Tag Archives: Traverse City

Sara T. Chase-Willson: An Early Woman Physician with Modern Ideas

by Julie Schopieray, author and avid researcher

Medicine was in her blood. The daughter of a Civil War surgeon, Sara Thomasina Chase was the first-born child of Dr. Milton Chase who settled in Otsego, Allegan County, Michigan, after the war.  Giving his children a good education after finishing her secondary schooling in Otsego, Sara entered the Ypsilanti Normal School. She graduated in 1891, then taking a position at the Traverse City High School teaching English and science. Teaching until 1896, she decided to follow in her father’s footsteps and entered medical school at the University of Michigan. After her graduation in 1900 at the age of 34, she went back to Otsego and practiced with her father. In 1906, she returned to Traverse City, taking over the office of her cousin, Dr. Oscar E. Chase, while he went back to the University of Michigan for more training. She set up office in the State Bank building where she advertised her practice. 

This 1903 article from the Traverse City Evening Record gives us a glimpse of her ambition and dedication to the practice of medicine as a woman in a man’s world.

Dr. Chase entirely disapproves the old idea, which once was quite prevalent, that a professional woman could not be a womanly woman. She is a physician of no mean ability, and has considerable skill with the needle. She is thoroughly accomplished in household science. She is very fond of outdoor exercise, being an especially fine horsewoman. Still they are outside interests to her, after all, as her heart is in her profession, and it is this that receives first and best thought. [TCER 15 May 1903]

Known to be as good a physician as her male counterparts, she was  be able to handle just about any situation. In 1908 she traveled five miles past the village of Cedar in a blizzard to tend to a patient. The Traverse City Record Eagle reported, “Dr. Sarah T. Chase has a hard trip yesterday afternoon, driving five miles beyond Cedar in the blizzard. She went to Cedar on the train and was met there by a driver. Ten miles in such a storm required nerve even in a man.” (7 Feb. 1908)

Always wanting to improve her skills, in the summer of 1909 she took a six-week break from her practice and attended a special summer school course at U. of M.

Active with the Congregational Church, she served as Sunday School teacher. She often gave lectures on children’s and women’s health at events of the Woman’s Club and Central Mother’s Club. Her lectures were about topics important to the women of Traverse City and covered subjects such as the proper feeding of children and babies and “What to do Until the Doctor Comes,” a lecture about first aid.  As chairman for the public health committee for Grand Traverse County, she often gave talks about various health topics relevant to all citizens:  “The Air We Breathe and the Value of Ventilation,” “Children’s Diseases,” “Suppression of Tuberculosis” as well as sensitive women’s health topics, such as  “Sex Hygiene,” and “The Responsibility of Girlhood to Womanhood.”  The notice for the last talk stated: “No men will be admitted to this lecture.”

Not content just to maintain her practice—or to be pigeon-holed into women’s care only—she became involved in local health-related issues that mattered to the entire community. In 1911 she was instrumental in petitioning the state to pass a bill “requiring licenses for the sale of patent and proprietary medicines by itinerant vendors.” In simple terms, the bill would require licenses for traveling elixir salesmen. She served as meat and milk inspector for the city and reported to the city on sanitary inspections of farms and slaughter houses. As part of her county responsibilities, she acted as secretary for the county Tuberculosis Society.  Dr. Chase was one of the first woman members of the Grand Traverse County Medical Society. In 1907 she accepted the position of secretary of the Society when her associate, Dr. Myrtelle M. Canavan, left for Boston after her husband’s death. She was also a member of the Michigan State Medical Society and a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution (D.A.R.).

Tuberculosis hit Traverse City hard in 1915.  Dr. Chase worked tirelessly as head of the board of the Anti-Tuberculosis Society, a group she helped found.  That organization aimed to improve health conditions by working with others in the medical field and offering free clinics in the city to educate the public about the dreaded disease. She used experimental treatments, publishing her positive results in the American Journal of Clinical Medicine.

In 1920 she accepted a job at the Kalamazoo State Hospital as assistant physician, where she worked until 1922, moving to Port Huron and taking the position of “Great Medical Examiner of the Ladies of the Maccabees”, a post she held for the next seven years.  She assisted with Maccabees clinics for children and was on the board of the Anti-TB Association.

