The Lens of Memory
Many people around the world hold as their link to memories of days spent in the land of the Sleeping Bear a Dickinson photograph, taken by Fred Dickinson or his daughter Grace. The hallmark of his photography and later his daughter's has been the sweeping vistas in and around the Sleeping Bear.
Fred Dickinson was born in Chicago in 1907. His father's occupation provided him with the means for travel, and he took advantage of it. Fred explained: "My father was a railroad official and he exchanged annual passes with other railroad officials of the country. I had an annual pass myself as a dependent son. I started travelling early. My parents let me travel alone at the age of 12 and I really let loose -- visited all the states and state capitols by the age of 18. During vacations mostly. Of course I took a little longer vacations at times and got bawled out at school for coming back late.
"I think my biggest fascination was with the steam locomotive -- I couldn't get away from that. By 1935 the steam locomotive had reached its farthest advancement. I found out that I could ride in the cab by showing my pass. They'd think I was an officer. Of course I kept it secret from my parents, but my mother always wondered why I came back with such dirty shirts."
His family was prone to travel as well. In 1912 they first came to northern Michigan, spending a summer on Crystal Lake. The train was the manner in which they journeyed their first four years, and Fred recounted what now seems an arduous process.
"There were two ways to get to Glen Lake: One way was by train. You'd take the Pere Marquette from Chicago, an overnight trip to Traverse City that worked out pretty well. You'd get up and have breakfast at one of the eating houses there. If you wanted to get over to Glen Lake, you'd take the Manistee-Northeastern Railroad, going through Greilickville and the south tip of Lake Leelanau, Fouch they called it. Got to the Platte River Junction and changed to another branch to go to Empire Junction, 12 miles southeast of Empire. Wilce built that for the lumber business and he got the passenger business as well. It was all day going from Traverse City to Glen Lake."
The other means was by boat.
"The Northern Michigan Transportation Company had two boats, the Manitou and the Missouri. The ferry would leave Chicago Friday afternoon for the weekend and get up here Saturday morning. All the husbands would get off for the weekend and their families would meet them down there at the dock. Of course in those days it was horse and buggy. Then they'd leave Sunday and get there in time for work on Monday morning. I think the thing that finally killed them was the competition from the highway and the car. In 1918 we were able to drive up here by car -- it was two-and-a-half days.
"The poor old Manitou ended up in the Manistee harbor, parked there for several years. They had a boatkeeper there who kept track of it, slept in one of the berths. There was a fire one night. They put it out and found his bed burnt down to the springs. The boat was finally sold to an outfit over in Wisconsin who were going to make pulpwood out of it, but they finally junked it -- a sad end to one of the greatest boats on the lake.
"A trip by boat was always a pleasant thing. Come out of that hot city and after an hour or two had to put your coat on. The Manitou was about 300' long, hauled rail cars too. All the freight was handled by hand cars. There'd be 40 guy for a half an hour unloading the boat. The last trip or so, it took about 2 guys and ten minutes -- it was hopeless really."
The Sleeping Bear Area of those early years was much different than these days. Lumber, though the forests were on the wane, was still king. Fred recalled the last of the great trees. "In the 1920s you'd see the big, giant fir and cedar trees, one even south of here a couple of miles. You'd see it above all the other trees on the way to Empire -- beautiful thing. One of the Dorsey's cut it down for lumber."
Hardwoods from Empire were known throughout the nation, and Fred remembers, "My grandfather had heard all about Empire before we ever came up here. It seems he came over from England in '73, two years after the Chicago Fire. Being right there with all the rebuilding he was in great demand. Soon he was made head of a large woodworking plant there and one of the sources was the Wilce Lumber company. The Wilce Plant was located right there in Chicago River, and they got their lumber from Empire -- so he got a lot of his hardwood from around here. His reputation was such that the Mormons out in Salt Lake wanted him to build the stairway for their temple."
Lumbering in Empire was pretty much over by the time his family began to come to Glen Lake, but that the Day sawmill would remain in operation for several years. He related his early impressions and memories of the area.
"I'd never seen anything like Glen Lake. Clean water! The farmers around here would use the water for their batteries. My brother and I made a raft -- quite a thing to make a raft to hold your own weight and pole yourself along."
He laughed with the memory and would later produce a couple of photos from the family album to document the lakeworthiness of the raft as well as a hollowed out log that made a makeshift canoe.
"My aunt took those -- she was quite a pioneer photographer back in 1910. She took inside pictures with a big flash -- had to open up the windows to air the place out. There was smoke everywhere!"
He paused over an early 1900s photo showing two young women dressed for bathing and remarked on the dramatic difference of past and present swimming attire. "In 1914," he recalled, "There were very few homes up here -- you could go swimming in the lake naked and nobody would see you."
Although settlers and vacationers had been in the area for over 50 years, the background in almost every photo of the children and adults at play on the lake showed little more than a virtually unbroken treeline along the shore. A long time from then to now when, as Fred related, neighbors with a lot "you could hardly park a car on" sold their house for $250,000.
"We built our first cottage down here in 1914, that was my first exposure to Glen Lake. My grandfather of course came up here for that. Only one or two houses between here and the bridge. All the way around was fairly vacant. The north shore of Little Glen had only three or four the whole way."
