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.

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

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.


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:

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.

End of an Era: The Old Immaculate Conception School and Church to be Demolished

by Julie Schopieray

For those of us who appreciate the historic architecture of Traverse City, a sad fact is that many of our early buildings no longer exist. For most buildings, it has been either a result of fire or progress. When it comes to our historic schools, it is a combination of both reasons. There is only one remaining pre-1914 school in our town. It too, however, will soon be demolished and replaced. In the upcoming year, plans to raze and replace the Immaculate Conception school have been put in place. 

As early as January 1900, it became apparent that a second Catholic church was needed. The Catholic population of the city had grown dramatically and the St. Francis parish was becoming overcrowded. Many poorer, working class parishioners on the west side of town also felt it was inconvenient to travel so far. By late 1901, there was more talk about a possible new church and school for the west side. This side of town was home to many Bohemian, Polish, French, and German immigrant families who did not all speak English. They voiced their desire to be able to attend services closer to their homes, and  in their own languages. St. Francis only conducted mass in English.

In May 1902, it was decided by a church committee to establish a new parish. It would be called the West Side Catholic Church and school. The Bishop at Grand Rapids appointed Rev. L. Krakowski, who had been associated with the St. Francis church as well as other parishes in the region, to establish a west side congregation and start the process of raising money for a combination church and school building. Fundraising was enthusiastically begun. Oyster suppers were held, plays and performances put on at the City Opera House, ice cream socials, raffles and many Pedro card parties were held, all to raise funds for the new structure. It didn’t happen quickly, however.

After much discussion between committee members, a location was chosen near the corner of Second and Division streets.  In January 1903, Rev. Krakowski went to Grand Rapids to get the official approval of the Bishop for the new church.

Immaculate Conception School on Division Street, photographic postcard, undated. Image courtesy of Traverse Area District Library, image 4817.

For two long years the parish worked to raise money for the proposed $15,000 structure to be designed by local architect, Fred E. Moore. Construction began in the spring of 1905. Contractor Bert Wilhelm supervised the building of architect Moore’s plans. The building plans included plumbing even though there were no water lines or sewers on that part of the west side at the time. It was decided by the City Engineer that temporary water and sewer lines would be extended down Division St. to accommodate the new structure, but, since plans to install city sewers there were not yet in place, “the easiest and cheapest [sewage] outlet would be to build from Second Street to the Asylum Creek at a cost of $150.” [TCRE 8 Aug., 1905]  The building was completed and ready to accommodate students by the beginning of the school year. 

Rev. John J. Sheehan

The Immaculate Conception Church  was officially dedicated on February 22, 1906.  Rt. Rev. Bishop Henry Joseph Richter of Grand Rapids, assisted by seventeen priests of the diocese conducted a four hour service attended by over 700 people.  So many people came that they filled the hall to standing room only. Many who came were not even able to  get in. The new church would have Rev. John J. Sheehan as priest in charge, with the school staffed by the Sisters of Mercy of Big Rapids.  The small parish worked through difficult circumstances, but eventually paid off the mortgage in thirty years and became debt free.

The church and school were operated in this building until it too, became overcrowded. It was always intended to be a temporary situation- having the school and church in one building. By 1951 it was time for more room. “In the last few years the parish has grown…overflow crowds demanded an assistant priest, but even with four masses each Sunday, the church remained overcrowded and the school had to limit its enrollment for lack of necessary classrooms. The only solution was a commodious new church to accommodate the ever increasing throngs and to enable Catholic visitors to attend mass in the summer and  to allow expansion of school facilities.” [TCRE 28 May, 1953]  A campaign began to raise money for a new church. In 1951, Architect Harford Field was hired to design the modern structure. Ground was broken on May 23, 1952, “the cornerstone was laid and the bell blessed on August 10, 1952 in a colorful ceremony presided over by Monsignor R. H. Baker, vicar general of the Grand Rapids diocese. The church was completed and opened for services on Easter Sunday, April 5, with Rev. Passeno saying the first mass.” [TCRE 28 May 1953]  The church was officially dedicated on May 30, 1953.

Seven years later, it was clear that a larger school was critical. The parish officials once again turned to architect Harford Field to design an addition to the school. The new school building would cost over $400,000 and include “eight classrooms, art room, library, music rooms, visual-aid room, general administration offices, cafeteria, kitchen, adult social room and gymnasium-auditorium…” [TCRE 20 May 1961]  At the time, there were over 400 students enrolled in first through eighth grades which were staffed by the Sisters of Mercy as well as lay teachers.

