Hannah St. Mary’s: the Treasure

Hannah St. Mary’s has a story no one besides a few select people know. This is that story.

It all started when the first settlers came to Hannah. Around 1850 Perry Hannah, A.T. Lay, and James Morgan came and bought a sawmill along the Boardman River and started a business. Then in 1857 Congress passed a grant allowing funds to build a railroad in Michigan from Grand Rapids to Traverse Bay. In 1862, George Nickerson and his family came and urged other families to join them.  In 1872, with the railroad finally finished, settlers came from all over for the cheap land and the plentiful amount of timber.

Later, after the railroad was built, they decided that they needed a church, building and completing it in 1885.  However, the church did not have any altar fixtures in it until around 1896 when they bought their altar. It cost $81.84.  It probably does not seem like much to us, but back then it was a large sum of money.

As always, horrible things seem to constantly plague good people; this church was no exception. In the late 1800s or early 1900s robbers on horseback stole everything from their altar.  That, ladies and gentlemen, is where this story begins…

This is the account told to me by Eugene and Jim Johnson. In 1982 on Easter Sunday Eugene Johnson took his eight-year-old son Jim fishing on Fish Lake.  It was a slightly chilly, foggy day but you could still fish. They also took Jims’ metal detector to fiddle around with later.

At long last, after continually failing to tempt the fish to bite, they pulled out the metal detector. They started in the parking lot, just finding small things such as pennies and other small coins. But as time passed, they wandered on down into the more swampy area of the woods past the campground, and over a bank when suddenly the metal detector was almost off the scale.

When they looked down they saw something that resembled metal. They set the detector down and gently started digging. Soon they discovered that the first piece of metal was the base of a tarnished candlestick. They kept digging as the fog danced around them.  Soon Jim found a potato sack; When it finally left its grave, it was revealed that it was chock-full of more candlesticks and vessels.  As they dug even deeper, they started uncovering more candelabras–and discovered the piece that explained what all the others were, a large cross.

Exterior of St. Mary of Hannah in 2014, a Catholic church in Grand Traverse County, south of Chum's Corners and west of Kingsley on M1-13. Photo credit to GTJ editors.
Exterior of St. Mary of Hannah in 2014, a Catholic church in Grand Traverse County, south of Chum’s Corners and west of Kingsley on M1-13. Photo credit to GTJ editors.

Eugene, once having been an altar boy, recognized the cross as one that might grace an altar. The question was where had these treasures come from? Eugene had never heard of a robbery of a church in the area. But they couldn’t just leave these gorgeous treasures alone could they?

They packed the pieces off and went home to ponder their questions in a safer setting. When they arrived home and explained the situation to Eugene’s wife, Vicky, she suggested, “Why don’t you take it to our pastor, Father Murphy?”

They did just that. After explaining their predicament once again, Father Murphy agreed that the artifacts were in fact like the ones put on a Catholic Church altar. However, while the tarnished silver artifacts were found, none of the gold artifacts that would grace an altar were found.

Father Murphy suggested that he take the items in question and in the meantime he would look through old church files and see if he could find out the story behind the artifacts.

Later that day or the next, Father Murphy called up Eugene and said, “Have I got a story for you.” He then proceeded to tell them that in the late 1800s or early 1900s the Hannah St. Mary’s Church had been robbed on horseback. The number of bandits and who they were are an unsolved mystery to this day.

Pretty amazing story huh? Sadly the story never reached the news. The artifacts were put on display in the church rectory; Diane Gray, a Church secretary,  remembers seeing some tarnished altar pieces in the office.  However, today they are probably stuck in some dusty boxes, shoved into an even dustier basement where their history will never see the light.

I am sorry to say that though many questions have been asked, no one can remember this story and that has made it hard to gather facts, though I am ecstatic that, due to research questions, more people know this fascinating story. I have spent several hours at the Traverse Area District Library looking at newspapers but have not found any mention of the robbery of any churches except for an attempted robbery of the St. Francis church in 1905.  I did discover that the early history of the town was filled with robberies and murders. I spent quite a bit of time talking to members of the church whose families belonged to the church for a long time such as Margret Lewis, Messrs. Ray and Jay Weber and former parish secretaries such as Diane Gray and Terry Javin. I also spoke with Sue Zenner the daughter of Julia Harrand who wrote a book on the history of Hannah St. Mary, and interviewed Eugene and Jim Johnson who were the ones who found the treasure.

