After a dozen years researching the history of Lake Ann, Michigan, it has quite evident that people’s memories are not always accurate. People can be very certain of a date or name or event and be quite wrong.
The first instance of this in my research on the village of Lake Ann were the dates of the three major fires that burned significant portions of the village. The first and by far the greatest was on the fourth of July, 1897. That date is well known to village residents.
The second fire, that burned the business district, is known far and wide to have occurred in 1914. That date was established in a newspaper story many years ago and the date 1914 has been repeated ever since. Unfortunately, a check of old newspapers proves that the fire was in 1902.
The third fire, known widely as the 1917 fire was in April 1918 and we mark its anniversary next year.
Another erroneous fact is the identification of the grist mill in Lake Ann as the Thompson grist mill. People have said for many decades the Harvey Thompson built and ran the grist mill.
However, a search of tax records and deeds shows that no Thompson ever owned or ran the grist mill. Harvey Thompson and a partner, Mr. Elton, started a saw mill about a hundred yards from the grist mill about the same time (1896 and 1893 respectively). After just a few years, the mill was sold to William Habbeler who built, owned and ran the first and biggest saw mill in Lake Ann.
It would appear the proximity of the mills, the passage of time and the vagaries of memory combined to mix the mills.
Now I am on anther quest, trying to unravel memories, written account and sketchy facts. Once again I rely on tax records, land records, village minutes and newspaper mentions to find the truth.
The story begins with more “well known” information. About 1900, two houses were moved from along Ransom Creek, site of the first settlement in the Lake Ann area.At the time it seemed houses and even large buildings were moved from place to place, usually on sleds over frozen ground or ice covered lakes.
Elijah Ransom owned the saw mill operating beside the creek and later a grist mill. There was a cluster of shanties, a couple of houses and a large store close by.
We know from contemporary newspaper accounts that Addison Wheelock, first settler in the Lake Ann area, had a home in that settlement. His home was large enough that the planning session for creating Almira Township and the first meeting of the elected township officials took place in his home.
I assume that Elijah Ransom, being the most prosperous person around, had a decent home there as well. Because this all took place in the early 1860s, tax and land records are rather limited. People didn’t always own the land they were occupying.
Having prowled the woods along Ransom Creek, I know of three depressions where the village must have stood. The largest is surely the site of the store. The two smaller are, I believe, the sites of the two real houses in the early settlement.
Believing that the accounts of two houses being moved from near Ransom Creek to the southeast corner of the village, it made a good story that these house belonged to Elijah Ransom and Addison Wheelock.
The “well known” story was that these two houses were later occupied by the Dr. Shilliday family (now the Shilliday House B&B) and the Burnett house just to the south, also on South Lake Ann Road. The latter once occupied by S. S. (Sam) Burnett, local businessman and family and later by the Bryan family.
It was such a great story. I had located a house once lived in by Addison Wheelock, my wife’s great-great-grandfather. I thought I was finally through my Lake Ann research.
Ah, but questions arose. Not everyone was certain the Burnett house had been moved. Or perhaps not in 1902 as the village minutes had led me to believe. The village minutes did say the Ransom store and A dwelling were moved from along Ransom Creek in 1902. Back to the Benzie County Court House.
The tax records indicate several owners of lot 4, block 29, site of the Burnett house, in the years between 1895 and 1903. For all but 1895, the value of the property suggests a house was on the lot. But, of course, there is no information about the house, certainly not its history.
Mr. Degan, an early owner of the lot on which the Burnett house stands (1899-1903), served on the village board and was active in moving mill machinery, water works pumps and water pipes off the Ransom Creek site. Degan and Huelmantel bought “the entire water works machinery and wheel and the mill machinery in the old mill” for the sum of $250 in 1900. Could Mr. Degan have moved a small house without a mention in the minutes? Oh yes, in 1901 a “wagon shed or house” on the creek was sold to someone for $4.00.
Ah, but there is more.
In 1900, the village approved the rental of “the old Ransom house” to a Mr. Thatcher for $2.00 per month. Of course, they don’t say where that house is located. Still by the creek?Surely not the Burnett house. Mr. Thatcher paid taxes on a lot on Lynwood, three blocks from South Lake Ann Road and the Burnett house. Was he living in the “old Ransom house,” now located on Lynwood Street?
