Tag Archives: Old Mission Peninsula

Two Books Cast Light on an Unexplained Murder on Old Mission Peninsula


“Scene where Julia Curtis Was Killed, April 29th, 1895.” Image courtesy of the S.E. Wait Glass Plate Negative Collection, Traverse Area District Library. This image was taken by an unknown photographer, and we are unsure of its relation to the murder case.

In 1895, Woodruff Parmelee, the son of a prominent Old Mission Peninsula fruit farmer, was convicted of murdering Julia Curtis, his pregnant mistress. His son supported his alibi that he was clearing a new road toward West Bay while Julia’s body was found in the hemlock swamp across from East Bay. Yet Parmelee was still convicted and sentenced to life in prison at Jackson State Penitentiary.  Parmelee was in his 40s, twice Julia’s age, already twice married and recently divorced from his second wife. His checkered history no doubt influenced the jury that convicted him. That story forms the basis of Murder on Old Mission by Stephen Lewis, an Old Mission resident who is re-issuing the novel in January through Mission Point Press. (Originally covered in the December 2015 issue of Grand Traverse Journal).

Lewis is simultaneously publishing a follow-up novel, Murder Undone, in which he reveals this startling fact: In spite of the sensational nature of the crime, Parmelee was released from prison in 1915 after the direct intervention of then Governor Woodbridge Ferris (after whom the state university is named).   Although no new evidence had emerged to determine exactly how Julia died, this sequel provides a fictional answer to the puzzling intervention of the governor 20 years after Parmelee’s conviction. Murder Undone tells this story largely from the perspective of the same son who testified at the trial. Lewis also writes a dramatic parallel plot line of the copper mining strike culminating in the Italian Hall Tragedy in 1913, when 70 people, mostly children, were trampled to death in the panic caused by a false cry of fire at a Christmas party for the striking miners.  The governor was involved in both the strike and Parmelee’s pardon, his oversight tying the two plot actions together.

Both books, a reissue of Murder On Old Mission and the publication of Murder Undone, are coming out in January through Mission Point Press. The books are available locally and online at Amazon.com.

Born and raised in Brooklyn and Professor of English Emeritus at Suffolk County Community College on Long Island, New York, Stephen Lewis now lives on Old Mission Peninsula not far from a local, private cemetery where the Parmelees, except for Woodruff, are buried.  He is married to award-winning short story writer Carolyn Johnson Lewis, whose father, local historian Walter Johnson, first introduced him to the Parmelee/Curtis case.  Lewis’s previous novels were historical mysteries, so this case was a natural fit for him.   He can be reached at 231-631-4727 or stevelew@charter.net.

1895 Old Mission Murder Provides Complex Characters, Upcoming Sequel for Novelist

The following vignette was provided by the author of Murder on Old Mission, Stephen Lewis. Lewis is currently crafting the sequel to that well-received novel.  Expected publication is early 2016. Murder on Old Mission is currently available at local booksellers and at Amazon.com.

Headstone of George Parmelee, father of Woodruff, placed at Lakeside Cemetery on Old Mission Peninsula.
Headstone of George Parmelee, father of Woodruff, placed at Lakeside Cemetery on Old Mission Peninsula.

In 1895, Woodruff Parmelee, the scion of a major Old Mission Peninsula farming family, was sentenced to life imprisonment in solitary confinement for the murder of Julia Curtis, his pregnant girlfriend.  Julia’s body was found at the base of Old Mission Peninsula in an area near East Bay that was called the hemlock swamp.   By modern standards, the prosecution’s case against Woodruff was well short of solid.  It depended upon the questionable forensic evidence of footprints found near the body, which may or may not have been Woodruff’s, but could equally well have been those of any of the thirty or forty men who were searching for her.  There was also the eyewitness testimony of a hired hand named Stagg who had a history of perjury and who offered to leave the area if he were paid enough.

Parmelee’s defense was built on an alibi.  He could not have killed Julia, he claimed, because at the very time she went missing, he was working on a new road on the other side of the Peninsula heading toward West Bay. The prosecutor’s witness testified that he had seen Parmelee heading east, away from that new road.  Parmelee said, no, he was going the other way.  Clearly this difference is crucial.  If Parmelee could prove his version, it would establish his alibi, and he would have to be acquitted.  He could not be in two places at the same time.

Receiving scant attention in the detailed newspaper reports of the trial was the testimony of Parmelee’s son Louis who supported his father’s alibi.  He stated that when he went to join his father working on the road, he met his father coming from the west.

The testimony of both witnesses was less than convincing: Stagg’s character is at issue as is Louis’s assumed filial attachment to his father.  If we say that their testimony cancelled each other out, not much besides the footprint evidence remains of the prosecutor’s case.  Nonetheless, Parmelee was convicted.  In all probability, the unstated basis for his conviction was his troubled marital history, including two failed marriages, and the fact that he was twice the age of Julia.

