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In Memorium: Robert Wilson, Champion of Local History

by Peg Siciliano, TAHS Board of Directors, Archivist

The Grand Traverse Area lost a champion of local history with the passing, in California, of Robert Wilson in November 2017.  A Traverse City memorial service was held in his honor this past August.

Joy (left) and Bob Wilson, both past presidents of the Traverse Area Historical Society.

Born in Detroit in 1936, Wilson moved to Traverse City with his family in 1946. He graduated high school here, and would return to his “hometown” in retirement.  He then served for many years on the Grand Traverse Pioneer and Historical Society Board, as the Traverse Area Historical Society was then named.  Bob, and his wife Joy, both served as Presidents of the GTPHS/TAHS.  Wilson also authored the three volume Grand Traverse Legends series, the profits from which all go to the TAHS.

Now part of that history which he so loved, Wilson’s personal story, is fascinating in itself.  His father owned the Cities Service gas station on the northeast corner of Front and Park (today the site of the Dingeman & Dancer law offices, and before that The Bean Pot Restaurant).  Once Wilson retired back to Traverse City he delighted in regaling listeners with stories of his youth.  One involved his mother’s worries about Cities Service’s proximity to what was then a string of not-so respectable (at least in his mother’s opinion) bars.  (Today this is the location of the old Chase Bank Building, and the new building housing Sorrellina’s and Slate).

Mrs. Wilson insisted that young Bob walk only on the north side of Front.  At that time the  south side of Front, just west of Park, housed the bars. Patrons of those establishments often hung out on the sidewalk. Apparently his mother didn’t want Bob dealing with these sometimes-inebriated citizens, or maybe she was concerned about the temptations of alcohol.

Perhaps Bob’s mother was concerned because she sensed a streak of wildness in the young boy.  Such tendencies did, indeed, appear during his teenage years. As Bob aged and began  attending Traverse City High School in the 1950s, he often tangled with school administrators and city police.  Close to heading down “the wrong road,” the course of his life was changed by the wise direction of then Probate Judge Harold Hunsberger. When Wilson graduated from Traverse City High School in 1954, Hunsberger gave him a choice: Join the military or go to jail.

Wilson decided to join the military.  According to Joy, “He told me he chose  the Air Force because he liked  its blue uniforms.”  Whatever his reason for joining, military discipline seems to have brought out the best in him.  Wilson’s achievements once he joined the military, and after his service, prove that great success can come from surprising circumstances. 

In a Traverse City Record-Eagle article, his sister-in-law, Jeanne Hurst, recalls that Wilson was a man of many talents, saying “Bob had a brilliant mind.  He earned two masters degrees, excelled in engineering during his time in the Air Force, had a heart for Christian ministry, and poured himself into promoting local history wherever he lived, especially here in Traverse City.” 

While in the Air Force, Wilson earned first his Bachelor’s degree, and then his Masters in Aeronautical Engineering.  He retired from the Military as a Major  in 1975.  He also married while in the service, wedding Joy Skellett of Buckley, Michigan, in 1956.  Together Joy and Bob  raised three children:  Keven, Renate, and Teresa.  They were also blessed with four grandchildren and 8 great-grandchildren.  The family thrived in many different locations, including Sault St. Marie; Laramie, WY; Tullahoma, TN;  Cologne, Germany and Anaheim, CA.  Wherever they lived, the Wilsons strove to make that place a true home, delving into  each new place’s local history.

Wilson credited this love of history to a Traverse City High School teacher named William Gerard.  In Wilson’s own words “Gerard had the gift of teaching history in a way that made it come alive.”  Gerard also saw the depth of Wilson’s academic abilities, in spite of his  youthful delinquent activities. He encouraged Wilson to develop his writing and learning skills, something that served him well later in life. Ultimately, Gerard planted a seed of interest in history that grew,  and through Wilson, eventually benefitted communities literally spread across the globe.

After retiring from the military, Wilson returned to school at the Anaheim Center for Theological Studies, where he earned a Masters in Divinity.  This led him to work in a wide variety of Christian ministries, including directing a live-in drug rehabilitation Center in Albuquerque, New Mexico, serving as Director of Admissions at South California College, and ministering to men at the Rescue Mission in Santa Anna, CA. 

Then In 1993, after nearly forty years of “traveling the world,”  the Wilsons returned to Traverse City.  There, both Joy and Bob worked in Christian ministry, particularly with Meals on Wheels.  In the late 1990s Wilson served six years as an associate pastor at Resurrection Life Church in Traverse City. 

Wilson’s somewhat unexpected successes in life, given his youthful peccadillos, were largely due to his great intellectual abilities.  With hard work and dedication he harnessed those abilities to gather tremendous knowledge and then used that knowledge to the betterment of many people. That Alzheimers eventually robbed Wilson of the use of that knowledge is both ironic and tragic.  But that, as it does for anyone struggling with memory loss, in no way lessens the gifts of learning and service that Wilson bestowed upon his community during his life.

Traverse Area Historical Society  Board member, Sharon Jennings, feels that: “With Bob’s passing,  our area historical community lost a great friend and Traverse City lost a voice that could connect it to its past. Bob had a sign he carried with him that said, ‘Local History Spoken Here.’ He was never happier than when he was reminiscing with others about his early years in TC and about the changes he’d seen over time. He was a voice for Traverse City’s past that cannot be replaced.”

What Was It Like to Teach in Traverse City a Hundred Years Ago?

Entries in the Grand Traverse Normal School record book fill dozens of pages in five bound volumes, beginning in 1913 and ending in 1952.  Written in the elegant cursive hand of an educated person, they contain information about young women who wished to become teachers, carefully detailing their grades on the teacher exams, notes about age, educational background, personality, performance in student teaching, along with miscellaneous notes predicting future success as a teacher.  Three of them dated 1913-14 are given below:

Rose Fifarek: Age 19; Traverse City High School graduate; No teaching experience.  Personality: Not good.  Inclined to careless in dressing hair.

Remarks: Work very ordinary.  Teaching fair.  Doesn’t get into the depth of things.

Ruby J. Shilson: Age 23.  Traverse City High School graduate; 3 mo’s teaching experience.  Personality: Very good.  Remarks: Bright and clever.  Did excellent practice teaching.  Disposition may cause a failure in discipline.