Granted, knowing which house was where 117 years ago is not crucial to Michigan history. Even I don’t lie awake nights wondering. But for the sake of accuracy, and personal curiosity, I would like to know.
So, while I know with certainty that memories, and even some newspapers stories, can be inaccurate, I do not know which house is which. It is like trying to keep track for which nut shell hides the bean as they are shuffled rapidly before your eyes.
Personal “histories” or reminiscences can be very useful. even indispensable but they must be supported by facts such as deeds of tax records.
When I was young, there was a popular radio program about the FBI and crime. The lead character was Sergeant Friday and his iconic statement was, “I just want the facts, m’am, just the facts.”
At least I think his name was Sergeant Friday and I think that is what he said.
Richard Leary is an active volunteer at the Almira Historical Museum in Lake Ann. Leary is passionate about exploring and documenting the history of Almira Township, and finds inspiration equally in studying written records and in traversing the fields.
Well after midnight Fire Chief Dupres, Alfred Waterbury, and Night Watchman Allen Grayson stood shivering in a brisk southwest wind that would ordinarily send them inside after a few minutes. Tonight, however, something seemed wrong: a dull yellow light flickered to the northeast of the Cass Street fire station where they had gathered. It danced on the thin crust of snow that covered the street in front of them, the same flicker they had all seen so many times before. Fire!
The alarm was sounded, a pealing of bells in a specific pattern that alerted firefighters to the location of the fire. It was in the direction of Front Street and Park, a place where frame buildings stood side-by-side, an invitation to a catastrophic spread of flames. Hitching the fire engine to the waiting team, firemen worked frantically to let the horse collars come down onto the horses’ necks; the rest of the harness was in order in less than four minutes.
Meanwhile, the fire within the steamer was turned up full blast to ready the engine for its pumping duties to come. As the men left the station upon their new engine, Queen City, the horses’ breath raising clouds of steam in the cold, they congratulated themselves on their quick exit. The steamer was new to the town, but they had practiced hard to get away fast, and that practice had paid off.
No more than two blocks from the station, they came to a stop in front of the Front Street House, a large wooden three-story hotel that dominated the south side of the street. Already flames and smoke billowed from the roof in places, the worst of it came from the part of the building that connected the large building on Front Street to the smaller frame building behind it by the alley. So quickly had the flames spread, the firemen doubted they could save the building.
Already persons could be seen scrambling out the windows on the first floor, most in their nightclothes. One brave soul hoisted himself out from a third floor window, making it somehow to the second story, and then dropping to the ground. A little girl, contracted into a ball in fear, rolled off the edge of a roof, only to be caught by a fireman. In all thirty people made it out of the fire: one did not. Ed Newberry, a Swedish hotel porter, was found later, his dog beside him.
As predicted, the fire swept through the frame stores and saloons on the south side of the street, first the hotel, then a drug store within it, Broesch and Sons meat market, C.A. Cavis’s cigar store, Hiram Cook’s grocery, then a barbershop, and two saloons. Next, a large two-storied structure, the Rich & Hallberg building caught fire, one of its walls coming to rest against the brick Tonneller building. Four firemen were caught under the burning timbers, somehow escaping without serious burns. It was here the battle line would be set up to block the advance of the fire to the west. In the end, the line held.
One of the most gallant soldiers in the fight was the steamer Queen City, which performed magnificently, pouring water onto the flaming wall in a continuous stream, extinguishing the fire. It was backed up by the city’s water system. Unbelievably, nineteenth century hydrants and water mains performed without failure. Afterwards the newspaper would remark about the competence of the fire department and the water works in delivering water where it was most needed.
Even so, the blaze spread to the other side of Front Street. In what some described as a flaming arch reaching from one side of the street to the other, buildings on the north side began to catch fire. One by one they succumbed until they encountered Julius Steinberg’s brick opera house. Father Julius Steinberg and son Aleck as well as employees of the dry goods store attached played streams of water everywhere to cool the building. As cornices burst into flame, they hastened to put them out. In the end, though gravely damaged, the dry goods store and opera house were saved.
