubs, or Coregonus hoyi, are part of a genus including whitefish, cisco and lake herring. There were days we caught over a thousand pounds. I was a novice fisher but had the advantage of never getting sick.

We fished from Northwest of North Manitou Island to Platte Bay, some of the same waters that Magdalene (Lanie) Burfeind fished in 1869. She kept her boat at Port Oneida and sold her catch to the crews of the steamers that stopped at Port Oneida. In this description of seventeen-year old’s Lanie’s fishing methods, written in 1869 and published in The Evening Wisconsin newspaper in October of that year, she had:

been the master of a handsome craft and a set of ‘gill nets’. She puts them out early in April and continues them till late in the Fall. She is out every day at daylight and again in the evening in all but the roughest weather. She takes a younger sister with her to help set and draw the nets. She often brings in a couple of hundred fine lake trout white fish… Her white mast and blue pennon is known by people far along the coast. Boats salute her in passing.*

At the time Lanie Burfeind fished, there were ten known species of Coregonus living in different parts of the lakes. Miss Burfiend may have caught and sold coregonids that were never described and included in the genus.

Bloater, Coregonus hoyi. "Coregonushoyi". Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -
Bloater, Coregonus hoyi. “Coregonushoyi”. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

Coregonus hoyi and culpeaformis were the fish Ross and crew caught in the Manitou Passage more than 100 years later. As the net came in so did other fish and objects from deep dark places 300 feet down. A cod relation, the “big, bad” Burbot, also known as “lawyer” came in over the side with the hoyi catch. Spiky Stonerollers, stream boat clinkers and the occasional trout came in with the chubs but often nothing else but Coregonus hoyi. They had the deep dark lake to themselves. On bad days Ross sped up the lifter and the net came in empty. In 1984, a net could stand on the lake bottom and catch nothing. Not so today; Bushels of quagga mussels foul nets as they filter the same zooplankton preferred by coregonids.

Chubby Mary at The Cove in Leland. Yum! Image courtesy of Scott Schopieray,
Chubby Mary at The Cove in Leland. Yum! Image courtesy of Scott Schopieray,

After months of releasing “chubs” from the net I began to be aware of the variation in color and shape. There were very slight differences in hue in the silver of the sides. Sometimes I wonder if I was witness to the last of a species of Coregonus that was sold as a “Chubby Mary” at the Bluebird in Leland. It is my understanding that the popular drink is no longer made with C. hoyi but with C. artidie. Not having a degree in mixology I can’t be sure.

(Editor’s note: Upon further inquiry, the “Chubby Mary” is still available for consumption at the Cove restaurant in Leland. Described as “part appetizer, part drink,” Chubby Mary is made with the house blood mary mix, a pickle, two olives, and lemon garnish to accompany the fish, a smoked chub served with pita chips. The servers were unsure what species of Coregonus is now used.)

The US Fisheries Commission reported in 1890 that whitefish and lake herring, (both within the group Coregonus), accounted for 58% of the commercial catch in Lake Michigan. At the time there were eleven commercial fishing boats operating in Benzie County and eleven in Leelanau. None in Grand Traverse. The Booth Company was developing a wide network to exploit fisheries and fishers in both American and Canadian waters.

Standard modern fishing tug, "Kathy," docked at Leland Harbor, May 2015. Image courtesy of the author.
Standard modern fishing tug, “Kathy,” docked at Leland Harbor, May 2015. Image courtesy of the author.

Coregonus nigripinnis was found in great abundance in the deep waters of Lake Michigan in 1890. Blackfin whitefish were “sought mostly in steam vessels and are taken in gill nets set 60 to 110 fathoms deep.” The longjaw whitefish (C. zenithicua) lived at similar depths but did not have black markings on the fins.

The Manitou Islands have little in common with the Galapagos Islands other than the fact that a unique group of species evolved over time in isolation. Diving in the Galapagos I saw many fish and I talked with fishers unloading shark fins. I saw finches flitting about under the table of the café at Puerto Ayora. As a coffee drinker I could not miss them under foot as they evolved a taste for biscotti. It was fascinating to see that same assemblage of species that Darwin had so famously observed.