Laura Bannon: Age 19. Traverse City High School graduate.  Personality: Very good.  Remarks: Did excellent practice teaching.  Original.  Fond of argument.  Excels in drawing.  A very poor speller.

Each of the evaluations were signed by Blanche Peebles, principal of the County Normal School.

Teaching credential issued by the state of Michigan, issued in 1893.

A list of grades ranging from fair to excellent were entered for each young woman’s name over 23 areas with which she should become familiar.  The diversity of knowledge required for teachers was breathtaking.  They should know the rudiments of Agriculture, Civics, the Classics, Grammar, History, Reading, and School law.  They should be able to draw, sing or play an instrument, write with good penmanship, and spell accurately.  Arithmetic, geography, and physiology should not stump them, nor should manual training .  Good grades were not handed out cavalierly—many “Fairs” expressed weaker knowledge and capabilities.

Most—but not all applicants for teaching credentials—possessed a high school diploma.  A few had an education through tenth grade, their age as young as 17.  For most, the goal was to teach in a one-room schoolhouse, grades one through eight.  The teaching certificate most would get would be good for one year—at least for those that had no successful teaching experience.  With experience, certificates could be extended for three years or more.

High school teachers tended to be better educated than elementary teachers.  Three profiles of teachers are presented here, the descriptions derived from the 1912 yearbook, The Pines:

Miss Emma Shafer: Ph. M. (Masters degree).  Teacher of English Literature and German has een with us for two and a half years.  She graduated from Hillsdale College and later from the University of Chicago.  The senior class feels fortunate in having a woman of Miss Shafer’s character for an instructor in English literature.

Miss Amy Scott, teacher of English and Geometry, came to our high school in the fall of 1909.  She graduated from Bay City high school after which she went to the University of Michigan, receiving a Bachelor of Arts.  She is a competent instructor and her untiring interest in our welfare has been a great benefit for the high school.

Mr. P. S. Brundage, B. Pd., came last fall to take the place of Mr. Hornbeck and has proven himself to be an able instructor.  He has charge of the physics and chemistry departments.  Received a life certificate and the degree of B. Pd from the Ypsilanti State Normal School.  Also attended the University of Michigan.

Prospective teacher’s report card, 1914. Note the age of the student.

Most members of the Central High School faculty had a four-year degree from recognized colleges and universities.  Some graduated from smaller colleges such as Olivet and Hillsdale, while other obtained their degrees from larger institutions such as the University of Michigan or the Michigan Agricultural College (Michigan State).  At the least, they would have attended the state Normal College in Ypsilanti, now called Eastern Michigan University.  The reason for the higher academic achievement of secondary teachers has to do with University of Michigan accreditation.  If pupils graduated from an accredited institution with a “C” average, they were admitted to the University of Michigan without examination.  To keep standards high, the University insisted that high school teachers in academic areas had to have at least a Bachelor’s degree.

It is notable how young teachers were, both at elementary and secondary levels.  All at the elementary level are women, but at the secondary level men are represented, though not in the same number of women.   Men or women, few taught longer than a few years at any location.  Between the years 1916 and 1921, yearbooks indicate only two teachers carried over from one faculty list to the other. The twenty-year tenure of the janitor at this time stands in stark contrast to the one-, two- or five-year commitments of teachers.

Interior of unknown one-room schoolhouse, from the SE Wait Glass Plate Negative collection, Traverse Area District Library.

There are plentiful reasons explaining the tendency of teachers to leave their jobs.  Upon marriage or pregnancy, women teachers were obligated to resign.  In an age before teacher’s unions and tenure, many teachers were not rehired for reasons as trivial as disagreement with the superintendent of schools or the principal.  Salaries in Traverse City were not only below those of those with equivalent degrees in business, but fell below average teacher salaries in many local communities.  Finally, teachers with several years of successful teaching experience often became administrators, that job paying more than teaching.

What was it like to be a teacher more than a hundred years ago in Traverse City?  The job was not an easy one.  In 1894-95 the school year was roughly comparable to the present one.  At that time, three terms of different lengths made up the school year, the fall term beginning on September 3rd, the winter term beginning on January 7 and lasting until March 29, and the spring term beginning on April 8th, ending on May 31.  As with today’s schedule, a two-week Christmas vacation and a one-week spring break is granted to pupils and teachers.  In 1895, school hours were also similar to today’s; school opened in the morning at 9 o’clock and ended at 3:30.  One and one-half hours separated the morning from the afternoon session.

Class was conducted in a manner somewhat different from school nowadays.  Typically, students were asked to stand and recite—give answers to questions asked by teachers.  In the Public School Handbook for Traverse City, teachers were advised to call on students “promiscuously” and never to repeat the question, these techniques designed to compel attention in classes.  Some advice given there holds up today:

Be independent of the textbook as far as possible.

Be animated and enthusiastic, but do not be noisy and fussy.

Never address your students in a petulant, ill-natured manner…

Avoid loudness and harshness of tone, and cultivate purity of voice and sweetness of expression.

Kindness and affection are the strongest elements of a teachers power, when set in an iron frame.

If a pupil persistently disregards the regulations of the school…, send a          warning notice to the parents before resorting to harsher measures.

In general, the use of corporal punishment was rare, though it was permitted by school regulations at earlier times.  At present, it is forbidden in the state of Michigan.

The curriculum teachers taught varied considerably from that taught now.  Kindergarten was firmly in place before the beginning of the twentieth century, but there was no effort to begin children on the path to reading—as there is now.  Kindergarten was a time to prepare children—socially, emotionally, physically—for the academic world to come.

In general, curriculum objectives were vaguely defined, existing mostly as segments of textbooks that were to be covered in each grade.  In first grade, for example, children were to learn 75-100 common words—not just to recognize them, but to understand their meanings.  From the beginning, phonics were not neglected, nor was writing in cursive, that the preferred style of writing to be used by first-grade teachers.  The curriculum of subjects like arithmetic, geography, science, and history was laid out in the form of sections of appropriate textbooks to be completed at the different grade levels.  In contrast to today’s detailed lists of learning objectives, there was no explicit statement about what skills or knowledge should be learned at any level.  Apparently, objectives must have been fairly well standardized among different textbooks, since the series of books used changed quite regularly.  It would have been impractical to have teachers learn a new scope-and-sequence with every textbook change.

Interior of Beitner School, ca. 1910. Image from the Traverse Area District Library Local History Collection.