While in Port Huron, she was reacquainted with Harlow Willson, whom she likely knew as a young girl in Otsego. He had been living in Boyne City with his wife Maybell and their children, working as a postman. After the two were divorced in 1924, Dr. Chase and Harlow were married in May, 1926.

A progressive woman, she did not give up her maiden name, instead preferring to use a hyphenated name: Dr. Sara T. Chase-Willson. They were both sixty years old at the time of their marriage– her first and his second.  After their marriage, Harlow and his mother ran Willson’s Garden shop on River Road, while Sara worked for the Ladies of the Maccabees.

During her years in Port Huron, Dr. Chase was actively involved in the Ladies Library Association, fought for child labor laws, and served as an active member of the Ottawawa Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution (D.A.R).  She was a committed member of the Theosophical Society, and, as an expert in that movement, gave speeches on the history of Theosophy. In 1929 she resigned from her position with the Maccabees, but remained active in medical causes.

Around 1941 she and her husband moved to Boyne City where they opened another garden shop and florist business. In 1946 Dr. Chase fell in their home and broke her hip, but fully recovered and continued her volunteer work.  After her husband’s death in 1950, she sold her  Boyne City home and retired to the Maccabee Home in Alma where she died three years later at the age of 87.


It was unusual for a town the size of Traverse City in the early 1900s to have two female physicians. Sara Chase was not the town’s first woman doctor, but she and Dr. Augusta Rosenthal-Thompson each had tirelessly worked serving the people of Traverse City. Their careers only overlapped by a few years toward the end of Dr. Rosenthal-Thompson’s time in the city, but these two pioneers of medicine– amazing women in their own ways–each had an impact in the community, paving the way by their influence and demonstrating that women could successfully work in a career dominated by men.

You can read more about Dr. Rosenthal-Thompson in the book Who We Were, What We Did,  by Richard Fidler.

Julie Schopieray is a regular contributor to Grand Traverse Journal. She is currently working on a biography and architectural history of Jens C. Petersen, once a Traverse City-based architect, who made his mark on many cities in Northern Michigan and California.

Reader Lights Up the Night with a Correct Answer!

The Gamewell system of fire alarm boxes was installed in Traverse City in 1881, one of only 250 cities that had them that early.  Each box could send a message to a central dispatch board which gave the location where the the box was activated.  Currently one box remains–on exhibition–at a place readers might readily guess: Where is it?

Congratulations to Cornelia for correctly answering the Mystery Photo question for December 2016. The last fire alarm box in Traverse City resides at Fire Station No. 1 on West Front Street, beside the main pedestrian entrance. Well done, Cornelia!

We offer kudos to the Traverse City Fire Department which honors its history. Thank you all for your service!

End of an Era: The Old Immaculate Conception School and Church to be Demolished

by Julie Schopieray

For those of us who appreciate the historic architecture of Traverse City, a sad fact is that many of our early buildings no longer exist. For most buildings, it has been either a result of fire or progress. When it comes to our historic schools, it is a combination of both reasons. There is only one remaining pre-1914 school in our town. It too, however, will soon be demolished and replaced. In the upcoming year, plans to raze and replace the Immaculate Conception school have been put in place. 

As early as January 1900, it became apparent that a second Catholic church was needed. The Catholic population of the city had grown dramatically and the St. Francis parish was becoming overcrowded. Many poorer, working class parishioners on the west side of town also felt it was inconvenient to travel so far. By late 1901, there was more talk about a possible new church and school for the west side. This side of town was home to many Bohemian, Polish, French, and German immigrant families who did not all speak English. They voiced their desire to be able to attend services closer to their homes, and  in their own languages. St. Francis only conducted mass in English.

In May 1902, it was decided by a church committee to establish a new parish. It would be called the West Side Catholic Church and school. The Bishop at Grand Rapids appointed Rev. L. Krakowski, who had been associated with the St. Francis church as well as other parishes in the region, to establish a west side congregation and start the process of raising money for a combination church and school building. Fundraising was enthusiastically begun. Oyster suppers were held, plays and performances put on at the City Opera House, ice cream socials, raffles and many Pedro card parties were held, all to raise funds for the new structure. It didn’t happen quickly, however.

