Tag Archives: Benzie County

“Fruitbasket Turnover”: Memories of a Multi-Family Move, 1949

by Carolyn J. Thayer

Editor’s Note: The author submitted this story as part of “Lifestory Center,” a memoir project spearheaded by Northwestern Michigan College’s Extended Education Services, funded by a grant from the Michigan Council for the Humanities, and archived by Traverse Area District Library. Grand Traverse Journal will be occasionally reprinting submissions to this collection, in an effort to call attention to this valuable resource. If our readers know any of the authors, we would love to contact them, so please let us know!

The following is a fun story about the Carmien Family and their unique nuclear living situation, submitted by Carolyn Thayer. Carolyn was the daughter of Willard and Irene Carmien:

The cars pulled to the side of the road in front of the group of houses, and the crowd was assembling. Someone asked, “What are they doing? Is it some kind of massive Spring-cleaning?” Someone else said, “It looks like they’re moving. But, all of them?” as they surveyed the furniture huddled in the yards of the three houses.

A few months earlier at a typical Carmien get-together, my mother, and dad, and several of Dad’s brothers and sisters were sitting around sipping beer and swapping jokes and stories. Some time during the reminiscing someone brought up the problem of housing.

Plat of the village of Benzonia in 1901. “Atlas of Benzie County, Michigan,” Knoxville, Tenn.: C. E. Ferris, [1901].
In 1939 or 1940, when I was less than two years old, my father and mother had purchased a Chicken-Hatchery in Benzonia, Michigan. It was located just South of Benzonia off of U.S. 31 on River Street, a quiet little street with a wooded area on one side and my dad’s property on the other. There was a one-story house, with brown asphalt siding, (always referred to as The Brown House), that we moved into. Also on the property were several buildings that were part of the chicken hatchery. Over the next several years, my dad and his brothers converted the largest one, a two-story building, into a house for my Grandmother Carmien and my dad’s youngest brother, Keith. (This house was always referred to as The Big House). When Keith married, once again the family rallied round and the smaller building (formerly known as The Wash House, but that’s another story), was converted into a small, one-bedroom house for Keith and his bride, Jean.

The year was now 1949 and, as the party progressed, I heard my Uncle Keith say, “It is really getting tight for us in our little house since Barbara has been born. We really need more room.” And then my dad said, “We could use more room, too. I don’t know where we are going to put Nancy when she can’t be in our room anymore.” Sine we had moved into The Brown House my brother Jim, two years younger than me, and my sister, Nancy, ten years younger than me, had been born. Our house had one regular size bedroom, where our parents slept, with a crib for my baby sister, Nancy, and a tiny room, much like a walk-in closet, where my brother and I slept. This room was just large enough for a small closet and a six-year crib. My brother slept in the six-year crib, though he was eight years old, and I, at the age of ten slept on a bunk my dad had built on top of the crib. I usually slept curled up as my feet stuck out the end of the bed if I straightened out.

My Aunt and Uncle, living in the small house, were likewise, feeling cramped. Grandma was now living alone in the Big House which had one bedroom downstairs and two bedrooms upstairs.

Close-up of the two country blocks that comprised River Street in Benzonia, 1901.

I was ten years old at the time and I never knew who came up with the idea. They merely said, “Why don’t we swap houses?” Now you would have to know our family to appreciate how this idea was received. The suggestion was hailed with much laughter, after which everyone interjected a few of their own ideas into the discussion. “We’ll all leave our curtains,” from the women, and “I know where I can get a handtruck” from the men. Each suggestion was greeted with more laughter. As if anyone would ever do such a preposterous act!

In the days that followed, however, the idea began to sound more sensible. My Dad owned all three houses so there was no problem there. Grandma was willing to move into the small house, as she didn’t need all the room she had in the big house. There was much fun made over the possibilities. As the subject was explored, the excitement grew. It was finally decided; in the Spring we would move. All of us. All at once. The same day.

As I remember, it was a weekend in April or May of 1949. By now there had been more get-togethers (a favorite pastime of our close-knit family) and strategy had been mapped out as to how to accomplish this undertaking. The troops were marshalled and all available hands were ready and eager to begin. The houses were close enough together, forming a circle with a common driveway, that taking furniture by truck was not feasible. what was so neat, though, was that everyone was moving clockwise into the next house. The smaller two houses were on a small knoll, so the fewer steps carrying heavy furniture the better. So they started at the Big House, carrying one piece of furniture up the hill to the small house where it was set on the lawn. Next, they carried a piece of furniture from there to the lawn of the Brown House, then a piece from the Brown House to the Big House. Thus it went all one day and into the next. We kids scurried from place to place carrying small items and boxes of precious possessions. I remember carrying my own treasures, (my toys and clothing), and table lamps, bedding, and kitchen items. It was fun for me, too, to help grandma move all of her small items into her new home. In the process some furniture and possessions were exchanged making it unnecessary to move everything.

Benzonia, ca. 1890, long before the Good Roads Movement made an impact on the area. This road may have been a predecessor to US 31.

It was a beautiful weekend, and the word spread quickly in our small town. Soon cars began to stop along our road and the main highway and a crowd began to gather to watch the residents of “Carmienville” and their latest scheme. Finally, the last piece of furniture was moved and the items sitting out on the lawn were in each house. All that was left was the settling in.

For me, it was a wonderful move! As much as I loved the Brown House, I was so ready to exchange my top bunk on the six-year crib, where my feet stuck out the end, for that big twin bed my Uncle Bruce gave me, and the little closet-sized room, I had had for the past nine years, for the huge bedroom I was to share with my two sisters (another sister was born four years later). My brother had the small bedroom on the landing upstairs, and my folks had a bedroom on the main floor which was more private for them. I remember climbing into bed the first night after the move and stretching out on that “Hollywood” mattress on that “big” twin-size bed with it’s own headboard and looking around at my huge bedroom with the sloping ceiling and thinking how fortunate I was.

Grandma settled in quickly into her cozy little home, and my Aunt and Uncle could spread their wings for awhile. They later built another house in the circle of “Carmienville” and welcomed three more daughters into their family. Sometime later, my dad’s sister, Mabel, and her husband, Dale, moved into the next house down the road and “Carmienville” expanded to five houses.

Through the years, when the family congregated, sooner or later someone would say, “Remember the time we all moved at once?” and it was named “The Fruitbasket Turnover.”

As a child of ten, I was blessed to be a part of a family who were so close and loved to be together, who were always conscious of each other’s needs and always there for each other through thick and thin. We laughed together, cried together, worked together, and played together. I felt secure in my family and extended family.

