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.


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,
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.

The Tonic of Wildness

by Annie Spence, first-time contributor to GTJ

“All change is a miracle to contemplate, but it is a miracle which is taking place every instant.”
Henry David Thoreau, Walden, or Life in the Woods

waldenbeach4 copy
Walden with his father Mike Spence at the Old Bathing Beach in Elk Rapids, Michigan.

My husband and I chose the name Walden for our expected son, a tribute to both nature and literature from Henry David Thoreau’s masterwork, Walden, or Life in the Woods. What better aspects of character could we hope to instill in our child than those of simplicity, self-reliance and reverence for the natural world? And for our boy with such a purposeful name we of course planned the most simple and natural of births and, of course, ended up with the exact opposite.

Our namesake of simplicity, self-reliance, and the natural world came to us by way of an emergency surgery, a team of doctors, and all the miracles of new science. Walden was born in early September and after a week tucked into a plastic pod in ICU with tubes attached to his chest, legs and perfectly round little head, we brought him home. By the time we’d bumbled through the haze of his first six weeks, winter had crept in. We’d only taken him on a handful of strolls through our hometown of Elk Rapids and now we’d be sentenced to Life in the House until spring. We stayed bundled inside and read The Fledgling by Jane Langton (another tribute to Thoreau) and when forced to go outdoors, baited by promises of holiday gifts or hot cocoa, our aim was to get our sweet fragile son from car to door and back again with the least amount of exposure to the elements. Not wind nor snow nor hail could penetrate the layers of Walden’s pilled hand-me-down snowsuit, topped with several layers of homemade blankets.

waldenbeach2 copyBy March, the whole family was more than ready to get outside and “blow the stink off”. We started small, with stroller walks on any day that poked up above 30 degrees. By May we had graduated to sitting on a blanket outside and by the time Walden learned to crawl and sit up, it was time to help Mom and Dad pull weeds in the raspberry patch. I worried that after so many months inside, our little one would have grown soft from the comforts of a temperature-controlled cozy home filled with toys and pillows and music. To my delight, though, Walden took to the outdoors like a true-blue naturalist. He could sit outside for hours (hours! a baby!) watching us do yardwork or mowing the lawn with our new self-propelled lawn mower. Seeing sunlight filtering through tree leaves put him into a trance.

It was almost summer and finally (finally!) time for the beach.

Finally (finally!) time for the beach.


“A lake is a landscape’s most beautiful and expressive feature. It is Earth’s eye; looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature.”
Henry David Thoreau, Walden, or Life in the Woods

In the hottest days of August last year, at nine months pregnant, there were days my only solace was wading in the bay at The Old Bathing Beach on the north end of Elk Rapids. It was the only place I could feel both cool and weightless, big belly up and watching the sun set.

The Old Bathing Beach* is one of four public beaches in Elk Rapids, a public spot fitted snugly next to a private stretch reserved for condos. It’s either not known by many tourists or not preferred. This year especially, since the water levels have risen, there is sometimes only a blanket’s worth of smooth bare sand to stake claim to. The rest of the area is covered in slender and sinuous dune grass. Often we’re three of only four or five people nearby and we like it that way. The combination of wind and waves are sometimes loud enough that it won’t do you much good to try and hold a conversation. The three of us are prompted by natural forces to be still.

“I silently smiled at my incessant good fortune.”
“I silently smiled at my incessant good fortune.”

Taking Walden here has brought a sense of peace to our hectic lives. We daily feel the familiar tugs of conflicting work schedules, night wakings, late bills and last minute out-of-town visitors and often find ourselves living what feels like the opposite of Thoreau’s declaration, “Simplicity! Simplicity! Simplicity!” and “as long as possible, live free and uncommitted.” Still, at the end of the day we are a bike ride away from a quiet spot where baby and I can sit and make comb marks in the sand while my husband kayaks. On our way back, we hear locals and visitors laughing and enjoying the long warm days (getting shorter, minute by minute and so, that much sweeter). We come home and for at least a day after can feel the grit of strayed sand under our feet and are reminded of our remarkable luck.