So, fast forward to the present. Once again the Immaculate Conception school has out-grown its facility. In September, 2016, plans were announced that replacement of the 1906 and 1961 buildings was being discussed and brought to the planning commission for review. At that date, $9 million had already been raised for the new  $12 million structure.

Yes, it is sad that another historic building will be demolished, but that is the way of progress. The cost of renovating old buildings to today’s standards  is not  always the best solution, especially when so much more space is needed. This has been the consistent history for the majority of our old schools. Most were demolished during the 1950s because they had become out-grown, out-dated and just not in line with modern school needs and standards. So, the last of the city’s pre-1914 schools will soon be a memory, but the new building will be an attractive asset to the community and will meet the needs of the school and parish.

Traverse City “Record-Eagle” September 23, 2016

Though not the very first school buildings in the city, these were the first brick structures:

Elmwood School–1892- 1956 (razed)
Oak Park School, Rose & Webster streets–1895-1955 (razed)
Boardman School- 1890-1913- burned, but replaced in 1914- (still standing- Ida M. Tompkins administration building)   In May, 2016 was also being considered for demolition.
Union Street School–1904-1959-(razed)
Central School 1877-  additions in  1885 and 1924,  burned in 1934 and rebuilt in 1936. (Currently Central Elementary)
West Side Catholic- Immaculate Conception- 1906- 2018?

Oak Park School, image courtesy of the Traverse Area District Library.
Elmwood Avenue School, Traverse City, photographic postcard. Image courtesy of Traverse Area District Library.
Boardman School, ca. 1915, image courtesy of Traverse Area District Library.
Union Street School, undated, image courtesy of the Traverse Area District Library.
Central Grade School, ca. 1890s. Image courtesy of Traverse Area District Library.

Julie Schopieray is a regular contributor to Grand Traverse Journal.

When Toboggans Were King: A Short History of the Sport in Traverse City

The whole town was excited–on New Years Day the toboggan slide would open.  For weeks townspeople had watched the gigantic structure emerge above the tree line near the intersection of Franklin and Webster streets.  The Toboggan Club of Traverse City had created the tower and supervised its operations.  Two smaller runs—for the young or the faint of heart—extended from a hill nearby, probably located where two residences now stand at the corner of Webster and Railroad streets.

Article on the Toboggan Club of Traverse City, from the "Grand Traverse Herald," December 23, 1886.
Article on the Toboggan Club of Traverse City, from the “Grand Traverse Herald,” December 23, 1886.

With a board of directors of distinguished citizens—long-time resident S.E. Wait, storeowner James W. Milliken, Julius Hannah, son of the town founder, among them—the Club laid out simple rules to be followed by all participants.  Each person would receive a badge for the season at a cost of ten cents.  Participants would have to be thirteen years old to ride the steep slide and ten to ride the lesser one.  Those that created nuisance would be removed from the site.  The tone of the advertisements published in the Grand Traverse Herald as well as the price of a badge suggest the project was a civic undertaking not intended to generate a profit.

The slide was truly magnificent.  Estimated to stand sixty feet high, the chute would send riders all the way to frozen Boardman Lake, crossing a dirt road soon to become Eighth Street along the way.  A visitor to town in 1887 remarked in his diary how the toboggan tower stood above the city, serving as an observation deck in warm months from which one could see the Bay, the Boardman Lake, downtown, and the newly built Northern Michigan Asylum.  The Herald spoke with pride about it, “The toboggan slide is all ready for business.  It is probably the best slide in the state.  Should provide lots of winter fun for our young people.”

The “best slide in the state” offered a thrilling ride.  The chute was packed with snow and then watered down to make ice, a surface that shot riders down the steepest part of the slide in seconds.  Screams accompanied the descent and continued for the quarter mile the toboggan coasted.  It was not a ride for the faint of heart.

The boast about the slide being the best in the state suggests toboggan slides were popular in Michigan at this time.  Indeed they were popular, not only in our state, but across the nation.  N-Gram Viewer, a website that examines word usage from 1800 to the present, shows the rapid rise in the use of the word “toboggan” beginning in 1880.  It reached a peak in the later nineteen century, only to rise again in the 1920’s, since dropping off.  Toboggans were a fad that rose rapidly, only to subside after a few years, and then to revive after a thirty-year hiatus.