Mock Orange, image courtesy of Lazaregagnidze, WIkimedia Commons.

Now, fifty years later, I marvel at the speed and alacrity with which each family was willing to move for the general good. Though no one left the immediate vicinity, my mother left her gardens, she had so lovingly attended, to her sister-in-law and brother-in-law for them to enjoy. As time went on, the Hollyhocks and Mock Orange bloomed anew around our new home.

Though I had ten years of memories invested in the Brown House, I also came to have many years of memories of the Big House and , years later, as a young bride I was to live again, for a year, in the Brown House.

Through the years, I’ve never forgotten the Spring of 1949 and the “Fruitbasket Turnover!”

A Polar Bear Returns to Russia: World War I and Michigan, presented by the Benzie Area Historical Museum

by Andrew Bolander, Benzie Area Historian, Museum Volunteer
The experiences of the American North Russia Expeditionary Force during World War I are often overlooked. The units arrived in Archangel, Russia on September 5, 1918. From its inauspicious start, in which 175 soldiers were unable to disembark their troop transports as they were quarantined with the Spanish Flu, to its cold, bitter end, the Expedition was largely seen as a waste of manpower.(1)
Benzie Area Historical Museum, World War I Exhibit, will be on display during the Summer 2017 season.

Why the Americans were involved in the North Russian theater of operations was a convoluted diplomatic mess.  Their military purpose was to maintain an Allied presence on the Eastern front of the European conflict. After the Bolshevik Revolution (November 7, 1917), the Allies were weakened by the loss of Tsarist Russia. The Bolsheviks signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with Germany in March 1918,  and the line of battle on Germany’s eastern border disappeared. So the American North Russia Expeditionary Force appeared in Archangel, Russia, to keep the Bolsheviks south and the Germans out of Murmansk. This adventure later became commonly known as the Polar Bear Expedition.

Although the Americans were specified not to be an offensive force, on September 6th the British command ordered a push south along the Trans-Siberian Railroad to Vologda. It was hailed as a victory, but it had created a front of 450 miles in length that the Allied forces struggled to defend for the next nine months. The Americans, who comprised the majority of the boots on the ground covering the area outside of the city of Archangel, numbered 5500 men. In comparison, the front between France and Germany was roughly 500 miles long with millions of soldiers trenched in on either side.
Benzie Area Historical Museum, World War I Exhibit, will be on display during the Summer 2017 season.

The notorious Russian Winter battled the American troops. President Wilson determined that the American soldiers in Russia would not be equipped with standard Army kit. No American flags were to be officially brought to Archangel and the soldiers did not wear the uniform of the United States Army.  Cold weather gear provided by the British Army was criminally inadequate. Soldiers bartered for improvements in the markets or looted the dead for fur lined hats, gloves, boots, and coats, which were suitable for the environment they were commanded to occupy.

Gilbert T. Shilson was a Lieutenant in Company “K” of the 339th Infantry, and despite this small sample of the trials he and his companions experienced he would willingly return to the same frozen countryside a decade later. Mr. Shilson, who was widely known as “Duke”, grew up in Traverse City and lived there until he joined the Army for World War I. His parents ran the Hotel Shilson that was on the corner of Lake Avenue and Union Street. The Boardman River House was opened by his grandparents and his grandfather, William Shilson, was the first miller in Traverse City. Duke was employed at the Record-Eagle as a reporter and Sporting Editor and later left Traverse City to work at the Detroit News.
Mr. Shilson was recognized by the French Government for his courage during the battle of Kodish, which took place at the end of December 1918:
“Fine Conduct during the battle of Kodish on December 30th & 31st, 1918. Facing an enemy ten times superior in number and under violent fire, he constantly maintained the spirit of his men. Being constantly at the most dangerous places of the fight, he succeeded, after a battle of fifteen hours, in repulsing the enemy. There were five men killed among which were one officer and twenty-nine wounded, out of a total number of sixty-five men.”
Gilbert T. Shilson, Governor Fred W. Green, and the rest of the Commission. Image courtesy of the Bentley Historical Library.

In 1929, Michigan Governor Fred W. Green appointed a commission to locate and retrieve fallen American soldiers that remained in Russia when the troops were withdrawn. Shilson was appointed as its chairman. By July 1929 enough research and fundraising had been accomplished to send a team over to Russia and retrieve the fallen American soldiers. The Polar Bear Association dedicated the Polar Bear Monument on Memorial Day 1930.  Fifty-five bodies from Russian soil were interred at White Chapel Memorial Park in Troy, Michigan.

The Benzie Area Historical Museum will conduct a cemetery tour Tuesday, July 11th from 7 to 8 pm and will hold a remembrance ceremony at Mr. Walter Dundon’s grave. Currently the museum is maintaining a display on the Polar Bears as part of the World War I exhibit that will be open for the duration of this summer.
(1) Harding, Warren G. (President) quoted in “American soldiers faced Red Army on Russian soil,” Army Times, September 16, 2002.

“Finding Beauty in Northern Michigan”: Catton Award Winner 2016

At the Bruce Catton Essay Awards Ceremony, April 2016. Image courtesy of Stewart A. McFerran.
At the Bruce Catton Essay Awards Ceremony, April 2016. Image courtesy of Stewart A. McFerran.

By Morgan Bankston, Winner of the 2016 Bruce Catton Awards

The leaves beneath my feet are the only sound I hear besides the howling of the wind. The trees are shedding their coats, getting ready for a brisk winter. Colors of orange and yellow float around me. The wind is whipping around me, breaking me out of my thought. I hike farther up on the bluff. Rays of red and pink sunshine envelope me in a ray of heat. The cold weather nips at my cheeks, turning them a pinkish color. The farther I hike, the colder it gets; my wind breaker is slowly losing its effect of keeping me warm.

“Come on, Mom,” I say. “We need to hurry if we are going to make it to the top by the time the sun sets. “

I climb faster than the rest of my family. I look behind me and see they’re still staggering on the trail, trying to catch their breath from climbing the enormous hill.

At the Bruce Catton Essay Awards Ceremony, April 2016. Image courtesy of Stewart A. McFerran.
At the Bruce Catton Essay Awards Ceremony, April 2016. Image courtesy of Stewart A. McFerran.

In front of me, I see a huge tree, about the size of an elephant; its leaves lay scattered on the ground beneath it. The trunk reminds me of a spider’s legs, strong, and curvy. The branches seem like they’re never ending, going up into the sky and cascading outward.

I run over to the tree and start to climb its long branches, climbing from branch to branch to get higher off the ground. Looking up, I see three abandoned bird nests at the very top of the tree. I decide to climb as close to the nests as I can before mom tells me go get down. Up I go, closer, closer to the nest before I hear a loud scream.