Class sizes can be determined by looking at photographs of classes at the elementary level and at class yearbooks at the Senior High level.  A cursory examination of ten of them reveals a range between 14 and 36, the most common number centering around 27 or 28.  Thus, the numbers are not far different from today’s, though they amount of organization required at the elementary level must be even greater than demanded of teachers nowadays.  It is hard to conceive how to organize a classroom with students ranging from first-grade to seventh and eighth grades.  Small groups of children about the same age must have tackled assignments together while the teacher moved from group to group.  No doubt, older students worked with younger ones, too.

In high school classes varied in size.  A note in the Evening Record in 1908 informed readers that a school evaluator from the University of Michigan observed that classes were too big in Traverse City with some approaching 45, when the best class size was said to be 25-30.  In agreement with this note, a report to the Board of Education in 1906 displays a comparison of Traverse City to other school districts in Michigan with regard to class size at the secondary level.  With an average of 36, the local district was the worst in this regard, that figure some six pupils higher than the next-highest school on the list

The same report indicated how many periods for each high school as well as the number of classes teachers were expected to teach.  Traverse City had six periods at the time, and teachers were expected to teach all six of them, that schedule permitting no preparation period.  It was the only school of the 17 compared that made such heavy demands on its teachers.

Teacher salaries varied within the district for several reasons.  First, women teachers were paid less even if they had the same credentials and experience.  This was a common practice at the time, the rationale perhaps relating to traditional views of the man as the breadwinner for a household.  Second, secondary teachers were paid more than their primary colleagues.  In 1908 primary school teachers were paid salaries of approximately 500 dollars per year at a time when an average worker made about 600 dollars.  Secondary teachers earned somewhat more, some approaching 900 dollars.  The reason for the discrepancy was that secondary teachers had a Bachelor’s degree, while primary teachers often had Normal School training of a year or two after high school graduation.  A B.A. carried salary advantages.

A third reason salaries differed among the teaching staff was that the school superintendent would meet separately with each teacher in May and present an offer to her/him individually. Through this practice, teachers could be offered more or less money for a variety of reasons: a pleasing personality, an attractive appearance, connections with persons the superintendent knows, experience teaching at various institutions, an educational background at a more prestigious university.  At the turn of the twentieth century, there was no collective bargaining and no tenure.

Teacher salaries were lower in Traverse City than in other districts in Michigan.  Evidence from the proceedings of the Traverse City school board points to teacher resignations attributed to better offers from other districts in and out of northern Michigan.  In 1917 local teachers submitted a petition to the mayor of the city, asking for a salary increase in the face of the increased cost of living: it is unclear if they were successful.   The Traverse City Press in the same year conducted a discussion about teacher salaries, the consensus being that teachers deserved more, but the community was unable to pay (this was a time of economic depression in the Traverse area).   From that day until the present, teacher salaries in Traverse City have lagged behind those of other equivalent cities in Michigan.

In early Traverse City schools, the work was difficult, the rewards few.  Teachers rarely made a career out of teaching for economic reasons, for reasons relating to the difficulty of the work, and for reasons connected to social values that required women to resign after marriage.  Standards were quite low—especially for elementary teachers who often had little more than a high school education.  Still, in the face of these and other obstacles, the business of education got done.  We should remember the dedication and sacrifice of our early teachers.

“Traverse as a Resort” by Scott Woodward, 1911

Scott Woodward (1853-1919) was a local author and publisher living in Traverse City at the turn of the last century. His work is firmly in the realm of realism, but it is often difficult to discern if his writings are autobiographical in nature, or if he’s just good at spinning a highly believable yarn.  Woodward’s style is deftly described by George W. Kent, editor of Traverse City Daily Eagle circa 1910: “In his early life this author differed from his fellows in that his imagination was most vivid and he turned his visions, as some called them, into realities and wove them into his paintings of life in various phrases about him, taken from his peculiar viewpoint.”

The following is one entry in Woodward’s Life Pictures in Poetry and Prose, originally published in 1911, and details the warm welcome Traverse City residents would offer to any visitor to the region, long before the day of the derogatory term, “fudgie.”

It is a pleasure for the residents of this beautiful region to welcome you to our shore for a few weeks of rest and recuperation, and to see here the cozy little hotel nestled among the hills as a place of refuge from the cares and ills of the outside world.

We have all lived “out Side,” as we term it, and are better prepared to bid you a hearty welcome.  Having found the door to our retreat, we ask you stay as long as you wish and help to make one among us, for our attractions are many.

As the summer advances and the weather grows intensely hot each incoming train is sure to be loaded with its wearied freight, all looking, as it were, where care, sickness, and the perplexing scenes of business life are left behind, if but for a few weeks.

It is a matter of interest to the idle spectator, as he stands at one of our depots and watches the unloading of a train that has just arrived.  Here we see a strong, healthy man with his week delicate wife leaning upon his arm.  Over there in an invalid chair is a child of uncertain age, he may be ten years old and he may be older, we can not tell.  Tenderly does the fond mother bend over the little sufferer.  The disease of an unhealthy climate, unknown to this country, have left their stamp upon that face so prematurely old.  This is their first visit to a region where malaria and its associates are unknown.  And still they come.  There goes a man whose close application to business for the past ten years has left him but a shadow of what he once was.  Now he is willing to leave it all behind if only he can regain his former health.  He is fairly ashamed to let people see him shiver as he pulls his heavy woolen shawl about his shoulders.  He feels for the first time a breath of our pure, invigorating atmosphere.  Still they come.

See, now the train moves slowly back out of way, and for the first time in their lives they drink in the beautiful scenery.  The beautiful bay which laps their very feet and reaches off to the northward as far as the eye can reach, has captured the attention of all, and, as by magic, a changed expression comes over the tired and care-worn faces.

Then it is all hurry and excitement, each looking after some earthly possessions which have been most jealously guarded during the long journey northward.  They are all looking for temporary homes.  Some have friends at the depot to meet them.  Others find homes in private families for a short time, and still others have taken up quarters in our hotels, where they partake of the good things furnished by the genial hosts. Nearly every house in or about the city has opened its doors to some friend from the outside world.  It is a pleasure to play the healer, where there is no call for quinine or the doctor’s tablets.  Gladly we note the change that comes over their tired and careworn faces.  How pleased we are to see them take on new hope and a new lease of life.  We would say, “Sleep on, for you can sleep here.  Eat on, as you will surely be taken with a coming appetite before you have been here many days.”  Many enjoy taking sail during the afternoon, and they may be seen gliding hither and yon as they move about in their self-propelling craft far out over the sparkling water.  Others enjoy a quiet drive about the city or a spin on the highway which reaches for miles on either side of the bay.