In fact, the city downtown was saved. Later, everyone remarked that the direction of the wind made all the difference, the fire starting at the Front Street House (or possibly the drugstore within), a location at the east end of the business district. The southwesterly gale-force winds drove the fire primarily to the east, keeping it away from the busy area of storefronts to the west. Credit also went to brave firemen, the fire engine that performed flawlessly, draymen who offered their services free of charge to those having to move store goods, the efforts of businessmen like Julius Steinberg, and ordinary citizens who did their part to help. One business owner, Mrs. E.M. Daniels, was singled out for her bravery in removing her grocery store stock and relocating it nearby at the peak of danger. Another citizen saw the glow of the fire from several miles away, and, suspecting the downtown was ablaze, drove to town just in time to save the merchandise in his sister’s store. There were heroes everywhere to be recognized.
Upon the rising of the sun the next day, the scene was horrific. Fourteen stores had been burned to the ground. More fortunate ones standing on the north side of the street suffered the ravages of smoke and heat, smudged with soot, with gaping holes where glass used to be in their front windows. Black charcoal, square nails lying on the ground, broken crockery, and a few other things resistant to the fire littered the ground. The Grand Traverse Herald remarked that it was the most serious fire that ever visited the city, and, indeed, it was.
November 6, 2016
Students of history sometimes receive unexpected rewards. For some time I had observed that the space across the street from Horizon Bookstore was being excavated to make way for a new building. Whenever the ground is torn up in the downtown area, you can count on interesting things being uncovered. Just two years ago, for example, West Front was repaved, that resurfacing job exposing Nelsonville, Ohio pavers, a brick that covered the road in years past. Now, seeing the earth in neat piles alongside the trenches, I had to go over and inspect the work.
I had something specific to look for. In 1896 I knew a great fire had leveled half a block of frame buildings on the south side of Front Street, the fire extending through the area where the digging was now taking place. Would there be any sign of the fire? Would there be charcoal buried down under?
The day is Sunday and all work had stopped on the excavation. A gentle wind fluttered the yellow ribbons warning passers-by to keep away, and enforcers of a “No Trespassing” sign were nowhere in evidence. In a quick yet fluid movement I ducked under the ribbons and stepped into the trench made by a shovel standing nearby. Nothing revealed itself at the surface, but a foot-and-a-half down there was a streak of black punctuating the beach sand that made up the soil. Bending down to pick some of it up, I sniffed at it and let out a small cry of joy: it was black charcoal from the fire.
It did not take long to find other things: broken window glass, two square, weathered nails, and bits of crockery, one of them big enough to read the name of the maker. Evidence of the fire was everywhere: How I wished I could sieve the pile of dirt to find more relics.
Picking up a piece of crockery, I felt a sense of connection to those living at these shores of Grand Traverse Bay at a time before automobiles, before radio, before television. Looking at the bottom of what could have been a bowl, I made out the maker: Meakin Ironware. A quick search revealed that the Meakin company, founded in England in 1851, had produced it more than 120 years ago. Somehow these ceramic shards survived the fire of 1896: people had handled this vessel, perhaps admired it, and then that awful thing happened. What they had lost now I had found. In a way that made me a participant in the event. History does that that to us: it weaves our own lives into the tapestry of the past.
Editor’s note: The Queen City fire engine described in the article may be seen at Fire Station Number 1 on Front Street.
Author’s note concerning this article: The description of the fire came from an extensive account in the Grand Traverse Herald. Reading the article carefully, a researcher can write a description like this:
Well after midnight, Fire Chief Dupres, Alfred Waterbury, and Night Watchman Allen Grayson stood shivering in a brisk southwest wind that would ordinarily send them inside after a few minutes. Tonight, however, something seemed wrong: a dull yellow light flickered to the northeast of the Cass Street fire station where they had gathered. It danced on the thin crust of snow that covered the street in front of them, the same flicker they had all seen so many times before. Fire!
Upon casual inspection it seems that the author has drifted perilously close to writing fiction: How could he know that three persons gathered in front of the fire station early in the morning? How could he know about the wind, its direction and speed? How could he know about the yellow light to the northeast that turned out to be the fire? The snow?
