Category Archives: History

Articles on local history for the Grand Traverse Region. Local histories reveal the social and cultural conditions that shaped a community. Articles in this feature can range from topics as diverse as the construction of transportation systems and buildings to the operation of businesses and social clubs.

“What a Tangled Web We Weave, When We Practice to Deceive”: A Researcher Exposes an Early-Twentieth-Century Con Man

INTRODUCTION

Genealogists and historical researchers are detectives.  They untangle complicated relationships, some of them hidden from the view of the societies of yesterday and today.  Sometimes confusion occurs because of missing documents, unclear handwriting, mistakes in spelling names and places, and sometimes—rarely—it occurs because of outright deception.  In this piece Julie Schopieray uses all of the tools of the trade of genealogical research to reveal how a local man, Glenn W. Curtis, deceived women all over the United States, convincing them to marry him, and eventually absconding with their wealth, jewelry, and, no doubt, their self-respect.  It is a detective story in the tradition of Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie.

—Richard Fidler, editor, the Grand Traverse Journal

As a research volunteer for the historical society, I respond to incoming emails which occasionally include requests for help with finding obituaries or other genealogical data on family members who lived in the Traverse City area. A request came from a woman who was hoping to discover what had happened to her grandfather, Glenn W. Curtis, and  to confirm the true identity of her grandmother.  She told me that for  over 35 years she has tried to find out where Curtis ended up and that very little was found for the whereabouts of her grandfather. Not one to back down from a good research challenge, I took on the search for this mysterious man and his wife.

Using the names and dates provided by my email correspondent, I started my search by familiarizing myself with the Curtis family. I followed their life using online biographies, census and marriage records on Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.org and learned  that they settled in Traverse City in 1894. Because the family had already exhausted traditional genealogy resources, I  started an online newspaper search. As it turned out, searching newspapers was the best tool I could have used for this quest.  Because the scope of this story ended up being so widespread, finding any results would have been impossible without digitized newspapers from across the nation.

I started by searching in the local paper, looking for any mention of Glenn Curtis. My first clue was a small notice which stated that he had gotten married:   “The friends of Glen W Curtis will be surprised to learn that he is married, his wedding occurred last month in Florida.”  [Grand Traverse Herald 3-28- 1907]  To back this up, I checked the Florida marriage records on Ancestry.com. There I found Glenn W. Curtis of Traverse City marrying Emma Tillack on Feb. 8, 1907 in Volusia Co., Florida. That is all fine and dandy, except that the woman who asked for my help had a completely different name for her grandmother– Catherine Flusch. For forty years, she had assumed that was her grandmother’s name. That information came from her father’s birth certificate acquired from the county clerk in 1976.

Because the name was nothing like the 1907 marriage information, I decided to try to find the original birth record, which was on microfilm at our local LDS Family History Center, and discovered that there was a spelling mistake on the last name. The 1976 clerk then misspelled the name from the 1908 record resulting in the name FLUSCH.

Image courtesy of the author.

I asked the LDS volunteer how she thought the information would have been given to the county clerk in 1908. She said the midwife likely would have provided the information to the city clerk by keeping her notes in a personal ledger, that information shared with the city or county to be written in the official liber. In 1908, the name was interpreted by the clerk as Fulsch but was likely just human error in transcribing the name Tillack– which easily could be misinterpreted depending on penmanship of the midwife. (See the photo of signatures, left,  and visualize how TILLACK would look in cursive.)

Another strange twist in this name mystery which confused me even more, is an article I found from 1909 telling of a visit from the father of Mrs. Glenn W. Curtis. The article stated that he had come from Berlin, Germany along with her brother Earl and gave his name as August Ponsaning. That surname does not match ANY of the names associated with the first wife of Glenn W. Curtis.  There will be more on this later.

Glenn W. Curtis, palmist.

Glenn Willis Curtis was the only surviving child of George Washington Curtis and Etta Smith Curtis, born March 20, 1882 in Wheeler, Gratiot, Co., MI.  Geo. W. Curtis was a highly respected and successful man. Well educated, he first started out his professional life as a physician, but turned to law, passing the bar exam in 1891. The family settled in Traverse City in 1894 where he set up a law practice, sold real estate and served as judge and Justice of the Peace for many years. Their son Glenn was described in the History of Roscommon County (1895) as “a bright lad of twelve years. He is receiving a good education, and as he has displayed musical ability, is receiving instruction in that line as well.

It wasn’t until around 1903, when in his early twenties, that there was any indication that Glenn was of questionable character. Small, curious snippets of information start around 1900 when Glenn was eighteen, mentioning him coming to visit his parents from various places– Grand Rapids and Louisville, Kentucky. At first, I assumed his travels were job-related. I was soon to learn it was a job, but not what I had expected. I expanded my newspaper search from only Traverse City, to all states to see what I could find.

Starting in January 1903, articles from out of the state began to appear. The earliest one I found which explained his occupation was in the Grand Rapids Press, dated May 5, 1903.

Palm Reading Artist in Jail.  From a Professorof palmistry to a vagabond, and thence to a cell in the county jail– that is the sad fall of Professor Robert T. Glenn, alias Glenn W. Curtis. Curtis was arrested, together with Fred Broughton, by Deputy Sheriff Gates at Pettis near Alpine Station yesterday afternoon. It was reported that they had been making a business of living off the people of the community. The Professor’sbelongings give evidence that however much the palmistry business may have gone to the dogs of late, yet it was once well worth his trouble. The officials at the county jail hold a large number of hand prints made upon smoked paper, by the use of which he was enabled to read the hands of people far away. There were a number of hand prints which had come from Traverse City, which Curtis gives as his home, as well as from Lansing and some from distant cities.

This major clue directed me back to the Traverse City papers which had several more small articles about Curtis and his surprising profession as a palm reader. Curtis came back to Traverse City after being released from the Grand Rapids jail and set up shop on Front Street. His ad in the Evening Record says “PROF. GLENN, PALMIST, 225 East Front Street.  Come and learn what science says in regard to your life.”  Less than year later he was in trouble again. He had taken his business to the nearby village of Kalkaska, where he was accused of not paying for his boarding house and scamming people who came to him for a palm reading.

PALMIST IN TROUBLE  Professor Glenn Curtis Said to Have Been Mixed Up in His Financial Matters– Prof. Glenn Curtis, the palmist has been arrested and taken to Kalkaska where he will account for some money he is alleged to have secured possession of without giving anything in return as well as jumping a board bill. It is claimed he played this game late last fall and left for parts unknown. About a week ago he strolled back into this city, which is his home, and the local officers spotted him and notified the Kalkaska authorities who came here and got him. He had a companion with him who was also wanted by the Kalkaska officers but upon Prof.Glenn, as he is called, agreeing to make good or all, they did not take his companion back with him. The only thing the professor is lamenting over is the fact that he is billed for a lecture in St. Louis in about a month and is afraid that this little trouble will prevent him reaching there in time.[Traverse City Evening Record  22 April,1904]

After a few more nation-wide newspaper searches, I was able to find an article in the April 8, 1907 Live Oak (Florida) Democrat which confirmed his marriage in Florida, and matches the description given by the father of the woman I am helping, of how his parents had met, which was this: “He said that his father courted his mother pretending not to be able to speak.” It also accounts for Curtis’s whereabouts between April and November 1907.

THE DUMB MAN SPEAKS

Madison, April 6.– Last Monday night a man registered at the Lines house as Prof. G. Willis Curtis, and with his wife was assigned a room. The next morning he was found to be a deaf and dumb palmist, who was desiring to pull aside the veil from the future for $1.00 per head. His business was not prosperous, principally for the reason that some traveling men at the hotel had heard him talking in Live Oak the day before. After supper, about a dozen travelling men in the hotel office sent for the palmist to come down, which he did at once. With his ready pencil and tablet he wrote out the fortunes, past and future, of several. The men knowing his deaf and dumb nature to be only assumed, were anxious to find out his reason for travelling in this manner.  Then finally, by threats, got him to talk. He said in explanation of his assumed role, that he was under an oath to support himself for two years as a deaf and dumb man, and to report to Chicago August 17, 1907, with a wife whom he had won as a deaf and dumb man. His stories conflicted in several details, yet those present decided to leave him alone, provided he leave the state.

He left for Valdosta on the 6:40 train the next morning, and nothing was thought of the man until the clerk of the hotel reported that a suit of new clothes and a pair of shoes belonging to a guest of the house had been taken from the room which the palmist and his wife had occupied.

The train on which they had gone was not yet to Valdosta yet, so Prof. W.B. Date wired the chief of police at Valdosta to arrest the man. In an hour of so Sheriff Stanton received a message to come and get the man woman and clothes. This he did, returning to Madison on the late train last night

The woman explained the matter by saying she thought the clothes belonged to her husband, as he had referred to them as being some new clothes he had bought.

The couple claim to have been married recently in DeLand, where the woman has been teaching German, she says.

Curtis pleaded guilty at his trial this morning before Judge Martin. The court then fined him $150, or six months in jail. Curtis gave notice that he would file motion for a new trial and went back to jail.

Six months later, the exact length of his sentence, “G. Willis Curtis” is back in Traverse City and advertising- “Consult G. Willis Curtis, Palmist, Phrenologist, Astrologer, 217 East Front, up stairs.”   Going against the warnings of the men at the hotel, on Dec. 5, 1907, Curtis  headed back to Florida “where he will spend some time traveling over the state, and will also travel in other states, carrying on his profession of palmistry”  It is believed he left his wife behind in Traverse City. It was after his release from the Florida jail when she became pregnant with his son. It seems this was the last time Curtis was in Traverse City.

According to a 1909 article, Emma resided in a boarding house a block from Glenn’s father and step-mother. With her husband out of town, his parents paid her board and helped her during her pregnancy.  According to later recollections of Emma and Glenn’s son, George, Judge Curtis referred to Emma as “his little black kitten”. The birth of George A. Curtis was noted in the paper in late August 1908. Emma stayed in town at least until mid-1909 when the paper announced the visit of her father and a brother.  It is this article in which the name given for her father is August Ponsaning. It is confusing because PONSANING does not match the surname on her marriage license or the name on the son’s birth certificate. The only possibility is that it was a mistake made by the reporter. Even after hours of searching, I came up with nothing even close to this name.

Searching newspapers for more on Glenn and Emma Curtis, I found nothing for about the next four years.  The only solid clue for this time period is a 1913 divorce record found on Ancestry.com in Wayne Co., Michigan, but because the last name of the woman is left off the document, it only complicated the mystery.  It had to be “our Glenn” because the marriage date and location match the Florida record exactly. The divorce was granted– the reason was stated as desertion. It seems he just plain abandoned her and his son.

The family believed Mrs. Curtis took her son to Hartford, CT, to stay with Emma’s aunt, Ida (Enders) Langdon, on and off between his birth and 1915.  Mrs. Langdon was mentioned in a 1909 article which described the Traverse City visit of Emma’s father. Ida Langdon, came on that trip as well. The article states that Emma’s father had taken ill with typhoid fever when he arrived in the country and a sister-in-law took him to her home in Hartford for a month until he recovered.

Mrs. Emma (Tillack) Curtis and her son George can not be conclusively located anywhere in the 1910 census. George himself stated in a 1971 Social Security document that he lived with his grandfather in Traverse City until he was 5 1/2 but he is not listed in the household of Judge George Curtis in 1910 or anywhere else that can be determined.  An Emma Curtis is found working as a servant for a family in Arenac County, MI  in 1910 and is about the same age, but her birth place is listed as Michigan, so it’s not positive she is the right person. A Louise Curtis is found in a 1912 Detroit directory working as a waiter, but again, there is no evidence it is her even though according to the 1913 obituary for her brother, Emma Curtis was living in Detroit. Around this time she started using the first name Louise or Louisa instead of Emma which added to the confusion.  We know it was there where she filed for divorce and officially ended her relationship with Glenn W. Curtis.

She isn’t conclusively found until the 1920 census where she and her son George are in Philadelphia, where she is married to George Fisher. A 1971 Social Security document backs up the theory that young George Curtis seemingly spent more time in Hartford than with his own mother. “When my grandfather died [in 1914] I went to live with my aunt. I lived with my mother again when I was about 10 yrs old until I was 12 yrs old. [1918-1920] I then went back to my Aunt to live again.

Nothing much is found of palm-reader Curtis between 1907-1914, but it is believed he was in New York City by 1914. Searching the 1910 census resulted in nothing. He is not  found in any census record after 1900 because he rarely used his real name or stayed in any one place very long.

As it is obvious he left Traverse City for good, likely at the urging of his own father, the next step was to continue the search in out of state newspapers. Several more articles were found by using keywords such as “palmist”, “clairvoyant”,  “Glenn”, “Glen”,  “Willis” and “Curtis”  in various arrangements. What was found is fascinating.

It seems he took his business all across the country.  Little is found between 1908-1917 but it is possible he was in Joplin, Missouri the first half of 1910 then, in New York City between June and December where ads are found for “Prof. Curtis and Mme. Astro” on W. 38th St.  Similar advertisements are found for “Prof. Curtis” in Arkansas City, Kansas in 1912. Whether this is him or not is not certain. The only definite location I found him during this period in was St. Joseph, Missouri where he was arrested in 1913. “Glenn Curtis, a palmist and clairvoyant, was on Thursday sent to jail for fifty days by Judge Allee for practicing without a license.” [St. Joseph [MO] Observer 22 Feb, 1913]

In 1914, Glenn’s father, George W. Curtis, died at the State Hospital in Traverse City, of “organic brain disease”, what is now called dementia, possibly caused by a stroke or other physical illness. He had continued to practice until about a year before his death.  His obituary stated that his son Glenn was in New York City and his grandson in Hartford. What makes finding documentation for these statements difficult is that they fall in between census years. Children are not listed in city directories, so no other sources are available to confirm where young George and his mother were living during these years.

It appears that Glenn Curtis was in New York City as stated in his father’s 1914 obituary. A marriage record was discovered which shows that on 30 Dec, 1915, Glenn married Mary Josephine Glynn.  Her story is interesting too. She was the daughter of an Irish immigrant father who worked in the coal mines of east-central Pennsylvania.  Her parents made the news in 1889 when Mary was just a toddler: they were accused of poisoning several family members in order to profit from life insurance policies. Several of their close relatives mysteriously died, each with similar symptoms as a result of arsenic poisoning, including Edward Glynn’s own parents. Each of these people had insurance policies to be paid to Edward.  Six months after her first husband mysteriously died, Edward married Mary Halpin, his first cousin. Together they had several children, one being Mary Josephine.

After their arrest, the couple spent several months in jail, but were acquitted due to lack of solid evidence.

Mrs. Glynn died suddenly in 1890, which looked suspicious, but her death was from heart troubles, not poisoning. Edward Glynn was arrested again in 1904 for arson and sent to prison.

Obviously, Mary J. Glynn had a difficult childhood. She likely left home as soon as she was old enough and headed to New York City to find work. How she met Glenn Curtis is unknown. Did he fool her with his deaf-mute palmist act too? Where she ended up isn’t certain, but it is probable she returned to Pittston, PA and lived with two of her brothers because by 1916, Glenn Curtis had abandoned her too.

In 1916 Glenn Curtis left New York and headed to the west coast. As pieces fall together from newspaper searches, it seems he was on a mission to marry as many women as he could. Over the next three years, Curtis would marry at least three women—using false names—then take their money and disappear.

He was working under several aliases during this period:  Rodney S. Stone,  Frederick Z. Jackson and Frederick George Carrington.  As Rodney S. Stone, in January 1917, the “deaf-dumb fortune-teller” is found in Roseberg, Oregon for a few days before someone became suspicious and caught on to his act. The “gentlemanly appearing fellow…he was about as near perfect–physically, mentally and otherwise…he was smooth, sleek and cunning…He fakeda nice living and among his customers he counted many of our prominent and leading citizens. They fellfor him just like a baby would fall for a stick of barber-polecandy– and realized not until today that they had been touched upby a very clever mute.The fellow registered as Rodney Stone…”  “He purchased a ticket south– to where– well, to where he can ply his vocation just as successfully as he did in Roseburg…[Roseberg News-Review, 21 Jan, 1917]

Later that year, he was practicing  “Phrenology and Applied Psychology” in Los Angeles as Rodney S. Stone.