Hannah Carr is a student at Kingsley Area Schools, who is passionate about writing and research, although she prefers writing mysteries to nonfiction. Carr was one of the winners of the 2014 Floyd Milton Webster Prize for History (Kingsley), Young Adults, for this article. She plans to be responsible with her Prize winnings, and the Editors look forward to her entry next year.

Earliest Settlers of Almira Township

Contributor Richard Leary and his wife, Eleanor Riehl Leary, are summer residents of Lake Ann.

Addison and Ann Wheelock, my wife’s great-great grandparents, were the first European settlers in the Lake Ann area. The lake, Ann Lake, was named for Ann Wheelock. While Eleanor was doing family history research, I began researching the history of the village of Lake Ann.

The village has a long and fascinating history, extending from its logging days in the 1860s into the early 20th century. At the turn of the century – 19th to 20th – Lake Ann was a tourist destination, with daily trains bringing people from Traverse City and Manistee. An elegant hotel, the Douglas, stood just a short walk from the fine train depot and another hotel, the Lake Hotel, was just down the road.

Lake Ann boasted (if that is the correct term) of a half-dozen or more saloons, good card games and, according to rumors, several brothels.

Among Lake Ann’s more noted historical events were three major fires, each of which nearly destroyed the town. Lake Ann survived and today is a busy, growing community.

But I get ahead of myself.

During the spring and summer of 1862, three groups of settlers arrived in the area that later became Almira Township.  They homesteaded different places and later obtained land grants for their land.

Addison (28) and Ann (28) Wheelock, with their first two children, Ebenezer (6) and Mary (3) settled on the north shore of Ann Lake. Addison named the lake for his wife. The Wheelocks came from Vermont.

Andrew (32) and Almira (30) Burrell arrived about the same time. They settled on the north side of Sancrainte Creek. An area northwest of Ann Lake was informally known as “Sancrainte Hill.” This is consistent with Andrew Burrell’s land grant. The township was later named for Almira Burrell. They apparently only farmed that area briefly as they were listed in the 1880 census in Monroe County in southern Michigan. The Burrells came New York.

Also arriving during 1862 were two brothers from Canada. Alexander (Alex or Alec) and John (30) Heather settled on the northeast end of what is now called Stevens Lake. Alexander Heather obtained a land grant for a quarter section of land in section 3 and a quarter-quarter section in section 14, northeast of Ann Lake. They farmed the land on the shore of Stevens Lake for several years before selling. Only John was listed on the 1870 census. We were unable to find either John or Alexander Heather listed anywhere in the 1880 U.S. census. They may have returned to Canada.

Addison Wheelock, early settler of Almira Township.
Addison Wheelock, early settler of Almira Township. Image credit: Almira Historical Society.

Addison P. Wheelock and his wife Ann were among the first settlers in Benzie County, Michigan, and the first in the Lake Ann area. Soon after they arrived from Vermont in 1862, Addison acquired extensive land on the north shore of Ann Lake. Eventually he owned all the land now occupied by the village of Lake Ann.

It is unknown exactly where the Wheelocks lived. Their home was probably on or very near the new Almira Township Park. As reported in the Grand Traverse Herald on 28 June 1883, Ann Wheelock hosted a Fourth of July party on her property:

There will be a Fourth of July celebration held in the woods on Mrs. Wheelock’s farm, near Lake Ann. L. Palmer will have his swing on the grounds. J. J. Gray and R. Gane will have a stand where refreshments will be sold and there will be boats furnished for those who like excursions on the water. The pleasures of the day will end with an oyster supper in the evening at Mr. Hathaways.

Ann Wheelock, the namesake of Lake Ann.
Ann Wheelock, the namesake of Lake Ann.

Addison Wheelock was among the founders of Almira Township and the village which later became Lake Ann. The lake was named for his wife, Ann McBride Wheelock. He was active in local politics, was the first sheriff of Benzie County and served on many local committees.