The answer is that the Herald account had references to all of those things. Far from creating an imaginary world, the writer only wove facts together in a manner that gave the scene life and interest. This kind of historical writing is frequently done nowadays. Seabiscuit, a tale of a famous racehorse, and Isaac’s Storm, the story of the Galveston hurricane of 1900, are just two examples that have become popular in recent years. The advantage of this approach is that it makes history come alive—often in contrast, to stodgy description in the traditional style.
From time to time the Journal will present stories told as an exciting narrative. Perhaps you would like to try your hand at it.
Three times the village of Lake Ann was nearly destroyed by fire. Twice, the business district was virtually wiped out. Each time the people rebuilt their homes, businesses and lives.
In addition to the three major fires, fire destroyed two prominent business structures: the Douglas Hotel and Bert Smith’s residence, black smith shop and hardware store.
The first and third of the major fires are well-known and were dramatically described in Traverse City newspapers of the day. The second major fire is far less known and the date of the fire wrongly remembered and wrongly published. The dates of the Douglas Hotel and Bert Smith’s store fires were also lost to history.
The following is an accurate account of these five fires complete with citations from newspaper stories of the period. This fascinating, if unfortunate and sad, part of Lake Ann’s history deserves to be remembered correctly.
Lake Ann’s first huge fire
The first and most devastating fire occurred in July 1897. At that time the village was large and prosperous. Its population was about 1,000, making it one of the larger towns in northwestern Michigan.Logging was a major employer and supported several saw mills. The William Habbler Jr mill on the north shore of Ann Lake was the biggest.
The mills brought in many other businesses, from boarding houses to bakeries, grocery stores, barbers and doctors. As in any town employing so many men, saloons, pool parlors and poker games could be found as well.
Some of the buildings and homes were well built and up-to-date architecturally. Businesses were adjacent to one another in the business district. Homes and business buildings were made of wood. Lots were small – often 100 feet deep and 40 feet wide – so homes were close together as well. Other buildings, such as barns, sheds and other out buildings were more rustic and even more flammable.
Once the fire began, apparently from a spark at the Habbler saw mill, a breeze north from the lake spread the fire rapidly through the town. Within minutes it was out of control. Because nearly all the town was north of Ann Lake, just about everything was within the fire’s path.
Because it was Saturday of the Fourth of July weekend, many of the town’s residents had rowed across Ann Lake to a favorite picnic spot on Piney Point. When they saw the smoke and fire in the village, there was little they could do to return home in time to save their belongings.
According to the newspaper accounts of the fire, 50 businesses were lost and 75 homes burned. Most people lost everything they owned.
The Traverse City newspapers gave readers dramatic and complete coverage:
GRAND TRAVERSE HERALD, JULY 8, 1897
Holocaust at Lake Ann
Lake Ann is a mass of smoldering ruins, and there are scarcely thirty buildings left standing. The fire broke out in Habbler’s mill at 1:30 p.m. Saturday and spread through the town with lightening rapidity.
The entire business portion of the village has been swept clean by the most disastrous conflagration that has ever visited this locality.
Not less than 75 families are homeless and nearly all of them have lost all their possessions. Many were fortunate in saving their lives.
The prompt response from Traverse City brought the steam fire engine and twenty members of the department from that city. When the much needed aid arrived, the men who had been fighting fire with all their strength were nearly worn out but they were relieved by the arrival of fresh and efficient help.
When the special train bearing the engine and firemen from Traverse City entered the pall of smoke, the spirits of the discouraged and unfortunate ones arose and hopes of saving what remained were revived.
It required but a few moments to transfer the engine from the flat car to the shore of the lake, just west of the factory, and but five minutes to start two streams.
A well-organized force manned the hose lines, and soon two heavy streams were pouring into the fierce flames which threatened to consume everything that remained.
After a half-hour’s hard work, the flames at the points mentioned were under control. It was necessary to run one line of hose along the shore among the slabs, timber and miscellaneous lumber stock, but the energetic work of the men was effective and showed good results.