Then at close of day as the sun sinks behind the hills to the west of us, the scene changes, the wind goes down and there is no more use for the white sail, but as evening advances many are the little craft to be seen gliding about the water.  Listen and you catch the sound of song, accompanied by mandolin and guitar as it floats shoreward.  It is inspiring and helps to pass the time all too swiftly by.  But the fun does not stop here.  Many a good housewife has allowed her carpet to be lifted in the dining room.  Tables and chairs disappear and the cottage organ, so well adapted to sacred melody, now rolls forth its music to the dizzy waltzers.  Music, singing and rhetoric all have their respective places, and it is usually a late hour before the guests have discovered that it is time to retire.

But the morning hours on Traverse Bay are the most enchanting.  Lulled to sleep by the repose of night the bay now appears like a sea of glass.  Everything in the distance takes on a different aspect.  The hills and trees appear like huge sentinels guarding the sleeping infant at their feet.  Northport Point and Marion Island stand high up in the heavens as if to bid defiance to the storm king who may at this hour be abroad.

It is wonderful, wonderful and grand.  Oh, what a scene for the brush of a painter.  Man has done much towards making the place attractive, but nature alone has made it an Eden.

Introduction provided by Richard Fidler, GTJ Editor.

A New Book, Michigan Ferns and Lycophytes by Daniel Palmer: A walk with the author in search of the elusive Goldie’s fern

Goldie’s Fern. Image courtesy of Grownative.org.

Goldie’s Fern is a giant among wood ferns, sometimes standing four feet high or more, its scaly stems arching in blue-green rosettes.   Contrary to our expectation, it does not live in swamps but in rich woods, the soil often damp but hardly mucky.  While not endangered, it is quite rare—few Northern Michigan residents have taken note of it—even if they have walked past it as they hunt for mushrooms or seek out deer habitat.  To the unpracticed eye it is only a larger than average component of repetitious plant life upon the forest floor.  Lacking flowers and colorful leaves, it does not attract our attention, perhaps a boon to its survival since it offers humankind little of value.

Except for some of us, that is.  Dan Palmer, for one, finds the plant to be a treasure.   Author of Ferns of Hawaii, Dan has been studying ferns and their relatives—horsetails and club mosses—for more than twenty-five years.  Formerly a dermatologist, he was able to retire from medicine at a relatively early age and indulge his interest in ferns, a group of organisms overshadowed (quite literally) by the more showy flowering plants.  Perhaps that was their attraction: there exists a whole group of living things, relatively ignored, inhabiting sheltered places near and far.  Ferns beckon the curious mind.

Renowned fern expert Warren Wagner of the University of Michigan mentored Dan in the early years of his interest.  Later, after having traveled to such remote fern habitats as the rainforests of Indonesia, the mountains of New Zealand, savannahs of Africa, outback of Australia, and the islands of the South Pacific, Dan became an expert in his own right.  His carefully researched Ferns of Hawaii has earned the praise of the small community of fern lovers world-wide.  As a special gift to Michigan residents, he has just completed a new guide, Michigan Ferns and Lycophytes, recently published by the University of Michigan Press.

Though Dan married his wife Helen in Hawaii and brought up his three children there, he has strong ties to Northern Michigan.  Brought up in Frankfort, he has a summer residence in nearby Leelanau County.  For many years the custodian of a vast hardwood forest, he recently got out of that business, turning over a large acreage to the Leelanau Conservancy, that tract named “Palmer Woods.”  Is it an accident that his forests nurture a diverse fern and club moss flora?

As if pulled along in the wake of a passing ship, several of us naturalists—Julie Medlin, Rick Halbert, and me, Richard Fidler–have become fern devotees, following Dan’s lead. It is hard to resist the call of these plants, especially when Dan is breathless with excitement about having found a rare hybrid fern he has not seen in some time.  With such shared enthusiasm, it is not surprising that our party headed out in a forest one July morning to a location in Sleeping Bear in search of Goldie’s Fern.

On the way we pass by fields of scant grass, juniper, and struggling trees, the black humus of the soil blown away or burnt away after the intense logging of the previous century.  One fern grows there with a tenacious hold on the land: bracken.  Ignored because of its ubiquity—it is found all over the world except in Antarctica—the species takes up more biomass than any other plant or animal species in the world.  Favoring acid, well-drained soil, it is at home in Northern Michigan, especially in areas deforested by loggers and burned.  Its crosiers bending upwards in spring, are said to be delicious when de-fuzzed and steamed, though concern has been voiced about carcinogens lurking inside.  In Asia, where the fern is consumed in large numbers, stomach cancers are more common than in the West and accusing fingers have been pointed at bracken as a major cause.

Herb Robert. Image courtesy of ediblewildfood.com.

Arriving at the Empire Bluffs parking lot, we head for the maple-beech woods growing upon the perched dune high above Lake Michigan.  The spring wildflowers—the trillium, violets, Squirrel Corn and Dutchman’s Breeches—have long finished blooming, leaving less spectacular blooms like Herb Robert to brighten the trail.  The ferns, however, are just hitting their stride.  Their leaves, called fronds properly, are unfolding in coil-like fashion, forming fiddleheads for their resemblance to the scroll of a violin.  We see the Evergreen Wood fern unfurling thus, sending up new fronds over last year’s leaves flattened by the winter’s snow.  Dan confirms the identification by checking for the presence of dots called sori that lie near the margins of the fronds.  They make the spores that blow about in the summer wind, seeking a favorable place to begin a new plant.

As with all things in biology it seems, nothing is straightforward about the lives of ferns.  Spores only grow into little green chips of green that harbor male and female sex organs.  Upon one warm or wet night (or day), a sperm with many tails will swim from the male organ to the female and fertilize an egg there.  Then, as the fertilized egg divides again and again, a new fern arises above the forest floor.  The fern life cycles suggest midnight trysts and passionate mating—sometimes between different species, even.

To Dan, that represents an exciting possibility: Could we find not only Goldie’s fern but a hybrid of Goldie’s and another wood fern?  As we walk along, his eyes examine the Evergreen Woodferns carefully.  Are there some Goldie genes concealed in the ferns all around us?