Addison acquired much land, most of it land grants from the U.S. government through the General Land Office (GLO). A few pieces of land were purchased from the Auditor General of Michigan in tax sales. By 1872, Addison Wheelock owned nearly 450 acres in Benzie County. On the 1870 census he valued his property at $10,000, far more than anyone else in the area.

After arriving in what is now Lake Ann, Addison and Ann had 5 more children:

1.  Ebenezer T.           – b. Apr. 20, 1856,  Vermont,

2.  Mary Ann              – b. Sept. 24, 1858, Vermont,

3.  Willie A.                – b. Feb. 14, 1863, Michigan,

4.  Hector C.               – b. Apr. 18, 1865, Michigan,

5.  John P.                   – b. Mar. 21, 1868, Michigan,

6.  Julia E.                   – b. Dec. 23, 1869, Michigan,

7.  Amy A.                  – b. Jan. 28, 1876, Michigan,

Sometime during the summer of 1883, Addison P. Wheelock left this area, leaving behind his wife and children. Vague rumors of distant destinations have proven fruitless. In Ann Wheelock’s estate papers, Addison’s address is listed as Bear Lake. This misinformation was probably given by the eldest son, William.  The search, now more than a decade old, continues.

The Leary’s are volunteers at the Almira Historical Society Museum, whose holdings provided some information and images for this article. Please visit the Museum at 19440 Maple Street, Lake Ann, for further information on the history of Almira Township.

A Mystery at Every Turn

This month we offer a mystery solved: Hannah St. Mary’s: A Treasure.  Written by thirteen year-old Hannah Carr, one of the winners of the Floyd Webster Teen Prize, 2014, it exemplifies the kind of work we welcome here at the Journal, an authentic telling of a historical event long forgotten.  The piece also exemplifies the authors we want to hear from: writers with curiosity and a passion for research.

Have you ever wondered about those yellow signs informing drivers that a fire station is nearby—or a playground, or a deer crossing?  Who designed and approved them?  Just when did they appear along highways?  Why do they reflect such antiquated pictures of fire trucks and tractors?  You will find answers to your questions in Windows to Our Past: Warning Signs Along Small Roadways, an article in our “Then and Now” section.

Speaking of other things we take for granted, what are those pimple-like things you see on maple leaves this time of year?  You may be surprised to learn they house creatures far smaller than the head of a pin.  Check them out in Growing Your Own House: The Mites of Maple Bladder Galls in Nature.

Traverse City is a town of festivals: the Cherry Festival, the Film Festival, the Comedy Festival, and more to come, no doubt.  In August, 1911, Traverse City celebrated—itself!—in a grand festival.  “Farmers came with their families, and city folk, too.  The rich and poor mingled.  Young and old.  Factory workers and their bosses.”  All came out for a picnic at the present Civic Center.  There, among all other entertainments, a speech greatly relevant to our modern world was given.  Read about it in Traverse City Day.

One of those picnickers might have come from Almira Township, Benzie County.  Read about the founding mothers and fathers of that place in Richard Leary’s Earliest Settlers of Almira Township under “Celebrating the People”.  We hope others will tell us about their explorations of local history.

Finally, the Mystery Photo, the answer to last month’s and the challenge of this month.  A reader correctly identified the location of last month’s after hours deposit box, as you will discover if you peek in that section.  Now a granite eagle confronts readers.  Where is it?

Traverse City Day, 1911

August 30, 1911, the Record-Eagle’s headlines told the story:





Stores and Factories Closed Most of Day—Greatest Gathering Ever on Grounds Saw Thrilling Ball Game”

Before the Traverse City Film Festival, before the Cherry Festival, Traverse City held a celebration of its own, a festival that carried no overtones of patriotism or commercialism.  Participants were invited to bring their own picnic goodies to the Civic Center (then called the Driving Park) for a day of fun.  Farmers came with their families, and city folk, too.  The rich and poor mingled.  Young and old.  Factory workers and their bosses.  Estimates of the crowd varied between 8,000 and 10,000 people.

