- Historic Sites
A Michigan Boyhood
SECOND OF FOUR INSTALLMENTS A FAMOUS HISTORIAN RECALLS THE COUNTRY WHERE HE GREW UP
April 1972 | Volume 23, Issue 3
The country around Grand Traverse, later changed to Benzonia, College never grew up. It passed from lusty adolescence to an uneasy senility. When the lumber was gone—and although everybody said that the supply was inexhaustible, it was gone before most people realized it —there was nothing much to take its place. The soil that had supported the forest was too thin and sandy for good farming. There was a narrow belt along the west shore, running close to Lake Michigan through a dozen counties, where cherry and apple and peach orchards could do well; and some of the sand hills would grow potatoes nicely, although the latter fact did not help much because so many people raised potatoes that the bottom fell out of the market. So just when the college seemed to be establishing itself, the conditions under which it could survive began to deteriorate. All up and down western Michigan the population started to decline. The towns and villages began to learn what boarded-up stores looked like, and the hills and broad valleys were dotted with abandoned farms whose owners had cut their losses and gone south, letting collapsing buildings and weedy fields go to the state by means of the next sheriff’s sale.
So there was less money than before. There were fewer people to support a college, and despite those promising pledges, they had less to support it with; and there were fewer young people to go to it if it stayed in operation. By the end of the 1890’s the sands had run out. Benzonia College could exist no longer. The trustees met to consider the situation. They could tell a dead end when they saw one; they could also reflect on the fact that for all of the fine talk about a college this institution had never really offered anything much better than preparatory-school training. The next step was inevitable: the college was voted out of existence, and in its place there was a preparatory school, Benzonia Academy, inheriting the two college buildings, such money as the college had, and its underpaid faculty. (Inheriting also, for what they might be worth, the hopes, the dreams, and the selfless dedication that had underwritten thirtyodd years of failure.) This change from college to academy took place in the year 1900.
As the new century got under way the academy fell into its stride. It must be understood of course that it in no faintest way resembled the great preparatory schools of the East. It had no money to speak of and scant prospect of getting any; its faculty was largely home grown, and no one ever acquired any prestige by enrolling in its ranks. As I was entering my teens, someone gave me various books written by one Ralph Henry Barbour, describing life at the New England prep schools, with lavish emphasis on football, baseball, and a glamourous country-club existence; and it was clear to me that he was not talking about Benzonia Academy. At times I used to wish that our school could be bigger, richer, more distinguished, and above all things free of girls—our academy was coeducational, and Mr. Barbour’s schools definitely were not. Matters became even worse when I read that English classic, Tom Brown’s Schooldays . The effort to transpose Rugby into the key that prevailed at Benzonia gave me mental indigestion. In the end I accepted the fact that we were not in the least like the eastern prep school or the English public school. We were just different, and there was no use pretending otherwise.
It did not matter very much, because our town was offbeat from the beginning. Between them, the town and the school represented a cultural lag, although we had never heard of such a thing. Our life was adjusted to something that had been seen in the nation’s youth, before the Civil War; I suppose one reason why that war has always seemed so real to me is that in a sense I grew up before it happened. We were out-of-date without knowing it. The country was moving out from under us before we realized that anything in particular had changed. Just when a wholly materialistic culture was becoming dominant, we were shaping our lives according to the requirements of the culture it was displacing.
The object lesson was right under our noses if we had known what it meant. In the year 1909 old East Hall burned down, and the academy somehow found the money for a new building. This was to be a modest affair but slightly more pretentious than anything the school had owned before, with brick veneer laid on a wooden frame. As the excavation was being dug, the contractor announced that the needed lumber had arrived—several boxcar loads of the best-grade Georgia pine, hauled uphill from the freight station to the building site by wagon. Georgia pine—imported by a builder in the heart of the Michigan white-pine country! The foundations of the society that established and wanted to use our town and school had disappeared. We were preparing ourselves, and the young men and women who came to study with us, for a world that was no longer there.