As the ice receded from the Great Lakes the coregonids were at the margin 10,000 years ago. Like Darwin’s finches they were separated into different populations as the lakes rose and fell. Each group changed as the ice continued to melt. The populations responded to local conditions and donned different colors and shapes. Deepwater blackfins became the dominant planktivore in the fathoms of Lake Michigan. The pelagic longjaw coregonids are hard to spot in the deep remote places of the big lakes, but, like the finches, changed in response to the environment.

While inhabiting remote niches and not making big splashes, the Great Lakes coregonids are a group of fish with many names that reflect the wide distribution and importance of the group. Other species of Coregonus are: kiyi, bartletti, johannae, reighardi and hubbsi. Hoyi are thought to still be present in Lake Michigan and sometimes called “bloater chub”. The blackfin and shortjaw can still be found in Lake Superior. Coregonids evolved the ability to move in the water column by regulating buoyancy as they fed on zooplankton.

Fishing tug on display at Glen Arbor by the National Park Service.
Fishing tug on display at Glen Haven by the National Park Service. Image courtesy of the author.

Over time the Great Lakes fishing tug was perfected to a point where fish numbers were threatened. The “Lifter” was developed to pull nets from the deep regions of the lakes. The covered decks on the tugs allowed the fishing operations to continue into bad weather. One such vessel is on display at the Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore in Glen Haven near where Lanie fished.

When the steamer Normon lay wooding up at Port Oneida in 1869, it was recorded that Miss Burfeind had delivered fish: “The clerk at the office tipped his hat to her as if he was in the presence of a Duchess. ‘That’s the smartest girl in Michigan,’ said the engineer as she passed out the gangway. The girl gave no heed to admiring glances and compliments that followed her, but straightaway sought her little fish cabin where she was mending nets, by the shore.”*

The decline of coregonids took place over many years. The introduction of chemicals and invasive species changed the ecology of the Great Lakes. Tiny eggs of C. kiyi and C. hoyi left to drift in the water column were gobbled up by unwanted intruders. The free floating C. zenithicus eggs were acted on by numerous kinds of chemicals. Ecological change has come to that water column in ways that biologists are still trying to understand, but it is clear that the diversity of the Coregonus group has been reduced since 1869.

It is unfortunate that the group has been so reduced. More than any other assemblage of organisms they evolved in the Great Lakes and represent the lake environment as true natives, just as finches represent the Galapagos Islands.

Stewart Allison McFerran has a degree in Environmental Studies and worked with Frankfort students on a robotics project. He led an Antioch College environmental field program to the Great Lakes and worked as a naturalist at Innisfree. He worked as a deck hand for Lang Fisheries and currently is an instructor at NMC Extended Education program. He lives on a Benzie stream. He did graduate studies in science education and was a Research Associate at the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory. He grew up on a Lake in Michigan where he caught and released many turtles from his rowboat “Mighty Mouse”. McFerran is a regular contributor to Grand Traverse Journal.

*Article on “Lanie”, Semi-Weekly Wisconsin (Milwaukee, Wisconsin), Sat, Oct 16, 1869, Page 3

WALKING IN the FOOTSTEPS OF THE PAST: Life in Benzie County by Freshman Bruce Catton Award Winners

By Shianne Knoch (left), Second Place winner in the 2015 Bruce Catton Awards

There was nothing on my mind that summer morning except going to the beach. It is a few days after the fourth of July, and the town is almost tourist free. I walk down my short road known as Corning Avenue and hear the normal sounds of my neighbors’ dogs speaking back and forth to each other. I get closer to the end of the road and see some of the younger boys at my school playing basketball at Market Square Park. They yell my name and wave a hello before continuing their game. I take a left and head down M22 and walk under the big, oak trees, while being passed by people on bikes and children with ice cream running down their faces and hands, trying so hard to get the last bits of the mouth-watering ice cream. I get to the end of M22 and turn down Main Street. I walk down the uneven sidewalk and pass by Mineral Springs Park; I hear the normal sound of children yelling and screaming with joy. I leave the park behind and continue down Main Street in the little town of Frankfort. I’m greeted by many of my friends and adults. Living in a small town, you learn to know everyone and they learn to know you. I smile at every one I pass while walking and just enjoy the many sights and sounds, and even the smells that Frankfort, Michigan has to offer. I finally make it past the people and the stores overflowing with people, and as I get closer and closer to my goal, I walk that twisty sidewalk that will take me to the pier. But, I have no intention of walking down the pier.