“Get down here right now, young lady!” my mother screams.

I pretend I don’t hear her. I climb higher, but the branches are getting thinner and thinner. I can’t go much higher or a branch will snap.

Giving up, I adjust my feet and climb down each branch, one by one.

I make it down to the ground safely and start running down the path. All of the trees are losing their leaves, turning an eerie gray for winter. It’s quiet and peaceful. No birds are chirping or singing, just the howl of the wind in the trees.

At the Bruce Catton Essay Awards Ceremony, April 2016. Image courtesy of Stewart A. McFerran.
At the Bruce Catton Essay Awards Ceremony, April 2016. Image courtesy of Stewart A. McFerran.

I press on along the trail making sure to stay on the path. I turn my head and see something that resembles a large cave on the other side of the trail. I turn around to make sure my mom isn’t looking; then I hurry and run over to the cave. Up close, I see that it is, in fact, what I suspected: a bear den. I walk around it; thank goodness there was no bear living it the cave at this moment. I continue to run around the cave to check it out. It’s  made of sticks and rocks which cover the whole thing. Large sticks are poking out of the den. I look down and see four little bear paw prints all over the ground smushed in the dirt.

Bored, I run back to my family quietly without anyone knowing I was ever gone. I run up behind my sister and poke her in her sides. She turns around  and swats my hands away while sticking out her tongue. I turn and run in front of everybody, making my way to the top of the hill.

The path turns left and opens up into a huge “sugar bowl.” Sand is all around us, leading to the very bottom, in the shape of a bowl.

I stand at the tip-top, take off my coat, boots, and hat; then I begin my run down the hill. As soon as I take the first step, all of the sand comes down with me and falls at my side. Slipping and sliding, I make it to the bottom and get on my hands and knees to climb up the hill again. After five times, all worn out, I climb up the hill, but want one more slippery ride down.

When I reach the top, I stand up and look out into the distance. I can see everything from here. Millions of trees, orange, red, and gray surrounding me. I turn around and see all of Lake Michigan. The dark blue covering what feels like half of the Earth around me. The lighthouse is in the distance.The sun is setting just beside it; a serene pink and yellow colors.

I think to myself —this is my home.

The Tenth Annual Bruce Catton Historical Award Reception was held at Mills Community House, Benzie County, in April 2016.   Families of the freshman authors and community residents came to honor the young authors and their teachers, Ms. Rebecca Hubbard, English teacher, and Mr. Dave Jackson, history teacher who inspired the authors. The students were assigned to write about a special event in their life, trying to create a memorable experience that would delight an audience. The readings given adult performers proved the students had succeeded. Similar to author Bruce Catton’s memoirs that included many of his life experiences as he grew up in Benzie County during the early years of the 20th century, the students included many descriptive details in essays that reminded their audience of similar experiences in their own lives.

Tactics of Pigeon Hunters: Passenger Pigeons in Benzie County, 1880s

Dear Readers:
This follow-up article to one published in our March issue on Passenger Pigeons was inspired by the following correspondence your editors received from an admiring reader:
“I thoroughly enjoyed your recent article on passenger pigeons.  Since the topic isn’t discussed very much I thought I would seize the opportunity to share some of my notes on the topic.
A unique source (locally) is a personal history, “A Brief Sketch of the Life of Charles B. Slyfield,” that resides at the Benzie Shores District Library, with copies of it held at the Benzie Area Historical Museum.  Mr. Slyfield’s history is thirty-some pages and covers commercial fishing, tug operations, the history of Frankfort, and his dog Hero in addition to pigeon hunting. ~ Andy B.”
Naturally, our regular contributor Stewart McFerran took to this new resource with a renewed vigor on the subject of Passenger Pigeons. Charles B. Slyfield (1854-1924) was a fisherman and lighthouse keeper at Frankfort, in addition to a hunter.  ~ Your editors at Grand Traverse Journal

by Stewart A. McFerran

Smith Bennett, Passenger Pigeon flock being hunted, from "The Illustrated Shooting and Dramatic News", 3 July 1875.
Smith Bennett, Passenger Pigeon flock being hunted, from “The Illustrated Shooting and Dramatic News”, 3 July 1875.

About the first of May we pitched our tent and set and baited the traps. Father had hired William Salsgiver and his net to work with us as he was an expert pigeon trapper. The pigeons nested up river about five miles and would fly just as soon as day would break. The first flight would be all males. Then about 7 a.m. the females would start and keep it up until about 10 a.m.

Father rented 40 acres of marsh land on the South side of the Betsy River where there was situated a salt spring and pigeon marsh where the pigeons would assemble in great numbers to eat the muck and drink the water.   (A Brief Sketch of the Life of Charles B. Slyfield,  published in 1912)

Needless to say a slaughter of passenger pigeons ensued. However, these observations from Slyfield’s younger years bring up some questions with regard to the extinct bird. Why would they “eat the muck”? Was there some sort of larva or invertebrate that was nutritious within the muck? Or was there a mineral that the birds craved?

The segregated flights from the nesting ground to the feeding ground is in itself a fascinating detail.

In addition to nesting habits, Slyfield provides detail on their cross-lake roosting and feeding habits: “Old hunters and sailors tell me that great numbers of pigeons had their roost in Wisconsin and flew to Michigan each morning to feed on Michigan beechnuts.” By his reckoning, as the pigeons flew at a speed of I believe 180 miles an hour, they could cross the lake in 20 minutes. [Note: the fastest bird is said to be the white throated needletail which can attain a speed of 105 mph in horizontal flight]

Readers of Slyfield’s biography can appreciate the detail he offers about the pigeons, and we realize this deep understanding of the pigeons’ habits were also just the thing that allow hunters to exploit them in such a shamelessly unsustainable way. Certainly, as Slyfield includes the Passenger Pigeon extinction event in his memoir, he must have realized by the end of his life what it meant for the ecology of the region. Details of ecological relationships that Passenger Pigeons had are fascinating.

Another Benzie County native, author Bruce Catton, also wrote about the tactics of Passenger Pigeon hunters, some years after Slyfield’s death:

Men caught birds alive by fastening big nets to the tops of springy saplings, fastening the nets close to the ground, baiting the area and then springing the trap when the birds came to eat; it was said that a single trap would catch from three to five hundred pigeons.

James St. John, Stuffed male passenger pigeon. From the Field Museum of Natural History collection.
James St. John, Stuffed male passenger pigeon. From the Field Museum of Natural History collection.