After much discussion between committee members, a location was chosen near the corner of Second and Division streets.  In January 1903, Rev. Krakowski went to Grand Rapids to get the official approval of the Bishop for the new church.

Immaculate Conception School on Division Street, photographic postcard, undated. Image courtesy of Traverse Area District Library, image 4817.

For two long years the parish worked to raise money for the proposed $15,000 structure to be designed by local architect, Fred E. Moore. Construction began in the spring of 1905. Contractor Bert Wilhelm supervised the building of architect Moore’s plans. The building plans included plumbing even though there were no water lines or sewers on that part of the west side at the time. It was decided by the City Engineer that temporary water and sewer lines would be extended down Division St. to accommodate the new structure, but, since plans to install city sewers there were not yet in place, “the easiest and cheapest [sewage] outlet would be to build from Second Street to the Asylum Creek at a cost of $150.” [TCRE 8 Aug., 1905]  The building was completed and ready to accommodate students by the beginning of the school year. 

Rev. John J. Sheehan

The Immaculate Conception Church  was officially dedicated on February 22, 1906.  Rt. Rev. Bishop Henry Joseph Richter of Grand Rapids, assisted by seventeen priests of the diocese conducted a four hour service attended by over 700 people.  So many people came that they filled the hall to standing room only. Many who came were not even able to  get in. The new church would have Rev. John J. Sheehan as priest in charge, with the school staffed by the Sisters of Mercy of Big Rapids.  The small parish worked through difficult circumstances, but eventually paid off the mortgage in thirty years and became debt free.

The church and school were operated in this building until it too, became overcrowded. It was always intended to be a temporary situation- having the school and church in one building. By 1951 it was time for more room. “In the last few years the parish has grown…overflow crowds demanded an assistant priest, but even with four masses each Sunday, the church remained overcrowded and the school had to limit its enrollment for lack of necessary classrooms. The only solution was a commodious new church to accommodate the ever increasing throngs and to enable Catholic visitors to attend mass in the summer and  to allow expansion of school facilities.” [TCRE 28 May, 1953]  A campaign began to raise money for a new church. In 1951, Architect Harford Field was hired to design the modern structure. Ground was broken on May 23, 1952, “the cornerstone was laid and the bell blessed on August 10, 1952 in a colorful ceremony presided over by Monsignor R. H. Baker, vicar general of the Grand Rapids diocese. The church was completed and opened for services on Easter Sunday, April 5, with Rev. Passeno saying the first mass.” [TCRE 28 May 1953]  The church was officially dedicated on May 30, 1953.

Seven years later, it was clear that a larger school was critical. The parish officials once again turned to architect Harford Field to design an addition to the school. The new school building would cost over $400,000 and include “eight classrooms, art room, library, music rooms, visual-aid room, general administration offices, cafeteria, kitchen, adult social room and gymnasium-auditorium…” [TCRE 20 May 1961]  At the time, there were over 400 students enrolled in first through eighth grades which were staffed by the Sisters of Mercy as well as lay teachers.

So, fast forward to the present. Once again the Immaculate Conception school has out-grown its facility. In September, 2016, plans were announced that replacement of the 1906 and 1961 buildings was being discussed and brought to the planning commission for review. At that date, $9 million had already been raised for the new  $12 million structure.

Yes, it is sad that another historic building will be demolished, but that is the way of progress. The cost of renovating old buildings to today’s standards  is not  always the best solution, especially when so much more space is needed. This has been the consistent history for the majority of our old schools. Most were demolished during the 1950s because they had become out-grown, out-dated and just not in line with modern school needs and standards. So, the last of the city’s pre-1914 schools will soon be a memory, but the new building will be an attractive asset to the community and will meet the needs of the school and parish.

Traverse City “Record-Eagle” September 23, 2016

Though not the very first school buildings in the city, these were the first brick structures:

Elmwood School–1892- 1956 (razed)
Oak Park School, Rose & Webster streets–1895-1955 (razed)
Boardman School- 1890-1913- burned, but replaced in 1914- (still standing- Ida M. Tompkins administration building)   In May, 2016 was also being considered for demolition.
Union Street School–1904-1959-(razed)
Central School 1877-  additions in  1885 and 1924,  burned in 1934 and rebuilt in 1936. (Currently Central Elementary)
West Side Catholic- Immaculate Conception- 1906- 2018?