In 1918 I found him in Alameda, Oakland Co. California, where he registered for the  World War One draft. The day of birth he lists on the registration matches perfectly, though is one year off from his Michigan birth record.  He lists his occupation as “accountant” and his contact as Marion Curtis in Pittston, PA. His second wife Mary was from Pittston, and it’s possible that even though by this time he had moved on and left her behind as he did with his previous wife, he twisted her name a bit just to have someone to put on this registration form. His physical description was that he was of slender build, 5’10” tall, with blue eyes and blonde hair. Here in California, having perfected his time-tested ploy to win a wife—he struck again, this time one winning one with money. His actual name comes up in this amusing article from the Sept. 27, 1919 Oakland Tribune. You can tell the reporter thoroughly enjoyed writing this article.

Plays Mute to Win Bride, Charge- Husband and Money are Missing–

SAN FRANCISCO, Sept. 27– Alleging that her husband had pretended that he was a deaf mute in order to marry her and gain from her a small fortune, Mrs. Leona Jackson, San Diego bookstore proprietor and business woman, is on her way to the southern city today in an endeavor to procure a warrant for her spouse, Fred Jackson, otherwise known as Glen Curtis, after consulting with Attorneys Albert Roche and Peter Ibos here as to the status on which she might obtain a divorce and $7000 which, she said, her mate possesses in bad faith.

Mrs. Jackson told the local lawyers that she went to a local contracting firm, where she found her husband had once worked, and, after exhibiting his photograph, found that fellow employees and employers recognized him as Glen Curtis who had lost his position there because he talked too much. During four months of courtship in San Diego, she avers, Jackson or Curtis never uttered a  word– exclaiming once in a while, Ah-h-h!but nothing more.

The novelty of having ones fortune told by a deaf mute palmist appealed to San Diegans, according to Mrs. Jackson, and the man built up a brisk business, advising commercial men and housewives on certain problems close to their hearts. At last he prevailed upon the wealthy woman to marry him, she said, also getting from her consent to sell out the bookstore business and leave the southern city.

That they were going on the stage together Jackson told her, is Mrs. Jacksons statement, and they left for New York shortly afterward. Her suspicions were first aroused, it is alleged, when a man on the train came from the smoking car and told her that her husband had given the best talk on the League of Nations that he had ever heard. In New York they purchased an automobile, the woman told her attorneys, and started overland to San Francisco. Three weeks ago they arrived, following which Jackson silently bade goodbye to his wife and left for the south, pleading business. He never returned, the woman says, and now she is looking for her money and her husband or a long explanatory speech.

Using the names in this 1919 article, I started searching available California newspapers online. Several more articles connected to this story added yet more questions and resulted in further searches with the various alias names Curtis was using. Keeping the newspaper keyword searches limited to the years 1919-1922, but open to all locations, I discovered  that, after he left Mrs. “Jackson” in 1919, he fled to Texas where he met Miss Sammie Lane Tate, who, at the time, was in her mid-40s and from a prominent Waco family. A small newspaper article was found stating that the friends of Miss Tate would be surprised to know that she was quietly married in New Orleans on Dec. 6 to Rodney S. Stone of Washington D.C. None of her friends were aware of any relationship and definitely not one with Mr. “Stone”.

Mrs. Tate-Stone returned to Waco within a month and is listed in the city directories as “widow of” Rodney Stone. No Rodney S. Stone can be found in any records for Texas or Washington D.C., or anywhere else for that matter.  Also, no official marriage record can be found. After contacting a family member who had Miss Tate in her Ancestry.com family tree, I was told that the marriage by Miss Tate and the mysterious Mr. Stone was rarely discussed. She came back to Waco and told everyone that he had died. It must have been an embarrassing situation for a Baylor-educated woman to fall for a suave con man.

When Mrs. Cleora/Cora (Lane) Jackson’s fraudulent marriage and desire for divorce made the California newspapers in 1921, another woman came forward with a similar tale. Mrs. Ida Trost, a widow from Galveston, Texas had met the deaf-mute Frederick George Carrington through a friend.  “Carrington…through correspondence, told [Mrs Trost] of a proposed vaudeville act he was considering, stated that he was a war correspondent for the Associated Press, and eventually proposed marriage…They were married in El Paso and his wishhe told her, was that he would regain his hearing and speech. He was able to speak English, Spanish and German on the day of their marriage.” [Riverside Independent Enterprise,1921] They were married on February 26,1921 just a few months after his marriage to Miss Tate.  They took a short honeymoon, then moved to Riverside, California where after a short time he took $1200, diamonds, a gold watch, and then vanished.

After reading in the newspaper account of what Mrs. Jackson had gone through, and seeing similarities, Ida Trost Carrington contacted the police.  “If I get a chance I shall surely go to Los Angeles to identify him,said Mrs. Carrington last night. If he is the same man who married Mrs. Jackson Ill press a charge of bigamy in addition to the other charges. If he treated both of us in that way theres no telling how many women he may have deceived. I will press every possible charge against the man…If I had not been interested in spiritualism I dont suppose I should have believed everything he told me. Nothing can make me believe he did not have some sort of power over me. I believed him implicitly.” [Riverside Independent Enterprise, 17 April, 1921]

What is interesting is that so many seemingly well-educated and intelligent women fell for the deaf-mute palmist routine.   At least, four or more women succumbed to Curtis’s charms using this method. Whether he fathered more children is also unknown.

It is also interesting that he used the name Carrington. He was well aware of a man named Hereward Carrington who, during this time, was a well-known investigator of psychics, mediums and spiritualism, writing over 100 books on the subject and was known for exposing fraudulent mediums. Perhaps Curtis had read some of his books and picked up tips for his own business.

An article in the Riverside (CA) Enterprise  dated  March 20, 1921 gives  some details about the relationship between “Carrington” and Ida Trost.  It reveals that Curtis knew of the famous Carrington.  In fact, he had told Ida that he could be reached in New York by sending mail to him care of Hereward Carrington– that the man was an uncle. However, it is just another of many fibs he told the women he married. The most telling detail in the article which solidly ties “Carrington” to Glenn W. Curtis of Traverse City is taken from a letter he wrote to Ida which, in the article, includes his birth date where he claims he will inherit a fortune on his 40th birthday, March 20, 1922. The chances of  this being a coincidence is slim– Michigan birth records show that Glenn W. Curtis was born in Wheeler, Gratiot Co., on March 20, 1882. The same article gives a physical description as well, which matches the 1918 draft registration form he filled out in Oakland, California as Glenn Willis Curtis– “Carrington is described as follows: age 39, but looks 48: height, 5 feet, 10 inches; weight, 125 pounds; blue eyes; light hair and bald; walks with slight stoop; claims to have heart trouble and is subject to hemorrhages.” [Riverside Independent Enterprise 20 March, 1921]

One more piece of solid evidence was discovered once I learned the previous surname of Cleona Jackson and located the 1919 marriage record. On the marriage license, “Jackson” lists his father’s real first and middle names, his mother’s real name (Etta Smith) and listing his place of birth as Michigan. This to me, is the clincher– Frederick Z. Jackson was  Glenn W. Curtis.

An article in the Los Angeles Times included a photograph of Mr. & Mrs Frederick Z. Jackson but unfortunately, the microfilmed image of the man is terribly blurry. It is our only clue as to what he looked like.

Even though he was sought for several years, there is no evidence that Curtis/Stone/Jackson/Carrington was ever found and charged for these particular crimes. It is believed he headed back east and to New York after this flurry of activity.

It wouldn’t be the last time Curtis would use a fake name and woo a wealthy wife. The next known incident is all the way across the country in New York state five years later. The “modus operandi” once again fits. A 1926 Rochester, New York newspaper article tells of Glenn W. Curtis being arrested– charges brought by his wife Edith F. Sturdevant, a well-to-do widow.

This time he had been posing as a Congregational minister using the name James Alexander Waterhouse and somehow charmed her into marrying him.  He used mostly made up family names on the marriage license, lied about his age (added ten years– because she was ten years older), but did give a birth place of Owosso, Michigan (where his father’s relatives were from) and again used his father’s real first name, George. Searches of census, vital statistic and city directories prove that no James Waterhouse of Owosso existed, or the people with the other names he listed on the marriage license.

Two months after they married, Mr. “Waterhouse” took $600 in cash, jewelry worth over $500 and on May 15, disappeared. He was “traced to New York, Philadelphia, Boston and back to Utica” and arrested. Charged with second degree grand larceny, he was held without bail.

I next contacted the Monroe Co., NY county clerk’s office to request a search for court records but there was nothing found under Waterhouse or Curtis for the years 1927-27. It is very likely that he spend a few months to a few years in jail.

It is here that the trail dropped off. Nothing further came up after 1926 using the same keywords in searches.  Having exhausted all the online records I could find,  I decided to contact a researcher in Rochester to see if she could help.

She first searched the New York state death records and quickly discovered one for a Glenn Curtis who died in 1936. She sent for a copy which ended up being our man. It revealed the sad end to Glenn Curtis’s life.

His death occurred at a state institution in Marcy, NY. He had contracted syphilis, which left untreated, causes a condition called general paresis—an inflammation of the brain in the later stages of syphilis, causing progressive dementia and paralysis. He had suffered from the disease for over two years.  The death record also revealed that he had again married (#7 that we know of) to a woman named Evelyn. Nothing has been found about her or when/where they married.

Curtis was buried in Syracuse, NY though it is thought he may have resided in Buffalo, NY before he was institutionalized.  The record listed his occupation as “palmist” so he continued this practice right up to his death. It is a sad ending to this story, but the family now knows what happened to their grandfather. Even though he was quite a cad and conman, at least there is the satisfaction of knowing what became of him after their long search. It is doubtful that there is a grave marker for Glenn Curtis, but more research will be done to locate the exact cemetery and perhaps his grave.

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A FINAL NOTE

As a researcher, my goal was to answer the questions of the family as best as I could. One of the biggest desires for them was confirming the real name of Glenn Curtis’s first wife– their grandmother. After receiving a typed copy of his birth certificate in 1976, with the name Catherine Flusch as mother, they thought perhaps Glenn Curtis had fathered a child with another woman. However, no such person could be found. When I discovered the 1907 Florida marriage record, even before knowing the real story of Glenn Curtis, I realized that “Emma Tillack” would have had no reason to lie about her name, but after she became pregnant and was ultimately abandoned by this con man, a theory  considered was that perhaps she temporarily used a false name to alienate herself from the cad Glenn Curtis.  But after seeing the actual birth record with the clerk’s misinterpretation of the mother’s name, and again, a misspelling on the 1976 certificate, in my opinion, the name FLUSCH could be eliminated from this story.

Where “Catherine” came from is still uncertain. Emma/Louisa Tillack-Curtis married twice more, the first, in 1915, to George Fisher in Philadelphia, where she and son George are found in the 1920 census, and then again around 1925 to John H. Guise of Harrisburg, PA. The clues to her real name are also evident on her 1936 death certificate. Her father is listed as August Tillack. August– as stated in the 1909 article of him visiting, and Tillack as her last name on her  first marriage license.

 

In an effort to confirm the Tillack name, a search using various spellings was conducted in immigration records and the jackpot document was located. A passenger list for the ship Lessing, arriving in New York City in Sept. 1902 shows 11-year-old Emma TILLAK traveling with an aunt, Wilhelmina Gley. On the record it states that Emma would be in care of her aunt Ida Langdon of Hartford, Connecticut.

 

Ida’s exact relationship to Mrs. Curtis remained unclear until the discovery of an obituary and death record for a Max Tillack of Connecticut, who turned out to be Emma’s older brother. The obituary and death record for Max also solidifies the Tillack name. His death certificate lists his father as August Tillack and mother Augusta Enders, making their mother a sister to Ida Enders-Langdon of Hartford, Ct. The Social Security document discovered late in this research process also confirmed the name Louisa Tillack.  With all of these facts–the ship record, marriage, obituaries and death records, the family is now convinced that Glenn Curtis and Emma (Louise) Tillack were their grandparents.

 

The most important question that went unresolved for my patron family was what became of Glenn W. Curtis after 1905, the last Traverse City city directory he is listed in.  What is found in the newspaper accounts is better than fiction.

 

I ask myself—how likely it is that all of the characters in the ads and articles are about our Traverse City man? I say you’d have to go with the odds:  Even though there were hundreds of people working as palmists and clairvoyants during this time–in fact, every town seemed to have at least one and sometimes several–how many men in the country practiced palm reading and had/used the last name Glenn and Curtis? Not many.

 

Early on, he used some version of his real name though later he changed to completely different names. However, the name Glen Curtis was associated with the California episodes in several articles along with alias names which connects him to the articles using those names, and the fact that he repeatedly used the same method to fool people. This ties them all together and to the identity Glenn W. Curtis.

 

He traveled the country conning people–especially vulnerable, older, single or widowed women–his entire adult life.  Constantly on the run—changing his identity over and over—he disappears but only until another article appears describing once again, a con man with the same M. O., the deception and fraud perpetrated by a deaf-mute palmist in yet another town. How likely is it that others repeatedly used this same kind of trickery?  Not likely at all.

 

The lack of evidence for certain periods is a combination of gaps in digitized newspapers, unknown aliases and possibly time spent in jail. His descendants ask what ultimately happened to him? Where and when did he die?  The family had heard various rumors for his demise– one

“What a Tangled Web We Weave, When We Practice to Deceive”

A Researcher Exposes an Early-Twentieth-Century Con Man

 

INTRODUCTION

 

Genealogists and historical researchers are detectives.  They untangle complicated relationships, some of them hidden from the view of the societies of yesterday and today.  Sometimes confusion occurs because of missing documents, unclear handwriting, mistakes in spelling names and places, and sometimes—rarely—it occurs because of outright deception.  In this piece Julie Schopieray uses all of the tools of the trade of genealogical research to reveal how a local man, Glenn W. Curtis, deceived women all over the United States, convincing them to marry him, and eventually absconding with their wealth, jewelry, and, no doubt, their self-respect.  It is a detective story in the tradition of Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie.

—Richard Fidler, editor, the Grand Traverse Journal

 

As a research volunteer for the historical society, I respond to incoming emails which occasionally include requests for help with finding obituaries or other genealogical data on family members who lived in the Traverse City area. A request came from a woman who was hoping to discover what had happened to her grandfather, Glenn W. Curtis, and  to confirm the true identity of her grandmother.  She told me that for  over 35 years she has tried to find out where Curtis ended up and that very little was found for the whereabouts of her grandfather. Not one to back down from a good research challenge, I took on the search for this mysterious man and his wife.

 

Using the names and dates provided by my email correspondent, I started my search by familiarizing myself with the Curtis family. I followed their life using online biographies, census and marriage records on Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.org and learned  that they settled in Traverse City in 1894. Because the family had already exhausted traditional genealogy resources, I  started an online newspaper search. As it turned out, searching newspapers was the best tool I could have used for this quest.  Because the scope of this story ended up being so widespread, finding any results would have been impossible without digitized newspapers from across the nation.

 

I started by searching in the local paper, looking for any mention of Glenn Curtis. My first clue was a small notice which stated that he had gotten married:   “The friends of Glen W Curtis will be surprised to learn that he is married, his wedding occurred last month in Florida.”  [Grand Traverse Herald 3-28- 1907]  To back this up, I checked the Florida marriage records on Ancestry.com. There I found Glenn W. Curtis of Traverse City marrying Emma Tillack on Feb. 8, 1907 in Volusia Co., Florida. That is all fine and dandy, except that the woman who asked for my help had a completely different name for her grandmother– Catherine Flusch. For forty years, she had assumed that was her grandmother’s name. That information came from her father’s birth certificate acquired from the county clerk in 1976.

 

Because the name was nothing like the 1907 marriage information, I decided to try to find the original birth record, which was on microfilm at our local LDS Family History Center, and discovered that there was a spelling mistake on the last name. The 1976 clerk then misspelled the name from the 1908 record resulting in the name FLUSCH.