The new theology has borrowed, without credit, one of the fundamental planks in the old religion: despite his disclaimers, man stands at the center of the universe. It was made for him to use, and the best and wisest men are those who use it most lavishly. They destroy pine forests, and dig copper from beneath the cold northern lake, and run the open pits across the iron ranges, impoverishing themselves at the same time they are enriching themselves; creating wealth, in short by the act of destroying it, which is one of the most baffling mysteries of the new gospel.

Before “sustainability” terminology was coined and in common use, Catton wrote about “the mysteries of the new gospel” in his 1972 memoir Waiting for the Morning Train. This, in my view, makes him not just an important writer of history but an unappreciated environmental writer.

We may not be able to watch the majesty of a cloud of Passenger Pigeons in the sky today, but the vivid descriptions Slyfield and Catton survive on as a record of their existence, even if questions about their muck-eating remain unanswered. Hopefully, their writings also provide a sobering reminder for those who would abuse our Region’s natural resources.

Copies of Mr. Slyfield’s biography are available for review at the Benzie Shores District Library, and for sale at the Empire Area Museum. Copies of Bruce Catton’s Waiting for the Morning Train are available for checkout at the Traverse Area District Library.

Stewart A. McFerran is an outdoor enthusiast and regular Benzie-area contributor to Grand Traverse Journal.

Hunting the Last Passenger Pigeons, Benzie County, 1880

by Stewart A. McFerran, Benzie resident, outdoor enthusiast, and regular contributor to Grand Traverse Journal

What does it mean to be “sustainable” in industry or practice? The passenger pigeon industry came to an end as a consequence of UNsustainable practices. The Petoskey area is often cited as the last mass roost in 1878, but there was a mass roosting of passenger pigeons on and around the Platte River in Benzie County in 1880.

Passenger pigeons made a big impression as they flew in huge numbers across North America. This plain pigeon was a unique species because of sheer numbers and gregarious nesting habits. From all reports,  the flocks could blot out the sun, their nesting grounds spreading out for miles.

Lewis Cross, Passenger Pigeons in Flight, 1937, Collection of the Lakeshore Museum Center, Photo by Fred Reinicke.
Lewis Cross, Passenger Pigeons in Flight, 1937, Collection of the Lakeshore Museum Center, Photo by Fred Reinicke.

Simon Pokagon, a Potawatomi tribal leader, author and Native advocate, had observed (and is frequently quoted on) the migrations of passenger pigeons in the Manistee area since 1850: “I have stood by the grandest waterfall of America and regarded the descending torrents in wonder and astonishment, yet never have my astonishment, wonder, and admiration been so stirred as when I have witnessed these birds drop from their course like meteors from heaven.”

According to reports published in the Grand Traverse Herald, April 1880, a network of spotters located a salt spring in Benzie County that would attract large flocks of the birds. Mineral rich water bubbled out and over a mound and down a slope. Millions of pigeons congregated in this area. The owners allowed pigeon netters to catch passenger pigeons there for a fee:

Article on pigeon nesting grounds, April 1880, Grand Traverse Herald.
Article on pigeon nesting grounds, April 1880, Grand Traverse Herald.

“Last week several small flights were observed on the Platte River. They came in clouds millions upon millions. It seemed as if by common consent the entire world of pigeons were concentrated at this point. The air was full of them and the sun was shut out of sight, and still they came millions upon millions more. The nesting is now more than fifteen miles in length and six to eight miles wide, and the birds are still coming in countless numbers. Old hunters say it will probably be the most extensive nesting ever known in the State.”

The large groups of hunters that flocked to Northern Michigan to shoot the remaining passenger pigeons arrived by train. They were well practiced in the dispatching, collecting, preserving and shipping of passenger pigeons. The market for the birds was well established in New York, Philadelphia and Chicago.

What market, you might ask? Passenger pigeons were on the menus of American colonists from the start. At one time, the birds were considered a godsend and kept starvation at bay. Other times passenger pigeons were a delicacy. Pigeon pies were popular and Delmonico’s in New York served passenger pigeon. Pigeons were salted, smoked and pickled. (Greenberg, 2014).

Article on pigeon nesting grounds, April 1880, Grand Traverse Herald.

“Fully three hundred (hunters) are now at the grounds. This meeting will be a source of considerable revenue to the farmers in the neighborhood and to the whole country hereabouts.”

Conservation efforts to preserve and prevent the ill-treatment of the birds proved ineffective, a matter of too little, too late. The 1870s saw an increase in public awareness on the brutality of these hunts, leading to protests against trap-shooting. Various states enacted laws to curtail the slaughter over the next twenty years. In 1897, a bill was introduced in the Michigan legislature asking for a 10-year closed season on passenger pigeons. Similar legal measures were passed and then disregarded in Pennsylvania and New York. By the mid-1890s, the passenger pigeon had almost completely disappeared, and was probably extinct as a breeding bird in the wild. (For more information on conservation efforts, see W.B. Mershon’s The Passenger Pigeon, published in 1907, and available freely online.)

Martha, thought to be the last passenger pigeon, died on September 1, 1914, at the Cincinnati Zoo.

James St. John, Stuffed male passenger pigeon. From the Field Museum of Natural History collection.
James St. John, Stuffed male passenger pigeon. From the Field Museum of Natural History collection.

Benzie hunters had the distinction of hunting some of the last passenger pigeons. They had help from gun toters and netters from afar. But we can learn a lesson from Martha: No one will ever hunt a passenger pigeon again. The passenger pigeon will never be counted during a Benzie Christmas Bird count because our ancestors did not have the foresight to use sustainable practices.

Grand Traverse Herald, April 1880.
Greenberg, Joel. A Feathered River Across the Sky. New York: Bloomsbury, 2014.
Mershon, W.B. The Passenger Pigeon. New York: The Outing Publishing Company, 1907.

“Our 35 observers saw a respectable 59 species on count day”: Report from the Benzie County Christmas Bird Count 2015

by Stewart A. McFerran, Benzie resident, outdoor enthusiast, and regular contributor to Grand Traverse Journal

Brian Allen, Benzie County Christmas Bird Count 2015 organizer, scouting for birds. Image courtesy of the author.
Brian Allen, Benzie County Christmas Bird Count 2015 leader, spotting for birds at Green Point Dunes, Lake Michigan. Image courtesy of the author.

From the perch on Green Point, a wide expanse of Lake Michigan to the South and West stretches as far as the eye can see. It would seem to be the prime spot for the Christmas Bird Count. But this year there are few birds to be spotted–so few that Brian Allen said that he is going to Peru where there are lots of birds to see.