I turn right and land in the soft, white sand. I sit and dig my feet deeper and deeper into the sand, feeling the little rocks and shells tickle my toes. I lift my head up to the sun and let its warmth consume me. I don’t know how long I’ve been standing there, but I awaken to the sound of Davy, a local man who lives in Frankfort. I hear him singing to himself while he picks up the cans and bottles that were left behind form the fourth. I smile to myself, knowing how happy he is. I turn away from Davy and look at the still water. It’s just sitting there waiting for someone to come and play. But I refuse its offer to come and play; and I head down to the water.

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

Once you get past the first turn, and you can no longer see the pier, the beach becomes a magical place. It’s so open and untouched. It’s so alive and beautiful that you can’t look at one thing for too long, or you might miss something else beautiful. I pull up my pants so that I can walk with my bare feet in the water. As I get further down the beach, I see an opening between two trees, and in the middle, I see – a chair.  I walk faster and head for the strange chair. When I approach the chair, I notice writing on every inch of the chair. There are names, dates, initials in hearts. On top of the chair, there is a date that reads 2003. Here I am in 2014, looking at a date from 2003. This chair is falling apart; it almost looks like it is weeping. One of the legs is almost torn off, and the paint is chipping. I run my fingers over the different names. As I move my hand down the chair, a piece of the arm falls off, no bigger than my fingernail. I pick up the tiny piece of wood and place it in my pocket. The wind starts to blow and I hear the whines and the creaks of the chair as the wind blows through it. I sit there for some time reading all the names. After my legs grow numb from being still for so long, I stand up and spot a marker. I put my name and the date on the chair that day. I think to myself of how crazy it is to be writing on this chair. Someone could have written on this chair this same day in a different year. I was walking in their footsteps. I leave the chair behind with my mark on it.

I went back, looking for the chair, the next year, but the chair was nowhere to be found. Instead in that same clearing, there was a small sand hill with rocks piled up on it. There were names on the rocks, and in a tree branch hanging down was a bag with a notebook and markers. Inside the notebook, were writings from people.   There were dates and names just like there had been on the chair. But some people also wrote their thoughts down, leaving them for someone to find.  As a tradition, I wrote my name in the notebook and signed a rock and put it with the other rocks. I noticed some names of my classmates and some local people, as well. I stepped away from the grave of the former weeping chair. I felt something poke me, and I cringed at the pain and felt tears cloud my eyes. I put my hand in my pocket and felt for the item that is bringing me pain. I pull out the piece of wood-chip. I had forgotten I had brought it with me. I look at the chip and realize what I must do. I picked up and moved some of the rocks and started to dig a hole. After the hole is deep enough, I put the last remaining piece of the chair in the hole, and I cover it with sand. I put the rocks back in their original places, and step back.

I turned around and left; looking back once as a farewell and a promise to be back next year. I’ll never forget that weeping chair and of the history it held.

Congratulations to Shianne Knoch for her excellent essay, and her second place finish! We look forward to reading more from Shianne.

Grand Traverse Journal will publish the first place winner’s essay in the July issue.

Almost Captured: Memories of John Conroy, WWII Veteran, North African combat

John Conroy’s story as related in interviews with Peter Newell, February 2015

This month’s “Celebrate the People” honors John Conroy, US Army 1st Armored Division and longtime resident of the village of Kingsley. Conroy’s reminiscences focus on his years of service in World War II. Few of those who served remain to tell their stories; 2015 marks the 70th anniversary of the end of that conflict.

While Grand Traverse Journal typically features stories concerning our local region, we recognize the importance of recording and publishing the stories of our residents, both for future generations and for the catharsis it gives those who have served.

“I was 25 years old when drafted in 1941. Now, I am 97 and ready to re-up.”

WWII ended almost 70 years ago, so I don’t remember most of the bad stuff, but I will tell you all that I can.  General Robinette’s strategies, as reported in Old Ironsides, the battle history of the 1st Armored by George F. Howe, and assignments were at the center of coming critical battles.  I was proud to serve as a sergeant in Combat Command B under his command.   When he was a colonel, he often rode in my command tank on short reconnaissance missions.  Young officers were lucky to serve under our experienced commander early in the war.  Lieutenants like mine were being cycled through different detachments for field experience.  Most had had only 90 days training as officers and were brave with hopes of glory, but were brand new to North Africa. 