 

I asked the LDS volunteer how she thought the information would have been given to the county clerk in 1908. She said the midwife likely would have provided the information to the city clerk by keeping her notes in a personal ledger, that information shared with the city or county to be written in the official liber. In 1908, the name was interpreted by the clerk as Fulsch but was likely just human error in transcribing the name Tillack– which easily could be misinterpreted depending on penmanship of the midwife. [see photo  and visualize how TILLACK would look in cursive]

 

Another strange twist in this name mystery which confused me even more, is an article I found from 1909 telling of a visit from the father of Mrs. Glenn W. Curtis. The article stated that he had come from Berlin, Germany along with her brother Earl and gave his name as August Ponsaning. That surname does not match ANY of the names associated with the first wife of Glenn W. Curtis.  There will be more on this later.

 

 

Glenn Willis Curtis was the only surviving child of George Washington Curtis and Etta Smith Curtis, born March 20, 1882 in Wheeler, Gratiot, Co., MI.  Geo. W. Curtis was a highly respected and successful man. Well educated, he first started out his professional life as a physician, but turned to law, passing the bar exam in 1891. The family settled in Traverse City in 1894 where he set up a law practice, sold real estate and served as judge and Justice of the Peace for many years. Their son Glenn was described in the History of Roscommon County (1895) as “a bright lad of twelve years. He is receiving a good education, and as he has displayed musical ability, is receiving instruction in that line as well.

 

It wasn’t until around 1903, when in his early twenties, that there was any indication that Glenn was of questionable character. Small, curious snippets of information start around 1900 when Glenn was eighteen, mentioning him coming to visit his parents from various places– Grand Rapids and Louisville, Kentucky. At first, I assumed his travels were job-related. I was soon to learn it was a job, but not what I had expected. I expanded my newspaper search from only Traverse City, to all states to see what I could find.

 

Starting in January 1903, articles from out of the state began to appear. The earliest one I found which explained his occupation was in the Grand Rapids Press, dated May 5, 1903.

 

Palm Reading Artist in Jail.  From a Professorof palmistry to a vagabond,         and thence to a cell in the county jail– that is the sad fall of Professor Robert T Glenn, alias Glenn W. Curtis. Curtis was arrested, together with Fred Broughton, by Deputy Sheriffs Gates at Pettis near Alpine Station yesterday afternoon. It was reported that they had been making a business of living off the people of the community. The “Professor’s” belongings give evidence that however much the palmistry business may have gone to the dogs of late, yet it was once well worth his trouble. The officials at the county jail hold a large number of hand prints made upon smoked paper, by the use of which he was enabled to read the hands of people far away. There were a number of hand prints which had come from Traverse City, which Curtis gives as his home, as well as from Lansing and some from distant cities.

 

This major clue directed me back to the Traverse City papers which had several more small articles about Curtis and his surprising profession as a palm reader. Curtis came back to Traverse City after being released from the Grand Rapids jail and set up shop on Front Street. His ad in the Evening Record says “PROF. GLENN, PALMIST, 225 East Front Street.  Come and learn what science says in regard to your life.”  Less than year later he was in trouble again. He had taken his business to the nearby village of Kalkaska, where he was accused of not paying for his boarding house and scamming people who came to him for a palm reading.

 

PALMIST IN TROUBLE  Professor Glenn Curtis Said to Have Been Mixed Up in His Financial Matters– Prof. Glenn Curtis, the palmist has been arrested and      taken to Kalkaska where he will account for some money he is alleged to have secured possession of without giving anything in return as well as jumping a board bill. It is claimed he played this game late last fall and left for parts unknown. About a week ago he strolled back into this city, which is his home, and the local officers spotted him and notified the Kalkaska authorities who came here and got him. He had a companion with him who was also wanted by the Kalkaska officers but upon Prof.Glenn, as he is called, agreeing to make good or all, they did not take his companion back with him. The only thing the “professor” is lamenting over is the fact that he is billed for a lecture in St. Louis in about a month and is afraid that this little trouble will prevent him reaching there in time.[Traverse City Evening Record  22 April,1904]

 

 

After a few more nation-wide newspaper searches, I was able to find an article in the April 8, 1907 Live Oak (Florida) Democrat which confirmed his marriage in Florida, and matches the description given by the father of the woman I am helping, of how his parents had met, which was this: “He said that his father courted his mother pretending not to be able to speak. It also accounts for Curtis’s whereabouts between April and November, 1907.

 

THE DUMB MAN SPEAKS

                       Madison, April 6.– Last Monday night a man registered at the Lines house as Prof. G. Willis Curtis, and with his wife was assigned a room. The next morning he was found to be a deaf and dumb palmist, who was desiring to pull aside the veil from the future for $1.00 per head. His business was not prosperous, principally for the reason that some traveling men at the hotel had heard him talking in Live Oak the day before. After supper, about a dozen travelling men in the hotel office sent for the palmist to come down, which he did at once. With his ready pencil and tablet he wrote out the fortunes, past and future, of several. The men knowing his deaf and dumb nature to be only assumed, were anxious to find out his reason for travelling in this manner.  Then finally, by threats, got him to talk. He said in explanation of his assumed role, that he was under an oath to support himself for two years as a deaf and dumb man, and to report to Chicago August 17, 1907, with a wife whom he had won as a deaf and dumb man. His stories conflicted in several details, yet those present decided to leave him alone, provided he leave the state.

           He left for Valdosta on the 6:40 train the next morning, and nothing was thought of the man until the clerk of the hotel reported that a suit of new clothes and a pair of shoes belonging to a guest of the house had been taken from the room which the palmist and his wife had occupied.

           The train on which they had gone was not yet to Valdosta yet, so Prof. W.B. Date wired the chief of police at Valdosta to arrest the man. In an hour of so Sheriff Stanton received a message to come and get the man woman and clothes. This he did, returning to Madison on the late train last night

           The woman explained the matter by saying she thought the clothes belonged to her husband, as he had referred to them as being some new clothes he had bought.

           The couple claim to have been married recently in DeLand, where the woman has been teaching German, she says.

           Curtis pleaded guilty at his trial this morning before Judge Martin. The court then fined him $150, or six months in jail. Curtis gave notice that he would file motion for a new trial and went back to jail.

 

Six months later, the exact length of his sentence, “G. Willis Curtis” is back in Traverse City and advertising- “Consult G. Willis Curtis, Palmist, Phrenologist, Astrologer, 217 East Front, up stairs.”   Going against the warnings of the men at the hotel, on Dec. 5, 1907, Curtis  headed back to Florida “where he will spend some time traveling over the state, and will also travel in other states, carrying on his profession of palmistry”  It is believed he left his wife behind in Traverse City. It was after his release from the Florida jail when she became pregnant with his son. It seems this was the last time Curtis was in Traverse City.

 

According to a 1909 article, Emma resided in a boarding house a block from Glenn’s father and step-mother. With her husband out of town, his parents paid her board and helped her during her pregnancy.  According to later recollections of Emma and Glenn’s son, George, Judge Curtis referred to Emma as “his little black kitten”. The birth of George A. Curtis was noted in the paper in late August 1908. Emma stayed in town at least until mid-1909 when the paper announced the visit of her father and a brother.  It is this article in which the name given for her father is August Ponsaning. It is confusing because PONSANING does not match the surname on her marriage license or the name on the son’s birth certificate. The only possibility is that it was a mistake made by the reporter. Even after hours of searching, I came up with nothing even close to this name.

 

Searching newspapers for more on Glenn and Emma Curtis, I found nothing for about the next four years.  The only solid clue for this time period is a 1913 divorce record found on Ancestry.com in Wayne Co., Michigan, but because the last name of the woman is left off the document, it only complicated the mystery.  It had to be “our Glenn” because the marriage date and location match the Florida record exactly. The divorce was granted– the reason was stated as desertion. It seems he just plain abandoned her and his son.

 

The family believed Mrs. Curtis took her son to Hartford, CT, to stay with Emma’s aunt, Ida (Enders) Langdon, on and off between his birth and 1915.  Mrs. Langdon was mentioned in a 1909 article which described the Traverse City visit of Emma’s father. Ida Landon, came on that trip as well. The article states that Emma’s father had taken ill with typhoid fever when he arrived in the country and a sister-in-law took him to her home in Hartford for a month until he recovered.

 

Mrs. Emma (Tillack) Curtis and her son George can not be conclusively located anywhere in the 1910 census. George himself stated in a 1971 Social Security document that he lived with his grandfather in Traverse City until he was 5 1/2 but he is not listed in the household of Judge George Curtis in 1910 or anywhere else that can be determined.  An Emma Curtis is found working as a servant for a family in Arenac County, MI  in 1910 and is about the same age, but her birth place is listed as Michigan, so it’s not positive she is the right person. A Louise Curtis is found in a 1912 Detroit directory working as a waiter, but again, there is no evidence it is her even though according to the 1913 obituary for her brother, Emma Curtis was living in Detroit. Around this time she started using the first name Louise or Louisa instead of Emma which added to the confusion.  We know it was there where she filed for divorce and officially ended her relationship with Glenn W. Curtis.

 

She isn’t conclusively found until the 1920 census where she and her son George are in Philadelphia, where she is married to George Fisher. A 1971 Social Security document backs up the theory that young George Curtis seemingly spent more time in Hartford than with his own mother. “When my grandfather died [in 1914] I went to live with my aunt. I lived with my mother again when I was about 10 yrs old until I was 12 yrs old. [1918-1920] I then went back to my Aunt to live again.

 

Nothing much is found of palm-reader Curtis between 1907-1914, but it is believed he was in New York City by 1914. Searching the 1910 census resulted in nothing. He is not  found in any census record after 1900 because he rarely used his real name or stayed in any one place very long.

 

As it is obvious he left Traverse City for good, likely at the urging of his own father, the next step was to continue the search in out of state newspapers. Several more articles were found by using keywords such as “palmist”, “clairvoyant”,  “Glenn”, “Glen”,  “Willis” and “Curtis”  in various arrangements. What was found is fascinating.

 

It seems he took his business all across the country.  Little is found between 1908-1917 but it is possible he was in Joplin, Missouri the first half of 1910 then, in New York City between June and December where ads are found for “Prof. Curtis and Mme. Astro” on W. 38th St.  Similar advertisements are found for “Prof. Curtis” in Arkansas City, Kansas in 1912. Whether this is him or not is not certain.The only definite location I found him during this period in was St. Joseph, Missouri where he was arrested in 1913. “Glenn Curtis, a palmist and clairvoyant, was on Thursday sent to jail for fifty days by Judge Allee for practicing without a license.” [St. Joseph [MO] Observer 22 Feb, 1913]

 

In 1914, Glenn’s father, George W. Curtis, died at the State Hospital in Traverse City, of “organic brain disease”, what is now called dementia, possibly caused by a stroke or other physical illness. He had continued to practice until about a year before his death.  His obituary stated that his son Glenn was in New York City and his grandson in Hartford. What makes finding documentation for these statements difficult is that they fall in between census years. Children are not listed in city directories, so no other sources are available to confirm where young George and his mother were living during these years.

 

It appears that Glenn Curtis was in New York City as stated in his father’s 1914 obituary. A marriage record was discovered which shows that on 30 Dec, 1915, Glenn married Mary Josephine Glynn.  Her story is interesting too. She was the daughter of an Irish immigrant father who worked in the coal mines of east-central Pennsylvania.  Her parents made the news in 1889 when Mary was just a toddler: they were accused of poisoning several family members in order to profit from life insurance policies. Several of their close relatives mysteriously died, each with similar symptoms as a result of arsenic poisoning, including Edward Glynn’s own parents. Each of these people had insurance policies to be paid to Edward.  Six months after her first husband mysteriously died, Edward married Mary Halpin, his first cousin. Together they had several children, one being Mary Josephine.

 

After their arrest, the couple spent several months in jail, but were acquitted due to lack of solid evidence.

Mrs.Glynn died suddenly in 1890, which looked suspicious, but her death was from heart troubles, not poisoning. Edward Glynn was arrested again in 1904 for arson and sent to prison.

 

Obviously, Mary J. Glynn had a difficult childhood. She likely left home as soon as she was old enough and headed to New York City to find work. How she met Glenn Curtis is unknown. Did he fool her with his deaf-mute palmist act too? Where she ended up isn’t certain, but it is probable she returned to Pittston, PA and lived with two of her brothers because by 1916, Glenn Curtis had abandoned her too.

 

In 1916 Glenn Curtis left New York and headed to the west coast. As pieces fall together from newspaper searches, it seems he was on a mission to marry as many women as he could. Over the next three years, Curtis would marry at least three women—using false names—then take their money and disappear.

 

He was working under several aliases during this period:  Rodney S. Stone,  Frederick Z. Jackson and Frederick George Carrington.  As Rodney S. Stone, in January 1917, the “deaf-dumb fortune-teller” is found in Roseberg, Oregon for a few days before someone became suspicious and caught on to his act. The “gentlemanly appearing fellow…he was about as near perfect–physically, mentally and otherwise…he was smooth, sleek and cunning…He fakeda nice living and among his customers he counted many of our prominent and leading citizens. They fellfor him just like a baby would fall for a stick of barber-polecandy– and realized not until today that they had been touched upby a very clever mute.The fellow registered as Rodney Stone…”  “He purchased a ticket south– to where– well, to where he can ply his vocation just as successfully as he did in Roseburg…[Roseberg News-Review, 21 Jan, 1917]

 

Later that year, he was practicing  “Phrenology and Applied Psychology” in Los Angeles as Rodney S. Stone.

 

In 1918 I found him in Alameda, Oakland Co. California, where he registered for the  World War One draft. The day of birth he lists on the registration matches perfectly, though is one year off from his Michigan birth record.  He lists his occupation as “accountant” and his contact as Marion Curtis in Pittston, PA. His second wife Mary was from Pittston, and it’s possible that even though by this time he had moved on and left her behind as he did with his previous wife, he twisted her name a bit just to have someone to put on this registration form. His physical description was that he was of slender build, 5’10” tall, with blue eyes and blonde hair. Here in California, having perfected his time-tested ploy to win a wife—he struck again, this time one winning one with money. His actual name comes up in this amusing article from the Sept. 27, 1919 Oakland Tribune. You can tell the reporter thoroughly enjoyed writing this article.

 

Plays Mute to Win Bride, Charge- Husband and Money are Missing–

SAN FRANCISCO, Sept. 27– Alleging that her husband had pretended that he was a deaf mute in order to marry her and gain from her a small fortune, Mrs. Leona Jackson, San Diego bookstore proprietor and business woman, is on her way to the southern city today in an endeavor to procure a warrant for her spouse, Fred Jackson, otherwise known as Glen Curtis, after consulting with Attorneys Albert Roche and Peter Ibos here as to the status on which she might obtain a divorce and $7000 which, she said, her mate possesses in bad faith.

           Mrs. Jackson told the local lawyers that she went to a local contracting firm, where she found her husband had once worked, and, after exhibiting his photograph, found that fellow employees and employers recognized him as Glen Curtis who had lost his position there because he talked too much. During four months of courtship in San Diego, she avers, Jackson or Curtis never uttered a  word– exclaiming once in a while, Ah-h-h!but nothing more.

           The novelty of having ones fortune told by a deaf mute palmist appealed to San Diegans, according to Mrs. Jackson, and the man built up a brisk business, advising commercial men and housewives on certain problems close to their hearts. At last he prevailed upon the wealthy woman to marry him, she said, also getting from her consent to sell out the bookstore business and leave the southern city.

           That they were going on the stage together Jackson told her, is Mrs. Jacksons statement, and they left for New York shortly afterward. Her suspicions were first aroused, it is alleged, when a man on the train came from the smoking car and told her that her husband had given the best talk on the League of Nations that he had ever heard. In New York they purchased an automobile, the woman told her attorneys, and started overland to San Francisco. Three weeks ago they arrived, following which Jackson silently bade goodbye to his wife and left for the south, pleading business. He never returned, the woman says, and now she is looking for her money and her husband or a long explanatory speech.

 

Using the names in this 1919 article, I started searching available California newspapers online. Several more articles connected to this story added yet more questions and resulted in further searches with the various alias names Curtis was using. Keeping the newspaper keyword searches limited to the years 1919-1922, but open to all locations, I discovered  that, after he left Mrs. “Jackson” in 1919, he fled to Texas where he met Miss Sammie Lane Tate, who, at the time, was in her mid-40s and from a prominent Waco family. A small newspaper article was found stating that the friends of Miss Tate would be surprised to know that she was quietly married in New Orleans on Dec. 6 to Rodney S. Stone of Washington D.C. None of her friends were aware of any relationship and definitely not one with Mr. “Stone”.