The Christmas Bird Count was started in the year 1900 by Frank Chapman. At the time it was the custom to engage in side hunts, a sort of competition to see who could shoot the most birds; Except for this custom falling to the wayside, little else has changed in how the count is recorded between then and now. Chapman founded Bird Lore, a publication that listed the first Christmas Bird Count (later the Count was moved to the Audubon Magazine). Copies of Bird Lore are available to view and download through the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

Compiling the Bird Count is Brian Allen, one leader of the Benzie County Count.
Compiling the Bird Count is Brian Allen, one leader of the Benzie County Count. Image courtesy of the author.

The Audubon Society organizes the effort each year to count rather than shoot birds. The results are compiled and published on the Audubon Website. Thousands of groups across the country meet in the field around Christmas to count avian species. There are others who stay at home and keep note of the kinds and numbers of birds they see at their backyard bird feeders. In 2013 there were 71,531 people that participated in the Audubon Christmas Bird count. There were 2,369 locations in the Western Hemisphere. Each location has a compiler.

I joined the Benzie Audubon group for the 2015 Christmas Bird Count.  Brian Allen was the leader  of one of eight field groups spotting in the Western Region of Benzie County December 21, 2015. As with all the Christmas Bird Count groups across the country we would count all the birds we could spot in a fifteen mile circle. The Benzie Audubon compilers are John Ester & Carl Freeman.

A beautiful day for a bird count; Brian Allen on the shores of Lake Michigan in Benzie County. Image courtesy of the author.
A beautiful day for a bird count; Brian Allen on the shores of Lake Michigan in Benzie County. Image courtesy of the author.

Compilers create reports, noting weather, temperature, and other variables that may affect bird viewing, like this one provided by Ester for the Benzie group: “Again this year our count was blessed with good weather. The day started with clear skies, meaning cold temperatures but a gorgeous sunrise. By afternoon we were in the mid-forties and up. The warm weather meant lots of open water and plenty of natural food. Perhaps for this reason birds were in shorter supply–we saw 3,673 individual birds, as opposed to 5,205 last year. But our 35 observers (25 in the field, 10 at home) saw a respectable 59 species on count day, plus two more as ‘count week’ species.”

Allen and I had a portion of the circle South of Betsy Bay along Lake Michigan. Our area included Upper and Lower Herring Lakes. Armed with binoculars and a clip board we stopped at a number of different locations. The variety of habitats we trekked included beach, woods, stream, field, and lake. Year after year some of the same birds can be seen in each of these habitats.

We finished in time to attend the Benzie Audubon potluck where the species were read out loud.   Our total was 21 bird species, making the trip to Peru unnecessary.

Benzie County Christmas Bird County 2015 team.
Benzie County Christmas Bird Count 2015 team. Image courtesy of the author.

What Goes Up Must Come Down: Life in Benzie County

(This article continues a series. Please see the third and second place winners in previous issues of Grand Traverse Journal).

By Genevieve Pomerleau (center), First Place winner in the 2015 Bruce Catton Awards

Go into Frankfort, Michigan, turn west on Forest Avenue, then make a right onto Michigan Avenue, and keep going north until you reach Nipissing Street. Once you’re there, make a left and go to the end. Look to your left, and you’ll find a set of small, mossy stairs that lead to the beach. Go down the steps and walk alongside the water for a short ways north. Eventually, you will come across a small stream coming down from the sloped ground on your right.

In the summer of 2008, when I was seven years old, my brother, our friends, and I spent most of our time at Frankfort’s Lake Michigan beach there, at the stream. We would use the mud to make dams in the stream, then break them up and try to get the water to flow all the way to the lake, and we would climb up into the woods and make forts out of old logs and fallen tree branches.

One day, my friend, Ted (who was ten-years-old at the time) suggested that we climb up the hill- following the water- to see where the stream originated. We positioned ourselves on the right side of the small creek and started up the crumbling clay to the next flat area we knew of.  In hindsight, we probably should have climbed on the left side so that there would have been more trees and bushes to hold onto for support. It wasn’t a very far distance, but when you’re a small child, everything seems a lot larger.

When we reached the miniature plateau, we spent a few minutes trying to get onto the flat ground. A large branch that had fallen a long time ago had caused a buildup of dirt and clay that formed a small cliff. Ted climbed up the branch and clawed onto the top; then held out his hand and pulled me up. We stopped for a moment and watched the stream flow beside us through the little canyon it had created. Across it, there was more flat ground. It was as though someone had taken a giant knife and carved a huge step into the side of the steep hill.  We built most of our forts there. Right below it, the stream split into two; one going down to the area where we spent most of our time; the other smaller one going deeper north into the woods. We then stepped into it and continued upstream that way. We could hang onto tree roots coming out of the sides of the little valley, making our expedition easier.

Eventually, we reached the end (or should I say the beginning?) and found that the start of the creek was a large mud puddle. It was a gray/cream color, but clearish water flowed out of it and down the hill. We knelt down and picked up some of it with our hands. It was squishy, and felt like wet clay. I took a step toward it; then I put a foot on the soft surface. It felt hard enough, so I lifted up my other leg. Immediately, my right foot squelched through the seemingly solid ground and pulled me in with it. Just before the mud and clay completely covered my head, my toes touched the bottom. I wriggled through the murk until I reached the side and Ted pulled me out. We spent a little while playing around with the sludge, jumping in on purpose and almost swimming in the ooze. Eventually we stopped and took a break on dry ground. We both looked like some sort of mud monsters.

Ted suggested that we should keep climbing to see what was at the very top. I agreed, and we began working our way through the thick bushes and trees. After a while, the vegetation broke and we reached a wooden split rail fence. Beyond it was a well- kept yard with a large stone house resting upon it. We hopped over the fence and onto the grass. The sound of a door opening made us both jump. Ted whispered for me to run, and before I knew it we were over the fence and racing down the perilous incline. We sprinted past the mud-hole without stopping and crashed through the woods as if a bull were chasing us. When we came to the flat area, we just kept going, leaping off the cliff without thinking. It seemed a full ten seconds before we hit the ground and continued running. Gasping for air, we splashed through the stream, darted across the beach, and finally dove into the water.

We stayed there, floating in the lake, for what might have been a half-hour. We caught our breath, letting the sun warm our faces, watching the dried clay on our bodies become wet and float off into the water.

Congratulations to Genevieve Pomerleau for her excellent essay, and her first place finish! We look forward to reading more from Genevieve.

