Port Huron —For Michiganians, it’s all too easy to become almost immune to the charm of vast stretches of lake and sky and a brisk, watery breeze.
It takes someone from a landlocked state to remind us why people would travel for days in sweltering trains, trams and steamers to bask on one of our lakes in the summer. Someone like author Douglas Scott Brookes.
“There is nothing like a Michigan summer sky,” said Brookes, gazing at the pillowy clouds drifting over Lake Huron last week. As a cool wind blows in from the lake, Brookes sits on the porch of his family’s 19th-century lakefront cottage here with his two feisty Jack Russell terrier mixes and a Lab.
“There’s something about being in a place like this that frees you to dream and think about your life,” said Brookes , 63. “The lake, the clouds, the fact that there is an open horizon, which you can’t see in the city. You can hear birdsong in the morning, you can hear the wind.”
Brookes comes from a St. Louis family that started summering on Lake Huron in the 1890s. His family was one of many from Missouri who made their way to the beaches just north of Port Huron, and he’s written a book about that cross-state cottage culture, “Up North: St. Louis’s Summer Colonies on Lake Huron in the Golden Age of Travel” (Missouri History Museum/University of Chicago Press).
We’ve heard about the towns along west Michigan’s shoreline known for clusters of Chicagoans, and Ernest Hemingway’s Illinois-based family traveling to their Walloon Lake cottage every summer via trains, steamships and finally, a farmer’s wagon over a rutted road.
Bay View, north of Petoskey, was settled in the 19th century by Methodists from many states. And starting in the 1910s, African-Americans started going to Idlewild, a bucolic lake community in western Michigan that offered refuge and recreation in those segregated times.
Brookes decided to write a book when he realized that nobody had documented how it came to be that St. Louis families were drawn to spend long summers in cottages at two communities on Lake Huron: Gratiot Beach and long-gone Huronia Beach. Even today, his next door neighbor is a St. Louis native.
Credit “the vast blue horizon of Lake Huron that soothed the eyes, freed the imagination, and challenged the lucky sod standing on its shore to dream,” as Brookes writes in his book.
But also, as he points out, St. Louis was the fourth-largest city in the United States in 1900, much larger than Detroit, which hadn’t had its auto-related growth spurt yet. There were many families in bustling St. Louis with the money and time to travel, and in the late 19th century, the concept of the summer vacation was catching on with Americans.
What the 19th-century person saw as ease of transportation by train and steamer helped fuel a boom in summer travel.
“There was sleeper car service from St. Louis all the way to Port Huron,” Brookes said. “Or you could take the train to Detroit, and take the steamer Tashmoo up to Port Huron.”
Brookes’ father would get off the sleeper car in Detroit at Michigan Central station, go down to the foot of Woodward by streetcar to catch the Tashmoo to Port Huron, where he would walk the four blocks and hop the Huron Avenue trolley to “the beaches.”
Once you got to Gratiot or Huronia Beach, the cottage accomodations were rustic, in the tradition of the day (the hotel rooms at the Windermere and the Gratiot Inn offered a bit more luxury). But to escape muggy, congested St. Louis and sit on Lake Huron with the rush of a lake breeze in your face was like heaven to residents of the humid South.
“They would marvel at the icy winds, something that makes people in Michigan cringe,” said Brookes with a laugh.
“They called it coming ‘up north,’ and obviously it must have been cooler for them,” said his neighbor Marcia Porte-Phillips of the St. Louis contingent. “It’s funny for us to call it ‘up north’; we think of that as northern Michigan. But a lot of those families are still coming back. They're all related to each other up and down here. One lady is in her 90s. She’s been coming up here (from St. Louis) since she was a baby.”
As an academic — Brookes writes books about the Ottoman Empire and teaches Turkish history classes at the University of California-Berkeley — he’s used to spending hours in dusty basements poring over documents and microfilm. He did a lot of his research for “Up North” at the Port Huron library, reading microfilm copies of the Times Herald. Of particular interest were the summer beach gossip columns that ran during the heyday of the beaches.
It was from those old newspaper stories, and from the diaries and letters of his grandmother Agnes Greene Brookes, that the author gathered details of the activities of those long ago summer days depicted in photos from his family’s collection.
“It was like putting in a telephone line to the long-dead merrymakers in the photographs,” Brookes wrote. “Maybe their words could reveal the secret that made their faces beam with wonder, or gaze serenely, even gratefully, as though something about the lazy summer days at the beach had bathed them in bliss.”