This is the story I fictionalize in Murder On Old Mission.  In my version, I focus fully on the testimony of the son.  By changing some facts and adding others, I intensify the son’s situation. That book’s penultimate chapter takes the story to Parmelee’s conviction.  Its very last chapter provides the bridge to the sequel I am now writing. That chapter jumps twenty years ahead when Parmelee, in spite of his sentence, is again a free man, returning to Traverse City where he is reunited with his son.

My sequel intends to fill in what happened between conviction and release.  Parmelee was convicted of a most heinous crime.  His sentence reflected the severity of the community’s judgment.  If capital punishment had been available, Parmelee would have been a candidate for execution.  Yet, not only did he not serve his life sentence, he was released, and in fact lived another twenty-seven years, almost outliving Louis, who died shortly after him.

Index card from Jackson State Prison, indicating the intervention of Governor Ferris, on behalf of Woodruf Parmelee.
Index card from Jackson State Prison, indicating the intervention of Governor Ferris, on behalf of Woodruff Parmelee. Image courtesy of Stephen Lewis.

There is one salient fact that explains Parmelee’s release: the intervention of Governor Woodbridge Ferris, who interviewed Parmelee in Jackson State Prison immediately prior to Parmelee being paroled.  My research as to why this extraordinary intervention occurred has come up empty.  Why the governor should have picked Parmelee out of all the prisoners in Jackson at that time for his personal assistance remains a mystery.

And that provides me the opportunity of creating fictional circumstances to fill that void.  As I did in Murder On Old Mission, I am building on the historical facts, but this time, as well, I am constrained by the fictional facts I created in the first book.

That is an interesting challenge.

Review of Murder on Old Mission
Amy Barritt, co-editor of Grand Traverse Journal

Reminiscent of Arthur Miller’s work, The Crucible, Murder on Old Mission is a fictionalized account of a true crime that took place on Old Mission Peninsula. Although we modern readers might associate the Peninsula with breathtaking views and wineries, author Stephen Lewis deftly realizes the relative isolation of that region in the late 19th century, which would, on occasion, encourage intense interpersonal relationships to compensate. Readers are invited to see both sides of that coin, in the passionate relations between Sam Logan and Margaret Cutter and in the unexpectedly adversarial relationship between Sam and his son, Isaiah.

Highly descriptive and full of rich conversations, this is the type of book wherein the scene can play out in your imagination as a movie would. A drama of the highest order, and well worth a sequel, which I eagerly anticipate.

Excerpt from the sequel to Murder on Old Mission
by Stephen Lewis

Isaiah adjusted his sailor’s gait to the flat surface of the road leading to the church.  Everything else was eerily familiar.  It had been five years since he walked up this road on the day that began to change his life.  But the road itself, inanimate and without memory, just lay insensate beneath his shoes.  Somehow he had thought that the dust rising beneath his feet would carry with it echoes of that day, perhaps a word, a sigh forced out between clenched teeth, an image of a face drawn in pain, a tear trickling down a man’s unshaven cheek or finding a path along the worn furrows of a woman’s face, and above all a pervasive black of mourning.

On this morning to be sure, the shadow of death argued against the bright rays of the sun this late spring day.  But this time, death’s face wore a bemused grin, a weary acknowledgement that the deceased had simply run his appointed course and it was time for him to be gathered into the ground.  In that respect, this occasion could not have been more different than that one five years ago when a person in full bloom had been cut down.

The handle of the church door felt the same as it did that day when he had grasped it with a hand warm and wet from sweat, his lungs gasping for air.  And the hinges squeaked just as they did then.  On that day, when he pushed the door open ever so slowly to minimize the disturbance of the squeaking hinges, he was confronted by an empty building.  He was too late.  Through the rear door, he could see the mourners gathered around the freshly dug grave into which the woman he loved would be interred, and standing, ashen faced, among the mourners was his father soon to be convicted of putting her there.

Today, however, the congregants were all in their seats.  He stood for a moment at the rear of the church.  He expected heads to turn around to gaze at him in response to the loud squeaking of the door on its hinges but none had.  He had tried to prepare himself for that eventuality, but had not come up with a suitable response.  Several people did now, belatedly, turn in his direction, but then swiveled their heads back toward the front of the building.  Perhaps, he figured, they had not recognized him.  It had been, after all, some years.

Biography of the Author

Stephen Lewis, novelist, with furry friend.
Stephen Lewis, novelist, with furry friend.

Born and raised in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, Stephen Lewis holds a doctorate in American Literature from New York University, and he is Professor of English Emeritus at Suffolk Community College, on Long Island, New York.  He now lives with his wife on five acres in a restored farmhouse on Old Mission Peninsula in northern lower Michigan.          