New Book by Benzie Author reveals Crystal Lake History

Your Editors at Grand Traverse Journal look forward to publications of local interest, and 2015 has kicked off with a winner in Dr. Stacy Leroy Daniels’ The Comedy of Crystal Lake

The Comedy of Crystal Lake is the type of regional history we long to read, filled with descriptions of true characters that cultivated our immediate surroundings. Perhaps you too have driven through the quaint village of Beulah and wondered, “Who is Archibald Jones, and why does he deserve his own day?” Or, having read the 1922 account of The Tragedy of Crystal Lake, you were left saying, “If you ask me, it’s the present asking prices of homes on the shore that are the tragedy, not the rapid lowering of the lake level way back when.”

This tome answers a number of these questions and curiosities of life on Crystal Lake, and to our joy, Daniels’ robust scholarship more than stands up to scrutiny. Within, you will find a number of contemporary accounts that introduce you thoroughly to the people and their thoughts in 1870s Benzie County, as well as historical records, some of which were found hilariously serendipitously! Your Editors would reveal more, but instead, we encourage your patronage of local authors of history: Pick up your copy today! ~Amy Barritt, co-Editor

Dr. Stacy Leroy Daniels presented the following summary of his work to Grand Traverse Journal, at the request of Your Editors. Information on purchasing your own copy is found at the end:

Shortly after settlement in the 1850s, Michigan’s peculiar travel needs were apparent: to improve the land-locked entrances of drowned river mouths along the eastern shoreline of Lake Michigan  by creating “harbors of refuge” for shipping, and inland waterways to access the interior of the State. Many natural river outlets were straightened and new channels dredged to navigable depths to connect nearby inland lakes by “slack-water” canals to Lake Michigan.  These included: Saugatuck, Holland, Grand Haven, Muskegon, White Lake, Pentwater, Ludington, Manistee, Portage, Frankfort, Charlevoix, and Petoskey.  The attempt to connect a canal from Frankfort Harbor to Crystal Lake proved to be the most ambitious of its kind.


Published earlier this year, The Comedy of Crystal Lake, by Dr. Stacy Leroy Daniels,  details the  real-life drama of the lowering of Crystal Lake (Benzie County), which resulted from an attempt to build a slack-water canal to nearby Lake Michigan.  It is a sequel to “The Tragedy of Crystal Lake”, a classic pamphlet by William L. Case (1922).*

Daniels covers this part of Benzie County history with a focus on Archibald Jones, “the man who (allegedly) pulled the plug at Crystal Lake.” Jones founded the Benzie County River Improvement Company in 1873, to improve waterlots on Crystal Lake, remove obstructions and construct slack-water canals between Crystal Lake and Lake Michigan, and build a steamboat to facilitate shipping of settlers and goods to and from the interior of the County to the nearby port of Frankfort.  

Crystal Lake outlet dam with three people standing in the lake (ca. 1920). Image courtesy of History Center of Traverse City.
Crystal Lake outlet dam with three people standing in the lake (ca. 1920). Image courtesy of History Center of Traverse City.

By Jones’ maneuverings, the level of Crystal Lake was dramatically lowered in an attempt to construct a slack-water canal between it and Lake Michigan in 1873.  Most other canals had differences in level of only a few feet; The original level of Crystal Lake was 38 feet above Lake Michigan which made it especially attractive for a canal.  Unfortunately, the whitecap waves of Crystal Lake washed out a temporary dam before a permanent canal could be completed.  The level of the Lake dropped precipitously by 20 feet and 76 billion gallons of water poured down its outlet. 

Although a canal system was never realized, the lowering of the Lake exposed a 21-mile perimeter of sandy beach where none had previously existed. This made possible: the founding of the Village of Beulah, the coming of the railroad, installation of telegraph and telephone lines, development of lakeside resorts, construction of 1,100 cottages, all connected by an infrastructure of perimeter roads and trails. 

Such is the “Comedy” of Crystal Lake – an epochal event with unintended consequences which has evolved from perceived “failure” of an “ill-conceived” project by an apparent scapegoat, to unqualified “success” by a visionary celebrated as a local hero!

Copies are available for purchase at BaySide Printing, Frankfort; The Bookstore, Frankfort;  Cottage Book Shop, Glen Arbor; Horizon Books, Traverse City; Benzie Conservation District;  Benzie Area Historical Museum; Benzie County Chamber of Commerce;  Frankfort-Elberta Chamber of Commerce; partial proceeds to local nonprofit organizations. 

You may also purchase copies direct from Flushed With Pride Press, PO Box 281; Frankfort, MI 49635; 989-750-2653; flushedwithpridepress@gmail.com. 496 pages; 46 chapters; 16 appendices, 200 illustrations, maps, timelines, & sidelights.  $49.95 + $3.00 sales tax (+ $10.00 shipping and handling if mailed).

Author and Archibald Jones-reenactor Dr. Stacy Leroy Daniels.
Author and Archibald Jones-reenactor Dr. Stacy Leroy Daniels.

Dr. Stacy L. Daniels (PhD, UM 1967), has been a practicing environmental engineer in industry (Dow Chemical Co.), academia (University of Michigan), small business (Ingenuity IEQ, Inc.), governmental agencies, and nonprofit organizations (Crystal Lake & Watershed Association, CLWA) since the 1960’s.  He has observed, participated, and directed many  studies of Crystal Lake and its Watershed, and has published a new book, “The  Comedy of Crystal Lake (2015). His activities with the CLWA have included: chair of the Education & Communications Committee, editor for the newsletter and webpage, and coordinator for the Crystal Lake “Walkabout”.  He has been a member or chair of several national science advisory committees, and has authored/coauthored over 300 papers and presentations.  He runs the Crystal Lake Team Marathon, enjoys reading history, and writing serious (and humorous) environmental poetry. 

*Several editions of “The Tragedy of Crystal Lake,” by William L. Case, as well as copies of “The Comedy of Crystal Lake,” by Dr. Stacy Leroy Daniels are available for circulation at Traverse Area District Library, Benzie Shores District Library and Benzonia Public Library.

Header image of Crystal Lake courtesy of Delta Whiskey, https://flic.kr/p/9AgJme

WALKING IN the FOOTSTEPS OF THE PAST: Life in Benzie County by Freshman Bruce Catton Award Winners

By Shianne Knoch (left), Second Place winner in the 2015 Bruce Catton Awards

There was nothing on my mind that summer morning except going to the beach. It is a few days after the fourth of July, and the town is almost tourist free. I walk down my short road known as Corning Avenue and hear the normal sounds of my neighbors’ dogs speaking back and forth to each other. I get closer to the end of the road and see some of the younger boys at my school playing basketball at Market Square Park. They yell my name and wave a hello before continuing their game. I take a left and head down M22 and walk under the big, oak trees, while being passed by people on bikes and children with ice cream running down their faces and hands, trying so hard to get the last bits of the mouth-watering ice cream. I get to the end of M22 and turn down Main Street. I walk down the uneven sidewalk and pass by Mineral Springs Park; I hear the normal sound of children yelling and screaming with joy. I leave the park behind and continue down Main Street in the little town of Frankfort. I’m greeted by many of my friends and adults. Living in a small town, you learn to know everyone and they learn to know you. I smile at every one I pass while walking and just enjoy the many sights and sounds, and even the smells that Frankfort, Michigan has to offer. I finally make it past the people and the stores overflowing with people, and as I get closer and closer to my goal, I walk that twisty sidewalk that will take me to the pier. But, I have no intention of walking down the pier.