In the 1880’s the “toboggan suit” became a necessity for young active women to wear on the toboggan runs.  It was described in the Ladies Home Journal as a garment with a removable hood, very warm, loose-fitting so that it can be worn over a wool dress.  It allowed the arms to move freely, containing “nothing to hurt,” even if the wearer does get “left” in a snow bank.  Presumably men’s clothing stores carried toboggan suits, too.

Sadly, the toboggan run lasted only one winter season, 1887.  The May 5th, 1887 edition of the Herald tells the story:

Toboggan Slide Blown Down.  This is unfortunate as it would have provided a fine outlook for the town during the summer months…The girls in town are all mourning over the destruction of the toboggan slide.  One by one they bring out their jaunty suits and, looking sadly upon them, wonder what in the world they can use them for now.  It is too bad a pretty girl—and our girls are all pretty—in a toboggan suit is as fair an object the world of handsome women can show.  But, sic transit gloria mundi—and it was a blue Monday too for the dear creatures.  The Herald sympathizes with them from its inmost soul.

It wasn’t just Traverse City that saw an abrupt end to its toboggan slide.  The fad evaporated all over the country at about the same time.  In 1886 the Chicago Tribune quoted a New York newspaper that remarked upon the rage of tobogganing, but only three years later, reports from many locations indicate the toboggan chutes had disappeared.  Some attributed their demise to a fatal accident of a celebrity in Vermont in the winter of 1887.  It is not hard to imagine injury and death resulting from plunges from a sixty-foot tower.

One unexpected injury occurred in Traverse City’s slide.  W.D. C. Germaine, a colorful personality and future mayor of Traverse City, decided to impress the ladies with a daredevil exploit: he would ride the chute on a coal shovel.  And that he did, forgetting that friction between the shovel and the slide generates a great deal of heat.  At the end of the run, it is said he had two great blisters on his behind.

Picture of the toboggan run at the Traverse City Golf and Country Club was taken in the 1920s near the 16th green of the golf course. From the Bensley Collection, Traverse Area District Library.
Picture of the toboggan run at the Traverse City Golf and Country Club was taken in the 1920s near the 16th green of the golf course. From the Bensley Collection, Traverse Area District Library.

Though the toboggan towers disappeared in many towns before the end of the 1880’s, tobogganing as a sport continued for decades afterwards.  In 1924 plans were made for a toboggan trail that would run down Boughey Hill (the hill where the Country Club is located), joining Pine Street until it reached 14th.  Facing opposition from that neighborhood, the Kiwanis Club constructed a another run on the Country Club golf course that descended south from the tallest hill, crossing a seldom-used Cass Street, and ending up at Boot Lake, a pond between that road and Boardman Lake.  It was said to give “a thrilling ride for 400 yards.”  Apparently, the threat of traffic on the road was not enough to discourage those wanting the speed and excitement of toboggan fun.

At this time sleds and jumpers were as common as toboggans.  “Flexible Flyers” made it possible for riders to steer the sled with feet or hands when descending a slope.  Used in limited places in the country–the Traverse area among them–jumpers were often made from a single wooden ski.  A wooden seat was mounted on it from which the rider would (attempt) to guide the vehicle with his/her feet.  The contraption was not stable and often pitched its rider into the snow: Riding a jumper was not a sport for those afraid of injury.

In more recent times, Boughey Hill was the place for sledding, the course proceeding through the woods, challenging sledders to avoid colliding with trees.  As newly constructed homes interfered with that route, an open area had to be found, but there was scant space within the city proper.  As always, the wide expanse of the Country Club golf course was the place young children gathered for winter fun but no thrilling toboggan runs were set up.  The hills and valleys close to the clubhouse provided enough thrills for families.

Times change and toboggans give way to skis and ski boards—at least for teens.  That is what happened in Traverse City in the second half of the twentieth century.  Hickory Hills to the west and Holiday to the east presented marvelous slopes with lifts, warming houses, instruction, and a panache that made those places fine hang-outs for the young.  High schools offered skiing as a recognized sport, heightening interest still further.  The thrills of a sixty-foot toboggan run of the 1880’s were duplicated by a fast run down a ski slope in the 2000’s.  Then as now, the young will find a way to enjoy the winters of Northern Michigan.

Richard Fidler is co-editor of Grand Traverse Journal.

