Gretchen Votruba Oral History

edited by Nancy Bordine, Vice President of Women’s History Project of Northwest Michigan

Gretchen (Arntz) Votruba, in the apron, at a St. Francis Bazaar selling canned goods. Gretechen was active in the Salvation Army and Child and Family Services and later at the Dennos Museum, ca. 1940s. Image courtesy of the History Center of Traverse City.
Gretchen (Arntz) Votruba, in the apron, at a St. Francis Bazaar selling canned goods, ca. 1940s. Gretechen was active in the Salvation Army and Child and Family Services and later at the Dennos Museum. Image courtesy of the History Center of Traverse City, Al Barnes Collection.

The Women’s History Project of Northwest Michigan kindly contributed the following edited oral history, originally recorded in 2002. It is certainly timely; on October 9th, we will again regret the loss of Gretchen Votruba, who passed away on that date in 2004 at 88 years old. Gretchen was a volunteer with Child and Family Services in the Grand Traverse Region from 1960 until her passing. She was honored several times for her tireless dedication to the children and families she worked with, most notably in 1989 when she was honored by the State of Michigan as “Michigan’s 150th First Lady,” and again in 1995 when the Traverse City Chamber of Commerce awarded her their Distinguished Service Award. Gretchen’s example is one we should all keep in mind as the needy winter months descend.

My daddy’s job took him to Cleveland when I was about 18 months old. I used to spend every summer with my grandparents. I would head up to Marshall as soon as school was out, and stay ‘til the day before it started.

Grandpa and I used to do the shopping every day because we didn’t have any refrigeration. Fortunately, we were right next door to the milk station, so I could run over there and get milk at noon time. We’d keep it in well water that was wonderful and cold!

Grandpa and I would go to the creamery to get butter. The floors were wet down there and I was always barefoot. That sure felt good after Main Street, because some days you had to hop because it was hot.

My dad taught me to drive ‘cause they didn’t have driver’s training in school. When I was at home, he’d take me out in some of the new developments and places where the traffic wasn’t bad, so I could learn to turn decent corners and learn to park. The fact is, I think he made me change a tire. I had to change a tire before I could take the car alone.

I went to Olivet to go to college. I started out being a camp counselor in the summers, and worked for the Battle Creek Campfire Girls. I became a Campfire Girls executive, but I didn’t like living on the dole from the Community Chest, so I went back to school to get a teacher’s certificate. I started teaching in ‘38.

I knew Traverse City from having spent summer up here at Camp Arbutus. I just liked it and one of the other girls decided she liked it too; so the two of us moved up here in 1943.

I was teaching school during World War II. We worked on saving grease and getting out ration cards because they used the school as an easy place so people wouldn’t have to go so far to sign up to get their sugar card or their meat card. I had the first Girl Scouts troop here too. We got started and went out collecting grease.

I met my husband when his family were members of the First Congregational Church. I lived in an apartment on the same block when I first came to Traverse City. I knew his wife and I knew their kids. Catherine died in ‘46; their youngest was only two at the time.

Bill was coming home from a Rotary Minstrel Show; he had black face and all. I was walking home across Union Street Bridge when he stopped and gave me a ride. We had a good visit that night, and then we started going together. We’d do things on Sundays with the kids and his mother. She’d have dinner and then we’d go for a ride. The kids always thought they had to be in the water, at least on Memorial Day, even if it was cold, they would make a quick dip. We got married New Year’s Day 1952, at the First Congregational Church Chapel.

Bill’s father had come from Czechoslovakia when he was seventeen. His family went to the Bohemian settlement in East Jordan because they knew some people up there. He and his brother used to walk to Traverse City for supplies, and they’d carry a stool or a rocking chair home on their backs for their mother.

One time his father and his brother got on the wrong trail when they were leading a cow back to East Jordan. They found themselves at the end of Old Mission Peninsula. They had to tramp all the way back and come up the other side to get to East Jordan.

F. Votruba Leather Goods store exterior, 1996.
F. Votruba Leather Goods store exterior, 1996. Image courtesy of the History Center of Traverse City.

Frank was his name, that’s where the ‘F. Votruba’ comes in on our store name. Frank was one of the builders of the Opera House Building. A matter of fact, ours is the only store still going from 1891.

My work with Child and Family Services took me all around the country. I drove miles and miles getting new babies from hospitals, as well as sick kids. All of a sudden I’d get a phone call, ‘We’ve got a sick kid over in Elk Rapids… can you get over there and get him?’ I entered two or three children into the hospital at different times when they had to go in. I still see some of the kids around that I knew when they were little. It was nice because I enjoyed all the foster parents. They were really wonderful! The kids were so cute and the other kids in the families were so understanding.

Oh, I used to take them and buy them shoes from (sic) when they needed ‘em and get haircuts and different things like that. That was real rewarding. Goodness sakes, we did travel miles and miles.

I’m still volunteering there, and I’m still donating to them. They wanted to hire me at one time, but I said, ‘That would take all the fun out of it, and I don’t think Bill would approve of it. He’d rather I just do it to help.’

1989 was the 100th anniversary of our State. The Michigan Women’s Commission, under Governor Blanchard, selected Michigan First Ladies by counties. Each county go somebody in there. Most of ‘em have two; Grand Traverse was big enough to have three.

