A Michigan Boyhood


According to the Bible, a city that is set upon a hill cannot be hid. We used to repeat that text often, and I suppose we were a little smug and self-righteous about it; our city was built upon a hill, and if it was visible to all men it had been meant from the first to be a sign and a symbol of a better way of life, an outpost of the New Jerusalem sited in backwoods vacancy to show people the way they ought to go. To be sure, it was not exactly a city. It was in fact the tiniest of country villages, containing probably no more than 350 inhabitants, and it has grown no larger to this day. And the hill on which it was built was not really much of a hill. It was a small, flat plateau rising less than two hundred feet above the surrounding country, with a placid lake to the north, a narrow valley containing an insignificant creek to the east, and gentle slopes coming up from a broad river valley to the west and south. It was not impressive to look at, although it commanded some pleasant views and it was high enough to get a cooling breeze on all but the hottest summer days.

The name of this town was Benzonia, and when we tried to tell strangers about it we usually had trouble because most people refused to believe that there was any such word. Like the town itself, the name had been selfconsciously contrived. The story we were always told- and as far as I know it was perfectly true—had it that this name was a Greek-Latin hybrid put together by learned men who wanted a word that would mean “good air.” That was fair enough. The air was good there, and there was no harm in saying so. But most people seemed to think that the word was a corruption of something the Potawatomi Indians or the French traders had left behind them. When Americans founded towns here they usually gave them plain names, like Thompsonville, or Elberta, or Empire.

The town had been founded as an act of faith. In a two-hundred-mile radius it was probably the only town that had not been established by men who wanted to cash in on the lumber boom. All around the state the little settlements were springing up, and the reason for their existence was always the same—cut the pine trees down, float the logs down the rivers, put a sawmill at the river mouth to turn the logs into boards, load the boards on schooners or swaybacked little steamboats, ship them off to Chicago or to Buffalo, and keep it up as long as the timber lasts. Once the trees are gone, dismantle the mills and move on; and if some of the people cannot get away, they may stay on and try hardscrabble farming among the stumps. Life in lumber towns had an active present but no future to speak of. The lumber town was much like the mining camp. It was not going anywhere.

But our town was different. It was put there by men who believed that there was going to be a future, and who built for it. When they looked about them they saw people instead of trees; what was going on, as far as they were concerned, was not so much the reduction of pine logs to sawn timber as the foundation of a human society. They believed in the competence and benevolent intent of divine Providence, and with certain reservations they had faith in the men through whom the purpose of Providence was to be worked out. We were all put on earth to serve that purpose; therefore it was all-important to show everyone what that purpose was and how it could best be served. People had to be educated. They needed a light for their feet, and the light could come only from a Christian education. Benzonia was founded by people who thought that the fringe of a boundless forest was just the place to start a college. A college town it was, from its beginning in 1857, laid out and built at a time when the entire county in which it was situated contained no more than five hundred inhabitants.

The college was called Grand Traverse College, the newest and tiniest one in a struggling new state. Its assets were small, because the cash value of cut-over timberland in that part of Michigan just then was not great. If this college was to accomplish anything at all, the faith of the men who founded it had to be translated somehow into works. A great deal would depend on the spirit that moved in the breasts of the men who had brought town and college into being.

These men were intensely logical. They believed in the perfectibility of human society, and a man who held that belief must of course do what he could to bring perfection about. It was not enough to exhort people to lead a better life; you had to lead a better life yourself, and do it in such a way that all men would see it. If society was to lift itself by its bootstraps, your place to begin was with your own bootstraps. Life in a community dedicated to this belief is apt to be rather special, and it was so in our town. Growing up in Benzonia was just a little bit like growing up with the Twelve Apostles for next-door neighbors. You never could forget what you were here for.