November 11, 1896: Traverse City’s Worst Fire

November 11, 1896

Well after midnight Fire Chief Dupres, Alfred Waterbury, and Night Watchman Allen Grayson stood shivering in a brisk southwest wind that would ordinarily send them inside after a few minutes.  Tonight, however, something seemed wrong: a dull yellow light flickered to the northeast of the Cass Street fire station where they had gathered.  It danced on the thin crust of snow that covered the street in front of them, the same flicker they had all seen so many times before.  Fire!

The alarm was sounded, a pealing of bells in a specific pattern that alerted firefighters to the location of the fire.  It was in the direction of Front Street and Park, a place where frame buildings stood side-by-side, an invitation to a catastrophic spread of flames.  Hitching the fire engine to the waiting team, firemen worked frantically to let the horse collars come down onto the horses’ necks; the rest of the harness was in order in less than four minutes.

Meanwhile, the fire within the steamer was turned up full blast to ready the engine for its pumping duties to come. As the men left the station upon their new engine, Queen City, the horses’ breath raising clouds of steam in the cold, they congratulated themselves on their quick exit.  The steamer was new to the town, but they had practiced hard to get away fast, and that practice had paid off.

Front Street Hotel, from the "F.E. Walker Business Directory, 1894." This is the only know image of the Hotel.
Front Street Hotel, from the “F.E. Walker Business Directory, 1894.” This is the only know image of the Hotel.

No more than two blocks from the station, they came to a stop in front of the Front Street House, a large wooden three-story hotel that dominated the south side of the street.  Already flames and smoke billowed from the roof in places, the worst of it came from the part of the building that connected the large building on Front Street to the smaller frame building behind it by the alley.  So quickly had the flames spread, the firemen doubted they could save the building.

Already persons could be seen scrambling out the windows on the first floor, most in their nightclothes.  One brave soul hoisted himself out from a third floor window, making it somehow to the second story, and then dropping to the ground.  A little girl, contracted into a ball in fear, rolled off the edge of a roof, only to be caught by a fireman.  In all thirty people made it out of the fire: one did not.  Ed Newberry, a Swedish hotel porter, was found later, his dog beside him.

As predicted, the fire swept through the frame stores and saloons on the south side of the street, first the hotel, then a drug store within it, Broesch and Sons meat market, C.A. Cavis’s cigar store, Hiram Cook’s grocery, then a barbershop, and two saloons.  Next, a large two-storied structure, the Rich & Hallberg building caught fire, one of its walls coming to rest against the brick Tonneller building.  Four firemen were caught under the burning timbers, somehow escaping without serious burns. It was here the battle line would be set up to block the advance of the fire to the west.  In the end, the line held.

Image of the "Queen City No. 1" Fire Engine, from the "Grand Traverse Herald."
Image of the “Queen City No. 1” Fire Engine, from the “Grand Traverse Herald.”

One of the most gallant soldiers in the fight was the steamer Queen City, which performed magnificently, pouring water onto the flaming wall in a continuous stream, extinguishing the fire.  It was backed up by the city’s water system. Unbelievably, nineteenth century hydrants and water mains performed without failure.  Afterwards the newspaper would remark about the competence of the fire department and the water works in delivering water where it was most needed.

Image of the 1896 fire, actively burning frame buildings on the north side of Front Street. From the Local History Collection, Traverse Area District Library.
Image of the 1896 fire, actively burning frame buildings on the north side of Front Street. From the Local History Collection, Traverse Area District Library.

Even so, the blaze spread to the other side of Front Street.  In what some described as a flaming arch reaching from one side of the street to the other, buildings on the north side began to catch fire.  One by one they succumbed until they encountered Julius Steinberg’s brick opera house.  Father Julius Steinberg and son Aleck as well as employees of the dry goods store attached played streams of water everywhere to cool the building.  As cornices burst into flame, they hastened to put them out.  In the end, though gravely damaged, the dry goods store and opera house were saved.

In fact, the city downtown was saved.  Later, everyone remarked that the direction of the wind made all the difference, the fire starting at the Front Street House (or possibly the drugstore within), a location at the east end of the business district.  The southwesterly gale-force winds drove the fire primarily to the east, keeping it away from the busy area of storefronts to the west.  Credit also went to brave firemen, the fire engine that performed flawlessly, draymen who offered their services free of charge to those having to move store goods, the efforts of businessmen like Julius Steinberg, and ordinary citizens who did their part to help.  One business owner, Mrs. E.M. Daniels, was singled out for her bravery in removing her grocery store stock and relocating it nearby at the peak of danger.  Another citizen saw the glow of the fire from several miles away, and, suspecting the downtown was ablaze, drove to town just in time to save the merchandise in his sister’s store.  There were heroes everywhere to be recognized.