Child and Family Services nominated me. We were honored at a luncheon down in Lansing. I was so flabbergasted; it was a real honor, ‘Michigan 150th First Lady Award.’ My award said, ‘Traverse City’s quiet giver, honored. Gretchen is a rare, warm, giving person. Everyone should have a friend like Gretchen.’

The Women’s History Project of Northwest Michigan’s mission is to preserve and recognize the contributions of women to their families and communities in northwest lower Michigan.  The Board of Directors are always looking for new interviewers for their oral history program, as well as recommendations for women to be interviewed. Copies of the oral histories and transcriptions are held at the archives of the History Center of Traverse City. For more information, visit the Women’s History Project website at http://www.whpnm.org/.

Where is this Mystery Sculpture?

This bronze sculpture, entitled “Autumn”, was made by Merab Berdzenishvili of Georgia—then a part of the Soviet Union–in 1990. Showing a woman holding grapes and a pomegranate, it celebrates the harvest at year’s end.  The sculptor has achieved great fame in his homeland and still lives there—at least according to what information is easily available on the internet.

Grand Traverse County came to possess this work of art at a time when the Soviet Union was collapsing.  Delegations from this area and Georgia visited both countries beginning in 1989, the resulting cordial relations bringing about an exchange of artistic works, the sculpture for the County and stained glass designed by architect Bob Holdeman and artist Paul Welch for the Republic of Georgia.

Through a Rotary grant, the statue was brought to this country and erected in 1991.  On July 4th one hundred-seventy people gathered to hear speakers extol the friendship between the two regions, each one known for its production of fruit and other agricultural products.  An exchange student from Georgia, Maka Machkhaneli, spoke of the ending of Cold War, “…we realize how similar we are.  I remember when before, you thought we wanted war and we thought you wanted war.  It’s so nice that now we understand.”

Fortney’s Ghost: The Supernatural Comes to Traverse City

Copious amounts of thanks go to the Teen Sages of Traverse Area District Library, who were employed as free labor to illustrate this article. For more information and to get involved, catch up with the sages at http://www.tadl.org/teens.

Supernatural manifestations at the haunted house near Boonville Monday night were eclipsed by adventures in a purely human realm—when Mrs. C.R. Rogers opened fire with a high caliber revolver on the half hundred sightseers who had surrounded the house to await the nightly appearance of the celebrated Fortney Ghost.

So begins an article in the January 25th, 1922 Record-Eagle.  Boonville was an eastern suburb of the city, extending south along present-day Woodmere Avenue for some distance.  The house, itself, was situated  “south of Hannah and east of Barlow”, an unprepossessing frame building constructed only ten years before the article appeared.  No injuries were reported as a result of Mrs. Rogers’ fusillade of bullets: apparently, they were intended to scatter the crowd of onlookers, not murder them.

terror
Teen Sages of Traverse Area District Library explore the terror of the unknown on the third floor, and get more than they bargained for. Perhaps the onlookers gathering at Mrs. Rogers’ property expected a similar encounter with the supernatural?

She was unprepared for the host of visitors loitering around her house because she was not aware that the Traverse City Record-Eagle had previously published two articles detailing the “supernatural manifestations” that infested her house.  Those manifestations included “a weird wail of a newborn babe, a light as bright as day that appears after midnight, and an eerie, luminous glow that cast fear into the hearts of onlookers.  With such advertisement, what citizens of the town would not want to trespass on Mrs. Rogers property?

THE FIRST HAUNTING: 1920

It was not the first time the house was proclaimed haunted.  Two years before, another resident of the house, Francis Fortney believed the building housed a female ghost (of about thirty years old) which abruptly vanished up a hole beside the stove pipe—this according to the testimony of Fortney’s wife’s seventeen-year-old brother, Frank McPherson.  Mysterious floating lights also attended the haunting, their source unexplained and unexamined due to the absence of hand-held lighting.  The newspaper account takes the boy’s story seriously: His story had a convincing coherence, an analytical sequence, a profusion of detail that lent it a genuine aspect. These were not the half-baked ravings of an adolescent.

Fortney’s ghost—as the paper called it—dominated the front page for several days.  A newspaper reporter, taking courage in hand, explored the haunted house to look for evidence of the ghostly manifestations.  As the family had abruptly fled (leaving dishes upon the table as they ran),  he had the house to himself.  The hole beside the stove pipe where the ghost disappeared was plainly visible as was a detached piece of beaverboard residents had tried to nail over it—more than once.  Invariably it would come clattering down, no matter how firmly the nails were set.  The ghost clearly had the strength to pry it off whenever she wished to do so.  Other than that slim piece of evidence, there was no story to report from the home.

An artists' rendering of Fortney's Ghost, thanks to our Teen Sages actor.
An artists’ rendering of Fortney’s Ghost, thanks to our Teen Sages actor.

Fortney’s ghost disappeared from the pages of the Record-Eagle as fast as the specter disappeared up the hole beside the chimney.  The chief of police, John Blacken, subjected “French” Fortney and Frank McPherson to the “third degree”, firing questions at them one after another.   Under the ferocity of questioning, they buckled, admitting they had concocted the whole story: it had started harmlessly enough, but just snowballed after that.

THE GHOST RETURNS: 1922

Now, two years later, from the porch of the very same house that housed Fortney’s ghost, Mrs. Rogers was forced to break up a crowd by firing her revolver into the air over a new.  A friend of Mrs. Rogers corroborated her account as least as far as the unexplained bright light was concerned.  Only upon prodding his memory could he recall the crying of the babe.  This time the Record Eagle seemed less credulous that it did in reporting the ghost episode two years previous.