We pass other ferns, taking time to note their locations: Lady’s Fern, Intermediate Wood Fern, and the less common Christmas Fern and Common Polypody.  Michigan has a diverse population of ferns, not as diverse as large states like California with its enormous number of specialized niches—deserts, mountains, rainforests, and prairies—but it still has a respectable array of species.  About xxx fern species have been found in Michigan.

As we walk through an area of young maples, the ground bare of last year’s leaves, Dan bends over suddenly to examine something we had missed.  He brings out his magnifier to get a better look and regards us gathered around with enthusiasm:  A moonwort, he declares, Botrychium matricarifolium.  The plant is scarcely two inches tall, its clustered spore-bearing structures overriding a single leaf.  Spending most of the year locked deep underground, it puts up this green shoot in late spring in an effort to spread its spores to the wind.  Remarkably, it is still visible this far into summer, for, like Spring Beauty and Dutchman’s Breeches, it has only a short time to share its above-ground presence with us.  Such things are the treasures only botanists appreciate, their senses more attuned to the life cycles of things that neither do us no harm and nor provide us with benefit.

Goldies Fern surprises us.  We top a hill in this hardwood forest, and there they are—scattered upon the forest floor, rosettes of green fronds growing higher than our waists.  We check the leafy scales at the base of the stipe—the stem of ferns—to confirm a black mark bracketed within a light brown matrix.  The leaves are acuminate, trailing gradually to a sharp point—that configuration unique to this wood fern species.  We pause for a moment, glad to be at this place to see something so rarely seen.

Our moment of ecstasy does not last long.  Dan is on his hands and knees examining a fern frond carefully.  It might be, he says, It might be… We know what he is pondering: Is this fern a hybrid between Goldie’s and another wood fern?   The answer to such questions so rarely asked by human beings takes on unexplainable importance.  In a world of uncertain economics, uncertain politics, and uncertain environmental health, the pursuit of answers to questions about ferns seems like a waste of time to some.  But to Dan Palmer, it is a voyage into discovery and wonder.  And so it is for all of us who cherish the small things of Nature that lie beneath our feet.

Note to readers: Michigan Ferns and Lycophytes is available at bookstores and online now.  Beautifully illustrated with scans of living ferns, it contains descriptions, distribution maps, identification keys, and fascinating information about the ferns, club mosses, horsetails, and spike mosses to Michigan.  It is a delight for all naturalists with a spark of interest in this neglected group of plants.

“How the Good Times Rolled” provides insight, evidence for leisure activities of the past

Sheet music cover, from Liz Bannister Music Collection, Traverse Area District Library.

“Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed” is the phrase the old folks tell me is appropriate for the morning attitude (ugh), but despite how you tackle the day, each of us has our hours to fill. Perhaps you will accomplish some daily chores, get in a little of your paying gig, and generally let the time go to waste. Or, you can take a cue from the new book, How the Good Times Rolled by author and Grand Traverse Journal editor Richard Fidler, and live it up like we once did.

Nostalgia is a driving force behind this work, as well as Fidler’s typical curiosity for the things we take for granted. Fingering modern technology as the culprit, Fidler discusses briefly in the introduction a common lament that is heard on the street, that people seem to have lost the ability to engage in conversation, to have spontaneous fun, or to make time for new activities.

This lament begs the questions, “How were things different ‘way back when’? How did people enjoy themselves?”

Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show on parade, Traverse City, 1898. Image from the Traverse Area District Library Local History Collection.

Using a variety of sources, including diaries and other personal accounts, contemporary newspapers, and the archives of various clubs and social groups, Fidler sought to answer these questions. Each chapter provides some brief history about the given subject, from outdoor sports to celebrations. I found his writing to be read easily with children as well, rather lively and engaging. Interestingly, Fidler found “the Traverse region does mirror the social milieu of America generally,” despite the region’s relative isolation and lack of diversity.

The real beauty of this volume is the quality and quantity of photographs used to illustrate this social history. A passing familiarity with photographs taken in the late 1800s to the early 1900s leaves one with the impression that people Just. Didn’t. Smile. But Fidler has plumbed the depths of several amazing collections, from the Benzie Museum and Historical Society, the Leelanau Museum and Historical Society, and the Traverse Area Historical Society collection held at Traverse Area District Library, to reveal a significant truth: people of the past loved having fun!

Ladies drinkin’. Traverse Area District Library Local History Collection.

Some especially notable images are those of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, a traveling attraction that visited Traverse City in 1898; images of people enjoying libations and other vices (even during Prohibition); sheet music covers from the famed Liz Bannister collection, depicting popular dances; and amazing action images of horse racing, bicycling, and sailing (and ice boats, too!)

“Speedboat Race” at Grand Traverse Bay, Orson W. Peck colored photographic postcard. From the Traverse Area District Library Local History Collection.

I recommend treating yourself to the hardcover edition, which contains both color and black-and-white images. Again, this is fun to read with others or alone, and any age group will find something within to marvel at. If you have a summer home around these parts, this would be especially nice to take back to your winter residence as a coffee table book.

Whether you want to learn more about the past, or reminisce about how it was “way back when,” How the Good Times Rolled: What We Did for Fun Before the Digitial Age is the book for you! Available at local booksellers and Amazon.

One-Room Schools a Hundred Years Ago: Of Study Time, Recitations, and Recess

In the early years of the twentieth century rural students attended one-room schools from kindergarten through eighth grade.   A single classroom teacher would teach as many as forty-five children beginning in September and extending until May or June, with only a few weeks of vacation at Christmas, spring break, and a few holidays such as Christmas and New Years.  Through the 1950’s such schools continued to educate children in this manner, and many persons remember them to this day, often with fond recollections of their school days.  Only after the passage of legislation to consolidate rural schools in 1965 did they disappear in Michigan—as they did nearly simultaneously elsewhere (with exceptions for isolated communities).  Now, as memorials to the past, they grace the countryside as unoccupied or transformed buildings, each with a school bell tower presiding over an abandoned schoolyard.

As a former secondary teacher, I became fascinated with the education conducted in one-room schools.   If I felt overwhelmed preparing lessons for five classes of 14-15 year-olds every day with only two different preparations, then how could a single teacher prepare lessons for eight different grades (plus kindergarten) for as many as six different subjects?  What magic would she–the feminine pronoun is intended since most primary teachers were young women–work to keep such a diverse group of children on task for six hours of instructional time every day?  Can modern teachers learn something from practices long abandoned and nearly forgotten?  I resolved to find out.