The Germans were about to teach all our ranks hard lessons.  We had only been in battle a little more than 9 weeks, while the North African Panzer division that we would soon face had years of battle experience.  Their tank armor could pierce anything we had.  We were only just receiving 75mm armor piercing to replace our training shells.  Only a few of us had ever worked armor in terrain that had mountains, valleys, and desert plains.  Good roads with major junctions crucial to military success were formed by many impassable wadis, rivers, and soft soil.  When it was dry, dusty clouds gave away troop and armored movements which was good for my reconnaissance missions and bad for infantry.  Terrain knowledge, battle experience, leaders, armor, and especially armor piercing ammunition led us to terrible losses through February 1942.

After our landing near Oran, Algeria in November 1942, the following January and February 1943 held dark days for us.  Faid and Kasserine Passes were two important gateways through Tunisia and would fall to the Germans.  We had fought our way east into southern Tunisia only to face Germany’s best desert division, Rommel’s  21st Panzer Division.   Before those important battles, my lieutenant, with only 90 days training, commanding mine and two other light tanks, was sent to assist a small engineering troop that was repairing a bridge near Sbeitla.  My rank as staff sergeant gave me no inside information to Gen. Robinette’s plans, but repair to a strategic bridge at Sbeitla made perfect sense. It is a small village halfway between the mountain passes at Faid and Kasserine.  The repair of the bridge had to be strong enough to support our heavy armor that had to cross a small river bed that was more swamp than a flowing stream, called a wadi.  What happened during a little skirmish was only the beginning of a series of disappointments and made me question my own value as a soldier.

As we approached the wadi, we saw a German Tiger Tank of the 21st Panzer Division, the most feared tank in North Africa, and what looked like a full platoon of German infantry on the opposite side, which gave them about 10 to 1 odds against us.   Information of Panzer movement was important to our command, but our immediate concern was the tank armed with a 75 mm cannon.  While an 88mm cannon was more powerful and would pass clear through even our heaviest tank, the 75mm would pass through one armored side then rattle around and do worse damage to everything and everyone inside.

Compare the cannon bore of our Light M3 Tank on the left with the bore of the 75mm Tiger on the right.  Wider track and raised cleats gave the Tiger better traction.  The solid armor of the Tiger easily deflected our 37 mm cannon shot.  Superior speed was our best defense.
Compare the cannon bore of our Light M3 Tank on the left with the bore of the 75mm Tiger on the right. Wider track and raised cleats gave the Tiger better traction. The solid armor of the Tiger easily deflected our 37 mm cannon shot. Superior speed was our best defense.

My lieutenant was quick to order two of our light tanks straight ahead toward the Germans and closer to the wadi and then attempted to turn around in the soft sand on the side of the narrow road.  Seconds later,  they were both bottomed out, off the road, and stuck.  His command of the situation disintegrated.   With more courage than sense, the lieutenant ordered his command tank to fire two 37mm shots at the German Tiger Tank, even though neither shot had a chance of penetrating the front armor of a Tiger tank.  To this day, I thank God that the German tank never returned fire. 

I asked the lieutenant “Do you want me to put the grousers on the stuck vehicles?”

Grousers would improve the traction of rubber cleats in soft sandy conditions.

His next order completely baffled me and my driver as he looked at us, he said,  “No. Just get the hell out of here.”   

I have never before or since received an order like that.  The other lieutenant also ordered two of his engineers to leave with us.   Then, both lieutenants left with the rest of our men and went toward the wadi before flanking left into old and scrubby olive trees that reached a couple feet higher than our light tanks.  That was last I saw of 12 lightly armed men and two lieutenants, most of whom I knew.  Same outfit, same platoon, you get to know all the guys one way or another. 