In an era when there were no screens to watch, there was dancing, taffy-pulls, cake walks, baby parades, “backwards parties” (participants would wear their clothing backward), baseball and basketball games, weenie roasts, horseback riding, bicycle riding and, of course, swimming and boating.
Why did so many from St. Louis cluster in Gratiot Beach and Huronia?
“It sounds strange to us today, but people used to travel with their business associates or friends,” Brookes said.
In 1880, Huronia Beach was the first to be settled just north of Port Huron with local entrepreneurs buying up the lakefront property and putting small wooden cottages just 12 feet apart on the lots. Land agent Marcus Young ballyhooed “Huronia Beach Camp” in newspaper ads aimed at prospective vacationers living in Cincinnati and Columbus, Ohio; Kansas City, Mo.; Louisville, Ky.; and Detroit, but he had the most success luring St. Louis families (that didn’t change until the late teens, when Detroiters outnumbered those from St. Louis).
Gratiot Beach, just north of Huronia, was divided into 59 lots in 1885, which the developers sold to the public, and cottages started appearing on the lots that year. Although they were privately owned, they were close together and had a common sidewalk in front.
For the point of these 19th-century vacationers wasn’t to get away from civilization but rather to cluster with people and socialize in a rustic, natural setting. The “tired mothers” Young spoke of in his ads could relax on their porches and talk to their cottage neighbors, while children would have playmates.
By the time Brookes started coming to the family cottage in the 1950s, the distance from St. Louis was the same — “630 miles,” Brookes said — but by then they were coming by passenger car.
Cottage life in “the beaches” evolved over the years. The Huronia cottages were torn down in 1919 when the original owner’s son defaulted on a loan. And the hotels — the Winderemere and the Gratiot Inn — both fell, the first to fire and the latter, in 1969, to the wrecker’s ball, the victim of changing vacation styles.
No longer did regional travelers want to journey more than a day to stay for a week or more, when they could fly to just about anywhere in the United States.
“It’s been gone for so long. The heyday of that, as Doug points out in his book, ended around 1920,” said Brookes’ friend and former next door neighbor, lifelong lakefront resident Ed Moore, 84. “There are still a few cottages (of that vintage) left along the beach,” Moore said. “But with so many of them, the lake property became so valuable, it’s nothing for them to ask upwards of a million bucks for a 50-foot lot. That beach is so valuable, somebody could buy an old cottage, tear it down and build something palatial, and that’s what happened.”
Some of the retreats stayed in the original families, some were snapped up by families from Michigan, Ohio and other states.
On a recent trip to take his three dogs to the veterinarian near the beaches, Brookes was greeted by a staffer.
“Oh, yes, your family has been here for a long time,” the receptionist said.
“Since 1895,” Brookes said.
Read more about it
“Up North: St. Louis’s Summer Colonies on Lake Huron in the Golden Age of Travel” by Douglas Scott Brookes (Missouri History Museum/University of Chicago Press) is available at Barnes & Noble, 4325 24th Ave., Fort Gratiot Township and at amazon.com.
Suggested reading about the history of summer enclaves and cottage culture in Michigan:
■“Vintage Views of the Charlevoix-Petoskey Region” by Christine Byron and Tom Wilson.
■“The Belvedere Club, Charlevoix, Michigan: Memoirs of Members 1878-1968” by the Belvedere Club.
■“Historic Cottages on Mackinac Island” by Susan Stites.
■“View from the Veranda: The History and Architecture of the Summer Cottages on Mackinac Island” by Phil Porter.
■“Mackinac Island: Three Hundred Years of History” by Robert E. Benjamin
■“Snapshots — A Saugatuck Album: A Photographic History of Saugatuck, Michigan” by James Schmiechen and William Kemperman.
■Huron Mountain Club: The First Hundred Years by Archer Mayor, Murray Dodge, Rosemary Dykema and Martha Farlow.
■“Picturing Hemingway’s Michigan” by Michael Federspiel.
■“Bay View: An American Idea” by Mary Jane Doerr and Philip P. Mason.
■“Beneath the Beeches: The Story of Bay View, Michigan” by John A. Weeks.
■“Black Eden: The Idlewild Community” by Lewis Walker and Benjamin C. Wilson.