In the end, the latest haunting of the house went away as rapidly as the first.  Mrs. Rogers recanted her account, perhaps because a resident of the house, Charles F. Howard, was sought for bootlegging, a common offense during the Prohibition era.  Most likely she wished to get out of the limelight, her ghost story doing just the opposite—making her home the center of interest and controversy.

A TIME OF SPIRITUALISM, SEANCES AND THE OCCULT

Copious amounts of thanks go to the Teen Sages of Traverse Area District Library, who reenact a seance to illustrate this article.
Teen Sages reenact a seance for the purposes of educating readers, with nary a care for their own safety.

What do these tales of hauntings tell us about the people of Traverse City who lived at that time?  Is it unusual for newspapers to report stories of the supernatural?  Why the inordinate interest in the supernatural, an interest that expressed itself in the assembling of “half hundred” onlookers in one case?  Would such reporting gain traction with newspaper readership now?  These are questions that probe the underlying values and customs of a different time.

From the 1890’s through the twenties spiritualism was a powerful force in America and in England.  Spiritualists—among them, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle of Sherlock Holmes fame—would attend séances conducted by guides to the spirit world.  Ouija boards reached the pinnacle of their popularity in the twenties—Norman Rockwell even did a Saturday Evening Post cover of a couple manipulating one.  They sat opposite each other with the board on their knees, their knees touching or not, a pose of extreme daring at this time.  Their fingers lightly touched a token which would move over the board as they jiggled it with their knees.  It might stop on Yes! if the question posed was, “Will I be divorced?”  Or it might spell out a whole sentence in answering a question, the token stopping for an instant at appropriate letters.   In any case, the toy appealed to those who took the spirit world seriously.  The owner of the patent, William Fuld, made one million dollars in 1920, a sum that would have to be multiplied by 20 to convert to today’s money.

Newspapers would occasionally tell about ghostly visitations within their communities, the story designed to attract interest–perhaps on a slow-news day.   While a single story of a ghost might attract a few readers, a whole series of articles extending over five days would heighten that interest even more.   That is what the Record-Eagle did in 1920, setting the story up in the second week of January.  While the newspaper expressed a willingness to listen to first-hand accounts of witnesses, it stood back a little, not jumping on board the occult band wagon.  After all, reporters were supposed to be journalists—and journalists should be skeptical of sources unknown to them.

Nowadays occasional articles still pop up in magazines and newspapers, but they seem more like curiosities than genuine stories based upon accounts by reliable witnesses.  They are printed wholly for entertainment value, not for insights into the world of spirits.  It is unlikely a tale of a haunting would draw a hundred people to the site where ghosts, bright lights, and the wail of babes have all been observed.  Or not.  At bottom, how much different from our grandfathers and great-grandfathers are we?

Horowitz, Mitch, Occult America: The Secret History of How Mysticism Shaped Our Nation, Bantam Books: NY, 2009 (available for checkout at Traverse Area District Library.)

The Mission Table Restaurant of Bowers Harbor: A Splendid Building, But Not a Residence for a Ghost

by Julie Schopieray, local historian and writer

Nestled in the pines on the Old Mission peninsula overlooking Bowers Harbor is a gem of 1920’s architecture that has gone unrecognized for its unique style and quality design.  Now called the Mission Table (formerly the Bowers Harbor Inn), the original farm residence was designed by a dynamic architectural firm from St. Paul, Minnesota in 1929.  The design team of Bentley-Worthen was made up of two talented architects. Percy Dwight Bentley (1885-1968) trained at the Armor Institute in Chicago at the turn of the twentieth century.  His early work reflected the Prairie School style of Frank Lloyd Wright, though Bentley most likely never met the man.  He spent several years in LaCrosse, Wisconsin, designing many houses in the Prairie School style, but worked with period revival idioms as well.  Even without formal architectural training, Kenneth Worthen was already well known in St. Paul, having designed over one hundred buildings there by 1929 when he and Percy Bentley designed the Bowers Harbor home.  Starting his career in architecture around 1921, he had great success beginning at a very young age.  A compendium of St. Paul architecture, St. Paul’s Architecture: A History, notes, “Still barely twenty-one years old, he began to create some of the city’s most distinctive period-revival homes. He was so successful that within two years he was supported by a corps of some of the city’s finest draftsmen… Worthen became both specialist in and master of period-revival design for the midsize house… a position he would occupy for the duration of his nine-year St. Paul career.” (1)

Architectural drawing of the front elevation of Old Mission Table, ca. 1927.
Architectural drawing of the front elevation of Old Mission Table, ca. 1927.

The Bowers Harbor project was larger than most of Mr. Worthen’s homes. It was designed in what one architectural historian described as a stylized period house, typical of the design team’s work in the late 1920s. Paul Larson, co-author of St. Paul’s Architecture, described the house’s design in detail.  “The front elevation of the house looks all Bentley — clean lines, balanced fenestration, sharp color demarcations. But the details … look all Worthen — picturesque mix of materials, loads of historicisms. So it must have been a joint design effort.”   The home has many unique features and wonderful details in tile work inside and out. One feature is an elevator which was probably the first one installed in a residence in the entire region.  A Lion-like gargoyle at the peak of a stained-glass widow was a signature piece of Kenneth Worthen’s work– a detail he had used in other homes. Several stained glass windows add more creative flair to the home.  There are two large fireplaces, one on each end of the structure and three smaller ones in the upper bedrooms, each with unusual tile or stonework. The chimney of one fireplace is built of stone and irregularly placed bricks, typical in several of Kenneth Worthen’s St. Paul structures.   A stucco type wall, on one end of the home encloses a small courtyard, and is imbedded with colorful tiles, seashells, and stones collected by the owners. A large, graceful, curved iron hook once held a grand lantern near the front door. Cost to build the house was approximately $175,000, a sum well exceeding two million dollars in today’s money.