Instead of running away immediately, I disobeyed a direct order.  I and my men waited for some sign of those who had just left.  Nothing.  Complete silence.   We waited, watching and listening for footsteps, crackling brush, shouts, gunfire, anything.  A few minutes later Germans begin to appear on our side of the wadi directly from the direction that our people had disappeared.  With the enemy now flanking us, we were learning, first hand, how good the Germans were at warfare.  We hit the ditch on the left side of the road and followed it toward a nearby mountain about ¾  mile away.   It lay in the general direction that led back to bivouac, and had the best cover for escape.  It would add days of walking, but the other options were open road or open desert.  With only rocks and sand for cover, and about 30 minutes to clear the area before being captured, I chose the longer route.   I figured if our buddies were still alive, we would make contact with them, because they were somewhere in the same cover we were in.  30 minutes later, we found no joy in making it safely through the undergrowth to the base of the mountain.  There was no sign of our friends.    Twelve good men and two lieutenants with more courage than sense were missing, and I knew that, at best, they had been captured.  I never saw them again. 

My medals read left to right: EFFICIENCY, HONOR, FIDELITY; AMERICAN DEFENCE; WORLD WAR II, (silver upper right) designates driver/mechanics badge, (small pin button) discharge free ride for vets or commonly called “RUPTURED DUCK MEDAL”; AMERICAN CAMPAIGN, and AMERICAN MIDDLE EASTERN CAMPAIGN.
My medals read left to right: EFFICIENCY, HONOR, FIDELITY; AMERICAN DEFENSE; WORLD WAR II, (silver upper right) designates driver/mechanics badge, (small pin button) discharge free ride for vets or commonly called “RUPTURED DUCK MEDAL”; AMERICAN CAMPAIGN, and AMERICAN MIDDLE EASTERN CAMPAIGN.

I had rank on the three men who followed me, so I was the one most responsible to get us all back to bivouac alive.  January nights get cold in the Central Tunisian desert, so we were grateful to find a stack of straw to burrow into for the night.  We needed rest to continue our march that could take days with limited rations.  There are no straight roads in the mountains, so an hour’s travel by tank on flat ground would take us nearly three days hiking.  No rank below lieutenant was given maps for fear of being captured with explicit information, so I had to guide us by point to point navigation, the same as I used growing up in rural Kingsley, Michigan.

On the second day of our march, we were still on the mountain, skirting a flat open area, when my driver spotted two men walking in nearly the opposite direction of our path.   As they drew closer, we could see that they wore American uniforms. One was a ranking officer, colonel or major,  accompanied by a private.  I talked with him a little bit about our situation. 

The officer said, “ I can’t see sending my troops into the mess that you have left just to get my men killed.” 

He looked dead serious however impossible his thinking was.   

I thought, “Here is this officer and a private on the flat open area of a mountain taking a Sunday walk.”

I didn’t see any of his troops, nor would he give me any more information about why they were there.  He didn’t say how long he had been walking or the circumstances that got him isolated from his command.   It sounded like he had pretty much lost his mind.  They didn’t want to join us in getting back.  It was the craziest thing I had ever seen, and I couldn’t figure out what to do with them.   I didn’t have rank to countermand any real or imagined mission he had.  We went on our own way.  They went theirs and we never saw them again.  On the third day, we found a unit of American 105mm artillery and caught a ride with them back to bivouac. 

"This $5.00 bill contains the names of nearly all the villages in central Tunisia where I reconnoitered.                                  Among them are Oran, Kasserine, Sbeitla, and Faid."
“This $5.00 bill contains the names of nearly all the villages in central Tunisia where I reconnoitered. Among them are Oran, Kasserine, Sbeitla, and Faid.”

My First Armored division had darker days ahead at Kasserine and Faid Passes.  At Kasserine Pass, I was part of a reconnaissance unit that watched from the heights of a nearby mountain while Combat Command C suffered huge losses.  They didn’t have anything for protection in open desert caught between two mountains with deadly German artillery concealed in rugged slopes over a mile away, but that is another story.  And another story is about being pinned down at Anzio more than four months, where winning the war became more remote and less important than surviving each day.


In Search of the American Chestnut

In my spare time I read field guides—books that help me identify flowering plants, ferns, salamanders, fossils, and insects.  It has always been so—going back to my grade school years—and I make no apologies for it.  Such a hobby, while unpromising as a source of wealth or useful knowledge, has no downsides as far as I can see.  And frequently it leads me onto pathways of delight, whenever a fringed gentian in a marsh comes to my attention, a fossil crinoid discovered upon the beach, or an ant lion pit dug along a sandy trail.  Field guides make such delights possible.