After having written The Monkey Rope (1990), and And Baby Makes None (1991) two mysteries set in Brooklyn and published by Walker & Company, Lewis turned his attention to a different time and place, New England in the seventeenth century, for Mysteries of Colonial Times.  The stories set in Brooklyn dipped into Lewis’s childhood, while this second series, written for Berkley, drew upon his expertise as a scholar of New England Puritanism. The Dumb Shall Sing, the first of this series was published August, 1999, followed by The Blind in Darkness in May, 2000, and The Sea Hath Spoken  January, 2001.  Murder On Old Mission, put out in 2005 by Arbutus Press, was a finalist in the historical fiction category of ForeWord Magazine’s book of the year awards.  His mystery novel, Stone Cold Dead, was submitted by Arbutus to the 2007 Edgars. Belgrave House recently published A Suspicion of Witchcraft, his first ebook original novel.

Before turning to mystery fiction, Lewis published short stories, poetry, scholarly articles, and five college textbooks, including Philosophy: An Introduction Through Literature (with Lowell Kleiman, Paragon House, 1992) which is still being used in a number of colleges. This past December, Broadview Press, a Canadian independent, published Templates, a sentence level rhetoric that relates syntax to computer templates.

He continues working in various fiction genres.  His more recent short story publications include “The Visit,” a literary short story in The Chariton Review, “Eagles Rising,” a mystery story in Palo Alto Review, “A Foolish Son,” a historical story published online in the Copperfield Review, and “The King Knew Her Not,” in Green Hills Literary Lantern.

In Search of the American Chestnut

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Richard Fidler is co-editor of Grand Traverse Journal.

The Traverse Traction Company: Our First Bus Service

by Julie Schopieray, local historian and writer

Starting in the mid-1890s, there had been much discussion among the residents of Traverse City about the necessity for a rail line running from Traverse City out Old Mission Peninsula. It was thought that transportation for people residing, resorting and farming on the 20-mile-long peninsula would benefit from such a service. Years passed without the plan ever becoming a reality.  Farmers, residents and resorters would continue to rely on carriages, wagons and livery services offered in Traverse City. 

One last effort to raise funds for the electric railroad was attempted in 1907, but this dream (which had been debated for over a decade) eventually came to an end due to a lack of support. Early in 1905, however, entrepreneur Wm.H. Blake of Cheboygan, chose Traverse City for a new transportation enterprise that might finally resolve the Traverse City to Old Mission issue. The January 1905 edition of Automotive Industries  explained this emerging industry:

One of the greatest fields of usefulness for the commercial automobile undoubtedly will be in the interurban passenger and freight traffic between cities and villages that are not connected by steam or electric railroads. There has been for several years a constant and steadily growing demand for reliable and economical automobile stages and ‘busses for such work, and the effort to fill this want, together with the demand for gasoline delivery wagons and trucks, is just now furnishing the greatest development in the industry.

history-oldsmotorworksAuto manufacturers were looking for ways to expand their sales of these  “mechanical traction” vehicles. [Mechanical traction was a term used at the time to describe a mode of  mechanized transportation rather than that using animal power.] The Olds Motor Works company advertised a Wagonette  designed for exactly the service Mr. Blake envisioned for Traverse City. He saw it as a town that could benefit from “the establishment of the new rival of the electric cars.”   After founding a successful bus service in the downstate town of Chelsea, Blake arranged to have the manager of the commercial department of  Olds Automobile company of Detroit,  come to Traverse City and offer his opinion as to the success of the proposed Traverse City and Peninsula Traction Company.  He found it to be a sound prospect.

With the financial backing of several prominent businessmen, The Traverse Traction Company was organized in June,1905. The company was funded with thirty thousand dollars in stock and subscriptions. Officers and directors were elected with Blake as president and general manager of the company.

history-motorcarThe first vehicle arrived on May 30, coming in from Detroit on the steamer Missouri.  Over the next month, the fleet grew to eleven vehicles– three auto busses used in street car service in town, a second touring car and a twelve-passenger bus available to charter.  Two more busses were scheduled for twice daily service to Old Mission, and three heavy-duty vehicles for hauling freight. These freight wagons were equipped with twenty-four horse power engines, five-inch tires on thirty-six inch wheels and capable of running ten miles per hour. A Saginaw newspaper noted the usefulness of the freight wagons in an area famed for its orchards: “The freight cars will have a capacity of 500 fruit crates each way. As the peninsula is virtually an orchard  eighteen miles long, this will prove a great convenience to the farmers who heretofore have had to haul their produce to the docks.” 

history-fullautoadBeyond the practical value of early trucks, the novelty of the touring cars became a favorite with locals just wanting to get out and take a ride.   The Traverse City Record Eagle took note of the joys of auto touring: The Traverse Traction company…received yesterday a twenty horse power Olds touring car… and will be open to charter by private parties. The car is one of the most handsome in the city and will undoubtedly prove popular with those who like auto riding but do not own a machine… many have taken advantage of it to take the beautiful rides along the bay shore.”