 

Mrs. Tate-Stone returned to Waco within a month and is listed in the city directories as “widow of” Rodney Stone. No Rodney S. Stone can be found in any records for Texas or Washington D.C., or anywhere else for that matter.  Also, no official marriage record can be found. After contacting a family member who had Miss Tate in her Ancestry.com family tree, I was told that the marriage by Miss Tate and the mysterious Mr. Stone was rarely discussed. She came back to Waco and told everyone that he had died. It must have been an embarrassing situation for a Baylor-educated woman to fall for a suave con man.

 

When Mrs. Cleora/Cora (Lane) Jackson’s fraudulent marriage and desire for divorce made the California newspapers in 1921, another woman came forward with a similar tale. Mrs. Ida Trost, a widow from Galveston, Texas had met the deaf-mute Frederick George Carrington through a friend.  “Carrington…through correspondence, told [Mrs Trost] of a proposed vaudeville act he was considering, stated that he was a war correspondent for the Associated Press, and eventually proposed marriage…They were married in El Paso and his wishhe told her, was that he would regain his hearing and speech. He was able to speak English, Spanish and German on the day of their marriage.” [Riverside Independent Enterprise,1921] They were married on February 26,1921 just a few months after his marriage to Miss Tate.  They took a short honeymoon, then moved to Riverside, California where after a short time he took $1200, diamonds, a gold watch, and then vanished.

 

After reading in the newspaper account of what Mrs. Jackson had gone through, and seeing similarities, Ida Trost Carrington contacted the police.  “If I get a chance I shall surely go to Los Angeles to identify him,said Mrs. Carrington last night. If he is the same man who married Mrs. Jackson Ill press a charge of bigamy in addition to the other charges. If he treated both of us in that way theres no telling how many women he may have deceived. I will press every possible charge against the man…If I had not been interested in spiritualism I dont suppose I should have believed everything he told me. Nothing can make me believe he did not have some sort of power over me. I believed him implicitly.” [Riverside Independent Enterprise, 17 April, 1921]

 

What is interesting is that so many seemingly well-educated and intelligent women fell for the deaf-mute palmist routine.   At least, four or more women succumbed to Curtis’s charms using this method. Whether he fathered more children is also unknown.

 

It is also interesting that he used the name Carrington. He was well aware of a man named Hereward Carrington who, during this time, was a well-known investigator of psychics, mediums and spiritualism, writing over 100 books on the subject and was known for exposing fraudulent mediums. Perhaps Curtis had read some of his books and picked up tips for his own business.

 

An article in the Riverside (CA) Enterprise  dated  March 20, 1921 gives  some details about the relationship between “Carrington” and Ida Trost.  It reveals that Curtis knew of the famous Carrington.  In fact, he had told Ida that he could be reached in New York by sending mail to him care of Hereward Carrington– that the man was an uncle. However, it is just another of many fibs he told the women he married. The most telling detail in the article which solidly ties “Carrington” to Glenn W. Curtis of Traverse City is taken from a letter he wrote to Ida which, in the article, includes his birth date where he claims he will inherit a fortune on his 40th birthday, March 20, 1922. The chances of  this being a coincidence is slim– Michigan birth records show that Glenn W. Curtis was born in Wheeler, Gratiot Co., on March 20, 1882. The same article gives a physical description as well, which matches the 1918 draft registration form he filled out in Oakland, California as Glenn Willis Curtis– “Carrington is described as follows: age 39, but looks 48: height, 5 feet, 10 inches; weight, 125 pounds; blue eyes; light hair and bald; walks with slight stoop; claims to have heart trouble and is subject to hemorrhages.” [Riverside Independent Enterprise 20 March, 1921]

 

One more piece of solid evidence was discovered once I learned the previous surname of Cleona Jackson and located the 1919 marriage record. On the marriage license, “Jackson” lists his father’s real first and middle names, his mother’s real name (Etta Smith) and listing his place of birth as Michigan. This to me, is the clincher– Frederick Z. Jackson was  Glenn W. Curtis.

 

An article in the Los Angeles Times included a photograph of Mr. & Mrs Frederick Z. Jackson but unfortunately, the microfilmed image of the man is terribly blurry. It is our only clue as to what he looked like.

 

Even though he was sought for several years, there is no evidence that Curtis/Stone/Jackson/Carrington was ever found and charged for these particular crimes. It is believed he headed back east and to New York after this flurry of activity.

 

It wouldn’t be the last time Curtis would use a fake name and woo a wealthy wife. The next known incident is all the way across the country in New York state five years later. The “modus operandi” once again fits. A 1926 Rochester, New York newspaper article tells of Glenn W. Curtis being arrested– charges brought by his wife Edith F. Sturdevant, a well-to-do widow.

 

This time he had been posing as a Congregational minister using the name James Alexander Waterhouse and somehow charmed her into marrying him.  He used mostly made up family names on the marriage license, lied about his age (added ten years– because she was ten years older), but did give a birth place of Owosso, Michigan (where his father’s relatives were from) and again used his father’s real first name, George. Searches of census, vital statistic and city directories prove that no James Waterhouse of Owosso existed, or the people with the other names he listed on the marriage license.

 

Two months after they married, Mr. “Waterhouse” took $600 in cash, jewelry worth over $500 and on May 15, disappeared. He was “traced to New York, Philadelphia, Boston and back to Utica” and arrested. Charged with second degree grand larceny, he was held without bail.

 

I next contacted the Monroe Co., NY county clerk’s office to request a search for court records but there was nothing found under Waterhouse or Curtis for the years 1927-27. It is very likely that he spend a few months to a few years in jail.

 

It is here that the trail dropped off. Nothing further came up after 1926 using the same keywords in searches.  Having exhausted all the online records I could find,  I decided to contact a researcher in Rochester to see if she could help.

 

She first searched the New York state death records and quickly discovered one for a Glenn Curtis who died in 1936. She sent for a copy which ended up being our man. It revealed the sad end to Glenn Curtis’s life.

 

His death occurred at a state institution in Marcy, NY. He had contracted syphilis, which left untreated, causes a condition called general paresis—an inflammation of the brain in the later stages of syphilis, causing progressive dementia and paralysis. He had suffered from the disease for over two years.  The death record also revealed that he had again married (#7 that we know of) to a woman named Evelyn. Nothing has been found about her or when/where they married.

 

Curtis was buried in Syracuse, NY though it is thought he may have resided in Buffalo, NY before he was institutionalized.  The record listed his occupation as “palmist” so he continued this practice right up to his death. It is a sad ending to this story, but the family now knows what happened to their grandfather. Even though he was quite a cad and conman, at least there is the satisfaction of knowing what became of him after their long search. It is doubtful that there is a grave marker for Glenn Curtis, but more research will be done to locate the exact cemetery and perhaps his grave.

—————————————————————————————————————–

A FINAL NOTE

 

As a researcher, my goal was to answer the questions of the family as best as I could. One of the biggest desires for them was confirming the real name of Glenn Curtis’s first wife– their grandmother. After receiving a typed copy of his birth certificate in 1976, with the name Catherine Flusch as mother, they thought perhaps Glenn Curtis had fathered a child with another woman. However, no such person could be found. When I discovered the 1907 Florida marriage record, even before knowing the real story of Glenn Curtis, I realized that “Emma Tillack” would have had no reason to lie about her name, but after she became pregnant and was ultimately abandoned by this con man, a theory  considered was that perhaps she temporarily used a false name to alienate herself from the cad Glenn Curtis.  But after seeing the actual birth record with the clerk’s misinterpretation of the mother’s name, and again, a misspelling on the 1976 certificate, in my opinion, the name FLUSCH could be eliminated from this story.

 

Where “Catherine” came from is still uncertain. Emma/Louisa Tillack-Curtis married twice more, the first, in 1915, to George Fisher in Philadelphia, where she and son George are found in the 1920 census, and then again around 1925 to John H. Guise of Harrisburg, PA. The clues to her real name are also evident on her 1936 death certificate. Her father is listed as August Tillack. August– as stated in the 1909 article of him visiting, and Tillack as her last name on her  first marriage license.

 

In an effort to confirm the Tillack name, a search using various spellings was conducted in immigration records and the jackpot document was located. A passenger list for the ship Lessing, arriving in New York City in Sept. 1902 shows 11-year-old Emma TILLAK traveling with an aunt, Wilhelmina Gley. On the record it states that Emma would be in care of her aunt Ida Langdon of Hartford, Connecticut.

 

Ida’s exact relationship to Mrs. Curtis remained unclear until the discovery of an obituary and death record for a Max Tillack of Connecticut, who turned out to be Emma’s older brother. The obituary and death record for Max also solidifies the Tillack name. His death certificate lists his father as August Tillack and mother Augusta Enders, making their mother a sister to Ida Enders-Langdon of Hartford, Ct. The Social Security document discovered late in this research process also confirmed the name Louisa Tillack.  With all of these facts–the ship record, marriage, obituaries and death records, the family is now convinced that Glenn Curtis and Emma (Louise) Tillack were their grandparents.

 

The most important question that went unresolved for my patron family was what became of Glenn W. Curtis after 1905, the last Traverse City city directory he is listed in.  What is found in the newspaper accounts is better than fiction.

 

I ask myself—how likely it is that all of the characters in the ads and articles are about our Traverse City man? I say you’d have to go with the odds:  Even though there were hundreds of people working as palmists and clairvoyants during this time–in fact, every town seemed to have at least one and sometimes several–how many men in the country practiced palm reading and had/used the last name Glenn and Curtis? Not many.

 

Early on, he used some version of his real name though later he changed to completely different names. However, the name Glen Curtis was associated with the California episodes in several articles along with alias names which connects him to the articles using those names, and the fact that he repeatedly used the same method to fool people. This ties them all together and to the identity Glenn W. Curtis.

 

He traveled the country conning people–especially vulnerable, older, single or widowed women–his entire adult life.  Constantly on the run—changing his identity over and over—he disappears but only until another article appears describing once again, a con man with the same M. O., the deception and fraud perpetrated by a deaf-mute palmist in yet another town. How likely is it that others repeatedly used this same kind of trickery?  Not likely at all.

 

The lack of evidence for certain periods is a combination of gaps in digitized newspapers, unknown aliases and possibly time spent in jail. His descendants ask what ultimately happened to him? Where and when did he die?  The family had heard various rumors for his demise– one of him falling from a train and the other that he died of a stroke or heart attack in his 40s. With the help of another researcher and her discovery of his death record, after 40 years the family has their answer.

 

With every new article discovered, the tale of this incredible con-man kept me wanting to find every possible twist and turn.  It is this kind of “truth is stranger than fiction” story that I love to research.

 

 

of him falling from a train and the other that he died of a stroke or heart attack in his 40s. With the help of another researcher and her discovery of his death record, after 40 years the family has their answer.

 

With every new article discovered, the tale of this incredible con-man kept me wanting to find every possible twist and turn.  It is this kind of “truth is stranger than fiction” story that I love to research.

 

 

History of the Wilhelm Family (Part II): Anthony J. and Kate Wilhelm, Wilhelm Dry Goods

By Robert D. Wilhelm

Part I in this series was published in the November 2016 issue of Grand Traverse Journal.

Edited by Julie Schopieray and Richard Fidler

[Editors note: This is a transcription of a manuscript Bob Wilhelm wrote over a long period of time, with updates ending in 1986. Some spelling and punctuation has been changed, and transcriber’s notes for clarity are in brackets]

CHAPTER 14: 116 East Eighth Street

When A.J. [Wilhelm] and Kate [Smith]were married in 1896, they lived above the store overlooking Union and Eighth streets. Five years earlier A.J. had purchased lots 33, 34 and the west 8 feet of Block 6 across from the store on East Eighth Street from A.V. Friederich for $700. A.J. and John Kyselka designed the house to be built on the site. Built of local pine, hemlock and birch, A.J. personally selected all the materials. The total cost for the home and the barn in the backyard was $3,000. A.J. lived in the home until his death in 1939. The Lyle Wilhelm family occupied the residence until 1974 when it was sold for use as the Northwestern Michigan Halfway House.  In 1984 this home was joined with the former A.V. Friedrich residence, and in 1985 the merged buildings became the Dakoske Hall.

CHAPTER 15: Wilhelm Brothers, 1900

Depending on the time of the year, the store employed as many as twelve people. The clerks never made change. A cashier handled all the money. Overhead conveyor belts moved all bills and money to the central location. A bell indicated that the canister was coming or going. Kate Wilhelm handled all business records.

Early each morning it would be necessary to start the wood burning furnace and activate the steam boiler. Hardwoods, usually maple or oak, were cut in four foot sections. A large double door led to the basement where the wood was stored in the summer from floor to ceiling. Outside behind the store were other wood piles.

Advertisement from Wilhelm Brothers’ Dry Goods, from the Grand Traverse Herald, 21 March 1895.

The building was illuminated by smelly kerosene lamps. At the back of the building was a double door leading to the main floor. The  freight–which was shipped by boat or railroad–was delivered by Sam Ile’s horse and wagon. Towards the back of the newer section of the building was an eight-foot-wide staircase leading to the second floor. Carpets, rugs, and linoleum were sold upstairs.  There was no elevator; everything had to be carried by hand up and down the stairs. On the street level, men’s and women’s clothing, dry goods and household goods were sold.

CHAPTER 16: A.J.—NATURAL FOODS AND ARTESIAN WATERS

Stomach disorders dating back to his youth caused A.J to develop an interest in the natural foods philosophy espoused by the Kelloggs at Battle Creek Sanitarium. Although there was no scientific evidence at the time, he became interested in the water conditions in the streets and the relation to disease. Dirty water mixed with manure was [thought to be] a breeding ground for typhoid and small pox. These diseases ran rampant through the community, but escaped the Wilhelm family. Raw sewage was dumped into the Boardman River and flowed into West Grand Traverse Bay. Untreated water was pumped through the mains into the homes.  Diseases killed many children in their early years of life. Particularly disturbing to A.J. was the family of his friend and neighbors Prokop and Antonia Kyselka. Five children died young: Antonia B. (1869-1869), Antonia (1872-1872), Edward (1873-1875), Julius (1879-1883), and Emma (1890-1890).

One of the links to the death of the young was, when breast feeding stopped at an early age, the children were not immune to the diseases in the contaminated water and raw milk. Milk stored in unsanitary conditions resulted in undulant fever.

An artesian well is one that has its water constantly flowing. There were many people in the community who thought that artesian water was poisonous. In 1895 A.J. had a four-inch pipe drilled behind the store to a depth of 382 feet. The clear, clean water was a constant 42 degrees. The fountain was purchased from J.W. Fiske, NO 21 &23 Barklay Street, New York. Enough pressure was generated to provide water to the second floor of the store. Well water went to the home across the street. He had water running through the icebox instead of ice purchased from a local iceman. Water was also provided for the homes of Prokop Kyselka, A.V. Friedrich, and John Wilhelm. For many years people from all over the south side came with their jugs to get their water.

Other south side wells were also drilled: in front of St. Francis Church in 1916 and on Pine Street next to Central School.

Wilhelm Bros. Dry Goods store, when the artesian well still ran strong. Gardner, Wait, Petrie, and Ehrenberger are in the picture but not identified.

As years passed, the flow of the well began to diminish. The water supply was cut off to all but the store and the family home. By 1955 the flow was no more than a trickle. The Record-Eagle on October 12 reported, “ The old Wilhelm well is gone…A year ago efforts were made to revive the dwindling flow of water, but to no avail. Several feet of rock had been forced up  the four inch pipe and the only cure would be to drill an entirely new well. Thus the old well without mourners, or fanfare was removed.”  [Editor’s note: The artesian well described here can be seen every year at the Buckley Old Engine Show].

Red meat was unknown at the Wilhelm dinner table. Chicken and fish were accepted and on special occasions such as Thanksgiving and Christmas turkey was served. A cow was kept in the barn behind the house and a neighborhood boy would take all the neighborhood cows to the outskirts of town for grazing each day. When the cow “dried out” it would be traded for another.  A.J. referred to the milk as “home-made” because the whole milk was drunk right from the cow without being processed. Cream would rise to the top and was excellent for whipping. Butter was purchased from the Wheelocks because A. J. was pleased by the sanitary conditions of their farm. He refused to purchase food products if he was dissatisfied by the lack of cleanliness.