Oak Park School, image courtesy of the Traverse Area District Library.
Elmwood Avenue School, Traverse City, photographic postcard. Image courtesy of Traverse Area District Library.
Boardman School, ca. 1915, image courtesy of Traverse Area District Library.
Union Street School, undated, image courtesy of the Traverse Area District Library.
Central Grade School, ca. 1890s. Image courtesy of Traverse Area District Library.

Julie Schopieray is a regular contributor to Grand Traverse Journal.

Miss Edna Wilhelm, Carnival Queen of 1900

A mystery photograph was discovered in the depths of the local history collection at Traverse Area District Library. The image was of a young woman, finely arrayed in a crown and cape, the picture of regal. Our only clues: the photographer’s studio (E.N. Moblo of Traverse City,) and a name written in white (Edna Regina).

Who is she, and why the get-up? Researcher Julie Schopieray had to know. Fortunately, the digitized newspapers collection revealed further clues. In the November 4, 1900 edition of The Morning Record (a predecessor newspaper to the Traverse City Record-Eagle), a brief article announced to the public that “Photographer Moblo has completed an elegant photograph, 11×14, of Miss Edna Wilhelm, arrayed in the beautiful costume she wore as queen of the Carnival on the night of the third of July.”

This revelation blew the case open. Traverse City did indeed host a three-day carnival on July 3-5, 1900. It must have been a well-anticipated event, as both the steam ships and the trains ran special routes for the occasion. The Silver Brothers’ New Tent Novelty Show and Great Trained Animal Exhibition traveled north to provide entertainment to the masses. All manner of street and Caledonian games were played throughout the city, and at least two parades and “the most brilliant display of Fireworks ever seen in Northern Michigan” were sure signs that the City was out to have a good time.

Edna was crowned Queen of the Carnival at a grand reception in the City Opera House, featuring a 14-piece orchestra. From there, she and her suite rode in the “illuminated parade” through town. The parade organizers promised “some surprises… never before seen in this part of the state.” The evening culminated in a reception and ball at the City Opera House. On the 5th, Queen Edna reigned over the Traverse City Driving Park’s horse racing events from her “position of state in the grand stand.” The newspaper announced that her reign “was short but brilliant and triumphant.”

Perhaps even more thrilling than the Carnival itself was the race for the Queenship, an elected position. Such was the furor of the election, that votes were announced every half an hour, starting in the early evening and not finishing until 10 o’clock that night. Edna won by a large margin, receiving 3,423 votes. After her came Miss Minnie Rattenbury, with only 1,216 votes to her cause. Each dollar donated to offset the cost of the Carnival equaled one vote. One “anonymous” gentleman (although the newspaper identified him, based on the thickness of his voting envelope) placed $253 in Edna’s tally box, no small sum in 1900!

How was the news received? According to The Morning Record, “As soon as the result was announced there was a cheer and immediately there was a rush for the door. The band began a march and a line was formed in the street. In a few moments the crowd started for the residence of Miss Wilhelm where that lady was cordially congratulated upon the result of the contest and a serenade was given.” We can only imagine the glow on Edna’s cheeks upon seeing the throngs serenading her on her own doorstep!

The Carnival Committee was bound to prepare a fine celebration, paying attention to all the details, not the least of which was Queen Edna’s apparel. The “regal robes and crown” were acquired at once, and the Committee was quoted on the matter, stating “it is a foregone conclusion that the magnificence of her apparel will excel anything ever seen in this city.” By the photograph that remains, we agree with the Committee: fine attire for a fine lady.

Edna was a woman with moxie, it seems. In addition to performing her duties as queen admirably, she was the chief operator for Citizens Telephone, and she once saved the books of that business from going up in flames in a 1901 fire. She was the daughter of Frank and Anna Wilhelm, and sister to Gilbert and Blanche Violet.


November 11, 1896: Traverse City’s Worst Fire

November 11, 1896

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.