As the weather turns cooler again and The Old Farmer’s Almanac predicts more snow and frigid temperatures, as we blow out Walden’s first birthday candle, and unpack our sweaters  and hats when it seems like we only just put them away, our small family will try and sometimes fail to remember Thoreau’s advice to “live in each season as it passes”.

*: I have inquired about the history of the Old Bathing Beach, but haven’t found any such information. If you have any knowledge this area, please consider submitting to Grand Traverse Journal about it!

Annie Spence, when not being mother and wife in her wonderful little family, serves as a reference librarian at the Traverse Area District Library, Woodmere Branch. She is a recent transplant to Elk Rapids, and finds “up north living” very appealing.

To Traverse Point and Return, M.E.C. Bates

Did you ever ride down to Traverse Point and back by way of Old Mission, all in one summer evening and night?  If not, one of the freshest, most charming pleasures awaits you that ever your life held.  Give your imagination the rein for a little space, and in fancy take the trip with us, to-day.

"The Old Wilson Road (V)," lithography by William S. Holdsworth, 1901.
“The Old Wilson Road (V),” watercolor by William S. Holdsworth, 1901.

It is verging on five o’clock p.m. when we leave Traverse City.  The sun is dropping towards the western hills, and sending long level golden beams into the eastern belt of pines and oaks as we leave the town behind, and sweep around the bight of the bay to the Peninsula.  The bay is a misty blue with long lines of sparkling waves rushing shoreward, for though the air is warm with a languid, luxurious August heat, there is a brisk breeze from the northwest that sweeps through it—cool, bracing, exhilarating.  In a few moments the town is dim behind us,–white houses, mill stacks with their plumes of smoke, church spires, and the castle-like walls of the asylum all melting together into the dim outlines.  With swift and steady stroke our horses’ hoofs fall upon the hard, level road, and the speed of our going, with the rush of the wind in our faces, makes us feel as if it were wings instead of feet that are bearing us onward.  The pines and cedars have closed in on both sides of the road.  The air is spicy with resin and balm.  All the little nooks are ablaze with goldenrod, blue with wild asters, or white with yarrow, that “dusty beggar, sitting by the wayside in the sun.”  Now and then, a pretty clearing opens on the right, with a cosy white farm house set down in its bit of orchard, or green meadows, with a bright bed of flowers by the door, and beyond, fields of corn standing stately and tall in serried ranks, like soldiers on parade.  Then the wood closes in again with its sweet, dark greenness.  To the right it is close and dense.  To the left is always the bay, so near we could toss a pebble in it through its fringe of birches and cedars.  The wind freshens and the white caps dance out beyond the pebbly shallows.  The crisp waves run up the beach and fall with a musical crash on the shore.  Marion Island begins to loom large and green ahead.  The little haunted island shows its fringe of bushes and stunted pines more clearly.  The bay shore begins to take a great curve.  The islands are abreast and then drop astern.  The sun is shorn of his beams, and, a great glowing ball of fire, drops below the purple hills.  A sudden, dewy breath as of twilight and the coming night sweeps out of the thickets.  Tall pines stand in stately colonnades along the beach.  There is a dock, ancient and wave-worn, running out into the water.  This must be Bower’s Harbor, and we look out towards the haunted island, half expecting to see the ghost of the old Sunnyside come steaming out from behind the bluffs as she speeds to her old landing place.  But no.  Her timbers strewed the beach of Lake Michigan long years ago, and bluff Captain Emory sleeps his last sleep somewhere under these northern pines, and for her there has never been given a ghostly resurrection.  On and on, the road sweeps around o the west and climbs a steep way cut on the side of the bluff, so near and so overhanging the water that the spray from the tips of the great green curling waves now coming in falls over us.  The stout horses tug and bend to their task, and presently we are out on the top of the highlands, and the world lies open and fair before us, and this is Traverse Point.

The "Old Fish Shanty" on the shore of the Holdsworth property, Old Mission Peninsula; lithograph by William S. Holdsworth, undated.
The “Old Fish Shanty” on the shore of the Holdsworth property, Old Mission Peninsula;  watercolor by William S. Holdsworth, undated.