A favorite meal of the family was a high-protein meatloaf made from roasted peanuts. Honey was used instead of sugar. Nuts of all kinds were purchased in large quantities from Butler Brothers in Chicago. Peanuts were purchased to make peanut butter. A flat grinder made the peanuts finer and it was mixed with pure butter. Postum, made with roasted chicory and barley or wheat, was used instead of coffee. Vegetables were always served. Mary Smith (Mrs. Alec Rennie) recalled when she was in high school “Auntie Kate” always had a kettle of lima beans on the stove for her boys and her niece for lunch. Scalloped potatoes was another favorite. Bananas were purchased by the stalk and oranges by the crate from Peter Menegari at wholesale prices.

When A.J. wanted a watermelon, he would send one of the boys down to Front Street to the “I-talians”. His final instruction was to let Mr. Corsilla personally pick one out because he always picked one of the best quality.

A.J.  purchased ten acres of land at the top of the hill on Silver Lake Road (across from the Junior High School [now, West Middle School]). Except for a small ramshackle shed and a well without a pump, the land was barren. He bought the land to have fresh fruits and vegetables for the family. It would also keep the boys busy and out of trouble. George and Lyle disliked the work. Ralph hated it. The boys could sell all the produce not needed by the family. Markets, usually Beemish and Nicholson, on the 500 block of South Union Street would purchase the surplus fruits and vegetables. A savings account was set up by their father at the First National Bank for each of the boys and all the farm profits were deposited. Lyle kept his money until 1929 when he sold his savings to a bank officer. The money was used to help purchase a home from the Emanuel Wilhelm estate at 425 W. Eighth street. The house was similar to A.J.’s home at 116 East Eighth. Two weeks after the sale, the bank declared insolvency. Ralph and George lost their savings in the “Great Depression”.

Every morning after finishing chores around the house, A.J. and the boys would mount the wagon, slowly pulled by the retired racehorse “Jack” and go to the farm.

A.J. was mild-mannered and never used profanity except when he was behind the plow horse and the boys learned “every word of interest”.  It is doubtful if Kate ever knew of his farm vocabulary. With the exception of “Paris Green” (copper sulfate) used to kill potato bugs, sprays were not used. Corn, potatoes, red, black and yellow raspberries were grown. A grape arbor was assembled. Apple, cherry, pear, and peach trees were planted. One of the early lessons learned by the boys was never to plant cucumbers and melons too closely together.

One day a pig got out of Ben Barnes’ pen and started exploring the Wilhelm gardens. The boys chased the pig until the animal dropped dead. A.J. went over to the Barnes’ farm and paid for the dead animal.

Around noon each day the four would return back to town. The usually slow moving “jack” would once again remember his days as a race horse.

With all boys all in their teens, the farm was sold to the Thayers in 1915.

Traverse Area District Library does not have photographs of Anthony J., Kate, Lyle, Ralph or George Wilhelm. Any assistance in filling in this gap in our collection is appreciated! Please get in touch with librarian Amy, abarritt@tadl.org

Popular Fiction, Purchased Locally: Library Purchasing Trends in the 1920s

Librarians love to keep records. Sure, we enjoy reading, assisting patrons, and honing our collections to perfection. But our true passion is in organizing, and that starts by keeping good records. From the dawn of the profession, librarians knew one thing: “If I can keep a record of it, it’s worth recording.” And Alice Wait, at the dawn of her personal professional career, swallowed this librarianish platitude hook, line, and sinker.

Alice Wait, 1915. Image courtesy of Traverse Area District Library.

Alice was a librarian’s librarian, to be sure. The records she kept while she was THE librarian of Traverse City Public Library (1906-1950) speaks to her recordkeeping prowess. (We know she wasn’t there for the pay. Local historian Richard Fidler’s research into the City records revealed that Alice was paid less than the building janitor (Glimpses, p. 54)).

Some of you are saying, “Prowess? Really? To keep a list of books?Phhhbt.” I’m not saying it’s a miracle of engineering, creating and maintaining a library collection (what we professionals like to call “Collection Development”), but just think of all the factors involved! Each book is carefully weighed and measured: What are patrons looking to read? Are there other books patrons need to read that I might need to foist on them? What’s the opportunity cost here (or, what can’t I purchase because I’m buying this book)? What’s the drain on my budget and shelf space? Do I already have other, similar titles (or the same title) in the collection? Have I exhausted all of my materials resources and reviews to make sure I’m getting the best of the best?

Join me in looking at the Accessions record for Traverse City Public Library (TCPL), 1919-1925. First, it’s a beautiful volume: tight spine, no leather rust, and I bet this is pre-war paper… no acid yellowing, and the lignin fibers, well, let’s just say they should probably have their own fashion line. Rowr!

That the volume is in excellent condition, and that we still have it, tells us how important these types of records are to a library. But it’s the contents, handwritten in Alice’s tight, neat script, that tells us a story of a community, not just a library in a vacuum.

So what were Traverse City folk reading in the Roaring Twenties? Taking into account the effects of the Great War in general (a dip in the young male population, rise in women in the workforce, the doubling of the nation’s total wealth), people were frankly reading a lot of popular fiction. One of Alice’s most-used wholesalers, A.C. McClurg out of Chicago, also published a lot of escapist and science fiction literature, including Edgar Rice Burroughs (of “Tarzan” and “John Carter of Mars” fame). Yes, Burroughs was definitely on the shelves at TCPL.

This is not a huge revelation, but it does speak to a trend in our local library. In 1905, the TCPL published its circulation figures in the Grand Traverse Herald, revealing that 90% of items checked out by both adults and children were fiction titles. We can’t get those figures from the Accession records, but we do know what was present in the collection, and from a cursory read, fiction and periodicals made up the bulk of purchases.  With today’s technology, Traverse Area District Library (TADL) can provide the public with up-to-the-minute stats using our Statistics Dashboard. Again, we don’t know from these stats what is fiction and nonfiction, but anecdotally, I’ll attest to the fact that Grand Traverse County still likes its fiction.

Alice did a solid job of keeping up with what was popular in the world, considering how removed Traverse City feels. She purchased the drama “All God’s Chillun Got Wings,” by Eugene O’Neill, the week it came out (January 8, 1924), even though Time magazine didn’t publish a review until March of the same year. Same with Sinclair Lewis’ Arrowsmith, which won him the Pulitzer Prize in 1926.

She also purchased works of local interest, such as Traverse City novelist and scriptwriter Harold Titus’ 1922 novel, TimberShe purchased (and often replaced) works that would have been classics in her time, including Frances H. Burnett’s Little Lord Fauntleroy (1886). I do wish she had kept in these records the prices of these volumes, but alas. We do know that she supported the local economy, as a good 60 percent of her purchases were made at the City Book Store (managed by Dean E. Hobart, at 220 E. Front Street).

Entry in 1920 Accessions Record for “Little Lord Fauntleroy.”

Here’s something wild that might be unique to Alice’s recordkeeping. She may not have thought anything of it at the time, but for every author that was a married woman, Alice would give her the title “Mrs.” So, Burnett’s entry looks like “Burnett, Mrs. Frances H.” But, she excluded all other titles. Dr. Mabel Elliott’s Beginning Again at Ararat, she’s just plain old “Elliott, Mabel,” to Alice. I have no explanation for this, it’s just curious. Perhaps Alice did not have an ingrained bias for feminism.

Some of the periodicals Alice subscribed to in 1921 are still in print today (CenturyAtlantic MonthlyForumGood HousekeepingHarper’s Magazine), while others are long gone (Everybody’s Magazine, Little Folks). I can tell you with all certainty that every issue Alice purchased is long gone, as the last column for each accession indicates when the item was deaccessioned from the collection. There must’ve been a huge weed in 1944, as Alice discarded whole pages of accessions that year in periodicals. What a joy for Alice, to “close the book” on all those records at once! (Librarians like librarian puns almost as much as recordkeeping.)

Alice at her retirement, 1949-1950… still working. Image courtesy of the Al Barnes Collection, Traverse Area District Library.

Alice was probably the first and last person to write in this volume. When she retired in 1950, this volume likely went into retirement with her. How did they keep records after Alice is a mystery, as those records did not survive to the present. Unfortunately, librarians one hundred years from now will likely lament the same concerning our generation of recordkeeping. Thanks to Alice, though, that small slice of time she covered reveals a whole lot about Traverse City and its readers in the 1920s.

Transformations of Boardman Lake: A Place to Work, A Place to Play, A Place to Live

If we could take snapshots of Boardman Lake over the past 160 years, we would see not just one lake, but many of them, each serving a different purpose for the community.  In this collection of photographs taken from the Historical Society’s collection at the Traverse Area District Library, we can explore the transformations of this body of water over time right up to the present day.

Fisherman on Boardman Lake

The lake has always been fished, even before the arrival of white settlers.  One of the first accounts of ice fishing was presented in the Grand Traverse Herald nearly 150 years ago:

The Indians are now engaged in fishing for them [lake trout].  They cut a hole through the ice, cover it with evergreen boughs, throw in an artificial decoy fish attached to a line, throw themselves flat upon their faces, and, with spear in hand, watch the approach of the unsuspecting trout to the decoy, when, quick as lightning, the spear is thrust, and a ten or twenty pound trout is floundering on the ice.

Map showing Boardman Lake in relation to the city of Traverse City

The lake is not an artifact of dam building, but is a natural feature of the land.  It was drawn onto the earliest surveyors’ maps, though was somewhat smaller than it presently is today.  The Union Street dam, constructed in 1869, raised its level about three feet.  Because a river runs through it, plumb bobs don’t drop perpendicularly to the bottom to measure depth.  Perhaps that is why it was considered literally bottomless by early settlers.  In fact, at its deepest, it is only about 70 feet deep, though who can tell how much sedimentation has occurred since its depth was first measured?

The first transformation of the lake occurred with the advent of logging.  Logs were piled along the banks in winter to await the thaw.  When the ice had melted, they were rolled into the water to proceed downriver to the waiting sawmill at the river’s mouth on West Bay.  Located on the west side of the lake, this “rollaway” was one of many along northern Michigan rivers.

Rollaway for logs at Boardman Lake

 

Another view of logs at Boardman Lake. They will be sent downstream to the river’s mouth to be milled for lumber.

Next, industry transformed the lake.  The Oval Wood Dish Company was the largest factory to be located on the lake: in fact, during its existence, it was the largest employer in town, hiring more than 600 workers at its peak.  Besides oval wood dishes (used in packaging meats and other products), it made clothespins, wood flooring, and all kinds of items made from hardwood.  Because local hardwoods had mostly been logged off, it moved to the state of New York in 1917 in order to take advantage of forests in that state.  Other factories along the lake sawed wood for lumber, made chairs, fruit baskets, hardwood flooring, and, somewhat later, automobiles.  The Napolean auto company, located at the far north end, manufactured small cars and trucks for a few years in the 1920’s.  The industrial nature of the area was reinforced when the city determined that the sewage treatment plant would be located at the far north end, this facility constructed in 1931.

View of the Oval Wood Dish company, early 1900’s. The Eighth Street bridge can be seen in the distance.
The Fulghum factory, maker of hardwood flooring. In the twenties, the Napolean auto company would occupy this location.
The Beitner sawmill and chair factory was located at the north end of the lake.
A wagon load of fruit baskets manufactured by the Wells Higman company

 

Recent view of the Traverse City sewage treatment plant

At the same time industrialization was changing Boardman lake, townspeople began to see it as a place to play.  Poplar point was picnic area located well south of the present library.  It could be reached by launch on summer days in the early 1900’s, the boarding point being near the intersection of Boardman Avenue and Eighth Street.  In the winter, the lake froze solid, so that skaters could get out and enjoy the ice—which formed earlier than that on the Bay and was usually smoother, better for skating.  Bicycling, the rage in the 1890’s, still attracts hundreds of those using bike paths.  Hull Park has become a major recreation center for the area with its sailing club, children’s garden at the public library, picnic areas, and scenic spots perfect for fishing or contemplation. 

Orson W. Peck postcard of Poplar Point, popular recreation area in the early 20th century
A launch on Boardman Lake, early 20th century

 

Skaters on Boardman Lake. Note the stacks of the Oval Wood Dish company in the background.
A woman bicyclist photographed at Boardman Lake at the turn of the twentieth century
Recent photograph of the Children’s Garden, located at the Traverse Area Public Library on Woodmere Avenue

 

Pedestrian walking bridge at the outlet to Boardman Lake, 2017

Before refrigeration had caught on—and even afterwards—ice was cut out of the lake to be preserved in sawdust until summer.  Up to the 1940’s it was sawn into blocks and kept in icehouses along the shore to wait the hot days of July.

Cutting ice on Boardman Lake
Ice house on the shore of the lake

Finally, in recent years the lake has become a place to live.  Condos and assisted living facilities stand on both the east and west side of the lake.  More such developments are planned along the edge of the lake along with a walking/bike path that circles the body of water entirely.  The lake is being transformed as we watch, and will, no doubt, transform itself again–as it always has.

Newly constructed condos on the West side of Boardman Lake
Assisted living facilities are found in several locations on the lake.

 

Bridge Built for a Pair of “Tender Feet,” 1941

Recently, a new patron asked me: What kinds of questions do you get at the Traverse Area District Library reference desk?

Sure, we get the usual readers advisory questions, and lots of questions on how to access our digital resources, and occasionally we get asked for advice on where to get dinner. But what really brings in the questions? When construction is happening. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking new construction, rehabilitation, or road repairs. There is nothing that piques our patrons’ curiosity than watching something get built.

So, what’s happening in Traverse City that the people are curious about? The revamp of the Murchie Bridge over the Boardman River on West Grand Traverse Bay has brought in the most interest, so let’s dive into a few of the most common questions!

Who is Murchie?

Robert Burns Murchie was a Traverse City native, born on October 25, 1894. He was the son of Mary Krouse (d. 1909) and James Murchie (d. 1936). He was a graduate of Traverse City High School, class of 1912, and he earned his law degree from the University of Michigan in 1917.  He served during World War I, and spent nine months in France, and upon his return, married Lulu A. Cole of Detroit. After practicing law from 1919 to 1934 in Detroit, Murchie moved back to Traverse City, where he was a senior member of the law firm of Murchie, Calcutt and Son- dee.

Why does he get his own bridge? Did he pay for it?

Although Murchie probably ponied up a few of his own dollars, he earned that bridge through his civic engagement. Among his many endeavors, he served as chairman of the Traverse City Chamber of Commerce Shorefront Committee, responsible for the location and construction of Grandview Parkway.

In 1941, Murchie told the story of how he decided that Traverse City needed the Parkway, in an article published in the Traverse City Record-Eagle. As a child, Lil’ Bobby wished to get to the beach on Grand Traverse Bay (newly reclaimed from industrial waste, thanks to the efforts of Con Foster and the community), but to do so, he had to pick his way across the Pennsylvania Railroad track. The track was littered with sharp little cinders, left behind by the trains.

His poor little feet! One day, a particular cinder lodged itself between his toes, and Lil’ Bobby exploded, “By golly, when I grow up I’m going to get this old railroad out of here and make a park for kids!”

When Murchie returned to Traverse City in 1934, he was struck anew by the beauty of the bay. Recalling his tender young feet so abused, he vowed that the railroad track would no longer plague beachgoers. After several years of work, plans were drawn for the Grandview Parkway, to the tune of $250,000.

So that’s it? He served on ONE committee? Big deal.

I didn’t know Murchie myself, so I will need to rely on his obituary to answer this one. Murchie was much more involved in Traverse City than just the Shorefront Committee. He served as president of the Traverse City Chamber of Commerce in 1938, Traverse City Rotary Club in 1939-40, and Grand Traverse – Leelanau – Antrim Bar Association in 1961.

Hospital Drive at Traverse City Country Club, August 6, 1946. Men seated compromise the campaign Executive Committee. L to R: Ralph Thompson, H.W. Heidbreder, Matthew MacIntosh, Robert B. Murchie. Image courtesy of Traverse Area District Library.

He was co-chairman of a three-man committee responsible for the success of the original campaign for funds with which Munson Medical Center was organized and constructed independently of Traverse City State Hospital; and was chairman of the committees organized to promote the establishment of an Air Force jet base in this area.