Of D.H Day, founder of Glen Haven, tireless promoter of the Sleeping Bear area and perhaps the single most illustrious resident of the area, Fred had memories. "D.H. Day had a mill right on the lake down there (at the beach below what is now the Dune Climb). Day was in business until about 1928. His tugboat was named the Alice J. Day after his eldest daughter. In 1915 just where the big house is down there the beach was piled high with logs. Four or five times every day the tug came over to take a long raft of logs over to the mill. The boat finally gave out and they had to build a new boat in in the blacksmith shop over in Glen Haven. Charley Shore did a pretty good job. It was very heavily built, two by four siding.
"After Day cut the lumber he had a narrow gauge railroad to Glen Haven along the base of the dune. Too close in places. After a heavy rain or winter, the sand would cover the track over. The sand is never permanent, the more you dig it, the more it comes down. The track went right on out to the Glen Haven pier. In 1928 he sold everything, rails, mill equipment including a big single tone whistle he blew every morning at 6 o'clock to get everybody busy.
"I asked him about his personal perceptions of the man. He pondered, carefully framing his response as if D.H. Day might be around to hear what had been said. "Day tried to get all the money he could. I think he made a mistake once. He had a big pile of lumber on the shore during the war. All this lumber began to rot, and he had to take it back to the mill and plane it down. I think he could have got 200,000, but he wanted more, of course -- whatever it was, he wanted more. He was very pleasant to talk with, but in a business deal, it was a little different I imagine. He died in '28, they called him King David of the North."
More memories came forth. With the certainty of a man accustomed to being where he was, sure of his orientation, Fred continued, gesturing west to the former site of the mill and east to the picnic grounds. "The big annual event here was the Old Settler's Picnic. Day had quite a big barge and he would tie the barge behind the tug and let all the people on there. Quite a sight to see that barge with all the people on it going across the lake. Of course Day also had control over the water level, he had to get the tug and all the logs under the big iron bridge at the Narrows."
As he looked at his photo of the Narrows bridge, which spans the short juncture of Big and Little Glen Lakes, he remembered it in more than a strictly visual sense. "The old bridge there had planks going crosswise on it. If a car was going over there at night, you could hear it clear down here."
I asked him if the family did their shopping at Day's store. He shook his head and replied, "Dick Tobin had a corner store down there just this side of the motel. We got everything from him. Dick never kept books. My mother kept track of everything and paid him at the end of the month. She told him how much and he pretended to check it, but he had no idea, really."
It was Fred's photographs that originally drew me to speak with him, and I asked him about how he came to be a photographer. "The Chicago Art Institute was a place I always enjoyed, always liked landscape scenes, all through my life. I'd like to have been a landscape artist myself, but found photography much more suited me. If you look at that stuff right there," he gestured to the wall behind him, 13 feet high and fairly covered with his landscapes by way of conclusion.
"Landscape photography was always fascinating -- as I long as I couldn't paint, at least I could make pictures. The end of this building," he pointed to a room where Grace and his wife, the former Julia Francis Terry, a woman who merits a story of her own, were working on something, "Was my studio. We had people come in here off the highway. Some people would tell me that they had one of my big pictures forty years over the fireplace in some part of the country, even in California.
"Photography's changed so much in the last 50 years. I had a little Brownie (when he was riding the rails to state capitols and parks), but it didn't amount to much. It wasn't for the artistic side -- just for the record. In 1938 I got interested in landscape photography and got the big Graphlex camera and started taking pictures. Been at that for quite a while."
Photography, though important to him, wasn't ever his primary means of support. For many years, his photography took a back seat to earning a living playing the market. "I just got more and more tied up in the stock market, mainly to survive financially. My father got me started in it, and I was able to retire at the age of 55. Up here of course you're away from brokers and everything and can do your own thinking. Since thirty-eight I've had this place and my father died in 1940 and I moved up here permanently."
Fred's wife Julia told me of their courtship (whirlwind certainly describes it). They met in late June of 1942 and were married mid-July of the same year. Fred and Julia even tried their hand at publishing for a time. Fred recalled: "In '43 I tried an experiment in running a newspaper, so I bought the Leelanau Enterprise. Sold it in '48 -- just couldn't take the time and got sick of it. My wife was at the paper before -- she was a newspaper woman. It was a lot of mechanical work, presses and linotype to keep up. I think it was being tied down every Thursday. It was an interesting thing, but I wouldn't call it enjoyable."
The lens of a landscape photographer and the eyes behind it would certainly notice changes over time, and Fred admitted that he had seen a great deal of it. "Of course on the Lakeshore, it's fairly clear, but inland you can't get anything without a road or house in it."
His favorite photo, he decided after much thought was one that hangs on the wall taken of the Acropolis after the war, though a photo of the Manitou at the docks in Glen Haven with a large number of vacationers debarking was a close runner up. Grace has been hand-coloring the prints, and is developing quite a market for the post cards she produces in this manner. Another photo he is proud of is a shot of the now vanished Bear, a distinctive clump sand and trees that has nearly melted entirely away since he took his picture. A huge stormcloud was perfectly centered over the landmark, and Fred remembered that he had to take the shot and get out of there in a hurry, lugging the ponderous Graphlex camera.
Grace talked with me later. "Dad will reflect with a gracious and quiet acceptance of what has happened in the area. I think of the continuity of life. It's not just a reflection on the past. The feeling I get from him is that life didn't stop 20 years ago. I can feel a deep reverence within him. He used to take his bedroll up on the dunes and sleep all night under the Bear, and now you can't do that."
Now the Bear in Sleeping Bear has worn down, remembered as it was only in the memories of those who knew it and the photographs of those like Fred, who saw enduring beauty and took the time to preserve it.