What shall we say of it?  Here are the beginnings only as yet of the improvement of one of the loveliest spots for summer homes in all this beautiful Resort Region.  It is not fair to tell now of what is,–for that is changing so rapidly to the far different what-it-will-be.  These pretty cottages rising here and there are only the avant couriers of uncounted others to come.  Here is a children’s paradise, where all the summer through the little ones may gather roses for their cheeks, and strength and litheness to their supple limbs.  Here—but why foretell? The swift years are telling the story of them both,–beautiful Traverse Point and fair Ne-ah-ta-wan-ta, “placid waters.”  What will never change are rose of dawn and gold of sunset, silver glory of moonlight and purple of twilight, misty gray of summer rains and strength of wild waves when the winds send them sweeping in from the northwest in long lines of foam crested rollers, sparkle of blue under the noonday sun and glint of stars in fathomless depths of midnight in heaven above and water below,–a thousand variations of tint and form, of sound and motion, of shadow and light, and all beautiful beyond expression.

"Path to Shanty on the East Shore of West Bay," lithograph by William S. Holdsworth, 1900.
“Path to Shanty on the East Shore of West Bay,” watercolor by William S. Holdsworth, 1900.

But time flies; we must not stop for rhapsody.
Back to the eastward we go and are off across Peninsula.  The west is all aglow with gorgeous sunset hues of orange and crimson and dusky gold.  There is a strange sense of wide expanse and unwonted freedom.  We look to see why, and find it is because there are no fences in this township.

“How beautiful it is!” we say to each other.  Here is a wide stretch of meadow land; just beyond it melts into a yellow stubble where the wheat was not long ago; then acres of silvery oats and then again the corn, rustling in the evening breeze, while again great patches of potatoes—green tufts, dotting the well-tilled brown soil, come down to the very wagon tracks.  It is a great Acadian garden.  The road winds and turns.  It seems further than we thought.  We must have come out of our way, for part of the time we are surely going back on our former direction.  Shall we stop and inquire?  No.  It is fun to be lost in Peninsula, for we can’t get far away without getting into the water, and we must come out somewhere.  So on we go in the fast gathering twilight.  We are in the midst of the great Peninsula fruit farms.  Far and wide on either side stretch the orchards.  Those—green and glossy in the dim light—are cherry trees; they lost their ruby fruitage long ago; these are pears—loaded down, and with their branches propped to keep from breaking, and already the air is getting spicy with their ripening; yonder are plum trees, more purple than the purple twilight shadows with the bloom on their masses of fruit,–and everywhere are apples,–trees gnarled and knotty with age and crimson with clustering fruit,–trees young and vigorous and heavy with golden treasure,–surely the fabled apples of the Hesperides were not so well worthy of fame as these.  There are handsome farm houses set down among these orchards.  The light is dim now, but we can see and feel evidences of thrift, of comfort, and of substantial competence.  Lights twinkle here and there through the trees.  The road is hilly now, and we go swiftly up one rise and down another, till soon the road bends again and we sweep out on the East Bay shore.  We are at Old Mission.

The Old Mission Inn, once known as Porter House, where Bates sat "under the great maples". Little has changed to the exterior of the Inn in the century since she rested there. Photograph courtesy of the History Center of Traverse City.
The Old Mission Inn, once known as Porter House, where Bates sat “under the great maples”. Little has changed to the exterior of the Inn in the century since she rested there. Photograph courtesy of the History Center of Traverse City.

Here we stop for a little rest before we fairly start on our homeward way.  We sit under the great maples at the Old Mission house, and watch the far off stars, and the distant lights across the bay at Elk Rapids, and listen to the whispering of the waves down on the beach and the moaning of the wind in the trees overhead, and dream.  By and by the moon rises large and fair over the eastward lying hills beyond the bay.  There is a path of silver across the water.  The shadows of the great trees lie heavy on the grass.  The lights in the cottages down at Old Mission Beach Resort begin to go out one by one.

It is time for home going.  The good horses are rested and ready for home.  Once more their hoof beats ring on the hard, level road.

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“Birches on the East Shore of West Bay,” watercolor by William S. Holdsworth, date obscured.