Front Street Hotel, from the "F.E. Walker Business Directory, 1894." This is the only know image of the Hotel.
Front Street Hotel, from the “F.E. Walker Business Directory, 1894.” This is the only know image of the Hotel.

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.

Image of the "Queen City No. 1" Fire Engine, from the "Grand Traverse Herald."
Image of the “Queen City No. 1” Fire Engine, from the “Grand Traverse Herald.”

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.

Image of the 1896 fire, actively burning frame buildings on the north side of Front Street. From the Local History Collection, Traverse Area District Library.
Image of the 1896 fire, actively burning frame buildings on the north side of Front Street. From the Local History Collection, Traverse Area District Library.

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.

After the fire. Can you spot the fire-proof safes in the rubble? Their owners must have been pleased by their foresight. Images from the S.E. Wait Glass Plate Negative Collection, Traverse Area District Library.
After the fire. Can you spot the fire-proof safes in the rubble? Their owners must have been pleased by their foresight. Images from the S.E. Wait Glass Plate Negative Collection, Traverse Area District Library.

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.

Image courtesy of the author, November 2016.

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.

Cecil H. Dill, Hand Musician and Celebrity of Traverse City

Meet Cecil H. Dill (27 October 1900-3 November 1989), “The Farmer Who Makes Music with His Hands.” Dill was an aspiring radio performer, who had an interesting talent… the ability to squeeze his hands together and play melodies, mostly of popular tunes of the day.

His parents, Jennie McEwan (d. 22 January 1960) and William H. Dill (d. 22 July 1966), were married in Grand Traverse County in 1899, and spent most of their married life alongside their children Cecil, Dorothy (d. 22 December 1972) and Joan, in Traverse City. According to census records, William briefly operated a farm in Blair Township, probably about 1930 to 1938 or so.

In 1939, William purchased Novotny’s Saloon on Union Street in Old Town, Traverse City, and renamed the establishment “Dill’s Olde Towne Saloon,” which became a favorite watering hole for locals and visitors alike. William had a long career in bartending, with only his brief farming career as the exception.

Like his father, Cecil usually made his living with his hands. During the holidays, he often sold balsam and cedar wreaths, and began taking orders in the end of October, showing the popularity of his work. Over the years, he offered junk removal and other light draying services to the community as well, sometimes partnering with Goldie Wagner (d. 16 April 1986).

But, before his father opened Dill’s Saloon, Cecil was still working the family farm when he discovered his unique musical abilities (I’ll let Cecil tell you in his own words in the embedded video exactly how he developed his talent). Cecil was able to sell his talent to various performers, most notably Ted Weems, the bandleader who would provide Perry Como his first national exposure. Cecil played with the Ted Weems Orchestra in Chicago, and was thoroughly applauded by all those present. According to a Chicago Tribune article of the event, Cecil stole the show.

The years of 1933-1934 saw the height of Cecil’s popularity. He played with Ted Weems, as well as bandleader Hal Kemp. He made appearances at other venues in Chicago and in Hollywood nightclubs. His performances were written up in Chicago and Detroit newspapers, as well as Vanity. He palmed his fame all the way to the National Farm and Home radio hour, and a Universal Pictures newsreel (below), both of which provided Cecil with national exposure.

Although his fame was short-lived, Cecil would continue to play throughout his life, showing up various variety events in Traverse City. Cecil’s Universal Pictures newsreel is the earliest known recording of Manualism, that is, the art of playing music by squeezing air through the hands. By all accounts, that makes Cecil the first “Manualist,” although I suspect this musical style has a long and varied history, as least as old as clapping.

The last of Cecil’s life was plagued with health problems. The Traverse City Record-Eagle reported of his ill-health several times. On Tuesday, October 10, 1961,  Cecil, living at 229 Wellington, was admitted to Munson. He had been dining at Bill Thomas’ Restaurant at 130 Park Street, when he fell ill. A “resuscitator unit” from the fire department was called to his aid, and the newspaper report stated he “suffered from an apparent heart attack.” He suffered additional bouts of illness that required hospitalization in 1970 and 1973, but ultimately lived to the ripe age of 89.