After the fire. Can you spot the fire-proof safes in the rubble? Their owners must have been pleased by their foresight. Images from the S.E. Wait Glass Plate Negative Collection, Traverse Area District Library.
After the fire. Can you spot the fire-proof safes in the rubble? Their owners must have been pleased by their foresight. Images from the S.E. Wait Glass Plate Negative Collection, Traverse Area District Library.

Upon the rising of the sun the next day, the scene was horrific.  Fourteen stores had been burned to the ground.  More fortunate ones standing on the north side of the street suffered the ravages of smoke and heat, smudged with soot, with gaping holes where glass used to be in their front windows.  Black charcoal, square nails lying on the ground, broken crockery, and a few other things resistant to the fire littered the ground. The Grand Traverse Herald remarked that it was the most serious fire that ever visited the city, and, indeed, it was.

November 6, 2016

Students of history sometimes receive unexpected rewards.  For some time I had observed that the space across the street from Horizon Bookstore was being excavated to make way for a new building.  Whenever the ground is torn up in the downtown area, you can count on interesting things being uncovered.  Just two years ago, for example, West Front was repaved, that resurfacing job exposing Nelsonville, Ohio pavers, a brick that covered the road in years past.  Now, seeing the earth in neat piles alongside the trenches, I had to go over and inspect the work.

I had something specific to look for.  In 1896 I knew a great fire had leveled half a block of frame buildings on the south side of Front Street, the fire extending through the area where the digging was now taking place.  Would there be any sign of the fire?  Would there be charcoal buried down under?

The day is Sunday and all work had stopped on the excavation.  A gentle wind fluttered the yellow ribbons warning passers-by to keep away, and enforcers of a “No Trespassing” sign were nowhere in evidence.  In a quick yet fluid movement I ducked under the ribbons and stepped into the trench made by a shovel standing nearby.  Nothing revealed itself at the surface, but a foot-and-a-half down there was a streak of black punctuating the beach sand that made up the soil.  Bending down to pick some of it up, I sniffed at it and let out a small cry of joy: it was black charcoal from the fire.

It did not take long to find other things: broken window glass, two square, weathered nails, and bits of crockery, one of them big enough to read the name of the maker.  Evidence of the fire was everywhere: How I wished I could sieve the pile of dirt to find more relics.

Image courtesy of the author, November 2016.

Picking up a piece of crockery, I felt a sense of connection to those living at these shores of Grand Traverse Bay at a time before automobiles, before radio, before television.  Looking at the bottom of what could have been a bowl, I made out the maker: Meakin Ironware.  A quick search revealed that the Meakin company, founded in England in 1851, had produced it more than 120 years ago.   Somehow these ceramic shards survived the fire of 1896: people had handled this vessel, perhaps admired it, and then that awful thing happened.   What they had lost now I had found.  In a way that made me a participant in the event.  History does that that to us: it weaves our own lives into the tapestry of the past.

Editor’s note: The Queen City fire engine described in the article may be seen at Fire Station Number 1 on Front Street.

Author’s note concerning this article: The description of the fire came from an extensive account in the Grand Traverse Herald.  Reading the article carefully, a researcher can write a description like this:

Well after midnight, Fire Chief Dupres, Alfred Waterbury, and Night Watchman Allen Grayson stood shivering in a brisk southwest wind that would ordinarily send them inside after a few minutes.  Tonight, however, something seemed wrong: a dull yellow light flickered to the northeast of the Cass Street fire station where they had gathered.  It danced on the thin crust of snow that covered the street in front of them, the same flicker they had all seen so many times before.  Fire! 

Upon casual inspection it seems that the author has drifted perilously close to writing fiction: How could he know that three persons gathered in front of the fire station early in the morning?  How could he know about the wind, its direction and speed?  How could he know about the yellow light to the northeast that turned out to be the fire?  The snow?

The answer is that the Herald account had references to all of those things.  Far from creating an imaginary world, the writer only wove facts together in a manner that gave the scene life and interest.  This kind of historical writing is frequently done nowadays.  Seabiscuit, a tale of a famous racehorse, and Isaac’s Storm, the story of the Galveston hurricane of 1900, are just two examples that have become popular in recent years.  The advantage of this approach is that it makes history come alive—often in contrast, to stodgy description in the traditional style.

From time to time the Journal will present stories told as an exciting narrative.  Perhaps you would like to try your hand at it.