Down the center of Peninsula this time.  Right along the high ridge that is the “backbone,” in the old settlers’ dialect.  On either side are deep ravines, dark with shadows.  Overhead the trees shake shadowy hands with each other from either side of the way.  The farm houses are all dark.  The world is dead with silence but for the echoing hoof beats.  On and on.  At last we rush down a long winding hill road, and out on the level lowlands.  To the right, the country with its fields.  To the left the beautiful bay sparkling with silver in the moonlight.  We are tired of saying “How beautiful!” but are silent and drink in the still loveliness of the moonlit water, the quiet fields, and the shadowy woods.

Another hour, and we cross again to the other side.  The West Bay welcomes us with its wind-tossed waves.  The village with its white houses stands still and fair under the oaks in the moonlight.  It is its silent streets that echo with our horses’ hoof beats now.  Forty miles and more of riding between supper and sleep, and such a ride!

Home at last!


Notes: M.E. C. (Martha E. Cram Bates) Bates was an important literary figure of the Traverse area, arriving here in 1862.  She married Thomas T. Bates, the editor of the Grand Traverse Herald, working in various capacities for that newspaper over the next thirty years.  She especially enjoyed keeping a column in the Herald called “The Sunshine Society”, which entertained children with poems and stories.  As an early woman journalist, she helped to found the Michigan Woman’s Press Association in the 1890’s.

Martha Bates was co-author (with Mary K. Buck) of two books, Along Traverse Shores (copies are available at Traverse Area District Library) and A Few Verses for a Few Friends.  The present article is taken from the first volume.  M.E.C. Bates died in 1905.

The Eagle Has Landed Solved!

Recognize this imposing figure? I am sure you have seen him looking down at you from his perch on a building! Hint: Know of any surviving Art Deco buildings in Traverse City?

Thanks to the Kiwanis Club of Traverse City, we have our answer! This imposing fellow is perched above the entrances to the US Post Office on Union Street in downtown Traverse City. Next time you’re walking past, remember to give him a friendly wave; it’s always lonely at the top!


Leading Ladies of Traverse City Exhibit Announced

The History Center of Traverse City is excited to announce Fall 2014 “Legends of the Grand Traverse Region”: “Leading Ladies of Traverse City.”  Exhibits will reveal the history of three 19th- and 20th-century womens’ organizations:  The Traverse City Woman’s Club, the Ladies Library Association and the Friendly Garden Club.

Well into the twentieth century many professional fields were closed to women.   Across the country, women of talent and expertise found other ways to influence their communities, and Traverse City was no different. Locally, women participated in  public service organizations, such as the groups featured as this fall’s “Legends.”

Legends’ “Leading Ladies of Traverse City”   will debut on Wednesday, Sept. 17th, and run through October 18th. Information on our Grand Opening Celebration,  Thursday, Sept. 25th, will be forthcoming.

Growing Your Own House: The Mites of Maple Bladder Galls

In early summer you may have noticed small pouches on red and silver maple leaves.  If you open one up, you will find—nothing at all.  Or so it seems.  In fact, the creatures that live there are swarming all around.

They are microscopic mites of the eriophyid family, so small you would need a 400X magnification to study them in detail.  Unlike most mites, they have but four legs—not eight—with two pairs clustered around the animal’s mouth.  Dwelling within such a small space, eriophyids hardly have need of legs at all: for most of their lives their universe is no bigger than the gall they inhabit.

The life cycle of the mite is simple.  They mate and reproduce within the secure enclosure of the gall, producing several generations within a summer.  Before leaves change color in autumn, obeying a signal we do not know, they migrate out of their chamber to the bud scales of next year’s leaves or to protected areas under loose bark.  Dormant, they wait there for the cold blast of winter.

In spring, before leaves expand, they enter young leaves on the underside, their presence initiating the balloon-growth of many pouches, the number ranging from a half dozen or so to an ugly multitude that deforms the leaf.  While the mites undoubtedly sap energy from trees, they cause little permanent damage.  Gardeners and foresters generally ignore their presence, not wasting effort or chemicals to discourage them.

Maple Bladder Galls on Silver Maple, Traverse City.
Maple Bladder Galls on Silver Maple, Traverse City.

I think leaves adorned with crimson maple bladder galls are attractive, resembling miniature Christmas decorations in the month farthest removed from that holiday.  They can be pointed or inflated depending upon the species of mite involved and colors vary, frequently starting off green and becoming red before fading to a dull brown.  Can they be thought of as a rash trees get?  Not exactly, since they do infect the surface tissues alone, unlike human dermatitis.