The Herald continued with an enthusiastic account of the Traverse City fire department’s efforts:
Traverse City to the Rescue
That was the time which elapsed after the fire engine left the Cass street engine house before two powerful streams of water were pouring upon the destructive flames which were destroying the greater portion of Lake Ann Saturday afternoon.
When the special arrived at Lake Ann, the people were almost panic stricken and it seemed as though the entire village was to be swept out of existence. The Traverse City firemen with commendable coolness and precision immediately began work in earnest. Only a few moments were required to transfer the engine to the lake shore, just west of the burning mill and cooperage stock. A team was found at once and the engine hauled to the shore and placed upon an improvised dock of slabs. Firefighter Fulgham lost not a moment and effective streams were doing good work in a few moments.
The men worked with an energy characteristic of the Traverse City firemen and Lake Ann’s business men and citizens felt relieved when the excellently organized force went to work. They labored like tigers and their work immediately began to show satisfactory results, while the engine worked like a charm and threw streams which stayed the fast advancing flames.
An almost identical article appeared in the Morning Record, also Sunday, July 4, 1897. It was perhaps more sensationalist with headlines reading:
HOLOCAUST AT LAKE ANN
Thriving Place swept by Terrible Fire Fiend Yesterday and Nearly Wiped Out
TOWN WILL SUFFER AGGREGATE LOSS OF NEARLY $100,000
Aged Mrs. Masters Cremated In attempting to Save Valuable Personal Property
Entire Business of Town in Ruins – Fifty Buildings Destroyed
Seventy-five Families Rendered Homeless and Deprived of
Necessities of Life, also Employment – Traverse City
Responded Promptly to an Appeal for Aid
One can imagine seeing this on the cover of a paper beside the check-out in any grocery store today.
Lake Ann’s second major fire
The date of Lake Ann’s second major fire has been incorrectly known for many years. Even the newspaper report of the third fire, in 1918, gave the wrong date, saying it occurred in 1907. More recently the date has been given as 1914. In reality, it happened in 1902.
The second fire also destroyed most of the Lake Ann business district but it was much smaller than that of 1897. It is clear that little of the village had been rebuilt following the devastating fire in 1897.
Again the Traverse City papers gave it prominent coverage.
THE EVENING RECORD, TUESDAY JANUARY 28, 1902
LAKE ANN FIRE SWEPT
Business Portion of the Town Again Destroyed
Lake Ann Jan 28 — Again last night the business portion of Lake Ann was laid in ashes, and nothing but cinders remain of four of the principal businesses places of the town. The saloon building and stock of Dan Willard, the store building of A. B. Huellmantel, the livery barn of W. J. Shilliday and the store building occupied by S. S. Burnett, were completely destroyed and the stock of A. B. Huellmantel and S. S. Burnett were greatly damaged.
“The fire started in the saloon of Dan Willard about 9:30 o’clock. The saloon had been closed for the night and Mr. Willard had gone home. The fire had been banked for the night but in some way a blaze started from the place where the stove pipe passed through the second floor.
Once again, the people of Lake Ann rallied and the village survived and rebuilt.
Douglas Hotel fire
Soon after the fire, a large, elegant hotel opened in the center of town. The hotel, being across the tracks from the M. & N. E. Railroad depot, perhaps served as a destination for people coming on railroad excursions from Manistee or Traverse City. The hotel was close to the shore of Ann Lake and maintained a number of small boats for guests to use on the lake.
Sadly, in 1910 the Douglas Hotel burned to the ground. Fortunately, no one was injured but it was a great loss to the village. A Traverse City newspaper gave complete coverage:
THE EVENING RECORD TRAVERSE CITY, MICHIGAN, FRIDAY, MAY 13, 1910
HOTEL WAS DESTROYED
LAKE ANN HAD A BAD FIRE THIS MORNING
ALL GUESTS ESCAPED
NORTH WIND SAVED THE REST OF VILLAGE
Origin of the fire is unknown but it started in the roof – Loss on building is $2,500 with insurance of $1,200.
Lake Ann, Mich. May 13. — The Hotel Douglas, the only all-year-round house in Lake Ann, was totally destroyed by fire at 6:00 o’clock this morning. The house was well filled with guests but all escaped, although some lost their personal belongings. The loss on the hotel is $2,500 with $1,200 insurance. The insurance on the contents is $1,200 but as some were saved, L. E. Knoedel, the landlord, is unable to give his loss.