The partnership of Bentley-Worthen was brief, lasting about one year, with both men going on to do other projects.  The Bowers Harbor home may have been the last one Kenneth Worthen designed in the East before he relocated his family to California in the latter part of 1930, where he continued his career as a successful architect until his death in 1947.

schopieray-missiontablefireplace
Tile work on an original fireplace surround.

The Bowers Harbor home was built for Kenneth Worthen’s aunt, Jennie E. (Worthen) Stickney and her husband Charles F. Stickney.  In 1909, Jennie purchased the Chester and Anna Hartson farm which was established in the 1860s.  Wintering in St. Paul with Jennie’s sister Clara Mann, in Chicago with Charles’ sisters (or in warmer climate), the couple arrived in the spring, staying well into the fall. When their house was damaged by a fire in 1927, Jennie hired her nephew Kenneth to build a much larger home around the shell of the old farm house.  Here they entertained family, friends, and fellow businessmen.  Charles started in the shoe and boot manufacturing business as his father and grandfather had. He used his business skills to promote local farming, the business of harvesting, and food processing.  Partnering with J.C. Howe, he established the Howe & Stickney canning company in 1910.  The Bowers Harbor home was a working farm with the Stickneys hiring local men to run the farm and ladies to help in the house.  Jennie enjoyed creating jams, jellies, brandies and pies from the fruits harvested on their farm and made it a point to serve them whenever they entertained.

As they aged and their health began to decline, the Stickneys hired a personal nurse to care for them. Jennie suffered from diabetes, heart disease and–in her last years–possible early stages of dementia. Their nurse and her children lived with them in Bowers Harbor in the summers and  accompanied them wherever they spent the winter.  Mrs. Stickney died in Grand Rapids, Michigan at the Pantlind Hotel in March 1947, where they had a suite for the winter.  Mr. Stickney, though confined to a wheelchair, continued to enjoy their Bowers Harbor home for two more years until his death at Munson Hospital in Traverse City, in August 1949.

schopieray-missiontablefloortile
Colorful floor tile work.

Numerous newspaper articles beginning in the 1970s report that the Stickney summer house is “haunted,” claiming that Mr. Stickney died first and that Mrs. Stickney took her own life in the house. These claims concerning the Stickneys’ deaths are unsupported by historical research. Another story has it that Mr. Stickney had an affair and donated all of his wealth to a caregiver, causing a jealous Mrs. Stickney to hang herself in an elevator shaft in the house. Whether or not Mr. Stickney had an affair, Mrs. Stickney did not hang herself in an elevator shaft in the house!

The legends associated with the house vary, but are all unsupported by evidence. The bare truth holds less intrigue than tales of vast lumber wealth, infidelity, vanity and suicide that have spread locally over recent years. The real story is about two elderly people who needed help from their widowed nurse, a person to whom Mr. Stickney did leave his worldly possessions, but only out of respect and gratitude. With no children of his own, Charles felt his nurse was a perfect recipient of what was left of his estate. She had two children to raise and the Stickneys had come to care about the entire family. Others connected to the Stickneys and left out of the will may have felt entitled to some of the estate, that bitterness leading to jealous rumors about an alleged indiscretion between Charles and his caregiver. However the false stories started, they are nothing more than rumors and unsupported gossip.

schopieray-missiontableexteriortile
Tile work on the exterior of the structure mimics the colorful tile inlays found on the interior floors.

It is widely reported by former owners, employees and visitors, that there is something unusual about the house. Some claim to have experienced phenomena pointing to Mrs. Stickney’s ghostly presence, often referring to her as “Genevieve.”  Birth, marriage, will and passport documentation proves that her name was never Genevieve, but Jennie. The only document with the name Genevieve is her death certificate, signed by a physician who did not personally know her.  He could have assumed Jennie was short for Genevieve, or, in her state of dementia, she might have started calling herself by that name.  For 80 years she went by the name of Jennie, her given name.

Perhaps the  “ghost” experienced by many at Bowers Harbor is not Jennie at all.  It could be Chester, Anna, Nida Hartson, who all passed away in the old farm house before the Stickneys arrived.  Or, more likely, there is no ghost at all.  If it is Jennie, however, it can only be because she lingered about her dearly loved, beautiful, unusual home–her one permanent residence, designed by her only nephew, the sole surviving child of any of her siblings.

The fabricated myths need to be dropped. Perhaps if they do, Jennie’s “ghost”—the twisted memory of an honorable woman–can finally be put to rest. It is a shame that Mrs. Stickney, a woman with no one to defend her legacy, has had her life story so completely tarnished.  Throughout the last few decades, the ghost stories have been a lure to bring people into the restaurant–as a glance at the Mission Table website reveals.

Unique details, such as the stained glass windows, sets the Stickney home apart from other local residences.
Unique details, such as the stained glass windows, sets the Stickney home apart from other local residences.