Another kind of eriophyid attacks plants in a different way.  Instead of making galls, it secretes a chemical that induces plants to grow a forest of slender hairs called an erineum.  An erineum—taken from the Greek word for fleece—can be found on the lower surface of leaves of many plants: oaks, maples, viburnum, and grapes are especially affected.  It may appear as a velvet fuzz, white or commonly red in color.

As with the gall-forming eriophyids, the erineum mites are exceedingly difficult to see even with a powerful magnifier.  A twenty-power lens might reveal their presence, though sharp eyes will be called for.  A microscope, of course, would work better.

Somehow I connect these animals with larger herbivores like bison..  I imagine them roaming over the fields of hairs they caused to grow, feeding upon them as the bison would, a prairie in a square inch.   Throughout early summer they graze, finally retiring to bud scales and bark for the winter.  Occasionally a stiff wind will blow them right out of the erineum, something bison do not have to worry about.  Of course, the advantage for the mite is that it might get blown to a new tree, fertile ground to establish a new miniature prairie ecosystem.

Nature performs its work at every scale: planet, ecosystem, organism, organs, tissues, and cells.  Isaac Asimov, the famous science fiction writer, once wrote about exploring the world extending from his backdoor.  After much study he had gotten as far as a few feet from his porch, so numerous were the species he encountered.  Most likely he did not get around to the mite-formed galls or erineums on his shade trees.

Richard Fidler is a retired teacher of biology, a Traverse City historian and an editor of the Grand Traverse Journal.

Where is it? What is it? When was it?

Can you guess what this is and where it is located? You can see it from the street in downtown Traverse City, but you need to be looking down!

Did you figure it out? It’s the after-hours deposit box of the old Northwestern Savings Bank on Cass and Front Street, facing Cass. Although the building is no longer a bank, we appreciate that this relic was left intact! Thanks to reader Julie of Traverse City for providing the answer!

Windows to Our Past: Traffic Warning Signs Along Small Roadways

I am a member of a tiny group of history buffs entitled—we think amusingly—the Backspacers.  We occupy seats in a local coffee place for hours at a time, fueling our discussion of old buildings, old people, and old ways of doing things with plenty of pie and coffee.  While we have enjoyed long residencies in the Traverse area, none of us was born here.  For this we suffer the unspoken scorn of those few families that boast two or three generations in Northern Michigan.  That, however, does not raise our hackles in the least: we accept our short-termer status with grace.

One of the traits of us Backspacers is a pronounced tendency to linger over everyday things that express a connection to the past.  Long have we marveled at manhole covers with the writing “Citizens Telephone Company,” at the blockhouse just under the Union Street dam that was said to hold money for workers in the Flour Mill located there, at the faded printing on a landmark building declaring it to be the “Traverse City Gas Company,” at Civil Defense bomb shelter signs, at the evidence of fire that nearly consumed the Wilson Antiques building.  One of us—me, actually—spent time looking for cinders along Railroad Street, a curving road that paralleled tracks that accommodated coal-burning steam locomotives.

For Backspacers automobile travel can be hazardous.  Rapid stops occur as one or the other of us abruptly notices something out of time: an artesian well, an old home designed by a local architect more than a hundred years ago, the site of an old sawmill, or highway signs that suggest something misplaced in time.  In particular, those signs, yellow with black icons, fill me with joy.

DSCF0164Take note of the warning sign advertising the presence of a fire station, found on Veterans Drive and elsewhere, no doubt.  Is it not comical—the silhouette of a 1930’s fire engine complete with helmeted driver?  How well it communicates “fire truck” with the ladder clearly hanging from the side of the truck.  No modern fire truck could substitute since most of them could be confused with any delivery truck in profile.  Still, you wonder how long we will keep an icon that resembles artwork from a children’s storybook.  A long time, this Backspacer hopes.

IMG_2571The sign for “Farm Equipment” portrays a stereotypical view of the farmer.  An individual with a wide-brimmed hat sits on a primitive tractor, the stalk of grass clamped in his jaws apparently too small to be stenciled.  A modern fancy tractor with its enclosed air-conditioned cab is not pictured—since it lacks the clear connections among man, machine, and farming.  “Cattle Crossing” signs—the animals artfully represented–similarly urge caution in rural communities.