I identified sources that would help me learn about one-room schools. One of them–oral histories of both students and teachers preserved online–provided glimpses into the way distant memories were recorded and remembered today.  Students would remember the pot-bellied stove, the ringing of the school bell, the outhouses, the games played at recess, patriotic pictures that adorned the walls, and the teacher’s manner of dealing with students.  Teachers remembered starting the fire early in the morning, walking or riding to school on wintry days, the clean-up chores at the end of the day, and interactions with individual students.  Both groups felt a strong sense of belongingness, solidarity, a family-like atmosphere inside the classroom.  Older students would help younger ones, and the teacher as well when it came to doing school chores.  Certainly there were exceptions—it was not a perfect family after all, but in general, it worked: children received an education and the teacher administered the process.

What kind of education was it these children—our grandparents and great-grandparents—received?  In one-room schoolhouses, students were busy doing two things when they were not enjoying an hour’s lunch and two recesses, morning and afternoon: they studied at their desks or they were called forward to recite.  Recitation has a peculiar meaning in school jargon: it is not simply reciting something memorized (such as a poem), but has to do more with demonstrating proficiency in a task given by the teacher.  Recitations could involve reciting a poem, but more often they were about reading aloud, answering questions posed by the teacher or the textbook, working arithmetic problems, displaying an example of good penmanship, or copying out a list of state capitols from a geography book.  Study time was just that: the time spent between recitations in reading, working arithmetic problems, answering questions based on written passages, or practicing penmanship.  Classrooms, while not stony silent, were relatively quiet places with the teacher up front with a group that was doing their recitations, while the rest of the class engaged in the tasks laid out for them.

For the most part, those tasks depended on written passages in textbook readers as well as problems and drills given in arithmetic texts, one for each level.  Some schools were divided up into eight separate grades, a nightmare of organization for the teacher who had to keep each child busy during study time.  Other classes had three levels, beginners, middle, and high level, the highest being for older students who were preparing the eighth grade graduation examination that was required as a salutary end to one’s schooling or else for entry into high school.  For a time the eighth grade tests were written by officials at the county level, but later they came from the State Department of Education in Lansing.  By today’s standards, they were not easy.  Readers will find a comparison of modern and early eighth grade tests here.

How were recitations scheduled during the school day?  Albert Salisbury in his 1911 book School Management proposes 22 of them covering all subjects, each lasting ten minutes.   Beginners receive more recitations than older students because of the urgency of getting them up to speed in reading.  The most difficult subjects come early in the day when the mind is fresh, the less demanding ones later in the afternoon.  A regular tide-like alternation of recitation and study was preferred to create a sense of order.   So it was that groups of students circulated in the classroom, often in response to a verbal or nonverbal cue to call children up to the front for recitation.  It is a wonder that the system worked with such precision and military-like discipline.  Sometimes, no doubt, it did not.

Another source of information about teaching and learning in one-room schools comes from teacher grade books.  I have looked at two of them from Kingsley, Michigan, one recording student attendance and achievement between 1894 and 1902, and another containing records from 1908 to 1912.  In each of them, the elegant handwriting of several teachers tells of pupils’ names, ages, deportment (behavior), and attendance over the course of the year, sometimes giving the reasons for absence.  The later one gives the grade levels of each student as well as her/his academic achievement in each subject,  presented through monthly grades.  Teacher recommendations about promotion to the next grade are recorded in the last entry for the spring term.  These registers provide a rare glimpse into education conducted in one-room schools at the turn of the century.

Examining them carefully, several facts stand out from the outset: students vary in age from 5 to as old as 18; age is not always connected to grade level as it is nowadays—a thirteen-year old can be working at a fifth or sixth grade level, for example; class sizes vary both from year to year and by time of the year; attendance can be erratic with some students missing many days over the course of the year.  With regard to the last point, October and the spring months had the most absences—perhaps because of harvest in the fall and planting duties in the spring.  Some students—especially those 14 and older–tended to leave school in April and May, sometimes never to return.  No doubt they were working, or else had given up on their plan to finish eighth grade.  At a time when work was plentiful for those who had not finished primary school, quitting school was a reasonable decision.

Academic information is not given in the traditional A-F format, but is displayed as monthly scores for each subject.  In general, they indicate fair to high achievement; it is nearly impossible to find scores less than 70.  Younger children—five and six years old—are given assessments through descriptions: “excellent,” “very good,” or “good.”  When deportment is noted in the registers, it is described similarly: it is very difficult to find deportment grades less than “good”—most were “excellent.”  Evidently, teachers were satisfied with the behavior of their students, though an occasional comment such as “Moved away—much to the relief of all” indicates that the children were not all perfect in deportment.

Other comments shine a light on what life in a one-room school was like at this time in our history: “Very bright and faithful student.”  “Exceptionally bright but irregular in attendance because of lameness.”  “Very slow to learn or do anything else.”  “A downright bad girl.”  “Quarantined –typhoid fever.”  “Has St. Vitus dance.”  “This boy was 16 years old the day school opened.  He does not need to go to school anymore.” “Will not come in cold weather—has to walk 3 ½ miles.”  The diversity of pupils stands out from this selection of comments.

What was taught in one-room schools?  For one thing, the curriculum depended on the age of the student—younger ones concentrating on the usual Reading, Spelling, Writing, and Arithmetic—with older ones adding Geography, Grammar, and Physiology to that list.   Physiology was not just about the human body: it discussed various topics relating to health, especially focusing on abstinence from alcohol, tobacco, and drugs.  Students preparing for the eighth grade examinations knew they would be tested on these subjects, and spent study time in class reading from appropriate textbooks. Their success on the examinations would be great source of pride for them and their parents.  In some schools, there were graduation ceremonies from eighth grade that underlined the importance of finishing primary school.

From a modern point of view, it is impossible to deny the advantages of one-room schools, just as it is impossible to deny their shortcomings.  Above all, school is a social enterprise: it informs children as to what things count the most in society, reinforces the socializing influences of the family, and teaches right and wrong.  Moral education, while sounding quaint in modern parlance, underlines the role of the school in this regard.  Even now, while often unexpressed in mission statements, it is seen as an important—some would say the most important function of schools.  For many citizens, it may overshadow the expressed mission of schools–which often has to with academic achievement.