He was a member of the board of directors of Traverse City State Bank for 22 years prior to retirement in 1964; a member of the American Legion: Veterans of Foreign Wars and a former judge advocate of the state department; a member of the American Bar Association, Grand Traverse – Leelanau- Antrim Bar Association; a life member of Traverse City Lodge 222, FAM; A member of Scottish Rite of Free Masonry Moslem Temple, Detroit; Traverse City Shrine Club; Traverse City Golf and Country Club; Traverse City Elks Club; and a charter member of the Knife and Fork Club. Murchie was the recipient of Traverse City’s Distinguished Service Award in 194B.

Hm, pretty busy guy! I guess he can have a bridge named after him.

Not that we were looking to change the name, but we appreciate your support. So, here’s to Robert Burns Murchie, and his tender feet. May we all travel a little safer (and with better scenery), thanks to his work!

Care to learn more about the beautification of the Grand Traverse Bay waterfront? Check out Richard Fidler’s books, Glimpses of Grand Traverse Past: Reflections on a Local History, and Traverse City, Michigan, 1850-2013. Both of these titles are available for checkout at Traverse Area District Library.

Amy Barritt is co-editor of Grand Traverse Journal.

Chivalry in the Aviation Age: the Rennie Airplane Tragedy of 1933

Thursday, June 22, 1933, Traverse City, Michigan: The Journey Begins

James (“Timber”) Gillette, George (“Pete”) Keller, Charles (“Chick”) Rennie and his wife, Margaret walked briskly towards the airplane that would take them to Milwaukee.  It would be a good day to fly: the day was partly cloudy, not too warm, a welcome change from the blistering 96-degree weather that assaulted them only two days before.  That heat wave had broken records all over the Midwest, but now, all that remained to remind locals of its unpleasantness was a touch of humidity.  A high in the seventies was expected, perhaps a little cooler near the water. 

The pilot of the aircraft, Timber, was also its owner.  He had purchased it a year previous and had flown it as a charter for many customers—Chick, chief among them.   Having five years experience as a pilot, Timber felt confident he could take anyone anywhere they wanted to go—provided flying conditions were right.  Aviators had a certain mystique that charmed the nation in the late twenties and early thirties.  Charles Lindberg had crossed the Atlantic solo only six years before, and the exploits of pilot Wiley Post were regularly printed in newspapers across the land.  The previous year, Amelia Earhart had flown across the Atlantic solo, duplicating Lindberg’s achievement.  Flight was for the young and the adventuresome—and that described Timber.

Image from the “Manitowoc Herald-Times,” June 1933.

Pete was a mechanic hired by Timber, entrusted with keeping the airplane in top flying shape.  To this end, he had undergone training in the maintenance of the aircraft in Detroit, Michigan.  He knew autos, too, having operated a service station in his hometown of Frankfort, Michigan, for several years.  Married with two young children, he was in transition, moving from Frankfort to Traverse City, now living in what was called a “house car” at the time at East Bay State Park (known in recent times as the Traverse City State Park).

“Pete” (Ferris) Rennie, standing in the foreground, on the pontoons of an aircraft. His brother “Chick” (Charles) is in the background. This was not the aircraft that was in the accident, according to daughter Halcyon.

Chick was Timber’s nephew, though the two hardly differed in age.  Like Timber, he loved to fly: frequently he and Timber would travel to relatively nearby cities to conduct business for the Rennie Oil Company, the business started by his father, Charles Rennie, in 1923.  Chick was only 28 years old, yet was already a vice president, carrying out company business as a seasoned veteran would.  Today’s trip was to secure permission for a fuel unloading dock to be built at Greilickville, the settlement just north of the city limits in Leelanau County.  The trip should not take long: Lake Michigan was only seventy miles wide, so the total time of transit could not take much more than a couple of hours.

Margaret Rennie, about 29 years old. Image courtesy of her daughter, Halcyon.

Margaret Rennie was not a frequent flyer—in fact, years later, her daughter Halcyon said that this might have been her first flight.  She decided to come along as a passenger, taking the place of the loading dock’s contractor, Ben Samuelson.  Margaret and Chick went to the same school, Central High School in Traverse City, Chick graduating in 1923 when Margaret was a junior.  While the school yearbook tells us little about Chick, it tells more about Margaret.  She was lead actor in a popular school play at the time, Daddy Long Legs, and appeared in other productions at the school.  As a junior, she was nominated as “most beautiful,” though she apparently did not win the title.  A flamboyant description under portrait in her senior year declaimed,  “Thy beauty is like the pearls of the ocean.”  Indeed, with her smile and her light brown hair, she does stand out among her classmates.

Chick and Margaret married right after high school at ages 20 and 19 respectively.  They had three young children already, John, Halcyon, and Martha Jean, ages eight, five, and three.  In 1930 they lived in a pleasant house along East Bay.  With Chick as an executive in a growing company, the family was moderately wealthy—a live-in maid served their needs.

The plane they approached on this day was a Stinson Junior model aircraft fitted with pontoons for landing on water.   It was a four-seat model, with a large overhead wing supported by struts on either side.  The cabin was completely enclosed, a fairly recent innovation in aircraft design.  Timber had purchased it a year before, happy to pilot the most advanced machine he could get.  Its top speed was 125 mph, fast enough to make the trip to Milwaukee in an hour-and-half or less if the weather cooperated. 

The plane took off into the morning haze after nine o’clock.  In twenty minutes it was approaching the Lake Michigan coast at Frankfort.  Pete made sure they flew over the house of his family.  They knew it would be him: it was always a joy for them to see his airplane pass overhead.

Below, the foghorns were preparing to sound.  Fog was coming in from the cold waters of the Lake.

Image of the Rennie plane published in the Benzie Banner.

The Plunge into the Lake

The fog was as dense as iron.  Timber looked at his passengers, and said they should land on the lake and taxi back to Frankfort until the fog lifted.  He turned to begin the descent–too rapidly it seemed. With no visual cues to go by, it was impossible to level the flight path: Were they flying parallel to the water they would land on, or at an angle to it?  At the same time, the altimeter could hardly keep up with their descent, the gauge moving faster than Timber had ever seen it.  Fear stole over the cabin of the plane.

The plane hit hard on the water, the impact turning the pontoons backward.  All four passengers were bruised, but not enough to keep them from devising a survival plan.  Preparing to enter the water, they stripped off their heavier clothes and made signaling flags to attach to the plane, but, as water began to fill the cabin, it look as if the airplane would not stay afloat for long.  They moved to the wings, and could look out towards Frankfort, a speck in the sunlight.   The fog had lifted.

The three men began to make a raft out of a gas tank attached to the wing, a metal vessel that measured about four feet on a side and four inches thick.  Lashing two air cushions from the cabin to it, they made a float able to support one person, Margaret.  As she told the story, “I got on the raft and the boys held onto the edge, swimming and trying to propel it toward shore.  They talked back and forth, urging each other to stick to it and “Timber” said to me, “I got you in this and I’ll get you out.”  She was told to lie on the raft to avoid exposure to the chilling water; the others would have to stay immersed since float did not have enough buoyancy for them all.

At 3:30, five hours after they had flown over Frankfort, the plane sank.  They were alone, the four of them, fifteen miles from shore, with the shadows of afternoon beginning to lengthen.  The temperature was in the seventies—at most—but the water was much colder.  Typically, in June it might be as warm as the mid- to upper fifties, and there is no reason to think it would have been warmer.  That year Grand Traverse Bay had frozen later than it ever had—in late March—but it had frozen as it almost always did in that era.   

The human body cannot endure cold water for long.  Survival time in 50-degree water is only one to two hours for a person treading water or holding onto a float.  The symptoms are always the same; you become confused, irrational.  Slowly you sink into semi-consciousness, then losing consciousness entirely.  Various factors shape how long you will survive: body fat, clothing, how much effort you expended over time, and that indefinable quality, the will to live.

The cold could not be bargained with.  At five o’clock Pete started babbling incoherently.  The others tried to rally him, but to no avail.  He had to let go, disappearing under the waves.  Timber was next, rambling on and on the way Pete had before.  Chick and Margaret tried to hold him up onto the raft, but could not maintain a grip.  He, too, slipped beneath the water.

That version, with Pete Keller preceding James Gillette in death, was the version given to local news media, the Traverse City Record Eagle, the Benzie county newspaper, the Benzie Banner, and the Detroit Free Press.  An account given to the Steven’s Point Daily Journal (Steven’s Point, Wisconsin) has James Gillette dying first. This story could have been obtained when Margaret Rennie was first being debriefed on the Wisconsin side of the Lake, where, because of her ordeal, she was likely to be confused.

Chick boarded the raft and stayed with Margaret all night long as they talked and prayed together.  All that time she had to cover a vent on the gas tank to keep more water from entering, her hand aching from the effort.  Ships passed in the night, but too far away to hear their calls, too far away to see them. 

Light was just beginning to illuminate the eastern sky when the cold got to Chick.  He began to lose consciousness just as the others had.  In a moment of awareness before the end, he gave her papers, and money, detached a gold watch–an heirloom from his family–from its chain, and handed it to his wife.  She clutched onto it tightly so that it could not fall into the water and begged him, “Please don’t go, Chick,” but could not hold on to him as he slipped off the raft. 

It overturned as he went under, but Margaret was somehow able to get back on.  She kept her hand over the vent, not allowing water to enter.  Feeling herself drifting into unconsciousness, she jerked herself back to reality, focusing on the sacrifice the three men had made for her as well as on her three children at home who would become orphans upon her death.  The hours of the morning passed–and those of the early afternoon, as she grew weaker and less responsive.  The sun disappeared in the late afternoon and the darkened sky spoke of another night on the raft.  She knew she could not endure that.

Ann Arbor Car Ferry No. 7, just out of Frankfort Harbor, image courtesy of https://www.behance.net

The Rescue: Ann Arbor Car Ferry Number 7

Ann Arbor Car Ferry Number 7 was barely an hour out of Frankfort, having left in the late afternoon in hazy sunlight, her twin stacks belching black smoke as she hurried along, an awesome sight to persons on small boats near the harbor—or, for that matter, to anyone floating on a flimsy raft in the water.  Three hundred thirty-seven feet long, a beam of 56 feet, and a draft of 19 feet, she was well suited for her job of carrying up to 30 railroad cars from one side of Lake Michigan to the other.  Now she was on her way to Kenosha, Wisconsin.

Two points off the starboard bow, nearly dead ahead, Quartermaster Arthur Johnson, at his position at the wheel, noticed a mysterious floating object and asked the Third Officer, Peter Strom, to have a look through the ship’s glasses.  After a quick glance, he ordered the boat to slow and change course to intercept the object, which by this time—it was clear—was the raft with Margaret crying out for help in the most robust voice she could muster.  Captain Alex Larson, on the main deck, had heard her faint cries, and had a lifeboat sent down to effect the rescue.  With a few pulls on the oars, they approached the makeshift raft made up of a fuel tank lashed to two seat cushions.  Margaret lay on them weakly, barely able to help her rescuers, too exhausted to move.  She was gently lifted aboard the lifeboat which was then raised to the cabin deck.  Helping hands guided her to a warm berth in one of the cabins; the rescue took all of twenty minutes.

Margaret collapsed upon her rescue and was given emergency treatment.   Reviving a short time later, she told her story, exhibiting “stone nerves” in the words of Captain Larson.  Another account remembers her breaking down frequently in recounting the details of her experience, perhaps a more authentic description, given the trauma she had just gone through.  The Stevens Point Journal, published on the Wisconsin side of the Lake, tells us about the anguish she experienced as she recounted the 33 hours that she spent on the raft:

Mrs. Rennie said all of the men were cheerful and reminded her that they were only 15 miles from shore and that they would surely be picked up soon.

“They did not complain,” she related, “although the water was bitterly cold.

“I could see the men weaken as the hours passed.  I lost all count of time but I knew by the position of the sun that many hours must have passed while we were floating around.”

At this point of the story Mrs. Rennie broke down and sobbed hysterically.  Calmed by Captain Larson, she continued.

“Gillette let go the raft first.  He had been growing weaker all the time.  He could not hang on any longer.  I watched helplessly as he let go and disappeared under the water.”

Then Mrs. Rennie’s voice choked again and she was unable to continue for several minutes.

“Keller was the next to go.” She said. “The water was terribly cold and the air was chilly.  Like Gillette, he couldn’t hold on any longer and my husband and I had to watch him as a grip his grip slipped off the raft.  It was terrible.

“Chick (her husband) and I held on through the awful night.  It was so dark and cold and once in a while a stir of wind would lap a small wave over us and it would seem that the next minute would be our last.

“It seemed the night would never pass, but we held on.  Life seemed so dear.  The sun came up and there we were, exhausted and hopeless of being saved.

“Chick encouraged me and I encouraged him.  We thought surely help would arrive.  The day passed slowly and the sun was blisteringly hot.  Chick began weakening like the rest and I was desperate, knowing what had happened to the others.

“I don’t know when it happened, but it couldn’t have been more than a few hours before I was saved that Chick said to me:

“I guess I’m through.  I can’t stand it any longer.” I pleaded with him to hold on, but even though he wanted to, he couldn’t.  He fumbled around in his wet clothes and handed me his watch, papers, and money.

“Here, keep these,” he said.  Then he said ‘goodbye’ and let go.”

The story of the drowning of her husband was too much for Mrs. Rennie and she broke down again.

They proceeded to Kenosha where a physician, upon examination, declared that she was out of danger.  Exhausted, lips parched, blistered red by the sun during her ordeal, she was fundamentally undamaged by her 33 hours adrift on Lake Michigan.  She was determined to tell her family and dictated the following message to the ship’s telegrapher:

Plane crash, stop.  Pete and Jim drowned Thursday night, stop.  Chick drowned Friday morning, stop. I was picked up Friday night, be sure to tell mother I am all right.

The stark facts given in the transmission pierced the hearts of all who read them.

Car Ferry No. 7 returned immediately to Frankfort, arriving at 5:50 in the morning.  Met there by friends and family, she returned to Traverse City to stay at the home of Chick’s parents.

The Aftermath

The news of the disaster broke on Friday evening, June 24, at 8:45 with radio transmissions from Margaret and Captain Larsen aboard the car ferry.  The captain reported that three lives had been lost, and that the plane had gone down at 10:45 on Thursday, the 22nd.  Before those broadcasts, no one in the Traverse area knew about the tragedy, everyone guessing the flight had arrived safely in Milwaukee.  Word spread rapidly among friends and relatives by phone and word-of-mouth as many decided to drive to Frankfort to meet Margaret.

The accident had a dramatic effect on the Traverse community.  The Rennies were a well-known family, a pioneer family, and a family of some wealth and with prospects for much more, given the vigor of the oil industry at that time.  Rennie Oil Company became a major distributor of petroleum products since its founding in 1923, reaching its peak in the 50’s and 60’s.  Charles Rennie, the father of “Chick” who died in the crash, was founder and president until his son Ferris (called “Pete”) took over in later years.  Like his brother Chick, Pete was to perish in an accident,  drowning as his propeller-driven sled plunged under icy Grand Traverse Bay in 1965.

It was not just the prominence of the family that captured people’s attention at the time.  The ordeal—the crash, the attempts at survival, the sacrifice of the men—made the story come alive, not just locally, but in newspapers all over the United States. The Traverse City Record Eagle announced the event with bold headlines, four columns on page one, four more on page two, with pictures of all four young people, Margaret in double size.  Picked up by the Associated Press and United Press International, the story was carried nationally in all the big city newspapers from coast to coast. In particular, the Detroit Free Press offered an especially detailed account of the event.

Honoring the dead did not wait for a formal funeral.  While the tragedy was being played out, the Michigan Press Association was conducting a convention in Frankfort. Moved by what had happened, on Saturday, the day after Margaret was picked up, its members boarded a vessel to pay their respects.  Stopping at the approximate location where the plane had gone down, they dipped the ship’s flag, sounded bugles, and laid flowers on the waves.  The Reverend H. M. Smart offered solemn prayers for those who had perished as 300 stood at attention.