DSCF0165The sign for “Playground” is equally charming: it shows two children on a teeter totter.  Oddly, teeter totters have been banned from modern playgrounds upon the discovery that they have injured large numbers of children.  Still, the image keeps the thing alive—at least for us adults—though young children have no idea what a real teeter totter looks like.  Another sign indicating children at play shows a boy (presumably) in shorts running carefree, possibly across the roadway.  He wears a curious conical hat, something I have never seen on a boy’s head.  Does it indicate archaic style or a figure from a foreign land?

DSCF0170The image of a truck heading down a steep incline denotes a steep hill ahead, but the six-wheeler pictured and the admonition “Use Second Gear” seems out of place and time since it implies a manual transmission with three forward gears.  You can find such a sign on Leelanau County Road 616.  Of course, all of us old timers remember the installation of the “Runaway Truck Ramp” on M72 leading down to the Bay.  Some of us recall the small truck that wound up in the Bay before that salvation was constructed—was it in the seventies?

DSCF0172Pedestrian crossing images tell us something about our society.  The crossing sign near a school shows a larger figure, wearing pants, with his hand on a smaller figure wearing a skirt.  Hazarding a guess about the gender of the figures—and nowadays this is only a guess not a firm conclusion—a man or boy seems to be walking with his hand upon the girl’s arm.  To me this suggests he is protecting her as she braves traffic in the crosswalk.  Could we have the larger figure wearing the skirt with her hand on the boy?  After all, it is just as likely an older sister is guiding her rambunctious younger brother across the street.  But, no—it is the way it is.  Boys protect girls, not the other way around.

Deer signThen there are the wonderful depictions of animals.  In particular, the antlered icon rearing on its hind legs says “Deer” so boldly no one could miss it.  Often sharpshooters are unable to miss them, too, as they pepper them with indentations with their deer rifles, perhaps in frustration at never hitting the real thing. Bear crossing signs appear nearby, too, near Cadillac along highway M115, for one.  The mother bear and her cub are shown, providing gender equality to the buck shown on the deer sign.

Backspacers are not content to note the existence of relics.  They must do research to find out more.  Are the signs of Michigan recognized in other states?  In other countries?  Exactly when were they created and who does the creating?  The web provides us with a few answers: The United States Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration sets the standards for traffic signs.  It publishes the official manual for signing, the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD).  The manual has been constantly updated from its beginnings in 1935, the latest issued in 2009.

The 1971 edition expanded the kinds and numbers of signs considerably.  An effort was made to bring signs from various nations into conformity, telling us that the rearing deer beloved of Backspacers and most Americans can be seen in countries that deer inhabit.  The figure for Japan, though, faces the opposite direction from its American counterpart since Japanese drive on the left side of the road.  Perhaps the antiquated fire truck pictured on our signs represents those still in operation in less wealthy lands.

The history of standard sign usage goes back to the beginning of automobile travel.  In the first and second decades of the twentieth century there were no standard signs across the United States.  Signs could be any shape, any color, any size—with varying print fonts, messages, and iconic pictures.  In 1927 the Joint Board (a precursor to the MUTCD) published the specifications for the signage we use today.  Warning signs were to be yellow with black print in the shape of a diamond.  The standard shapes and colors for railroad crossings (round), stop signs (octagonal), and informational signs (rectangular) were spelled out in the report.  All at once highway signage had become clear, modern, and universal.

Yellow warning signs have proliferated over the last seventy years, indicating greater sensibility of automobile drivers to their driving environment.  How else to explain “Deaf Child Area”, Moose Crossing, or even an image of a mother duck with her ducklings trailing after—presumably a “Duck Crossing” warning?  We Backspacers hope these images will never disappear even as we proceed into an age without teeter totters and fire trucks without ladders.  Without pretension, they provide windows to our not-so-distant past.

Sessions, Gordon M., Traffic Devices: Historical Aspects Thereof, Washington, D.C.: The Institute of Traffic Engineers, 2029 K. Street N. W., Washington, D.C. 20006, 1971

Richard Fidler is a retired teacher of biology, a Traverse City historian and an editor of the Grand Traverse Journal.