Before The Flood

… the really big event of the year was Gull Lake.  I don’t think I can tell you what Gull Lake meant to me as a boy.  Way back when I started this story I told you that my father and mother got pretty tired of my crying when I was a little baby and took a few weeks off and went to Gull Lake which is in southern Michigan between Kalamazoo and Battle Creek.  The fishing was wonderful so every year for years afterwards we spent about a month there.  I don’t remember my first years there at all, but I think we went there when I was about two.  We rented then a little cottage called Bide a Wee.   I don’t remember much about it except that there was a loft that you reached by a ladder.

Gull Lake Postcard LaBelle 1909

We were on the south end of the lake at a beach called LaBelle Resort about a mile from the village of Yorkville.   There was a hotel there where we sometimes ate but about all I remember of it was a big dining room and a fish pond in front that had some big garfish in it.

Gull Lake, Michigan

Gull Lake then, as it is now, was a beautiful lake about 4 miles long and a mile wide.  The water is clear and on summer days is blue and sparkling.  There is an outlet to the lake that in those days passed through a small tunnel of the old stone bridge at Yorkville and ended at a dam near the railroad station.  When I was little the water from the dam was used for power in a cereal factory that made a product called Malta Vita.

Price Cereal Company Employees
The Price Cereal Company, Yorkville MI

I can still remember the wonderful smell of the roasting cereal.  This was one of the early cereals that are so popular now, like corn flakes or Post Toasties etc. Gull Lake now is very  popular and there are beautiful homes and cottages all around it.  But in those early days the cottages were mostly on the island which was directly in front of and about 1/3 mile away from LaBelle Beach.

The Allendale Pavillion, Gull Lake, Michigan

Then there was Allendale where the lake could be reached by traction cars and where the passenger boats had their docks.  There was also a hotel there and a dancing pavilion.  There were also other groups of cottages around the lake and a hotel at the far end but almost all of them were simple.  Roads in Michigan in those days were pretty bad and cars were very rare so we went everywhere by boat.  There were a few motor boats or launches as we called them.  But almost all of the passenger boats were steamboats.  For the size of the lake quite a few of them were much too large.

The steamboat Searchlight readies for departure

There was the Searchlight which was the largest and had two decks.  It could only go in the deepest parts of the lake and was always running aground.  Then there was the Kalamazoo which was a very dashing yacht type boat and the Michigan which was broad of beam and very slow, the Alert which was little and whose captain was sort of sweet on Mary Keogh and most important of all was the Brownie of Captain Norton.

It was a small low boat that could go through the tunnel of the outlet, or glen, or Lover’s Lane as it was called and in that way meet the trains and bring the visitors back to the cottages.

Yorkville was just a small village of a few houses, a school, a post office, a church and two grocery stores.  Mail was delivered usually by boat.  The most important store was Rice’s which during the summer did a tremendous business.  They made deliveries by wagon and also had a grocery boat that made the rounds of the lake several times a week.  So whenever we wanted to go anyplace on the lake we either went by canoe or rowboat or stood out on the dock and hailed a passing steamboat.

Gradually more and more friends and relatives came to Gull Lake and soon the whole beach was filled and some of us had moved around the point to Grandview Beach.  It was something like a family migration each summer to Michigan.  Before long some of the family bought cottages and remodeled them and finally some of them made their permanent home there.  Among them was your Aunt Marnie who while she never lived there permanently did have a beautiful house made from a remodeled cottage.  Also your Cousin Dorothy Carl made a house out of a cottage and lives there the year round.  So you can see what an enormous influence one squalling baby had on the future life of his friends and relatives.

Townsend Grocery and Yorkville Post Office, Gull Lake Michigan
Townsend Grocery and Yorkville Post Office, near Gull Lake

So far I havn’t told you much what we did at Gull Lake so perhaps I’d better go back to the beginning.  Even in the middle of winter we kids began to dream of the lake and before the time came to go we had literally figured out the remaining hours and minutes.  Almost as soon as we got home from the summer there the family started a piggy bank to help pay the next summer’s rent.  It was usually a fat china bank and every spare penny, nickle and dime went into it.  Every week or so I would lift it and shake it to judge its progress.  One of our friends was Judge Dustin, a fairly wealthy man and I can remember t that several times he put a $10 gold piece into the slot.  My mother was very funny and she would get him laughing and the more he laughed the more generous he became.  The big day, of course, was when we broke the bank and gloated over the treasure.  Sometimes there was as much as one hundred dollars.  The last two weeks before we left were endless and almost too exciting.  The trunks had to be packed and the tickets bought and a hundred other details arranged.  Not that I did much of anything except to get in the way.

Yorkvill MI Plat Map late 1800s
Plat map showing train station, beaches, and lodging

The train left at 6:30 in the morning and as my mother was always afraid of missing trains we had to be at the station about six blocks away at least a half hour ahead of time.  I usually had my dog Billy on a leash and a picnic basket for our lunch on the train to take care of.   Once the dog was safely in the baggage car and we were on board then the excitement was almost too much to stand and I usually got car sick to add to the confusion.  Sometimes there were as many as twenty or thirty of us all going the same day.  I had memorized all the stations along the route and marked them off on the time table as we reached them.  Our first change was at Greenville Junction only about thirty miles from Dayton.  There we waited impatiently for the Cincinnati Northern which was to take us on our next step.  I remember once that Billy  (the dog) became scared as the train approached and broke away from me and ran and hid under the station platform; I had to crawl under the platform and drag him out with people yelling that I would be left and poor Billy howling with terror.  The next run was to Addison Junction where we arrived around four o’clock.  At noon we always had a tremendous picnic lunch of fried chicken potato salad and cake and fruit.  After stuffing down enormous quantities I was usually sick again but really didn’t care.