They ate and they partied.  There were day fireworks and paper balloons launched for children, a bowery dance (a dance held outside) for the young, and the culminating baseball game for all who cared for that sport.  In 1911—but not in 1912, the final year of Traverse City Day—speeches were offered to the crowd.  One of them stands out because of its relevance to today’s social climate.  Here are the words of the Record-Eagle in describing it.

Judge A. L. Deuel, member of the executive board of the Western Michigan Development Bureau, was the next speaker. Introduced by Mr. Amiotte.  He had many good things to say and he said them in a manner that impressed his hearers with the fact that he knew what he was talking about.  Mr. Deuel is full of vim and fire and his address had a tendency in showing the farmers and the city people as well what it means not to patronize home industries.  “Traverse City is a live city, a beautiful city,” he said, “and she is becoming more beautiful every year.  If we could go through a Rip Van Winkle sleep of twenty years and awake to find the great Grand Traverse region, we would be astounded at the great growth.  All this is taking place just the same only we are not asleep and the development is taking place so fast that we don’t realize it.  If any of you farmers or city people either, are sending to Sears & Roebuck or any other mail order house for goods, cut it out.  The home trade is what we need to help pay our taxes, and Sears Roebuck will never help you.  They wouldn’t know you if you went into their store.  They don’t care, all they want is your money.  We are now living in the best age of the world.  What are you doing for your community?  Work together for your county, your township, and do your best always.  No man can do more than his best, and when you have done that the duty of man to his country is fulfilled.

This concluded the program and everybody flocked to the diamond to see the great battle of baseball, the feature attraction of the day.

Remembering Bob Wilhelm

Robert Wilhelm, noted local historian, pictured in front of a Traverse City carriage house.
Robert Wilhelm, noted local historian, pictured in front of a Traverse City carriage house.

Robert David Wilhelm, 76, of Traverse City, passed away on Thursday, June 5, 2014 at Grand Traverse Pavilions. Robert was born on February 25, 1938 in Traverse City, the son of Lyle and Martha Wilhelm. An avid Historian, Bob leaves us with his historic family legacy. His great grandparents arrived in Traverse City from Bohemia in 1854, two years after Perry Hannah came to the area. The Wilhelm family was involved in a variety of local businesses, trades, and community activities for the next 150 years.

A.J. Wilhelm's Department Store on Union and 8th Streets, Traverse City.
A.J. Wilhelm’s Department Store on Union and 8th Streets, Traverse City.

His grandfather opened the A.J. Wilhelm Department Store, and in 1996 it became a Centennial Business. Later, the building and business were also designated State Historic Sites, largely due to Bob’s perseverance and efforts. Bob majored in American History and spent many years researching and teaching Michigan history. After retiring from the Howell Public Schools, he returned to his native Traverse City. Some highlights of Bob’s community stewardship include: sitting on the Committee to Save Building 50, working with the State of Michigan Sesquicentennial Committee, and actively contributing to the Michigan History Museum in developing curriculum programs related to the state’s history. Not many days went by, without visiting the History Center of Traverse City where Bob enjoyed researching & telling the stories of the area. Many thanks go to everyone who sent wishes of good cheer and encouragement to Bob during his recent illness. Bob expressed his gratitude on many occasions and found great comfort knowing his friends were nearby. A memorial gathering celebrating Bob’s life was held on Sunday, June 15, 2014 at 2 pm at the History Center of Traverse City, 322 Sixth Street, Traverse City.

Thank you to Laura Wilson of the History Center of Traverse City for permitting the reprint of Bob’s obituary in the first issue of the “Grand Traverse Journal,” which is dedicated to his memory.

The Forest that is Traverse City

The Forest That Is Traverse City

In summer, preparing to land in Traverse City, it is hard to see the houses below through the airplane window.  A vast forest spreads out there, obscuring houses and streets alike.  It is a forest of a sort, yet it resembles no forest growing wild nearby.   Local forests do not have sycamores, tulip trees, Japanese lilac, Norway maples, and Gingko.   Nor do they have Colorado Blue Spruce and Norway Spruce.  All of those trees are exotics, having been planted by individuals or by the City Parks Department to provide shade as well as grace and beauty to the city landscape.  They are native to other lands, some as close as Southern Michigan and others as distant as Tibet.  Whatever their lineage, they have found homes along the streets of Traverse City.