So it was that I picked up Barnes and Wagner’s Michigan Trees to spend a profitable quarter hour before bed.  The page opened to the American Chestnut and there on page 208 the following passage appeared:

A plantation of chestnut trees, established in 1910 in Benzie Co., gave rise to a stand of several thousand offspring (Thompson, 1969).  

Checking the source (Thompson, 1969) at the back of the book, I discovered that an obscure Michigan journal, the Michigan Academician, published the original paper describing the plantation.  Could I get a copy of it and find out if this mysterious grove of chestnuts still existed, disease-free?

European Chestnut leaves, image courtesy of the author.
European Chestnut leaves, image courtesy of the author.

Here it is necessary to provide background for my curiosity.  The American chestnut, Castanea dentata,  was a grand component of the eastern American hardwood forest throughout the nineteenth century.  In Michigan it naturally penetrated as far north as St. Clair county and was locally abundant in Monroe and Wayne counties in Southeastern Michigan.  Beginning about 1900 the tree suffered the attack of a vicious fungus, Cryphonectria parasitica, likely imported from Asia, which destroyed American chestnuts everywhere.  By 1940 the tree had largely disappeared from American forests, though suckers from dead trees continued to sprout for years afterwards, only to die upon reaching maturity.

The American chestnut should be distinguished from the horsechestnut, Aesculus hippocastanea, a tree commonly planted around homes.  That tree, a permanent resident arrived from Europe after white settlement here, displays candelabras of white blossoms in June, finally producing inedible nuts that resemble chestnuts in appearance.  Contrary to expectation, it is not enjoyed by horses, neither the leaves nor the nuts, though folklore insists it cures COPD in those animals.

American chestnuts were planted in the Grand Traverse area from early times.  I had seen individual trees planted near farms on Old Mission peninsula and had heard stories of trees planted elsewhere nearby.  But had a whole grove of them survived, a grove planted in 1910?  If they still lived, the trees would be more than a hundred years old.  They would be magnificent.

The Grand Traverse Conservancy provided the key that would unlock the mystery of the hidden chestnut grove.  In response to my query, Conservancy staffer Angie Lucas, plant expert extraordinaire, e-mailed me the Michigan Academician article.  And there it was: the information I needed to find the chestnuts:

The grove, owned by James Rogers, is located at Chimney Corners (SE ¼ Sect. 35, T27N, R16W) at the top of the Point Betsie Moraine, a massive 300-foot glacial ridge which flanks the north shore of Crystal Lake.

I live in Traverse City and am scarcely familiar with Crystal Lake, but I had a human resource that would guide me to the proper coordinates: Dan Palmer, resident of Leelanau county, knowledgeable in forestry, brought up in Frankfort, and familiar with the back trails of Benzie county.  We would explore the north of Crystal Lake and find these trees hidden in Chimney Corners.

To those who know Benzie County, Chimney Corners is hardly obscure.  It is a venerable resort with roots going back to the early twentieth century.  The lodge stands now as it did in 1908, its stone fireplace dominating the space as you enter, grooved beadboard woodwork, electric lights from an earlier time, collections of beach reading from the fifties, and the grit of sand on hardwood floors.  The proprietors kindly allowed us to walk the ridge to see the chestnuts: Just follow “chestnut trail,” they said.

The three-hundred foot moraine was surmounted with breathlessness as our party proceeded up the trail.  It was a steep climb through a maple, beech, and basswood forest of moderate age, but there was no sign of the sharply toothed leaves of Castanea dentata.  Were we in the right place?

Then, up ahead, a clue, though not a felicitous one.  An enormous white skeleton of a tree stripped of its bark with many of its larger branches fallen roundabout stood out in the shade of taller trees.  It was long dead, likely a chestnut, given its size and location.  My hopes dropped: They were gone, all of them.

European Chestnut bur, image courtesy of the author.
European Chestnut bur, image courtesy of the author.

Still, we kept walking and along the trail were more dead trees, but some of them had suckers at the base that brandished the green leaves of living chestnuts.  The forest floor, though, was not littered with the burs that encased the shiny chestnuts.  Reproduction was not happening here: the shoots would live for a decade and die before flowering.  The chestnut grove was doomed.

As we walked out of the forest, there were more dead trees, but as we came into a sunnier place, the chestnut suckers—offshoots–were more robust, as much as five inches in diameter, some of them reaching twenty-five feet or more into the sky.  Green spikes of flowers appeared at the end of twigs, vague promises that chestnuts might be found in autumn at this place.  We found a few burs from last year, the chestnuts missing from inside, either because the trees had not enough energy to make the nuts or because squirrels had devoured them.