Union Station at Addison Junction
Union Station – Addison, MI (near Devil’s Lake)

Finally we came to Devil’s Lake which we could see from the train, then a little later, we got off at Addison Junction where we waited, it seemed to me for ever, for the train that would take us to the lake.  Everything looked different and smelled different and seemed wonderful.  After a three or four hour ride through what seemed to me an enchanted country we finally arrived at Yorkville about 7:30 or so in the evening.  Usually there were lots of friends and relatives waiting for us for meeting the evening train was almost a ritual for most of us.  It was only a short walk to the end of the glen where the Brownie was waiting to take us to the lake.  The ride there through the channel out to the lake was the climax to the day.  The next day seemed endless with swimming and rowing and running wild.

Richland Store 15860

It’s hard to list just exactly what we did do.  One of the things I liked the best was sailing.  I guess I was pretty lucky because some older person always was ready to take me along and I never grew tired of going.  Of course we had our own sailboats too which were rowboats with a sheet or something tacked onto a stick.  Usually they collapsed after a few minutes.  Another thing I liked was rafts.  There was always something romantic about a raft to me and we used to pole them up and down the shoreline for hours at a time.  Fishing was good at Gull Lake in those days and I fished quite often although it wasn’t until after many years that I became an ardent fisherman.  Perhaps one reason I didn’t care very much for fishing was that often I had to row the boat for my father or mother.  They would fish for hours whether they caught anything or not and I felt that this was interfering with my more important activities.

Most of us liked to take walks and as we got a little bigger, one of the big things was to walk around the lake.  I don’t know just how far it was, but I suspect about 12 or 15 miles.  We would stop around noon at the hotel at Geiger’s Landing, where our mothers and fathers had come by boat, and have an enormous dinner of chicken and dumplings, and fill up later with cookies called Hermits, which was the specialty of the hotel.  Your Aunt Marnie was an expert a stuffing great quantities of these cookies into her middy blouse, to be eaten on the way home.  Then we would finish the second half of our walk in the afternoon.

Another thing we liked to do was catch turtles and keep them in a tub.  Sometimes we took a big supply of them home with us.  But I suppose our chief activity was swimming.  I was always kind of skinny but I was a pretty good swimmer, although I couldn’t stay in as long as most of the kids because I’d get pretty cold.  I never did like cold water very much and I don’t until this day.  It wasn’t long though until the first endless and wonderful days grew shorter and shorter and the time for going home and back to school kept drawing nearer and nearer.  Sometimes we would stay a few days after school had started.

Once a cousin of mine asked me to spend two more weeks with her family.  Her house was on another beach up the lake.  I think the real reason she wanted me was that I would be handy to row the boat while she fished.  She was quite a large lady and for a little boy it was pretty tough.  At any rate I became pretty homesick and decided to run away.  I didn’t know just where I was going to run to but fortunately I told my plans to my cousin, Barbara Wight, who decided she would help me escape.  So one day she came by in her catboat and I managed to smuggle my few belongings aboard and we took off.  It wasn’t much of a runaway for we ended up at Aunt Hattie’s where I spent two wonderful weeks.  I’m afraid there was a little family trouble over my escape but anyway I had a good time.

One of the places we liked to go on the lake was Mosquito Island which was at one end of the lake just at the entrance of the outlet.  It was a little round island surrounded by swamp, and it was certainly well named.  To us it was a romantic hideaway and sometimes we were allowed to spend the night there.  The lily pond and swamp around it was a wonderful place to hunt turtles and trap minnows.  Near by was a small hill that we called the Indian Mound.  I’m not a bit sure that it really was one, but we firmly believed the legend of the grieving Indian princess who was supposed to come there at night.  Maybe she did, but I never saw her.  As I told you before, my father was a really good fisherman and a good sportsman.  He and my mother used to fight all the time they were out about the undersized fish that she insisted on keeping.  She wasn’t interested in a rod or reel, but used a handline, which was a remarkably efficient way to catch fish.  Any fish was a fish to her and game laws were for somebody else.

One of the families at the lake which was not related to us was the Lefevres.  They had the biggest house and the longest dock, with a boathouse at the end from which we used to dive.  They were the only ones on the beach with a launch and quite often in the evenings they would invite some of us for a boat ride.  It was a pretty big launch and chugged along at about 5 miles per hour, I think.  George LeFevre was the boy in the family.  He was about your Aunt Marnie’s age.  I don’t think he was very attractive because I remember Marnie’s friends laughing about him, but his launch, sailboat and car did give him a certain standing.  Once he took me and your Uncle Bill in his car to watch a rainmaker explode bombs in Battle Creek.  It was supposed to be a method for making rain.  As I remember, it rained and rained, but then it was one of the rainiest summers ever.  But the high spot of the trip was when, coming home, we hit a good stretch of road and got the car up to 52 miles an hour.  That was something.

Over the years we lived in several cottages at Gull Lake, but the one I remember the best was Linger Longer.  It was a shingled cottage of two stories and surrounded by a wide porch.  Bill and I slept on the porch and much of the kitchen work was done there.  There was an open fireplace.  We cooked on a gasoline stove which I always remember as flaring up and appearing as about to explode.  I think the day that we finally had to leave was probably the saddest day of the year.  I suspect we were almost literally in tears at the prospect.  Gull Lake has changed a great deal since then but it is still one of the bluest and most beautiful of all the lakes in Michigan.

Please read this fascinating manuscript in its entirety at daytonhistorybooks.com.