The mixture of white pines, red pines and oak at the NMC campus represent the forest of most of Traverse City before white settlement.
The mixture of white pines, red pines and oak at the NMC campus represent the forest of most of Traverse City before white settlement.

Before there was Traverse City, there was forest.  Most of the city was built upon level, gravelly lake bottom, its sand still visible whenever sewer projects require excavation.  The great White Pines grew there, along with a scattering of Red Pine and White and Red Oaks, a mixture still in evidence on the Northern Michigan College campus.  The pines were the first to be taken by the Hannah Lay Logging Company, while the oaks were generally left alone.  Some of them remain today in the back yards along the streets of both the east and the west sides of town.  Oakwood Cemetery is home to many.

The far west side of town provided different habitats for trees.  Along Kids Creek, from Meijer’s to the Boardman River, a vast swamp covered the land.  Street names like “Spruce” and “Cedar” were named after the trees that grew nearby.  Early in the city’s history, the Creek was dammed to make a mill pond at a location near the Kids Creek viaduct under Division Street.  Valued by young potters even now, the clayey soil of the area still can be seen along the stream banks.

Relic huge beech trees on Monroe Street occupy sites on the West side of town. They prefer the richer soils of moraines.
Relic huge beech trees on Monroe Street occupy sites on the West side of town. They prefer the richer soils of moraines.

Finally, ascending the hills that border the west side of town from the Commons to Hickory Hills, the forest changes again.  Giant beech trees inhabit this area, some admirably cared for by homeowners who apparently do not mind the beechnuts, hollow trunks, and occasional breaking of dying branches under winter snow.  Hard maples–sugar maples–grow along with them, the two species forming most of the canopy of a beech-maple forest.  Soils here are richer than those of the city’s flatlands: Glaciers deposited more clay, enabling higher soil moisture and faster growth during dry summers.  The large trees of Ashton Park near Willow Hill School are examples of the virgin hardwoods that occupied this forest of glacial moraines.  Repetitions of these beech-maple forests can be seen throughout the hilly regions of the Grand Traverse area.

Most trees growing along streets are not relics of the primeval forest that city founder Perry Hannah knew.  They have been planted by the City and by townspeople in an effort to make the barren landscape more hospitable to early residents.  Early photographs show an empty landscape from the Bay to the hills surrounding the city.  The sun burned hot in summer and a heavy rain would send streams out of their banks without the trees to hold back run-off.  It was only natural people would try to restore what loggers had taken from them.

James Decker Munson started the arboretum in front of Building 50 at the Commons. Plaques describing tree species still remain.
James Decker Munson started the arboretum in front of Building 50 at the Commons. Plaques describing tree species still remain.

Centered in large cities like Chicago, the City Beautiful Movement began in the early twentieth century as a response to industrial pollution and environmental neglect.  It promoted the segregation of railroads and factories from residential spaces, city parks, sidewalks, and the planting of trees along broad, paved streets.  Influenced by the movement, Traverse City set about making its streets beautiful.  It laid out Hannah Park at the present location of the Carnegie library (now, the History Center) on Sixth Street and began planting trees, sugar maples by the hundreds.  Early photographs of the library show rows of thin saplings bordering the street.  Most have disappeared to be replaced by other—perhaps more fashionable—trees.

According to Rob Britten, City Parks and Recreation supervisor, the city chooses its trees carefully, attempting to harmonize diversity with resistance to the abuses of city living, all the time paying attention to rate of growth, sturdiness, and the attraction of flowers, fruit, and colorful leaves in autumn.  It is not an easy job.

No longer emphasizing sugar maples, the City plants a wide variety of species: Japanese silk trees, Ginkgos, Hackberry, Autumn Blaze (a cross between sugar and red maples)—even Chinese pears, downtown and elsewhere.  The harmful consequence of depending too heavily on one tree species is visible in the demise of ash trees through the depredation of the Emerald Ash Borer.  Healthy ashes along city streets are doomed to an early death due to the insect.