Based upon the memories of those who experienced it, one-room schooling was extraordinarily successful in children’s moral education.  Former students remember older students helping younger ones, the strict rules laid down for conduct, the sharing of resources when resources were scarce, the fun times during recess and holiday celebrations, the strong arms of older boys in loading a potbelly stove that kept the room warm in winter.  The classroom was a family, not always perfect in conduct or in effort, but a family nevertheless, a body of individuals that cared about each other.   By contrast, modern elementary schools consist of a body of students brought by school buses to a location not necessarily close to where children live.  Parental contact is limited to occasional parent-teacher conferences, email exchanges, and rare phone calls.  Teachers do not know families in the same manner they did a hundred years ago.

This is not to say that one-room schooling is a good model for education.  A hundred years ago, academic training was largely built upon memorization and the mastery of skills.  Now we know that children can do more than write neatly, learn to spell correctly, read textbooks, and do arithmetic problems that do not require understanding of mathematical principles.  By eighth grade we ask students to answer questions inquiring about the evidence used to back up an argument, demonstrate the scientific method, and work math problems that go beyond rote performance of skills such as long division.  Schoolwork is not easier than it used to be—in some ways more demands are placed on young people.  Memorizing lists of spelling words during class time is an easier task than identifying the theme of a written passage.

One-room schooling placed inordinate demands on teachers.  Few of them stayed in a position for longer than two or three years.  Not only was the salary inadequate, but the work demanded a commitment to the job few people are able to give.  Relying on young, bright women to staff schools between their high school graduation and marriage was a practice that could not be sustained.  As soon as other jobs opened up for them, they took them, leaving the low salaries, lack of respect, and overwork behind.  In part, the era of one-room schooling ended because of this change in values in society.

Still, we think of the one-room school as a delightful artifact of a bygone age.  We imagine it reflected values that underlie a fair and decent society–caring for the young, fostering independence, sharing resources, accepting discipline, and mastering reading, writing, and arithmetic.  Indeed, in some ways it did, but at a cost of students filling countless hours with exercises in drudgery.  Harried teachers as young as eighteen or twenty rarely reached the high standards demanded today—a few months in normal school would qualify them to teach.  Shoddy buildings and poorly designed instructional materials were hardly sufficient for a fine education.  No provision was made for students that were different—physically, mentally, or emotionally.  Attendance could be sporadic due to the weather, work required at the farm, disinterest in studies, illness and disability.  The United States left one-room schools behind for good reason: they failed to satisfy the need of society for better-educated young people. We should look upon them as but one step along a pathway that leads to a well-educated citizenry, a pathway we are still following.

“Dockaquacology”: Or, the Short Lives of Inland Docks

by Stewart McFerran, Regular GTJ Contributor

Dockaquacology takes place in the anonymity of the cold Spring water of the lakes of Northern Michigan. The dockaquacologist drives the sections from stacks on the shore into place with waders on. The sections are manufactured with precision using exotic metals. They fit together and are leveled to within inches of the water’s surface, they run straight and true for hundreds of feet to that magic ski boat depth.

Worden’s crew assembling a dock in Long Lake, Long Lake Township, Grand Traverse County, Michigan, Spring 2018.

The docks are strong enough to hold the entire family and more. Strong enough to hold up to being beaten with a rock by the dockaquacologist when something gets stuck, but not strong enough to stand up to the crushing force of the Winter ice. That is why teams of dockaqucologists return in the Fall to remove sections and float the hosts. Everything is stacked back onto prime waterfront.

Docks and piers in Northern Michigan were once the center of commerce. Many ships tied up and were loaded and unload at these structures. The pilings that held these piers have been ground to nubs by the ice. Those nubs can still be seen at ghost town locations near Good Harbor, Otter Creek and Pierport.

Worden’s crew assembling a dock in Long Lake, Long Lake Township, Grand Traverse County, Michigan, Spring 2018.

Docks are now the center of recreational activities. All manner of shiny craft are loaded with coolers, water skies, dogs and children. Water fronts are readied for the recreational boaters after the ice melts and before Memorial Day. The dockaquacologist imagines all the activities at the dock as he assembles the family fun land. (I am sure there are lady dockaquacologists but I have yet to meet one.)

I recently interviewed Wes Worden and his crew as they installed a dock with three boat hoists on Long Lake. We met at the Crescent Shore boat launch and boarded the “barge” and took a short ride to the site where the dock was to be erected. Long Lake was quiet that morning and the shoreline had a pristine appearance with only a few docks.

Wes Worden and crew, placing a dock on Long Lake, Long Lake Township, Grand Traverse County, Michigan.

The barge was tied up next to the stack of dock sections and the crew of four: Wes and crew put on waders and got ready for the cold Long Lake water. The barge contained all the tools the crew would need. They started by fitting large wheels into the base of the huge boat lifts and rolling them into the shallow water. Then Wes artfully set the first section of dock into the real estate.

Each section was assembled and dropped into the water legs up to be floated into place. Wes used a level to make sure each section was true. Levy rolled the sections in chest deep water and in legs down position the sections were set in place and bolted. The legs were tamped into the sand and gravel of the lake bottom.

Once the dock was complete, large pieces of foam were tucked under the boat hoist. All four men guided this huge machine into chest deep water where the foam was kicked out and the hoist dropped into place right next to the dock.

“Old school dock” on Ford Island, ca. 1920s. Image from the Traverse Area District Library Local History Collection.

Imagine the shores in their pristine state without the vast array of equipment water front owners deploy with the help of dockaquacologists. Huge white pine and cedar overhanging the banks provided shade for fish to spawn, fur bearing creatures to hunt and fowl to nest. The shores are the most vital and productive areas for wildlife and the most pleasant for humans. We now dominate the shore for our own pleasure with a wild assortment of gadgets. Together these watercraft leak oil and gas into the water and have numerous other harmful effects on the shallow waters of our lakes. (1)

Worden’s crew assembling a dock in Long Lake, Long Lake Township, Grand Traverse County, Michigan, Spring 2018.

When I saw Dockaquacologist Gabe take a ride on a large chunk of foam back to shore I was reminded of Bruce Catton’s description of loggers. Note, Wes and crew were a fine group of men. They did not fight and clearly relished the work on the water.