Mrs. Stickney deserves redemption.  It is the hope of the author that with the real story told, the house itself will be a new reason to draw customers. When people can finally look at the house—its true history and its glorious design–with new eyes, when they can study the quirky, exceptional details of its architecture, and when they forget the ghost legend, this splendid building will become recognized and respected for the showpiece of 1920s architecture it is.

Footnotes:
(1) Thank you to Donald Aucutt, architectural historian, who has studied the work of Percy Dwight Bentley, as well as other Midwest architects of this period.

Julie Schopieray is a local historian and writer. Julie is currently working on a project concerning Jens C. Petersen, a Traverse City architect who practiced in this city from the early 1900s to 1918.

Reflecting on Harvest-time, Debunking Myths

October is a month of the brightly colored leaves, the fall harvest, and Halloween ghostly tales.  The present edition of the Grand Traverse Journal addresses all three topics.  Amy Barritt reflects on the splendid arboretum surrounding the former Traverse City State Hospital, a park conceived by James Decker Munson, the first superintendent of that institution.  Certainly, the leaves of sweet gum, tulip trees, and copper beech can be collected there before the first frost.

The autumn harvest is celebrated in our mystery photo of a sculpture called by that very name.  It was created far away in a place formerly regarded as enemy territory–part of the USSR–the Republic of Georgia.  Readers should send in their thoughts upon its location as well as find out the answer to last month’s mystery photo.

Apples certainly comprise a bountiful share of the autumn harvest in Northern Michigan, but what about “oak apples?”  Richard Fidler explains how oak trees can produce swellings that superficially resemble apples, but hardly make ones you can eat.  Not every “apple” has a crunch.

The lead article of this issue comes from Julie Schopieray’s examination of a famous building and a famous ghost tale of the Grand Traverse region: the Mission Table restaurant of Bowers Harbor (formerly known as the Bowers Harbor Inn).  Not to give away the story, we will only say that the clear-cut splendor of an architectural treasure is to be appreciated more than a tale constructed from speculations and gossip.

In the same vein, Richard Fidler looks at the widespread belief in ghosts present in the 1920’s.  A home in our area had a major outbreak of the supernatural variety—or so it appeared.  Alternatively, mischief could have been afoot, the ghosts staying clear to avoid the clamorous antics of curious onlookers.  Read Fortney’s Ghost to learn about Traverse City’s fascination with the occult in an age of séances, mediums, and spiritualists.

Finally, under Celebrate the People, we present an oral history recorded by the Women’s History Project of Northwest Michigan concerning Gretchen Votruba.  The transcript dates from 2002 and only now, in 2014, we are able to publish it in abridged form.  The Grand Traverse Journal encourages submissions of oral histories because they represent a form of history telling that intimately connects the life story of a single individual to an audience of readers.

When Horsepower was Literal: Moving Buildings in the 1890s

We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us. -Winston Churchill

Renovation and repurposing are popular. Proud do-it-yourself folk  will be glad to show you the end tables they salvaged to make a bench, or gloat over their latest acquisition from Odom’s (a wonderful reusable building materials supply store in Grawn). We have all sorts of fun jargon to describe these activities: recycling, upcycling, flea market treasure-hunting. Demolition is violent and ugly, whereas reusing materials makes us proud, like the craftsmen of old who hewed their mortise-and-tenon joints one at a time.

Moving a house in 2007.
Moving a house in 2007.

The most ambitious of these projects must be the restoration of an entire building. The end of some buildings, like those recently demolished in Traverse City’s warehouse district, (where concrete block won out over fine architecture) tends not to pull at the heart strings. But in many cases the intrinsic value of a building merits the effort of removal and renovation.

Even if you can reuse a building on a different site, how do you move it safely? In the modern era with equipment and wide-load trucks (a ubiquitous sight when you are needing to get somewhere quickly and are headed down a narrow road with no shoulders), the task is more than possible. But let’s take a look at “then,” when horsepower wasn’t just an abstract unit of measure.

Southside of State Street, original site of the Episcopal Church, prior to 1891.
Southside of State Street, original site of the Episcopal Church; image taken between 1876 and 1891. Image courtesy of the History Center of Traverse City.

The original structure for Grace Episcopal Church was built on property donated by Hannah, Lay & Company, located in Traverse City on State Street between Cass and Union; dedication took place November 12th, 1876.

After construction, the church enjoyed a thriving congregation due to the draw of well-esteemed clergymen, from 1876 to 1886. In that last year, Rev. Joseph S. Large vacated his office due to ill-health and the church found its congregation numbers in a slump, forcing the doors closed until 1891. A new call was put out that year, and the church building was again put to use.

James Morgan, a partner in Hannah, Lay & Company.
James Morgan, a partner in Hannah, Lay & Company. Image courtesy of the History Center of Traverse City.

For reasons not clear now, the location of the building was a problem, but the members deemed the building’s sacred purpose warranted the effort of preservation. In stepped James Morgan, a Chicago businessman and partner in Hannah, Lay & Company, who encouraged the removal of the building to it’s current location at 341 Washington, across the street from the County Courthouse.

Moving the Episcopal Church, 1891.
Moving the Episcopal Church, 1891. Image courtesy of Traverse Area District Library Local History Collection.

By employing jacks, the church was first lifted off its foundation; heavy beams, greased and with pointed ends, were secured to the underside, which would act like runners on a sled. A temporary wooden track made of flat planks and cross ties (similar to railroad tracks) were laid on the roadway, and the structure was pulled across the track on the greased beams. Once part of the track was cleared, workers would move and install the track at the front of the structure, and the job continued.