The fire originated in the roof near where the two buildings came together. The alarm was quickly given and a bucket brigade was soon on the scene, the men doing very effective work. Fortunately, the wind was from the north, blowing the fire toward the lake, else it is very likely that the entire business street would have been destroyed. It was only by the great effort that the home of Dr. Shilliday and the house and store of S. S. Burnett were saved from destruction.
The fire spread very quickly and while many of the guests were still asleep when the alarm came, all got out fully dressed, although some left their baggage behind. In 10 minutes, the hotel was a heap of smoking ruins.
B. E. Smith’s residence and store
Another major fire happened in 1911. Although not as devastating as the fires of 1897 and 1902, it was significant and probably spectacular.
The following appeared in the April 14, 1911 Benzie Banner:
B. E. Smith’s residence and store were destroyed by fire Monday noon; it was nearly a total loss as only a small part of the contents were saved. Mr. Smith carried no insurance. The rest of the town was only saved by the heroic efforts of the Lake Ann bucket brigade as there were several buildings which caught fire.
Some recollections mention the explosions that occurred as the building burned. The large two-story building was a combination residence, blacksmith shop, livery and hardware store. As such, it no doubt contained hunting ammunition and black powder used for reloading gun shells and blasting tree stumps out of the ground.
Lake Ann’s Third Major Fire
The village of Lake Ann had not experienced its last major fire. The third fire did not destroy the business district, as had the first two big fires. The final fire to sweep through the town primarily burned homes. Once again we look to the newspapers for a compelling account of the conflagration.
Traverse City Record-Eagle, TRAVERSE CITY, MICHIGAN Friday April 12, 1918 Price – two cents
Conflagration Destroys Half of Lake Ann Village
BENZIE COUNTY VILLAGE
SUFFERS THIRD DISAS-
TER IN ITS HISTORY
Ten Dwellings, a Church, Three Barns and a Cooperage Laid Low
HalfthevillageofLakeAnnlies in charred ruins today, the result of a fire yesterday afternoon,that swept its course, leveling ten dwellings, the congregational church, three barns and the old cooperage.Nor did the flames stop their ravaging work until every particle of inflammable material in their path had been consumed.
The fire started in the A. Frazer residence, apparently from a defective chimney.Flames were not discovered until the fire was too well under-way that the roof was ready to fall in. A high northeast wind was howling and sparks and flames from the dwelling were carried to the next, and from that, on westward through the town.
Bucket brigades were formed, and farmers, who drove in from miles around, lent their assistance in battling the fire, but to no avail. The fire did not stop until it had exhausted the material, and the balance of the city was spared only because the wild wind did not change.
In spite of the fires that destroyed the town’s business district, Lake Ann survived. An article in the Traverse City Evening Record in 1907 gave evidence of this perseverance.
Lake Ann, Mich. Jan. 10 —Lake Ann was twice visited by disastrous fires. In fact, both conflagrations nearly destroyed the entire town and each time, before the ashes had cooled off, the business men of Lake Ann were planning for the reconstruction and after two hard struggles a pretty village full of life and spirit remains as a result of their perseverance and pluck.
This was just as true after the third fire in 1918 as it was after the second fire.
The village lives on. Habbler’s store, which survived the last two fires, is now the bustling Lake Ann Grocery. S.S. Burnett’s store, rebuilt after the 1902 fire, is now the B & M Party Store and holds down the center of town. Huellmantel’s shoe store, also rebuilt after the 1902 fire, is now a busy restaurant, the Stone Oven. Two new businesses opened in 2014 (The Red Door and Lakeview Realty and Rental Management) and another is scheduled to open early in 2015.
The village of Lake Ann survived three nearly disastrous fires, outlived logging and the M&NE railroad. It continues, in its own way, as a busy, but laid-back, friendly center of activity for locals and tourists alike.
Richard Leary is an active volunteer at the Almira Historical Museum in Lake Ann. Leary is passionate about exploring and documenting the history of Almira Township, and finds inspiration equally in studying written records and in traversing the fields.
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