“But hard living and hard fighting were not the whole story. There were easy stretches on every drive – times when the logs floated smoothly down a steady current, with no tangles, no jams and nothing to worry about. At such moments a riverman would jab the spike of his peavey into one end of the log, light his pipe, look up at the clouds, and let all of tomorrow’s problems take care of themselves. This is the time when he saw the glamor of his own existence, and reveled in it.”  (2)

Worden’s crew assembling a dock in Long Lake, Long Lake Township, Grand Traverse County, Michigan, Spring 2018.

The dockaquacologist has occasional easy stretches where the sections bolt together and level without problem. At such moments the dockaquacologist sees the glamor of his own existence and revels in it in a way that those with shiny toys tied up to the dock will not witness.

(1) The Effects of Motorized Watercraft on Aquatic Ecosystems. Timothy R. Asplund, University of Wisconsin

(2) Waiting for the Morning Train. Bruce Catton

Stewart A. McFerran is a former deck hand with Lang fisheries in Leland MI. Leader of the Antioch College Great Lakes Environmental Field Program and Innisfree Naturalist.

Professional Wrestling Arrives in Traverse City, 1908

What follows is an account of professional wrestling and boxing arriving in Traverse City in 1908 from the Traverse City Evening Record.  At that time,  150 pound wrestlers had a place in the sport!:

Frank Burns, champion welterweight wrestler of the south, won the contest with Joe Burns, champion welterweight wrestler of Detroit, in a pretty contest last night in the Grand opera house in two rounds.  Times, 16 minutes and 55 seconds.

As the men stepped into the mat and touched hands, almost immediately they were locked in a full nelson, which Frank Burns gradually worked into a half nelson.  This round lasted 14 minutes and 50 seconds.  Frank Burns dropped to his knees and Joe Burns clinching him four times with his famous crotch and wrist hold, which, however, he was unable to continue, his opponent wriggling out of his grip.  The men gradually worked to the edge of the mat and Referee Henry forced them to take the center of the mat each time, taking the same positions.  Each man seemed to think the other one responsible for the working toward the mat, but they willingly obeyed the referee.

Olympics Wrestling, 1912 Sweden. Finnish wrestler Alfred Johan Asikainen and Russian wrestler Martin Klein. Image courtesy of Dave Taylor’s Michigan Wolverine Athletics website, original image not attributed, http://mwolverine.com/.

A little sparring was indulged in during this round, which seemed to the spectators an attempt to each man to bring on an attack by the other. Watching his game and a chance to grapple his opponent.  Although it is almost impossible in a well-matched team to foretell the outcome of a wrestling match, it looked at first as though Joe Burns might win with his wrist and crotch hold.  Frank Burns, however, gradually worked his man into a half nelson, and assisted by a combined roll and barlock held him down to the floor and time was called.

End Came Soon.

After an intermission of 10 minutes the men again met, but this round was finished in 2 minutes and 5 seconds, Joe Burns showing fatigue and Frank Burns seemingly good for twice the work he had already accomplished.  Frank had Joe in a half nelson and body hold, which he worked into a double nelson from the front, and gradually bore him to the mat, amid the loud applause of the spectators.

Referee Earl Henry, in introducing the wrestlers, stated that in professional wrestling no strangle holds were allowed and in the contest none were attempted.  It was good clean sport throughout, and the contest was watched with intense interest, even the gallery gods being too much interested in the outcome to show any uneasiness or disorder whatever.  There were times when the dropping of a pin could have been heard in the house.

Joe Was Heavier.

When interviewed after the contest for a Record reporter, Joe Burns stated that he was not in condition to win, although he had been sanguine of the outcome being in his favor had he been able to have worked his famous wrist and crotch hold on his opponent.  Both men were weighted before stepping onto the mat.  Frank Burns tipping the scales at 150 pounds and Joe weighing 162.5.

“My weight was against me, “ said Joe Burns.  “My normal weight is 145, but I had not been able to reduce to normal weight.  Consequently I tired easier than I would had I been to proper condition.”

Bulgarian-born Turkish wrestler Kızılcıklı Mahmut a.k.a. Youssouf Mahmout. October 1908. Image made available from Library of Congress.

When asked what the hold was that Frank had won from him the championship, he said: “I don’t know what he calls it.  I have been in the business for 14 years and have never yet been in a grip like that.”  When told that it was called a double nelson from the front, he acknowledged that it might have been that from the front, but he was not in a position to see what it was.

However he was well satisfied with Referee Henry and believed that everything was clear and above ground.  He had no complaint to make whatever.  Before the game he stated that he would either win or lose in 5 minutes as he realized his overweight would not permit him to continue the contest much longer.

Accepted Challenge.

Previous in the contest,  Manager John Blacken read a letter from Ed Conley of Napoleon, Ohio, in which he challenged the winner of the Frank Burns-Joe Burns contest agreeing to throw the winner two falls in one hour for any amount of money they would put up.  Conley stated that a traveling man had given him the names.


Two boxing contests were put on as preliminaries, the first being between Fred Gokeu, the “Cuban Wonder,” and Bluy Griffin, “The Stockyards Champion,”  the Cuban Wonder winning the honors of this bout.

Gokey was not at all aggressive and was content to let the other fellow make the attacks, which he succeeded in staving off, giving Griff a bloody nose.  Gokey was free and easy throughout the contest, and swatted his opponent apparently with little effort, but with effect.

The second contest was between Lou Harkness and Billy Floyd, in which the honors went to Harkness., Floyd receiving a bloody nose in this contest.  Harkness had the advantage in being the taller of the two, but his opponent was adept in dodging , but could not escape the long arms of Harkness who landed a few on his nose, which bled profusely.

Both these contests were watched with interest by the spectators and their efforts were received with hearty applause.

As the wrestling match is the first professional match that has been carried off in this city for about 10 years, it was not expected that the interest manifested by those who were present is indicative of the character of the performance.  The sporting blood of Traverse City received a quickening, and it is probable that this is the beginning of a revival of similar affairs.  Frank Burns is planning to remain in the city this winter and no doubt there will be many such contests during the coming year.

A number of ladies in the audience last night watched the performance with interest, and had it been more generally known that ladies would be present, there would have been many more in attendance.  There was nothing in the affair to offend the most refined tastes, and the few ladies who attended evinced as much pleasure as their gentlemen friend.