A Michigan Boyhood


In a way this was uncomfortable. To meet the nagging problems of this world while you are thinking about the requirements of the next one does not always come easily; nor does constant preoccupation with such matters make you popular with your neighbors. Benzonia was not well liked by the rest of the county. We were suspected of thinking ourselves better than other folk, and of having standards that were too high for any earthly use; and probably there was something in it. I remember one time a baseball team from a nearby town came over to play our team. Our team was badly beaten, and afterward I watched a wagonload of out-of-town fans start off on the homeward trip. These people were jubilant, and a woman sitting beside the driver called out gaily: “We came here to see Benzony get trimmed, and by Jolly they did get trimmed.” This was bad to hear. There was malice in it; furthermore, the woman had said “by Jolly,” which was simply a thin disguise for “by Golly.” No one knew just what “Golly” was a euphemism for, but it clearly was some sort of profanity, and no woman in Benzonia would have used the word. It appeared that the children of darkness had triumphed over the sons of light.

For our part, we returned the favor. We were, I suppose, annoyingly conscious that we were the sons of light, and now and then we were disturbed because the children of darkness seemed to be in the majority. I remember once when there was some sort of county election: local option, I suppose, in which the voters were asked to say whether the sale of alcoholic liquors should be prohibited. Benzonia supported the measure, but most of the rest of the county opposed it, and in the election Benzonia was roundly beaten. A few days afterward a citizen met my father on the street and asked him how he felt about the way the election had gone.

“I feel like Lazarus,” said Father.

“Like Lazarus?”

“Like Lazarus,” Father repeated. “According to the Bible, Lazarus was licked by dogs.”

So much for the opposition.

Preoccupation with the requirements of the next world not only makes popularity hard to come by but also fails to fit one for the things that are going to happen in this one. Our little community was never quite able to make a go of Grand Traverse College, although some progress was made, to be sure. A few years after instruction was first offered in someone’s living room, a two-story frame building was put up, containing a chapel, a study hall, and several recitation rooms; but after no more than five years of use, this building took fire one night and was utterly destroyed. In my boyhood there was a legend about this: some unregenerate students, it was said, had hidden in this building after dark, when it was untenanted, to indulge in the forbidden vice of smoking, and had clumsily set the place on fire. There was a moral lesson in this. We were against smoking, not so much because it wasbadforthe health as because it was morally wrong, and it seemed only natural that erring young men, guided into self-indulgence by the devil, should burn down a college. I do not know whether there was a shred of truth in this tale, but the college did have to start over again.

It did this by taking over a three-story frame building on the eastern edge of the campus. This building was known as East Hall, and for a couple of decades it was the entire college plant. To it, each year, came a handful of young people seeking an education; to them, each year, the college gave the best it had to offer, which obviously was not very good. The general level of instruction probably was about equal to that of an ordinary small-town high school. Year in and year out, the college had virtually no money at all, and the trustees and settlers had to scratch hard to keep the modest bills paid. The place was dreadfully isolated; I don’t suppose there is a town between Canada and Mexico, today, that is as far away from everything as Benzonia was in the seventies and eighties. There was no railroad within many miles, in the long winters steamboat service on Lake Michigan was either nonexistent or extremely erratic, and communication with the outer world depended entirely on a stagecoach line from Manistee, thirty miles to the south, to Traverse City, thirty miles to the northeast.

Hardly anyone beyond the range of that stagecoach had ever heard of Grand Traverse College. Most of the students left after a year or two and went off to become schoolteachers in western Michigan lumber towns, and in a way the little college justified its existence by giving them all the training they ever got. But the output was thin and the outlook was dark. The good people who had founded the college tried hard, but they had little to show for their efforts.