Even without attacks by insects, life is hard for trees in the City.  First, there is the broiling sun in summer.  On sunny days black asphalt heats the air above it, raising temperatures far higher than those experienced by nearby trees in the forest.  Winter salt dehydrates roots, conifer needles, and buds.  Add to that the confinement of roots by paved surfaces and it is a wonder they survive at all.  But they do and we are grateful.

The white oak trail-marking tree on Washington St. near the Courthouse reflects the forest of 165 years ago.
The white oak trail-marking tree on Washington St. near the Courthouse reflects the forest of 165 years ago.

Trees enrich our lives in so many ways.  They cast shade and cool our houses.  They turn colors in autumn, bringing us joy even as we contemplate the return of winter.  They make fruit of many kinds, enjoyed by animals that normally spend their lives in wilderness.  They provide homes for birds, squirrels, and other mammals, thereby giving us a glimpse into their lives.  Most important of all, they connect us city dwellers to the rhythms, textures, and beauty of Nature, a perspective that comes easy to the farmer but not to us.  Leaves and twigs, roots in sewer pipes, pollen in spring, a downed tree in a wind storm—it is all worth it.  Imagine the barrenness if they were not there.

The Real Issue

This editorial was taken from Traverse City’s socialist newspaper, Honest Opinion, June 5, 1919:

Do you believe that less than five per cent of the people of the United States should be given the privilege of preying on the other ninety five per cent?  Do you believe that those who do all the necessary work of the United States and every other country in the world should live within a week of starvation while those who do not labor at all should wallow in wealth to the extent that they are obliged to invent new devices and inventions of the mind, more or less immoral, in order to get rid of their ill gotten gains?  Do you believe that more than sixty per cent of the people should be constantly menaced with violent death so that three per cent can become millionaires?  Do you know that one millionaire means ten thousand wage slaves?  Do you know that most of these wage slaves have innocent little children and these little children are the greatest sufferers from this abominable situation?  If you do, you stand for capitalism.  If you do not, you have no business on that side.  The voice of reason should reach you.  Let not the prostitutes of plutocracy blind you to the fact that there is only one issue for you and for them and that is whether or not you are going to get decent food, decent clothing, and decent shelter for yourself and your children.  Any other issue is a mere camouflage and made to rob you of your birthright as guaranteed you by the constitution the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  Don’t let them make that document a scrap of paper.

Despite its exaggerations, occasional error (the Declaration of Independence, not the Constitution, is quoted), and run-on sentences, it reminds us of the modern “We are the 99%” Occupy Movement in its insistence that our nation belongs to all of us, not just the wealthy few.  Socialist and later supporter of FDR, local activist Thomas H. Coxe authored the piece.  He died in 1936.

The Traverse Area District Library Woodmere branch has several issues of Honest Opinion stored on microfilm.

Welcome from the Editors


We greet you!  After a long vacation, we resume the composing stick and quill, a calling in which we have spent the happiest and best portion of a life now past its meridian.  We present you to-day the first number of the GRAND TRAVERSE HERALD.  It is modest and unpretending in size,–perhaps some may think too much so,–but remember it is only one day old!  It will have time enough to grow, and will expand its dimensions just in proportion to the nourishment it receives.  In typographical appearance, we think it will compare favorably with any paper in the State.  At all events, we have consulted our own taste in that matter, and are satisfied with the result.

So begins Morgan Bates’ first editorial for the Traverse area’s first newspaper.  Not holding composing stick and quill, we struggle with hardware and software, though perhaps not as Bates would have imagined those things in 1858.  Whatever the differences in composition and production, we do share his enthusiasm and his high expectations that something interesting and new is in the offing—for us, THE GRAND TRAVERSE JOURNAL (GTJ).

GTJ tells of Nature and History, always with an emphasis on the Grand Traverse region.   Every month we will support that focus through regular department features, photographs, and articles written not just by us, but by you–our readers–who will share your experiences, articles, and photographs with hundreds of your fellow citizens.  Alas, we cannot pay you for your trouble—after all, we are supported by two nonprofits, the Traverse Area District Library and the History Center of Traverse City—but we can inform an entire community about who you are, what you are interested in, and what projects you are involved in.  Please look at the Submissions Guidelines, which spells out what we are looking for.  As Morgan Bates said, our magazine will expand (and improve!) just in proportion to the nourishment it receives.  You, the readers and soon-to-be writers, will supply the nourishment required for the Grand Traverse Journal to grow.