Enjoy Cecil’s rendition of “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” and the story of his talent, made available by the Internet Archive. This video is in the Public Domain, meaning there are no copyright restrictions, so please share out.





Amy Barritt is co-editor of Grand Traverse Journal.

The Five Wharfs of the Bay: a 1938 Study of Traverse City’s Land Use

A quality scholarly study is a valuable tool for any researcher, which is why so many reports, dissertations, and the like, have been preserved by Traverse Area District Library, Traverse Area Historical Society, and Northwestern Michigan College.

This piece of scholarship comes to us from Allen Belden, a student at the University of Oklahoma in 1938. His work, title “Land Utilization in Traverse City, Michigan,” provides a fairly detailed snapshot of land use at the time. This excerpt focuses specifically on transportation opportunities, especially the various points along the bay shore used by various companies. Maybe one of our readers is interested in updating this study?:

“The Transportation Patterns

Probably the most basic land use features of present-day Traverse City are its transportational forms. These lend themselves to a ready classification into three sub-types, namely, wharves, railways, and Streets. The patterns of these will be described and discussed separately.

Wharves: In Traverse City the facilities for waterway transportation consist of five wharves at which boats larger than very small craft, such as rowboats, may dock. Four of these are on the bay side of the peninsula formed by West Bay and Boardman River where they are centrally located along the city’s waterfront. The fifth wharf also is on West Bay, but it stands alone about one block east of the mouth of the Boardman River. From west to east these wharves are the Hannah, Lay and Company wharf, the J.C. Morgan Company wharf, two municipal wharves, and the Cherry Growers Canning Company wharf.

West Bay harbor. Perhaps a reader with a better eye for boats can help us date this photograph? Send responses to gtjeditor@tadl.org
West Bay harbor. Perhaps a reader with a better eye for boats can help us date this photograph? Send responses to gtjeditor@tadl.org

Only a meager use is made of any of these wharves at present. Hannah, Lay and Company, distributors of coal and building supplies, use their wharf to receive and store coal. The J.C. Morgan Company, cherry and apple canners, receives shipments of coal by water. The westermost municipal wharf has on it a little-used public warehouse. The municipal wharves together enclose a small harbor which is used during the summer by small pleasure craft. Signs there advertise “Boats For Rent” and “Deep Sea Fishing”. The Cherry Growers Canning Company wharf is used not only to receive coal but occasionally also to ship canned cherries.

The present utilization of Traverse City’s shoreline for waterway transportation facilities is meager for several reasons. Grand Traverse Bay is about 30 miles long, and the city, which is at the inland ends of the bay, is not close to frequently used Great Lakes shipping lanes. The city’s commercial and manufacturing establishments are small, and in most cases they ship and receive goods in the less than boat-load quantities. Railways and trucks can transport small quantities of goods more efficiently than can lake boats. The number of places that can be reached by lake boat without extra bulk-breaking is small in comparison with the number of places that can be so reached by highway or railway. The southern end of West Bay, although better than the southern end of East Bay, is not a good harbor. It is more than two miles wide and exposed to the full force of northerly winds. The depth of water at the end of Hannah, Lay and Company wharf, which is three hundred feet long and extends into West Bay at right angles to the shoreline, is only thirteen and one-half feet. It is so shallow that none but the smallest of Great Lakes cargo vessels (2800 tons) may safely dock. Even these must partially unload before completely docking. In addition, Grate Lakes transportation is interrupted during about six months of each year because of cold inters. These conditions limit the use made of the present wharves and discourage construction of additional ones.

Other water bodies are even less used than West Bay. Boardman River and Boardman Lake are not navigable by boats larger than rowboats. An abandoned dam with a fall of six feet, between Cass and Union Streets, is an effective barrier even to these. The shoreline of East Bay is considerably shallower than that of West Bay and otherwise has the same disadvantages to shipping.

“Traverse City’s first important industry,” according to Belden. Here is a fantastic image of the Hannah and Lay sawmill on the bay with the Boardman River in the foreground. Logs are banked and in the river. This was a steam powered mill with wood scraps providing the fuel for the boiler. The tall rocket shaped item is the sawdust burner. However, the date is incorrect. The mill was built in 1852. But, one can get a sense of the advantages this location provided for industry, as described by Belden. Image courtesy of Traverse Area District Library, 718.000000.493.

