- 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
There was one unexpected gain; Crystal Lake now had a beach. Also, at the southeastern end of the lake, at the foot of Benzonia hill, there were acres of dry land where there had been a swamp; a town was built there and given the nameof Beulah; it prospered and eventually became the county seat. When the railroad was built southeast from Frankfort in the l880’s, it reached the lake by way of the outlet valley and ran for several miles along land that had been under five feet of water a few years earlier.
All of this, to be sure, had happened long before any of us small boys were born. We knew nothing about it, or if we heard our elders talk about it, we paid no attention; we simply accepted the lake and its unending beach as something put there for our benefit, and all summer long we devoted our afternoons to swimming. There were a good many boathouses along the shore, where people who owned boats stored them in the winter, and we could usually persuade someone to let us use his boathouse for undressing and dressing, but mostly that was too much trouble; we simply went into the woods overlooking the lake, hung our clothing on the branches of saplings, put on our bathing suits, and ran down hill to go into the water. There were two schools of thought about the way to go in. The water was cold, and the first plunge was agonizing. The hardiest ran straight ahead, splashing vigorously and yelling like men under torture; and when it was thigh deep, they threw themselves in, face down, and took the worst shock all at once. Most of us preferred to wade out slowly, adjusting ourselves by degrees, and the only trouble with this was that anyone who had got in ahead of you was certain to splash you. Whatever we did, we knew that once we were wet all over the water ceased to feel cold. It became just exactly right.
There was a good deal of energetic floundering and thrashing about, and all of us learned to swim after a fashion—nothing stylish, but enough to get by. If a gasoline launch was moored somewhere offshore, we would scramble aboard and use it for a diving platform; the owners must have been tolerant, because I do not remember that we were ever told not to do this. It seemed to me that the best thing of all was to float on one’s back, wriggling the hands just enough to keep from going under. The water was an invisible support, lying there was like floating through the air, and you could look far up into the sky and wonder what it would be like to be up on one of those fluffy white clouds. We stayed in the water until its friendly warmth began to seem chilly again; when our lips turned blue, we figured it was time to come out. Then we would scramble up into the woods, get dressed, and go off in search of further adventures.
This usually led us into the town of Beulah, where there was much to be seen. The railroad went through here, and a freight train might be switching cars on the siding behind the station; or the afternoon southbound passenger train might come in, three open-platform cars behind a modest locomotive which panted in a slow, highly realistic fashion during the stop as if the trip down from Frankfort had been exhausting. Here was the point of departure. When you left Benzonia for the outer world, you came to this depot and got on a train like this one, and sooner or later all of us would do it, leaving town and lake and woods behind us forever; but that was a long time ahead, and we did not give it a thought, because the present moment was next thing to eternal. Still, there was a vague premonitory thrill in watching those cars swing off around the curve beyond the station, heading for the unknown.
Whatever else we did in Beulah, we always went to Terp’s place. This was a waterfront pavilion operated by a man named Terpinning—I don’t believe I ever did know his first name: first and last, he was just Terp, a lean, friendly businessman who did not seem to mind having small boys under foot. His pavilion included dressing-room cubicles for bathers, a dance hall, two bowling alleys, a T-shaped dock with a long rank of rowboats for rent, and an ice-cream bar. Anyone who wanted to go fishing could get a boat from Terp, and if he needed bait Terp would sell him a bucket full of minnows. In a shed somewhere Terp had a gasoline tank, to service the summer people who came in by launch. He also sold cigars and cigarettes, and against the wall by the soda fountain there were two slot machines. They seemed singularly innocent, and it never occurred to the authorities to proceed against them as gambling devices.
If we were in funds, which was not often the case, we bought ice-cream sodas or pop; if we were not, there was always something to see. There was a steady coming and going out on the dock. The summer people who had cottages at various places around the lake relied on the launch rather than the automobile to come to town and do their marketing. The automobile age had not yet reached northern Michigan, and the road that went around the lake was nothing but a track through the sand, and an automobile that tried to follow it was almost certain to get stuck; so the cottager who wanted to go to the grocery or the drugstore came down the lake by boat and tied up at Terp’s dock. Terp himself owned two launches, open boats with canopies overhead and side curtains that could be let down if it rained. Anybody who wanted to give a picnic party somewhere on the beach could hire one of these, and Terp had a regular twice-a-day schedule to the far end of the lake.