I turn right and land in the soft, white sand. I sit and dig my feet deeper and deeper into the sand, feeling the little rocks and shells tickle my toes. I lift my head up to the sun and let its warmth consume me. I don’t know how long I’ve been standing there, but I awaken to the sound of Davy, a local man who lives in Frankfort. I hear him singing to himself while he picks up the cans and bottles that were left behind form the fourth. I smile to myself, knowing how happy he is. I turn away from Davy and look at the still water. It’s just sitting there waiting for someone to come and play. But I refuse its offer to come and play; and I head down to the water.

Shianne Knoch: 2nd Place, Genevieve Pomerleau:1st Place, Sam Buzzell: 3rd Place
Shianne Knoch: 2nd Place, Genevieve Pomerleau:1st Place, Sam Buzzell: 3rd Place

Once you get past the first turn, and you can no longer see the pier, the beach becomes a magical place. It’s so open and untouched. It’s so alive and beautiful that you can’t look at one thing for too long, or you might miss something else beautiful. I pull up my pants so that I can walk with my bare feet in the water. As I get further down the beach, I see an opening between two trees, and in the middle, I see – a chair.  I walk faster and head for the strange chair. When I approach the chair, I notice writing on every inch of the chair. There are names, dates, initials in hearts. On top of the chair, there is a date that reads 2003. Here I am in 2014, looking at a date from 2003. This chair is falling apart; it almost looks like it is weeping. One of the legs is almost torn off, and the paint is chipping. I run my fingers over the different names. As I move my hand down the chair, a piece of the arm falls off, no bigger than my fingernail. I pick up the tiny piece of wood and place it in my pocket. The wind starts to blow and I hear the whines and the creaks of the chair as the wind blows through it. I sit there for some time reading all the names. After my legs grow numb from being still for so long, I stand up and spot a marker. I put my name and the date on the chair that day. I think to myself of how crazy it is to be writing on this chair. Someone could have written on this chair this same day in a different year. I was walking in their footsteps. I leave the chair behind with my mark on it.

I went back, looking for the chair, the next year, but the chair was nowhere to be found. Instead in that same clearing, there was a small sand hill with rocks piled up on it. There were names on the rocks, and in a tree branch hanging down was a bag with a notebook and markers. Inside the notebook, were writings from people.   There were dates and names just like there had been on the chair. But some people also wrote their thoughts down, leaving them for someone to find.  As a tradition, I wrote my name in the notebook and signed a rock and put it with the other rocks. I noticed some names of my classmates and some local people, as well. I stepped away from the grave of the former weeping chair. I felt something poke me, and I cringed at the pain and felt tears cloud my eyes. I put my hand in my pocket and felt for the item that is bringing me pain. I pull out the piece of wood-chip. I had forgotten I had brought it with me. I look at the chip and realize what I must do. I picked up and moved some of the rocks and started to dig a hole. After the hole is deep enough, I put the last remaining piece of the chair in the hole, and I cover it with sand. I put the rocks back in their original places, and step back.

I turned around and left; looking back once as a farewell and a promise to be back next year. I’ll never forget that weeping chair and of the history it held.

Congratulations to Shianne Knoch for her excellent essay, and her second place finish! We look forward to reading more from Shianne.

Grand Traverse Journal will publish the first place winner’s essay in the July issue.

In Search of the American Chestnut

In my spare time I read field guides—books that help me identify flowering plants, ferns, salamanders, fossils, and insects.  It has always been so—going back to my grade school years—and I make no apologies for it.  Such a hobby, while unpromising as a source of wealth or useful knowledge, has no downsides as far as I can see.  And frequently it leads me onto pathways of delight, whenever a fringed gentian in a marsh comes to my attention, a fossil crinoid discovered upon the beach, or an ant lion pit dug along a sandy trail.  Field guides make such delights possible.

So it was that I picked up Barnes and Wagner’s Michigan Trees to spend a profitable quarter hour before bed.  The page opened to the American Chestnut and there on page 208 the following passage appeared:

A plantation of chestnut trees, established in 1910 in Benzie Co., gave rise to a stand of several thousand offspring (Thompson, 1969).  

Checking the source (Thompson, 1969) at the back of the book, I discovered that an obscure Michigan journal, the Michigan Academician, published the original paper describing the plantation.  Could I get a copy of it and find out if this mysterious grove of chestnuts still existed, disease-free?

European Chestnut leaves, image courtesy of the author.
European Chestnut leaves, image courtesy of the author.

Here it is necessary to provide background for my curiosity.  The American chestnut, Castanea dentata,  was a grand component of the eastern American hardwood forest throughout the nineteenth century.  In Michigan it naturally penetrated as far north as St. Clair county and was locally abundant in Monroe and Wayne counties in Southeastern Michigan.  Beginning about 1900 the tree suffered the attack of a vicious fungus, Cryphonectria parasitica, likely imported from Asia, which destroyed American chestnuts everywhere.  By 1940 the tree had largely disappeared from American forests, though suckers from dead trees continued to sprout for years afterwards, only to die upon reaching maturity.

The American chestnut should be distinguished from the horsechestnut, Aesculus hippocastanea, a tree commonly planted around homes.  That tree, a permanent resident arrived from Europe after white settlement here, displays candelabras of white blossoms in June, finally producing inedible nuts that resemble chestnuts in appearance.  Contrary to expectation, it is not enjoyed by horses, neither the leaves nor the nuts, though folklore insists it cures COPD in those animals.

American chestnuts were planted in the Grand Traverse area from early times.  I had seen individual trees planted near farms on Old Mission peninsula and had heard stories of trees planted elsewhere nearby.  But had a whole grove of them survived, a grove planted in 1910?  If they still lived, the trees would be more than a hundred years old.  They would be magnificent.