In spite of the scant use of Traverse City’s waterfronts for waterway transportation facilities, the shoreline where the present wharves are located has advantages over others. The most significant factor affecting the location of all but the Cherry Growers Canning Company wharf is that the shoreline so used has from the start been centrally located with respect to trade and industry within the city. Traverse City’s first important industry was the Hannah, Lay and Company sawmill which was built on the peninsula between West Bay and Boardman River near the northern end of what is now Union Street in 1852. This company cut logs in the Boardman River basin in winter and floated them downstream to the mill in spring. The logs were fed into the mill from the river bank, and then manufactured lumber was loaded into the stern hatches of timber boats which docked a few yards away on West Bay. This was an admirable arrangement, since it reduced the handling of logs and lumber on land to a minimum. No other site in or near Traverse City had comparable advantages for such an industry. later, when railways entered the city, in 1872, 1890, and 1891, their chief objective was this mill, and the site of the early lumber wharves became a contact point for railway and waterway transportation as well as a focal point for railways. Because of this and the fact that Boardman River has been bridged by two north-south streets to improve the accessibility of the peninsula from the south and east, commercial and manufacturing establishments were attracted to the vicinity of the old mill. Even today this area is centrally located with respect to land transportation routes, and , for that reason, such companies as use Great Lakes shipping find the location favorable for wharves.

Cherry Growers Canning Company, aerial view from 1947, shows wharf and railroad spur. TADL Historical Society Collection, 3303.
Cherry Growers Canning Company, aerial view from 1947, shows wharf and railroad spur. Image courtesy of Traverse Area District Library, 3303.

The Cherry Growers Canning Company wharf is now and, except for the fact that it is not located near the heart of the city’s transportation pattern, enjoys all of the advantages of the older wharves. A special spur was needed to give it railway accessibility, however.”

Historic Strip Mall Identified and Dated!

Congratulations to Betsy, our August “Mystery Photo” champ, who correctly identified the Eastfield Plaza on Eighth Street! As to the date, would you guess the mall opened in the 1950s?

“Preposterous!,” you might say. Well, check out our October 2016 issue for a full history of this little shopping district gem, to be written by our fellow editor, Richard Fidler. As a teaser, a real, live pony was involved in the naming of the plaza… how can that be? Stay tuned!

Union Street at the Bay: Two Views Separated by Time

Overview of the north Union Street bridge over the Boardman River taken from the tower of the Traverse City State bank. Steamer ”Puritan” on the bay, ca. 1910-20. Image courtesy of Traverse Area District Library, Local History Collection.
Overview of the north Union Street bridge over the Boardman River taken from the tower of the Traverse City State bank. Steamer ”Puritan” on the bay, ca. 1910-20. Image courtesy of Traverse Area District Library, Local History Collection.

Taken from third floor of the Fifth Third Bank building (formerly, the Traverse City State Bank), two photographs taken more than a hundred years apart tell us about the dramatic changes Traverse City has experienced with regard to its water front.  The older picture shows a waterfront dominated by industry and the railroads.  The original Morgan canning plant, looking like an A-frame, occupies space at the very end of Union Street.  The railroad station stands to the left, tracks running along the Bay in either direction.  Ramshackle frame stores line the east side of Union, north of the northern-most bridge over the Boardman River. 

View from Fifth Third Bank at 102 W Front Street, looking north. Image courtesy of the author.
View from Fifth Third Bank at 102 W Front Street in April 2016, looking north. Image courtesy of the author.

The recent picture startles us with its emptiness: no railroad station, no manufacturing plants, no railroad tracks.  Open space and parking lots take their places, along with an expressway (Grandview Parkway), and a marina, with slips unoccupied on this early spring day. 

Suitably, the Visitors Center replaces the train station, a change symbolic of how the Bay has come to be seen.  No longer was it regarded as a place to load and unload the stuff of industry.  Instead, it became a place to appreciate natural beauty in all four seasons.  But the capitulation of space to provide for the needs of automobiles poses a contradiction: Can the noise and fumes of cars coexist with the fragile beauty of the Bay?  City residents hold starkly different opinions.