Capstan and horse used to pull the Church along, 1891.
Capstan and horse used to pull the Church along, 1891.  Image courtesy of Traverse Area District Library Local History Collection.

A capstan was necessary to apply enough force to move the church, as a lone horse wouldn’t be strong enough on its own. This capstan operated much like the ones seen on ships to raise anchor. In the photograph, you can see the capstan was moored in the roadway with large posts driven into the ground and attached with chains.  The horse would rotate the axle by walking in a circle and would pull the structure along the temporary track. As the picture was taken while the horse was resting, the chains mooring the capstan to the ground are slack.

Wondering how much the Church was set back for this endeavor? We are led to believe that Mr. Morgan footed the bill, at a cost of “nearly one-thousand dollars,” or about $30,000 by today’s dollar value.

Both the painted arch and the stained glass windows were salvaged and given a place of honor in the new Episcopal Church.
Both the painted arch and the stained glass windows were salvaged and given a place of honor in the new Episcopal Church.

Ann Hackett, Parish Administrator of the modern Grace Episcopal Church, gave me a tour of the interior of the remodeled church. As she explained, when it became clear that the previous structure was no longer viable, the congregation made every effort to retain the overall feel of the church by focusing on the details.

Melding the old and the new: This cornice was crafted by copying the original cornices. A modern sound system is nestled with this period piece of architecture.
Melding the old and the new: This cornice was crafted by copying the original cornices. A modern sound system is nestled with this period piece of architecture.

The stained glass windows were salvaged and used in the new structure, as was the original altar and painted archway.  The cornices in the modern building were modeled after the original fixtures, and the interior was surfaced in wood bead board, mimicking the interior of the original.

The new baptismal font, which is situated immediately within the Church’s nave, best illustrates the congregation’s drive for authenticity. The original font was too small to meet the purpose of the growing Church; craftsmen created the new font to have a similar overall shape and use the same font-letter style, as shown here. Grace Episcopal Church is a perfect example of the beauty and pride we share when we salvage the past.

The original, much smaller baptismal font on the left; on the right is the new font, which is large enough to feed a walk-in pool.
The original, much smaller baptismal font on the left; on the right is the new font, which is large enough to feed a walk-in pool.

References
Leach, M.L. “A History of the Grand Traverse Region,” 1883.
Sprague, Elwin. “Sprague’s History of Grand Traverse and Leelanaw Counties, Michigan,” 1903.
“The Value of a Dollar, 1860-2014,” fifth edition.
Thanks to www.shiawaseehistory.com for their description of house moving in the turn of the last century.
Thanks to the Binkley’s for allowing use of their house moving photograph through a Creative Commons license: https://www.flickr.com/photos/binkley27/.
Thanks to Ann Hackett, Parish Administrator, and her staff for their time.

Amy Barritt is a librarian at Traverse Area District Library and co-editor of Grand Traverse Journal. She enjoys going out and discovering history, especially when she makes new friends at the same time!

On Roads Less Traveled By

How did they move a large frame church building in the 19th century at a time before wide-load rigs and hydraulic jacks?  Through historic photographs and careful research Amy Barritt examines this question in her piece, When Horsepower Was Literal: Moving Buildings in the 1890s.  Although the entire building is no longer present, remnant pieces and design features still remain in the Episcopal Church at the corner of Boardman and Washington Streets.

A wonderful description of another 19th century activity, day trips by horse-and-buggy, exists in Martha E. Cram Bates’ account of an August journey she made along Old Mission Peninsula, To Traverse Point and Return.  Far from being a “day trip”, she began her adventure at 5:00 P.M. and returned well after midnight, telling us about a glorious sunset, the passing farms, the crashing Bay, and the moonlit ride home.  The tale provides a contrast to our harried trips out to see the Old Mission lighthouse, all done in the space of an afternoon within the cabins of air-conditioned automobiles.

Annie Spence visits a public beach in Elk Rapids with her infant son, reflecting upon Nature, parenthood, and an unspoiled place close to her home in her essay, The Tonic of Wildness.  If you listen carefully, you can hear the voice of Henry David Thoreau in the crash of the surf.

One plant she might have trampled on is the humble horsetail or snake grass.  Its tough jointed stems and deep roots may frustrate those who wish a bare sandy beach, but it has its virtues–as Richard Fidler tells us in the Nature category.

Mud Turtle Jack is not about a reptile, but about Valerie Himick’s discovery of a box of poems written by her grandfather many years ago.  She was astounded by the work of a man she scarcely knew, a man who expressed his love for the Great Lakes—especially the area around Frankfort–in a lifetime of writing poetry.  We include a generous selection of his poems along with commentary by his granddaughter.  Readers may elect to read the entire piece by clicking at the end of the article, which may be found in the Celebrating the People section.

Finally, another mystery photo confronts us, this one a mosaic in front of a downtown business on Front Street in Traverse City.  Can you name the business that now occupies the place?  Can you tell anything about the business that existed there a hundred years ago?  Email us if you can, share what you wish on social media—and keep sending us photos and articles for the Grand Traverse Journal!

Horsetails and Snake Grass: Relics Before the Dinosaurs

fidler-snakegrassforest
A veritable forest of snake grass, or horsetails.