The Grand Traverse Conservancy provided the key that would unlock the mystery of the hidden chestnut grove.  In response to my query, Conservancy staffer Angie Lucas, plant expert extraordinaire, e-mailed me the Michigan Academician article.  And there it was: the information I needed to find the chestnuts:

The grove, owned by James Rogers, is located at Chimney Corners (SE ¼ Sect. 35, T27N, R16W) at the top of the Point Betsie Moraine, a massive 300-foot glacial ridge which flanks the north shore of Crystal Lake.

I live in Traverse City and am scarcely familiar with Crystal Lake, but I had a human resource that would guide me to the proper coordinates: Dan Palmer, resident of Leelanau county, knowledgeable in forestry, brought up in Frankfort, and familiar with the back trails of Benzie county.  We would explore the north of Crystal Lake and find these trees hidden in Chimney Corners.

To those who know Benzie County, Chimney Corners is hardly obscure.  It is a venerable resort with roots going back to the early twentieth century.  The lodge stands now as it did in 1908, its stone fireplace dominating the space as you enter, grooved beadboard woodwork, electric lights from an earlier time, collections of beach reading from the fifties, and the grit of sand on hardwood floors.  The proprietors kindly allowed us to walk the ridge to see the chestnuts: Just follow “chestnut trail,” they said.

The three-hundred foot moraine was surmounted with breathlessness as our party proceeded up the trail.  It was a steep climb through a maple, beech, and basswood forest of moderate age, but there was no sign of the sharply toothed leaves of Castanea dentata.  Were we in the right place?

Then, up ahead, a clue, though not a felicitous one.  An enormous white skeleton of a tree stripped of its bark with many of its larger branches fallen roundabout stood out in the shade of taller trees.  It was long dead, likely a chestnut, given its size and location.  My hopes dropped: They were gone, all of them.

European Chestnut bur, image courtesy of the author.
European Chestnut bur, image courtesy of the author.

Still, we kept walking and along the trail were more dead trees, but some of them had suckers at the base that brandished the green leaves of living chestnuts.  The forest floor, though, was not littered with the burs that encased the shiny chestnuts.  Reproduction was not happening here: the shoots would live for a decade and die before flowering.  The chestnut grove was doomed.

As we walked out of the forest, there were more dead trees, but as we came into a sunnier place, the chestnut suckers—offshoots–were more robust, as much as five inches in diameter, some of them reaching twenty-five feet or more into the sky.  Green spikes of flowers appeared at the end of twigs, vague promises that chestnuts might be found in autumn at this place.  We found a few burs from last year, the chestnuts missing from inside, either because the trees had not enough energy to make the nuts or because squirrels had devoured them.

Cankers caused by Cryphonectria parasitica appeared on the small stems of the chestnut suckers: the trees were unhealthy and would not live much longer.  It would be a race between their mortality and their ability to produce nuts that would grow into the next generation.  Remembering the fate of the white giants within the forest, I would bet on the fungus to destroy the trees before they could reproduce.   There is good reason that Castanea dentata disappeared from the eastern United States.

The story could end here, but there is another thread to follow.  The Grand Traverse Conservancy has just acquired a beautiful parcel of land from the estate of Naomi Borwell. Located just inside Manistee county off Manistee County Line Road, it offers a diversity of habitats: hardwood forests, deep valleys, frontage on the Betsie River, swamps, and a developed farm planted with a variety of interesting trees: spruces, birches, hawthorns—even a row of shagbark hickories—unusual in this part of Michigan.  Best of all, there is a grove of American chestnuts with diameters of twelve inches, standing 45 feet high—though the ugly cankers on the large branches indicate the disease has penetrated here, too.  You get the feeling the chestnut plantation is waiting its doom–which lurks in its very near future.

In nature it is unfair to take sides, though we do it all the time.  Cryphonectria parasitica depends upon American chestnuts for its survival, but the fungus does not charm us with its form or grace.  I have read of numerous attempts to hybridize the American chestnut with Asian forms that have a degree of resistance to the disease: you can learn about those efforts at the American Chestnut Foundation, http://www.acf.org/FAQ.php  It seems likely that blight-resistant chestnuts with American chestnut features will become available within a decade or two, though the degree of resistance has not been determined as of now.

Perhaps it will be years before we can obtain American chestnuts to plant beside our homes without fear of the fungus destroying the trees, but when that time comes, I will be among the first to get them, God willing.  With its glorious history in our forests, its stately grace, its delicious fruit, the American chestnut is too splendid for us to abandon.


Sometimes stories refuse to end, no matter how hard you try to bring them to a conclusion. A friend at the public library informed me that he was quite sure a Michigan champion American Chestnut could be found at the end of Old Mission Peninsula. After a few days he emailed me the specifics: according to the Michigan Botanist, Volume 37, 1995, an enormous tree could be found off Old Mission Road, quite close to the country store, a bit past a curve, off a drive heading towards a cherry orchard. Could it still exist 20 years later?

Author at base of blight-free American Chestnut on Old Mission, 28 May 2015.
Author at base of blight-free, Michigan champion American Chestnut on Old Mission, 28 May 2015.

How could anyone do anything but drive out there and find out?   Surprisingly, the directions were easy to follow and, with the help of a neighbor, Jim Hilt, my friend Marlas Hanson and I soon observed a tree towering in front of us, an American Chestnut far larger than any we had seen heretofore. Its trunk was split into three stems, twisted each one of them, and the canopy spread above over a wide area. It showed a few dead limbs, but it was alive—and not in bad shape for an old tree. There was no evidence of chestnut blight.

However, there was something peculiar about the tree: one would expect American Chestnut saplings round about, planted by squirrels that forgot where they sequestered the nuts, perhaps. But there were none to be found—not one. A few old burs from the previous year were scattered around the base of the tree, the nuts gone. It looked as if the tree had bothered to produce the spiny burs, but either they were empty from the start or else contained nuts that were infertile—or maybe every single one had been consumed by wildlife. In any case this American Chestnut had no offspring.

Immature leaves of the National Champion American Chestnut on Old Mission, 28 May 2015.
Immature leaves of the Michigan champion American Chestnut on Old Mission, 28 May 2015.

A puzzle: Does the very character that makes the tree infertile cause it to be resistant to blight? In other words, this tree—and another located three farms away—are the only ones I have seen that have not succumbed to the disease. Do they avoid blight because they are incapable of reproducing? Or is the answer simpler–that the champion Michigan tree needs other chestnuts nearby in order to obtain pollen for fertilization and that its infertility has nothing to do with its resistance? I do not know the answer, but I would like to find out–but to investigate that thread would take another year or two or five, and this story must end sometime. And so, let us end it here for now.

Richard Fidler is co-editor of Grand Traverse Journal.