A formal memorial was held for the three victims on July 17th at the First Congregational Church.  Dr. Demas Cochlin delivered the eulogy: “They met their deaths bravely and well as heroes through the ages have met death.  They were young men who had established themselves successfully in their home communities through diligence and ability and their untimely deaths were community losses.”  Besides family and friends, all employees of the Rennie Oil Company attended the service.  Margaret, having recovered from the ordeal, was also in attendance.

Scant details about George (Pete) Keller were printed in the Record Eagle edition on the Saturday the story broke.  Until a month before the accident, he operated a gas station in Frankfort.  Only recently had he become a mechanic and assistant for James Gillette.  At the time of the accident he was living in a “house car” in East Bay State Park (currently known as Traverse City State Park).  He had two children at the time of his death.

Pete is neglected in accounts of the crash, perhaps because of his lower socioeconomic status in the community.  But, within the events that transpired on that awful day, his role could have been pivotal.  As a trained mechanic, he was able to imagine separating the fuel tank from the aircraft to make a raft—and able to make it happen on an airplane rapidly filling with water.   Certainly his skills—and confidence in his own ability—would have inspired hope that an improvised raft might save them all.

According to Pete’s father, he had a premonition something was going to happen.  In a Detroit Free Press article describing the accident he said, “Two weeks ago he told me he had a premonition: ‘he was about due.’  He had been flying seven years and that was about the average life of an aviator.  He said he would continue to care for the plane, but was about through flying in it.” 

The bodies of Charles “Chick” Rennie, James “Timber” Gillette, and George Keller were never found.  That summer, a tweed jacket was uncovered on the beach near Glen Arbor, an article of clothing exactly like that Timber was wearing at the time of the accident.  Two months later, other articles of clothing washed up on South Manitou Island, those also presumably belonging to the young men who had stripped off their heavier clothing after the plane impacted the water.

Many Questions, Few Answers

The Rennie accident inspired many questions, both among those responsible for safe air travel and the public generally.   Some centered on personal blame: Did the pilot err in leaving Traverse City in the first place?  Did he make the right decision in turning back after 15 miles over Lake Michigan?  Was he experienced in dealing with situations like that encountered beyond Frankfort?  Pilot error is almost always involved in airplane accidents.

Other questions probed the airplane, itself.  One news account claimed it lacked a radio, an instrument that could have alerted authorities on shore that the pilot would attempt a forced landing on the Lake.  A search for the airplane could have begun sooner with that information.  Another question related to the safety equipment on board: Could the pilot and passengers have been saved if the plane was equipped with proper flotation devices?  Inflatable rafts had been invented before 1933; in fact, one had saved Richard E. Byrd, an aviator who attempted a trans-Atlantic flight in 1925.  After his plane had run out of fuel a mile off the French coast, he paddled to shore in one kept for just such an emergency.

Finally, there were questions that we can ask now in light of our present knowledge about flying.  How detailed and reliable were weather reports available to aviators at the time?  Would James Gillette have set out that Thursday if he knew banks of fog lay off Frankfort? Communication between airports was quite primitive at the time, sometimes relying on telephone.  Did the Milwaukee airport realize the plane failed to arrive on time, and, if so, why didn’t it set up an alarm?  The wife of James Gillette phoned Milwaukee and was told erroneously that Rennie had already conducted his business.  Only later on Friday after she telephoned the airport, did she learn they had never arrived, but by then it was too late: Within a few hours upon learning this news, she was told about the crash and the death of her husband.

Surely, all of these questions must have entered the mind of Albert Meyers, inspector for the Department of Commerce, the agency for aviation safety at the time.  He attempted to interview Margaret Rennie soon after the accident, but found she was too distraught at that time, and presumably had to return later.  We know he wondered why, when the plane left Traverse City at 9:10, it plunged into Lake Michigan more than an hour-and-a-half later, the time elapsed longer than it would have taken to complete the journey.  A possible answer to that question was printed in the Traverse City Record-Eagle, the Monday following the rescue. 

Chick Rennie’s friend, Jack G. Fleckenstein, reported that he had received a telegraph from Rennie dated Thursday, June 22nd at 9:50 that he was planning a trip to Canada in coming days.  The stamped time on the telegram confirmed that the plane had not departed at 9:10 as erroneously indicated.  Fleckenstein went on to confirm his friend’s experience and skill as a pilot: he often refused to fly if the weather looked doubtful.

Unfortunately, the National Archives in Washington, D.C. has been unable to locate Meyer’s report—if it exists at all.  Perhaps, the findings were wrapped into general summaries of airplane accidents at the time.  Without it, researchers must deal only with newspapers and statements on the public record, a means of getting at the truth that leaves us with speculations, not conclusions.

Newspaper weather forecasts for June 22, 1933 indicate a day expected to be mostly fair, temperature in the 70’s with scattered clouds.  At a time before weather satellites and weather radar, that sort of forecast was the best that could be offered.  There were no storms in the vicinity, no expectation of fog banks obscuring visibility.  James Gillette was probably not at fault for attempting the journey on that day—at least as far as the weather was concerned.

Jack Fleckenstein speculated that Rennie had flown directly to the Lake Michigan coast from Traverse City, then went due south to Frankfort to begin the cross-lake segment of the trip.  Ordinarily, Chick would fly at 1200 feet, an altitude insufficient to climb above the fog bank.  Fleckenstein noted that his friend distrusted altimeters, assuming they were off by as much as 400 feet.  That distrust of his instruments could have been a factor in the crash.

It is incredibly difficult to fly in clouds or fog, relying solely on instruments.  Pilots must learn to ignore signals from their own balance system and constantly check the altimeter, airspeed indicator, magnetic compass, and any other instruments available to them (quite possibly the Stimson Junior had nothing else).  To achieve instrument rating today requires many hours of training and experience: a pilot attempting to fly into clouds and fog without that experience survives by luck.  However skillful James Gillette may have been, he was not prepared to encounter dense fog over Lake Michigan.

Today, pilots training under Visual Flight Rules are instructed in the bare rudiments of instrument flying.  For example, they are taught how to execute a 180 degree turn to fly out of a cloud, something that Gillette may have attempted as he descended to land on the water.  We do not know if he received this kind of instruction when he was trained in the late 1920’s.

In 1933 airport radar had not appeared in the form it has taken today.  Airport workers did not have screens showing the movement of aircraft miles away: there were no blips that suddenly disappeared as in the case of an accident.  At the same time, there was no weather radar to describe atmospheric conditions.  A fogbank over Lake Michigan would have been reported to meteorologists elsewhere by telegraph, if at all.  Given the technology of the time, James Gilette made do with the best forecast he could get upon his departure.  His judgment was not faulty in this regard.

The deaths of three persons in the Rennie crash could be attributed to many factors.  Pilot error was a part of it: James Gillette failed to respond in a manner that could have saved his aircraft and the lives of his passengers.  At the same time, the airplane itself had its shortcomings including the absence of an inflatable raft and communication devices (if, indeed, it had no radio).  Weather forecasters had not yet come up with reliable descriptions of local weather conditions, including that off-shore fog building over a frigid lake.  Finally, rescue efforts were not begun in time to save lives due to poor communication between airports and other individuals on the ground.  The technology and protocols had not developed by 1933.

Dawning of a New Era

In the twenties and thirties, aviation stirred the public as rockets did in the sixties and seventies.  Aviators were the astronauts of their time, risking their lives to accomplish unbelievable things.  While an ocean liner crossing the Atlantic would take four days at best, Charles Lindberg could accomplish the feat in 30 hours.  Trains required three days to cross the continent in 1933.  Roscoe Turner flew that distance in eleven-and-a-half hours. 

In the Traverse City area, Cherry Festival queens had arrived by airplane with much fanfare—in fact, James Gillette had piloted them to the city twice before.  He was scheduled to perform the same duty for the festival the year he died.  Airshows had become an exciting Festival event, much as the Blue Angels flight demonstration squadron today excites visitors in Cherry Festival performances before audiences numbering in the hundreds of thousands.

For all the hoopla, flying was a dangerous business.  Every six months the Commerce Department published the Air Commerce Bulletin, a report that summarized data concerning air safety.  In the period that included the Rennie tragedy, 128 persons died in crashes, with more than 90 severely injured.  One accident occurred for every 42 thousand miles traveled with one fatality for every 409 thousand miles.  Seeing enormous opportunity for economic growth in the fledgling airline business, the government had an interest in improving safety.  Passengers would not fly unless they were convinced they would arrive safely at their destinations.

The Commerce Department analyzed the causes of airplane accidents in the Bulletin.  Pilot error (called Personnel) was blamed for the greatest share of accidents–as it is today—accounting for 51 percent of all accidents.  It was broken down into several categories including judgment, technique, and negligence.  Would James Gillette have been faulted for going out when he should have (judgment)?  It seems unlikely.  Would he have been accused of not operating the airplane skillfully (technique)?  Perhaps.  He failed to execute a 180-degree turn to get out of the fog, and then to descend to the Lake.  We do not know how the government inspector decided as to the cause of the Rennie accident.  No doubt his subjective opinion determined what he wrote in his evaluation.

Beyond pilot error, three other causes of accidents were highlighted in the Commerce Department report: engine failures, airplane failures, and a general category that captured such things as bad weather, darkness, and airport terrain.  Fully twenty percent of accidents were caused by engines that stopped working in flight.  Ten percent of them happened when the aircraft presumably lost an important component, a rudder, a section of wing, etc.  The third category, natural causes outside the airplane, was responsible for 18 percent of crashes.  Could the 1933 accident be blamed on the weather?  Perhaps.  It is a judgment call.

Aircraft safety measures have made accidents like the Rennie tragedy exceedingly rare, even as flight hours have increased many times over.  General aviation data from 1938 shows that the accident rate was 125.9 accidents per 100,000 flight hours.  In 2009 the figure was 7.2.  Nowadays, airplane engines rarely stop running in flight, essential parts do not fall off, weather reports are accurate so that pilots can make sound judgments about when to fly.  If a plane does go down, a variety of mechanisms come into play: radio communication with flight control personnel and radar pinpoint the location.  Today, a small aircraft regularly flying over Lake Michigan would have an inflatable raft able to hold five persons, an accessory desperately needed in the Rennie crash.  Search-and-rescue teams aboard helicopters spring into action upon hearing a distress call.  Since the thirties, it is no wonder that fatalities per 100,000 flight hours have decreased more rapidly than the accident rate for small aircraft. 

Three persons lost their lives, one survived on June 22, 1933 as a small plane plunged into Lake Michigan.  The story of the heroic efforts of three men to save Margaret Rennie moved people in the Traverse area, the states of Michigan and Wisconsin, as well as the entire nation.  Those efforts were seen as acts of chivalry in the Aviation Age, not different from those a hundred years previous in the Age of Sailing Ships—or even, for that matter, those of the Medieval Age before that.  Beyond that symbolism, the Rennie accident did accomplish a more practical goal: through examining the causes and acting upon that information, it set the stage for protecting lives in the future from airplane crashes that could be prevented—or, if they did happen–made less tragic.  That legacy lives with us today.

Afterword

Margaret Rennie remarried two years after the crash.  She lived a relatively quiet life, bringing up her three children, John, Halcyon, and Martha Jean, in the Traverse area.  According to a family member, she rarely discussed what happened to her: it was not something she wanted to relive.  Throughout her life she kept rooms dark in the summer, drawing the blinds to keep the sun out.  Was that because of the awful memories of sun and wind so long ago?  Certainly the effects of that experience would color her days to the end of her life—and in ways she, herself, might be unaware of.  Margaret died in 1972 at age 67.  She was interred in the Omena Cemetery in Northern Michigan.

Investigating an Urban Legend: The origin of twin brick houses on Seventh Street

By Julie Schopieray

Have you ever noticed the “twin” brick residences on the corner of Division and W. 7th St. and wondered about their history?   It’s obvious that they are constructed of Markham bricks, the same material as the Northern Michigan Asylum (later known as the Traverse City State Hospital). With their proximity to that building, it makes sense that there might be a connection.

Brick house at 704 Seventh Street, on the northwest corner of Division and Seventh Streets. Image courtesy of Amy Barritt, April 2017.

One story told about the origin of these houses goes something like this:  During the earliest years of construction, there was a tramway built to haul the millions of bricks from the Markham brick yard north of Greilickville to the Asylum construction site. The tale continued that the tramway ran down Division, then made a sharp turn to the right down 7th Street, finally reaching the Asylum.  At the point the tram veered, it was said, bricks often fell off the flat cars on the curve, but, since they were not to be used at the Asylum, simply remained there. The “Markham brothers” later built their twin houses on the site using those dumped bricks.

Detail on window of brick house at northwest corner of Division and Seventh Streets. Image courtesy of Amy Barritt, April 2017.

After hearing this tale, some fact-checking was needed.  City directories, census records and newspaper articles were searched, and it was confirmed that there were no Markham “brothers” in Traverse City. James Markham, the owner of the brick-making business, lived near the brickyard west of town. Though very little is written about the tramway, it highly unlikely that it traveled down Division St. as that route would have been out of the way.  Besides, the old Boardman millpond still covered the land where Division St. would later be, that pond existing as late as 1883.  No documentation has been found that describes the actual route of the mule-powered track, but a route following the flat land along the Bay, then turning south down Elmwood St. to the construction site is more direct, and seems more likely than the supposed Division Street pathway.

Detail on window of brick house at 703 Seventh Street, on the southwest corner of Division and Seventh Streets. Image courtesy of Amy Barritt, April 2017.

The 7th Street houses do have a connection to the Asylum. They were constructed by two men who were master brick masons employed at the Asylum as early as 1884, John Bilsky and John Sivek, both Polish/German immigrants. The common denominator in this story seems to be a man named Christian H. Petersen. Petersen was a master brick mason who, in 1880 was living in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. When the Northern Michigan Asylum was being planned, a call went out in the region for skilled masons and in 1884, he moved his family to Traverse City and went to work.

The 1884 village directory shows C.H. Petersen head of a boarding house for masons and carpenters.  Among the men listed in this residence is mason John Bilsky, who also had resided in Milwaukee.  It can be assumed that John Sivek came from there as well (the pages with the names starting with S are not yet transcribed). His obituary states that he too, lived in Milwaukee prior to coming to Traverse City, where he was employed at the Asylum. These three men likely knew each other in Milwaukee and all took the opportunity for long-term employment.

Brick house at 703 Seventh Street, on the southwest corner of Division and Seventh Streets. Image courtesy of Amy Barritt, April 2017.

Bilsky and Sivek must have been good friends. Each had immigrated in the early 1880s, and their common heritage, language and skills as masons tied them together. They were in the local mason’s union as early as 1900, when, that year, they refused to walk in the muddy street during a Labor Day parade and were fined by the labor union for not participating. Their twin houses were constructed some time between 1889 and1894, the reasoning being that Christian Petersen’s 1889 Elmwood Avenue residence (309 S. Elmwood) was said to be the first brick home in the city: the two homes must have been built after that. The 1894 City Directory shows Bilsky & Sivek at 703 and 704 Seventh St., with subsequent sources such as the 1900–1930 census records and directories showing these men living at those locations. Both had sons who  took possession of their respective family homes after their fathers passed away.  John Sivek died in 1932, his son Thomas, also a brick mason, remaining at 703 W. 7th until his death in 1966.  John Bilsky’s son John Jr., another second generation brick mason, lived in his house at 704 W. 7th until he died in 1956.

The real story of the twin houses isn’t as entertaining as the “Markham brothers” tale but these lovely brick homes still standing after 125 years is testament to the brick-laying skills of these two men.

Julie Schopieray is a regular contributor to Grand Traverse Journal. She is currently working on a biography and architectural history of Jens C. Petersen, once a Traverse City-based architect, who made his mark on many cities in Northern Michigan and California.

Who Founded Traverse City? 

Historians love it when they find a new source of information that sheds light upon a subject they are interested in.  So it was when, after idle searching on the internet, I came across Industrial Chicago, Volume 6, Logging Interests, a book that offered plentiful information about Perry Hannah, Albert T. Lay, and the Hannah Lay company, the firm responsible for the building of Traverse City.  Reading the book in the comfort of my home, I learned about the company not from the limited perspective of local history sources, but from Chicago-based ones.  In addition to information about the company itself, the narrator told anecdotes about founders of the company, Hannah and Lay, stories that had lain untold so far in the telling of our history.