We have all seen them, on the beach or in ditches, but we walk on past them without a thought.  If we know them at all, we call them “snake grass” for their banded stems lacking apparent leaves.  As kids, we  pulled them apart at the joints, noting the empty, hollow canal that runs up the center.  Hollow stems suggest many uses to children—whistles, building materials for sand castles, girls’ hair ties, toothpicks, and more.  Not having lost the capacity for play, they find much to do with the things we have come to ignore.

Not that all adults ignore them.  Campers recognize one species as a choice pot scrubber out in the woods, the scouring rush, Equisetum hyemale.  Its stiff ridged stems take grease and dirt of pans without shredding.  Players of instruments like the bassoon and oboe prepare their reeds with strokes of the scouring rush and craftsmen in Japan use it for a fine sandpaper.

Snake grass, or horsetails as they are known by many, get their roughness and strength from silica in their stems—you can see the tubercles with a ten-power lens.  Some species have more than others: one, the Smooth Horsetail, scarcely has any at all.

The Dutch find value in horsetails, mostly in maintaining the dikes that keep their land dry.  The plant has deeply rooted rhizomes (horizontal underground stems) which bind the soil, a helpful aid in reinforcing walls that keep the sea out.  A weed anywhere else, it is an asset in Holland.

fidler-horsetail
The roots of a horsetail plant the author carefully revealed from the swampy depths.

The common name “horsetail” requires explanation since the above-ground parts of the plant in no way resembles any part of the horse’s anatomy.  If you have the patience to dig down into the mud out of which the horsetail species known as “pipes” grows (and, I confess, I did just that at some sacrifice of blood to mosquitoes), you can discover how they came to take on the “horsetail” name.  The rhizome is jointed just like the stem, and out of each joint a tuft of roots grows–which, in aggregate, look pretty much like a horse’s tail.  Perhaps “snake grass” is the more reasonable name given the difficulty with exposing the “tail.”

A less common species of snake grass, or horsetails, Equisetum sylvaticum has a lacy appearance.
A less common species of snake grass, or horsetails, Equisetum sylvaticum has a lacy appearance.

Horsetails are not particularly successful as green plants go: they consist of one family with one genus and only a scant 15 species.  Michigan has eight and all of them be found in the Grand Traverse area.  Always they seem to prefer wet places—ditches, beaches, swamps, and marshes.

Horsetails were not always the weak sisters of the plant world.  Giant members of the horsetail family that reached heights of 45 feet are preserved in the coal beds of Pennsylvania and elsewhere.  Before the dinosaurs, before the flowering plants, they dominated the land in variety, abundance, and sheer size.  Alas for them, they now grow in neglected places separated from the great ecosystems of hard and softwood forests, plains and desert, tundra and bog.

Seed-producing plants won out in the long run, the conifers, hardwoods, and grasses occupying the greatest stretches of land.  Horsetails make spores, those produced in small cones that lie at the tips of the shoots.  They drift about in the wind, the luckiest ones arriving at a moist warm place to grow.  There they grow into miniscule green bodies that produce eggs in one place and sperms in another.  The sperms swim to fertilize the egg—and a new horsetail is born.  However, horsetails can avoid the whole process by having a piece of the rhizome break off and root elsewhere.

A common version of horsetail in the Grand Traverse region, E. Ferissii, the bane of beach owners.
A common hybrid of horsetail in the Grand Traverse region, E. Ferissii, the bane of beach owners.

Horsetails—snake grass–are not esteemed by those who wish to keep their beaches well-groomed.  Their roots are hard to tear out—remember the Dutch and their dikes?—causing them to reappear after great effort has been exerted to remove them.  Still, we should appreciate their good qualities: they scour, they sandpaper, they can be tied.  Not only that, they provide a glimpse into a different world 350 million years ago.   If you see a millipede hanging out among the stems of horsetails, you might be looking out on a scene enacted 380 million years ago.  Horsetails deserve our respect for their venerable age.

Richard Fidler, when not elbow-deep in swamp mud,  can be found editing “Grand Traverse Journal”.

Mud Turtle Jack: Riverman, Poet, Grandfather

by Valerie Himick, first-time contributor to GTJ

Seek channels deep,
Avoid the bars –
We’ll have more fun
Than them in cars

Mason Herbert (Jack) Wallis.
Mason Herbert (Jack) Wallis.

My Grandfather, Mason Herbert Wallis, who preferred to be called Mud Turtle Jack, knew rivers, loved rivers and all bodies of water, and passed that love to the children he left too soon, and the grandchildren he never knew.

The son of George Herbert Wallis and Ellen Marie Wilson Wallis, he was born at Point Betsie on Lake Michigan near Frankfort, Michigan, in 1889 while his father was in the Lifesaving Service there.

His mother, Ellen, was the daughter of Charles Henry Wilson, a noted vaudeville actor of the time whose family settled in the Herring Lakes area.  Sadly, Ellen died of tuberculosis at an early age.

"From my window", Lake Michigan.
“From my window”, Lake Michigan.

Jack attended High School in  Manistee where he had a view of Lake Michigan from the window of his room.  His early writings from that time reflect his love of the waters.

This is from his Gloria Lacui ; Written in Manistee High School April 13, 1909.

Be mine the spot
Wherein my boyhood days were spent and there
Aux Bescies pours its gently moving stream.
An Indian village once o’er looked the lake
That marked the outlet of the little stream.
Marquette, as told by records of the French,
Here drew his birch ashore and on the mound
Which then the river mouth o’erlooked, he lay
Surrounded by his voyagers, and cease
His wanderings.