On June 29, a trial run of the Old Mission routes was tested out. The vehicles were loaded up with company stockholders and prospective stockholders as well a newspaper reporter, all eager to experience the bus ride. Indeed, it may have been the first ride in a motorized vehicle for many of them. The trip out and back took an average of two hours and twenty minutes. One car had mechanical problems and had to stop for nearly an hour to make repairs, a common occurrence with early automobiles. The twelve-passenger bus went on its test run the following day, presumably without difficulty.  The trial run had not gone perfectly, but results showed promise.

One issue that came to light during the trial run was the sorry condition of roads.  At the time, rural roads were maintained by the people who used and lived on them.  Pleadingly, the Traction Company asked local farmers to try to keep the roads near their farms in good condition.  For the most part, they were willing to do their part, though some demanded proof the company was serious about providing transportation service to friends, visitors, and family. Even with their compliance, washouts were common, and sand on the road and in soft areas could make it difficult to get through.

Daily Old Mission service began on July 10.  It was scheduled twice daily with fares .75 cents one way or $1.25 round trip. This service was to provide transportation for resorters as well as Peninsula locals wanting to go into town and back. The Traverse City Record Eagle was enthusiastic about the possibilities of success for the new company, “…the facilities for rapid transit which the project provides are certainly attractive, and when the regular street schedule is perfected the service will prove of great convenience and benefit. To the peninsula people the line will be of especial value, both as to convenience of passengers and to quick handling of fruits…in addition to the proposed street and freight service the arrangement is for charter parties to the various resorts is admirable and will be favored during the summer season.”

The Traction Company employed twelve drivers, two wipers, a stenographer, and a chief engineer, who maintained the vehicles. A facility to house and maintain the cars and busses was established in the Boughey building on the corner of State and Cass streets. Large double doors and an approach from the street were added in order to accommodate the busses into the building.  The facility not only serviced the busses, but also operated as a general auto repair shop.

Prominent citizens of Elk Rapids also showed an interest in the bus service and talked with company officials to see if Elk Rapids could be added as a stop on the route.  Everyone could see the advantages of road travel over the horse-and-buggy or even the infrequent trains.

The busses were used for just about any need one would have to get from one place to another: taking people from train depots to resorts on the Peninsula; conveying them to dances, the circus, or other entertainments; or providing a means for chartered group outings.  One car took two doctors from Elk Rapids to deliver a man to the Asylum. Even locals who had cottages at one of the East Bay resorts used the bus service regularly.  It was not only cheaper than keeping a horse, but more convenient.

Only one accident was reported during the summer of 1905. While on its East Bay route, one of the busses hit a tree.  The Record Eagle reported that its top caught some low hanging branches which drove the car into the tree. The top was wrecked, one front wheel sprung and the lights damaged, but no one was hurt. 

The service was successful throughout the summer months, but as tourist season came to a close, the need for the busses dwindled.  Sadly, on September 23, 1905, this posting appeared in the Record-Eagle: “…owing to the decreased traffic, the Traverse Traction company will cease operating their busses tomorrow for the season. It is stated that the busses will be shipped soon to some southern city for the winter.”  The September issue of The Motor Way reported that the company was pleased with the patronage received and the service will probably be repeated next summer.”  Mr. Blake told a Record-Eagle reporter that he liked Traverse City and had considered making it his home. However, the service must not have been profitable enough for the investors, as Mr. Blake stayed in Cheboygan and there is no evidence of the company still existing the following year.   

Bus service in town was not dead, however. In October 1908, Morgan’s livery added an auto bus and a touring car to their fleet, providing service to Edgewood and East Bay resorts in the summer months and were available for hire as well. It took some time for riders to convert from horse-drawn transportation to automobiles. During the years the two modes overlapped, the noisy machines spooked horses, causing runaways and novice drivers sometimes didn’t realize the speed of their machines, resulting in accidents. 

As years passed, the novelty of the “horseless carriage” wore off as automobiles became affordable for just about everyone.  As better roads made travel more predictable and less hazardous, autos forever changed how people traveled. Some tourists began bringing their own machines in on the ships they arrived on, or else braved the uncertain condition of roads and drove themselves up from major centers of population like Chicago or Grand Rapids. Locals too, eventually set aside the old ways and purchased vehicles. Over time, the demand for passenger ship and rail service diminished, finally disappearing altogether–thereby bringing to a close the era of big resorts and summer-long vacation stays in Northern Michigan.

Julie Schopieray is a local historian and writer. She is currently working on a project concerning Jens C. Petersen, a Traverse City architect who practiced in this city from the early 1900s to 1918.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Home at last!


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

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