Some information simply confirmed what we thought we knew.  Did the lumber taken from Northern Michigan help rebuild Chicago after the great fire of 1871, the fire allegedly started by Mrs. O’Leary’s cow?  Indeed it did.  We are told that the Hannah and Lay yard lay south of the fire’s devastation.  The company was well positioned to supply lumber for the rebuilding process.

Exactly how profitable was Hannah Lay?  The reader of Industrial Chicago is given figures about board feet of lumber produced at mills of the Hannah Lay empire, but these are difficult to interpret.  How much is a billion board-feet after all?  A better indicator is this: In 1895, the year of publication of the book, the company owned the Chamber of Commerce building at the corner of LaSalle and Washington outright.  It was valued at the time at three million dollars, a sum in today’s money that would total closer to 35 million.  A postcard from the time shows its magnificence: fourteen floors with astounding ornaments—a palace, which has been replaced, sadly, by the Chicago Board of Trade building.

Perry Hannah.

What does Industrial Chicago tell us about the founders of the company?  About Perry Hannah, it revealed not much that we didn’t know.  I found it interesting that he obtained a Common School education probably consisting of ‘reading, ‘writing, and ‘rithmetic, before he moved to the Port Huron area with his father at the age of 13.  There he learned the art of rafting logs to be sent down the St. Claire river to sawmills to be sawn into lumber.  His roots were close to the working class, unlike his partner Albert T. Lay.

Lay was educated in private schools until the age of 16, presumably a more rigorous education than the public schools at the time.  His father was a legislator to the US House of Representatives for the state of New York.  Is this why young Lay’s signature appears bold and competent, in contrast to Hannah’s—that reading and writing were activities he had spent much time doing?  At first, he stayed in Traverse City to set the new mill near the mouth of the Boardman River to working properly, but five years after arriving at the rude settlement carved out there, he and Hannah resolved to change places.  Perry Hannah would stay in Traverse City and Lay would handle the Chicago operations.  Lay, perhaps because of his superior education, would be involved in the more intricate dealings with suppliers and major customers.

Tracy A. Lay.

Albert T. Lay’s early years in Traverse City have not been described by previous historians.  We know that in 1853 he ran against James Strang, the Mormon leader at Beaver Island, and lost that election to the Michigan legislature.  He oversaw the construction of a steam-powered sawmill at edge of Grand Traverse Bay.  He probably approved the building of the first Hannah Lay store, just 16 x 20 feet, the ledgers of which still remain at the Bentley Historical Library in Ann Arbor. 

Lay named Traverse City.  In 1853, seeking a postal route for the settlement, he presented the name “Grand Traverse” before officials in Washington, D.C., later accepting their suggestion to strike out the “Grand.”  It would be Traverse City, the “City” element added later.

What does one do to found a city?  In the past, Harry Boardman and his son Horace were given credit for founding Traverse City.  They bought land here, built a sawmill in 1847, and began the production of lumber at that early date.  A hundred years later, in 1947, historians convinced city leaders that the centennial celebration should occur in that year.  The settlement began with Boardman’s acquisition of land and the subsequent logging of the trees on the property—no matter that the Boardmans never put down roots here.  They bought the land and sold it soon after. 

The whole question of who founded the City–and when–seems silly to Native Americans who had set up camps here from prehistoric times.  Still, there is something in a name.  Whoever names a place deserves credit for that act.  By that rule, Albert T. Lay founded the City.

One story about the rude, uncivilized nature of the Traverse area tells about Lay and a judge friend from Manistee who had come north to visit the logging operation at the foot of Grand Traverse Bay.  The judge promptly identified a man in the sawmill crew as a run-away criminal wanted for the murder of his own daughter.  Quickly, he made Lay the deputy sheriff of the new region, and then named him deputy county clerk, deputy county treasurer, and deputy school inspector.  In short, Albert T. Lay temporarily held all the offices for the soon-to-be Grand Traverse county.  After the sawmill was stopped to secure men for a jury, the trial proceeded apace, the defendant declared guilty.  He was tied to a post at the mill (since there was no jail), and was sent downstate to serve a life sentence in prison there.  Justice was done with the aid of the young owner of the sawmill at the mouth of the Boardman.

In praising Lay, I do not want to disparage Perry Hannah’s contribution to Traverse City.  After all, he did stay at this ramshackle outpost for 47 years, keeping away from the enticements of a grand city—Chicago—only a day away by railroad or steamer.  He pushed to have the Northern Michigan Asylum located in Traverse City and personally guaranteed support to the Carnegie library, thereby assuring it would be built on Sixth Street, opposite his home.  He donated land to churches and generally treated people fairly and with generosity.  When Traverse City was a small settlement, he—and his company—ruled the town, but for all that, he was a benevolent despot.  We could have done much worse.

At the same time, we should not neglect the other founder of Traverse City, Albert T. Lay.  A small park on Union Street bears his name, but few persons remember what he did for the community.  There is no statue, as there is of Perry Hannah across Union street, though a plaque is mounted on a boulder that reads: Lay Park: To commemorate Albert Tracy Lay, pioneer lumberman, who, with Perry Hannah, in 1851 founded the first permanent settlement on the site of Traverse City.”  What elegant simplicity!  The two together founded the city.

Oldest Continuously Running Restaurant in Michigan: Sleder’s Tavern

by David Odziana, ThumbPrint News Staff Writer and Field Reporter

This article on Sleder’s Tavern was originally published in the January 2017 issue of the ThumbPrint Newsa wonderful publication filled with history, insight, life-hacks and just plain fun. We are indebted to the editors of ThumbPrint News and author David Odziana. Read and subscribe at their website: http://www.thumbprintnews.com/

Image provided by David Odziana.

For many residents of Michigan, a vacation often consists of driving a few hours north until they reach one of the many popular tourist destinations throughout the state.

Traverse City is one of the more popular vacation spots in the Lower Peninsula, enticing visitors with an array of year-round activities. The area once known as Slabtown and Little Bohemia has an extensive history, which is a big part of the beloved city’s charm.

Interior of Sleder’s, ca. 1885, with the famed spittoons resting on the floor. Image courtesy of the Bensley Collection, Traverse Area District Library Local History Collection.

Sleder’s Tavern is one of the most established buildings in the area with the prestige of being one of the oldest restaurants in the state. A Bohemian wheelwright named Vencel Sleder came to the area in the second half of the 1800s, and soon made the decision to construct a local tavern where residents could visit with friends over a home cooked meal after a long day at work. Since most able hands were busy working in the mills or on their land, only Sundays were available to work on the restaurant. This caused construction to complete the building to drag on for three years. The building was manufactured using rejected wooden slabs from the local sawmill; Sleder’s Tavern was finally finished in 1882.

Vencel conducted his business with the mentality that goodwill is good business, later becoming the company’s slogan that allowed the bar to survive many dark economic times. The second generation of the Sleder family to work at the tavern was Polly Sleder, who was well known for offering her household medical advice with each $1.50 case of beer. It was also said she gave patrons a free beer and a double shot of liquor for each case of beer purchased. Prior to inheriting the tavern, Louie Sleder’s first job at the bar was to clean out the 21 spittoons throughout the restaurant, receiving 25 cents for each one. By 1920, Sleder’s Tavern was faced with a great deal of uncertainty, as everyday life began changing drastically during this time.

Results of a Grand Traverse Prohibition-era raid with officers and sheriff’s deputies. G.T. County Sheriff David R. Campbell at the far left. Image not included in Ordizana’s original article, but Your Editors love this photo, courtesy of the Traverse Area District Library Local History Collection.

When Prohibition was enacted in Michigan, Sleder’s Tavern was already established for nearly 40 years, which gave the company a better chance of surviving the state’s dry period that lasted more than 15 years. Sleder’s secret for thriving during the country’s ban on alcohol was his special root beer, which was well known during the time. The mixture, which was actually a blend of rye and bourbon, was served in tea cups free of charge to all visiting law enforcement – this allowed the family business to flourish when a majority of taverns were forced to close their doors. Throughout the 1920s, local law enforcement mainly focused on out-of-town bootleggers who were bringing alcohol into the area. This continued until the 1930s, when state police decided to enforce the laws local police were ignoring. Sleder’s Tavern was quickly raided, and police discovered two stills, 231 pints of beer, 50 gallons of mash used to brew alcohol and six quarts of moonshine. Due to his clean record, Louie was only charged with possession, which resulted in a $600 fine, instead of the much stiffer punishment that came with a bootlegging charge. This raid was most likely a result of pressure from citizens, who collected 450 signatures to get local police to “exercise a higher regard for the moral protection of the youths of our city and a more thorough enforcement in dealing with violators of city ordinances, federal and state law.” Despite the fact that the petition didn’t mention alcohol or prohibition, it was assumed the paperwork was referring to the lack of enforcement on alcohol in the city.

Interior of Sleder’s Tavern today. Image contributed by Brooks Vanderbush.

During the 1930s, the building underwent a few structural changes. Prior to this time, men and women were not allowed to frequent the same area of the bar. Instead, the men drank in the main bar, while the women had their own section in the back, which they would enter through a separate door. After Louie opened up the two rooms to make one large bar and renovated the second story ballroom into living space, many of the regulars who frequented Sleder’s were not happy about having women in the same area of the bar.

The original, 21-foot mahogany bar of Sleder’s Tavern, as it looks today. Image contributed by Brooks Vanderbush.

Although some things have changed in the building throughout its 134 years of business, many original features still remain. Time-appropriate stamped tin adorns the 12-foot-tall ceilings, original light fixtures still hang on the walls and much of the historic collectibles still decorate the walls, but one feature tends to grab the attention of thirsty patrons more than anything else. The original 21-foot mahogany bar, equipped with an old brass foot rail and embellished with cherry wood on the sides, has remained in the same spot since 1882.

Exterior of Sleder’s Tavern today. Image contributed by Brooks Vanderbush.

Louie Sleder was the last family member to own the tavern before it was sold. After changing hands a few times, Sylvia and Bob Classens purchased the restaurant in 1975. The couple’s main goal was to ensure the historical aspect remained. Renovations they accomplished were uncovering the original hardwood floors, redoing the paneling on the walls and constructing a Victorian style porch on the side of the building. In 1992, Brian and Deb Cairns purchased the restaurant from the Classens, and shortly after, the couple tied the knot on the recently constructed porch. When the Cairns took over, they changed as little as possible – all five of the Classens’ children, as well as many of the previous employees, remained employed at Sleder’s after the tavern got new owners. Today, Michigan’s oldest continuously running restaurant sits in the same spot at 717 Randolph Street in Traverse City. While much has changed throughout the city from the time it was known as Little Bohemia or Slabtown, Sleder’s Tavern stands as proof that some things can truly stand the test of time.

Innisfree: Fondly Remembered Outdoor Camp, 1970-1988

by S. A. McFerran

Many school groups from Traverse City and Leelanau traveled to Innisfree, a camp for environmental education, on Pyramid Point within the Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore.  The program operated year-round within sight of the Manitou Passage, and the fifth- and sixth-grade student visitors would stay for four nights at the Camp.  Students were led on beach and wood hikes by a crack team of naturalists. In the winter, there were snow shoe hikes and ski trips. Canoe trips on the Crystal River was a staple activity as were “get lost” hikes.

Gus Leinbach and group, on a hill at Innisfree Camp, ca. 1970. Image provided by the author.

Gus Leinbach bought the camp in 1970 and started the Innisfree Project which was named after a William Butler Yeats poem by that name. Gus was an educator from Ann Arbor who set up the camp with the concept of self-direction for the campers and counselors. If you had an idea, a skill, and interest then you could form your idea, pitch it to a mentor or guide to help, propose it to the rest of the campers and get a group together to do what you wanted. There was a bike shed with tons of parts to work on building bicycles, an old car to learn how to fix engines, a frozen zoo of found animals that were preserved, and an old orchard with apples to pick. The kitchen always seemed to be open for campers to come in and help. It was a true community experience that offered endless possibilities to explore, create, invent, and express.

Gus and his wife Paula operated Crystalaire on Crystal Lake before establishing Innisfree. Camp Lookout “spun off” from Crystalaire and still carries on the tradition of self-directed camp life, where campers and counselors create their own inventive activities. Gus died in 1988, and Innisfree was sold and is still operated as “Camp Kohana.”

During the summers at Innisfree, trips were offered and campers traveled on bikes along the roads of Leelanau and to faraway places such as New England and Isle Royale. I have recently been in touch with Carolyn, my co-leader of a small group of campers to Isle Royale. We both still agree that it was the best trip ever.

Campers at Innisfree. Photograph provided by the author.

In the summer of 1984, we loaded the van with campers and equipment, and we were on our way to meet the ferry boat at Copper Harbor. The trip to the ferry gave us the opportunity to get a sense of the cast of characters within the group. Our first stop was on the Keweenaw Peninsula where I parked the van and made everyone hike up a giant hill to an old fire tower. I insisted that the view was worth it. Everyone was stiff from the long trip across the Upper Peninsula and needed to stretch their legs.

We ate delicious thimble berries along the trail, as I regaled the group with stories of the awesome view from the old fire tower. We got to the top and all we saw was a big block of cement with some metal pieces sticking out. The Forest Service had removed the tower. From that low point, on a high place, it was all downhill to Isle Royale.   

The ferry boat at Copper Harbor was surprisingly small. We loaded our backpacks and were off. Lake Superior was very rough that day and many in the group were sick. The water calmed as we approached Isle Royale, and were greeted by a blast of warm air. Camper Emily said: “It smells like pine air freshener!”

We were warned about foxes that would steal food by the Rangers as we unloaded our gear. Willy, a short boy from the Philippines, and Steven, a lanky Inuit, were captivated by the idea of seeing a fox. They rigged up an apparatus for tricking the fox as we set up camp at Rock Harbor.

1978 Isle Royale camping expedition by Innisfree campers. Photograph courtesy of Beth Leinbach.

After being splashed by the water of Lake Superior, it was surprisingly hot at the campground. Emily emerged from her tent and informed Carolyn and I that she had changed her mind about the trip. She demanded a helicopter. She wanted to go home. After some tears and anguish Emily was ready to listen. We explained there would be no helicopter and she was with us for the duration of the trip.

Somehow we had ended up with a large cache of frozen hot dogs. Everyone had eaten their fill so Steve and Willy decided that a hot dog would be perfect fox bait. While foxes stole food we informed Steve that he was not allowed to feed them due to park regulations. Not to be thwarted in his quest to see a fox Steve rigged up hot dog on a bungee cord on a string that he could pull just before the fox grabbed it. He was up all night swatting mosquitos and outfoxing the fox.

The water of Lake Superior is known for being frigid, but late summer sun beats down for long days on the inlets and coves of Isle Royale. The water there becomes delightfully swimmable. Large slabs of granite warmed by the sun made fine places for our group to rest after a plunge. The balance of our trip was spent hiking and swimming in Royale coves and inlets.

One afternoon, when we made it to camp on the early side, we decided to build a sweat lodge out of our tent poles and fly tarps. We were near the end of our week on Isle Royale, so by this time all the campers were pretty good friends and didn’t mind trying something new. We built a fire and found some upland cobbles to heat up.  We all got on our bathing suits and crawled into the makeshift lodge.  The hot rocks were placed in the center and we all sat and sweated until we couldn’t stand it anymore.  With lots of hollering, we all ran through the busy campsite and past the families quietly camping. As a group we all jumped off the dock into the deep Lake Superior water.  It was then I knew that we had changed the campers’ lives.

Gus and Big Pig, at Innisfree, undated. Image provided by the author.

After dropping off all of Steve, Willy, Emily and all the rest, Carolyn and I returned to Innisfree where the late summer band camp was underway.  The Big Reds were blasting fight songs out into the Manitou Passage and Big Pig was watching the band maneuvers from his sty near the football field.

The site where the Camp was on Pyramid Point is amazingly beautiful.  The high bluff above Lake Michigan was lined with trees to sit in and among and gaze at the sunset. And the beach below with the rustic waterfront was a wonderful place to play. But the real beauty of Innisfree was in the people.

S. A. McFerran is a graduate of the National Outdoor Leadership School and has led six, 24 day wilderness courses in addition to an Antioch College Environmental Field Program. He has led outdoor programs for Northwestern Michigan College, Appalachian School of Experience, Group and Individual Growth and Traverse Area Public Schools. He worked as a naturalist and trip leader at Innisfree.