Cankers caused by Cryphonectria parasitica appeared on the small stems of the chestnut suckers: the trees were unhealthy and would not live much longer.  It would be a race between their mortality and their ability to produce nuts that would grow into the next generation.  Remembering the fate of the white giants within the forest, I would bet on the fungus to destroy the trees before they could reproduce.   There is good reason that Castanea dentata disappeared from the eastern United States.

The story could end here, but there is another thread to follow.  The Grand Traverse Conservancy has just acquired a beautiful parcel of land from the estate of Naomi Borwell. Located just inside Manistee county off Manistee County Line Road, it offers a diversity of habitats: hardwood forests, deep valleys, frontage on the Betsie River, swamps, and a developed farm planted with a variety of interesting trees: spruces, birches, hawthorns—even a row of shagbark hickories—unusual in this part of Michigan.  Best of all, there is a grove of American chestnuts with diameters of twelve inches, standing 45 feet high—though the ugly cankers on the large branches indicate the disease has penetrated here, too.  You get the feeling the chestnut plantation is waiting its doom–which lurks in its very near future.

In nature it is unfair to take sides, though we do it all the time.  Cryphonectria parasitica depends upon American chestnuts for its survival, but the fungus does not charm us with its form or grace.  I have read of numerous attempts to hybridize the American chestnut with Asian forms that have a degree of resistance to the disease: you can learn about those efforts at the American Chestnut Foundation,  It seems likely that blight-resistant chestnuts with American chestnut features will become available within a decade or two, though the degree of resistance has not been determined as of now.

Perhaps it will be years before we can obtain American chestnuts to plant beside our homes without fear of the fungus destroying the trees, but when that time comes, I will be among the first to get them, God willing.  With its glorious history in our forests, its stately grace, its delicious fruit, the American chestnut is too splendid for us to abandon.


Sometimes stories refuse to end, no matter how hard you try to bring them to a conclusion. A friend at the public library informed me that he was quite sure a Michigan champion American Chestnut could be found at the end of Old Mission Peninsula. After a few days he emailed me the specifics: according to the Michigan Botanist, Volume 37, 1995, an enormous tree could be found off Old Mission Road, quite close to the country store, a bit past a curve, off a drive heading towards a cherry orchard. Could it still exist 20 years later?

Author at base of blight-free American Chestnut on Old Mission, 28 May 2015.
Author at base of blight-free, Michigan champion American Chestnut on Old Mission, 28 May 2015.

How could anyone do anything but drive out there and find out?   Surprisingly, the directions were easy to follow and, with the help of a neighbor, Jim Hilt, my friend Marlas Hanson and I soon observed a tree towering in front of us, an American Chestnut far larger than any we had seen heretofore. Its trunk was split into three stems, twisted each one of them, and the canopy spread above over a wide area. It showed a few dead limbs, but it was alive—and not in bad shape for an old tree. There was no evidence of chestnut blight.

However, there was something peculiar about the tree: one would expect American Chestnut saplings round about, planted by squirrels that forgot where they sequestered the nuts, perhaps. But there were none to be found—not one. A few old burs from the previous year were scattered around the base of the tree, the nuts gone. It looked as if the tree had bothered to produce the spiny burs, but either they were empty from the start or else contained nuts that were infertile—or maybe every single one had been consumed by wildlife. In any case this American Chestnut had no offspring.

Immature leaves of the National Champion American Chestnut on Old Mission, 28 May 2015.
Immature leaves of the Michigan champion American Chestnut on Old Mission, 28 May 2015.

A puzzle: Does the very character that makes the tree infertile cause it to be resistant to blight? In other words, this tree—and another located three farms away—are the only ones I have seen that have not succumbed to the disease. Do they avoid blight because they are incapable of reproducing? Or is the answer simpler–that the champion Michigan tree needs other chestnuts nearby in order to obtain pollen for fertilization and that its infertility has nothing to do with its resistance? I do not know the answer, but I would like to find out–but to investigate that thread would take another year or two or five, and this story must end sometime. And so, let us end it here for now.

Richard Fidler is co-editor of Grand Traverse Journal.