Like so many bar stories, one about Hemingway in Grand Rapids just not true
“All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” — Ernest Hemingway
Comstock Park – — You can see it in your mind: Ernest Hemingway leans into a wooden bar in a pub near the railroad line passing Grand Rapids. He takes breaks here on travels north, observing patrons who would become characters in the great author’s writing.
“Best of all it still looks like the kind of place where ‘Papa’ would enjoy holding down a bar stool,” Norma Lewis wrote in her new book, “Lost Restaurants of Grand Rapids.”
There’s just one problem.
“It’s not true,” said Nick Fink IV, the last in four generations of namesakes who owned what is touted as Grand Rapids’ longest-serving bar.
This is how local lore was picked up unchecked by a business association, became known to the bar’s restaurant-chain operator, repeated to an author, ended up in a new book — and legend was sheathed as fact.
Hemingway, the hard-drinking adventurer, lived as a child in Oak Park, Illinois. He traveled often with his family to their summer home near Petoskey. The Upper Peninsula was the backdrop to his “Nick Adams” short stories. He would eventually win the Nobel Prize for works such as “The Old Man and the Sea.”
About the same time, Nick Fink’s was flourishing in a tannery town with five bars and a state fish hatchery. Activities here are legendary, of bootleg booze, a brothel.
The bar on Grand Rapids’ north side, west of the Grand River, was bought in 2008 by the Gilmore Group, which controls 21 restaurants with local roots.
The long wooden bar has been refurbished. Gold and black velvet wallpaper is still there, and the red and black faux leather booths have been restored.
Carved initials scour table tops. Generations have paused at this turn-of-the-century mainstay.
A myth becomes fact
Community reporter Kathy Bush and her Zumba class often end up at Fink’s. “Isn’t that a hoot,” she says. Bush says she heard of the Hemingway link from a retired teacher knowledgeable about area history. Bush wrote an article for the Comstock Park Downtown Development Authority.
Matt Rule, manager of Fink’s, learned about the story from Bush. A Facebook post was put up, then taken down after reader questions.
Rule and others at Gilmore relayed the story to local author Lewis, who was researching her “Lost Restaurants” book, released Nov. 30.
“Ernest Hemingway made a point of stopping there while traveling from Oak Park, Illinois, to his family’s summer home on Walloon Lake, near Petoskey, Michigan,” she wrote. “He is said to have based some of the characters in his Nick Adams stories on men he met at Nick Fink’s.”
The claim was picked up by local news outlets.
“I would never have known that on my own,” said Lewis, who has published nine books, mostly on the history of the region. “It makes sense though, doesn’t it? The rail line to northern Michigan ran right by there.”
A Hemingway expert says it does not make sense.
“The account is really, really highly unlikely,” said Michael Federspiel, a Central Michigan University history professor who wrote the coffee-table book “Picturing Hemingway’s Michigan.”
First, Hemingway’s extensive personal writings mention no ties to Grand Rapids, he said. Second, the future author was not yet known; there was no reason to remember him.
Finally, Hemingway’s time in Michigan was mostly as a young boy at the family’s cottage. To get there, the family alternated between ferries and the GR&I railroad.
“There is no indication that I know of that he spent any time stopped off in between destinations as he was almost always traveling with his family and/or pressed to get to his destination. In that he had no family or friends in the Grand Rapids area, I do not know what could have motivated him to be there,” Federspiel said.
“Don’t forget too that by the time he was 20, his Michigan travels were largely over. Before that he would have been an underage boy traveling with his parents (who were decidedly anti-drinking).”
Federspiel said Hemingway sightings and associations abound.
“Once he became world famous, these sprouted up and often have simply been accepted even if they were not true (or even impossible). They tend to be good for business.’’
Matt Dowdy, creative director for the restaurant group, said that is not the case with Fink’s. “I don’t feel like we were trying to capitalize on this,” he said. “Had I known, I probably would have.”
Nick Fink IV has his own theory about why such myths persist. “People lie,” he said. “I’ve heard everything, that there are ghosts, that Al Capone visited there. People tell me stuff that I’ve never heard of.”
John Barnes is a freelance writer in west Michigan.