Ah, Frankfort, nestling there
Beside the tossing lake, recall me to
Thy former home and let me listen in
The quiet eve, to songs the lake is sending o’er
The hills.  Didst ever listen to the roar
Of penned up ocean’s force, confined in shells
From Indian island brought?  Tis but a dream,
From which you would awake to real life
By listening to the roar on Frankfort’s coast.
Where ivy, long, five-fingered, green, its arm
Has spread, and there o’er hung a quiet porch.
Twas mine to sit beside my father’s knee
And learn to love the music of the sea.

himick-captainjackwallis

In September of 1906 he wrote this about Lake Michigan

‘Tis there on your wild bounding surface,
Those grand old waters of ours,
That ships with music and laughter
Plunge on through your storms and your showers.

‘Tis there in your calm placid waters,
The fishes all bask in the sun,
Till ships rush madly upon them,
They wake before sleep is begun.

‘Tis there on your wild bounding surface,
That ships in agony strain
To reach some harbor of refuge,
‘Tis rest from the toils of your main.

‘Tis there in your cold deep oblivion
The forms of your sailors are laid;
Not all who dared brave your dangers
Returned to a welcoming glade.

‘Tis still on your calm gentle bosom
We float in a bark small and frail;
We wonder that calm will turn motion
And roar in a death-dealing gale.

Never content to be far from the water, he turned to canoeing the rivers with his friends in his beloved canoe.  He wrote long narrative poems describing the fun.

I knew the channel where the current ate
Away the muddy banks in deepest holes.
I knew where sandbars piled themselves in play
And caught at drifting stumps and such debris
As is picked up by the rivers in their course.
I knew the turtles by their given names
And they knew me, for when I’d pass them by,
‘Hey mister, where you goin’?’ they’d always say.

Jack Wallis serving as postman in Ann Arbor, ca. 1915.
Jack Wallis serving as postman in Ann Arbor, ca. 1915.

As a young man, Jack lived in Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor where he worked as a shoe salesman and a mail carrier.  There, with his good friend, pharmacist Stan Smith, he created Stage Stuff, “a series of vaudeville playlets, – each one complete in one act, – yet all closely related, – and each one staged for the mere benefit and enjoyment of the actors, themselves, before an empty house.”

Stan Smith, friend of Jack Wallis and fellow  Stage Stuff performer.
Stan Smith, friend of Jack Wallis and fellow Stage Stuff performer.

“There is no description,
It’s our bunch of fun,-
Some set to music,
Some verse, and some slung
As random shot
Or analysis clear,-(clear as mud)
To explain some Big Time Stuff
That we hold most dear.”

However far removed, his early years in Frankfort were never far from his thoughts:

Then all the time I thought of my old dad
And how he’d spent his life on bigger boats,
For what he knew and taught to me of them
I modified and changed for my canoe.

So trained was I in waterlore that if
A gay procession of the boats in the whole world
Could pass before a judges’s stand to view
Their skill,-my dad would rise up from his grave
On Frankfort’s hill, and point me out and say,
“That’s
my kid there; I know him by the way
He grips the haft, and how his paddle cleaves
The water at his every stroke.  There now’s
The Loafing Stroke; they say the Injuns found
It for their light birch bark canoes, but we
Deep Water men would say its best when used
For dress parades and idle hours.  But look!
The Man of War Stroke!  It’s the same we used
To drive our surfboat to a wreak, and now
My kid had found it best for his canoe.
Just note the forward reach, the sudden pull,
The throwing of his weight as balanced by
His braced feet and dipping blade, the craft
Most leaves the water in its leap.
But lad,-
There is,- Ah, there you are, The Cruising Stroke
And with that steady pull you’ll drive that shell
All day; Why, when you were a kid in arms,
I’d put you in your little chair lashed in
My skiff, and pull out miles into the lake
With that same stroke.
And all the thousand
Little touches of the blade, – the One Hand Stroke,
The Overhead, the Submarine, the Brakes,
Reverse, and Backward scull,- like spur to horse-
The shell obeys thy will.  Ah, that’s my kid!
You cannot fool an old man when he sees
His youth again, performed by his own blood!” 

In the fall of 1929, now married and the father of three children, Stan, Marce, and my mother Joy, Jack became seriously ill with the same disease that claimed his mother’s life, tuberculosis. Eventually, he was forced to leave his family and live with his stepmother, Ada Bagley, in Muskegon. Confined to his bed, he wrote and sold stories to magazines to support his family.

"Stage Stuff" scrapbook by the cast from Ann Arbor.
“Stage Stuff” scrapbook by the cast from Ann Arbor.

Sadly, we have not been able to locate any of his published writings from that time.  In fact, we had no idea any of his writings had survived until my Aunt, Marce Forton, of Traverse City, called me a few years ago and asked me to take a box of things to my mother.  There in the box, under an old tablecloth and some clothes, I found treasure, a leather journal and an old photograph album – The Libraria of M.H. Jack Wallis, marked private, and the Stage Stuff photos.  Marce had kept it safe all these years. 

Valerie Himick is the author of two novels, Life is a Cabernet and The Birds & The Bees, set in the wine country of Old Mission Peninsula in Grand Traverse County. Like her grandfather, she finds inspiration for her writing in the natural beauty of the rivers and lakes of northern Michigan.