The Grand Traverse Journal may be viewed at gtjournal.tadl.org.  In addition, paper copies may be obtained at the Reference Desk of the Traverse Area District Library and at the Archives of the History Center of Traverse City.  Readers may make copies of articles for the cost of reproduction.

Enjoy this first issue of the Grand Traverse Journal.  Spread the word among your friends about our new magazine and send us your thoughts about how we can make it better.  Our email address is gtjeditor@tadl.org

Amy Barritt and Richard Fidler, editors

Grape Ferns and the Art of Becoming Invisible

Botrychium matricarifolium photographed in Leelanau County
Botrychium matricarifolium photographed in Leelanau County

In late spring, when the morel hunters and spring wildflower admirers have disappeared from the woods, I go out in search of grape ferns, the Botrychiums. They are not good to eat, they do not possess colorful leaves, and they lack flowers altogether. Still, they have their strong points: for one thing, reputedly they can make the collector invisible. So far, I have been unable to demonstrate their potency in this regard, but given the antiquity of the claim, I will check it out one more time—the herbalists of old can’t have been totally wrong on this one—or can they?

The Botrychiums (Greek for “grape”) stand no more than a few inches high. Named for the cluster of spore-producing bodies (sporangia), they remind us of bunches of tiny grapes held above a single green leaf. I have always found the most common species, Botrychium matricariodes, among young maple saplings on bare ground swept clear of last year’s leaves. As with morel hunting, you go along without seeing them for a time—and then, suddenly, you see the first and then another and another. They occupy a large area: dozens can be found at one place.

Botrychiums mostly spend their lives underground. First, spores must land at in an appropriate habitat. Upon arriving there, they grow underground, feeding upon nutrients produced by other plants by taking advantage of soil fungi that interconnect with their roots. After several years of growth–providing the above ground vegetation has progressed from weeds to young trees–grape ferns first appear above ground, finally shedding their spores to the wind. Thereafter, they sporadically appear every year—usually in late May and June—with some years better than others. After as long as 50 years, the habitat becomes unsuitable for them as trees age and the leaf litter becomes too thick for them to emerge above ground. They are not found in mature hardwoods.

Besides “grape ferns”, Botrychiums are called “moonworts”, after a species that produced leaflets reminiscent of half moons. This species alone confers invisibility to its bearer. In order for the spell to work, “fern seeds” must be gathered at midnight on June 23rd, St. John’s Eve, the shortest night of the year. Here we must pause: What are “fern seeds”? Hundreds of years ago people thought all green plants produced seed and were puzzled by the apparent absence of seeds in ferns. According to the ancient “doctrine of signatures,” characters demonstrated by plants pointed to their use in medicine. If the seeds were invisible, then invisibility might be transferred to humans by the presence of the plant. (Of course, everything is wrong with this idea: the doctrine of signatures has no validity and ferns reproduce by nearly invisible spores, not seeds.)

In order to catch invisible fern seed a seeker needed to stack twelve pewter plates, placing the fern frond on the top one. The invisible seeds would drop through the stack, finally resting at the bottom-most plate. Of course, there were other necessary behaviors: he must go bare-footed, wear a shirt, and be in a religious state of mind. Even observing all of these conditions, he might suffer failure if wandering fairies steal the fern seed.

It is clear why my efforts to attain invisibility will likely fail: no pewter plates, no desire to walk barefoot through the woods, and the ever-present possibility of thievish fairies. In fact, no fern seed at all. Most likely moonworts will not unshoe horses that step on them, loosen iron nails, or break chains by their touch. Nor will they empower woodpeckers to peck holes through iron if rubbed upon their beaks (a feat rather difficult to accomplish!). No, grape ferns only bring joy to their discoverers in the month of June. They bestow no particular virtues—no invisibility, no uncanny ability to penetrate iron. Still, they please us by their mere presence—much as the returning songbirds do. Look for them in June on bare hillsides wherever young trees grow.