Al Barnes: Chronicling the Chronicler
Note: This article appeared in 1995 in the Lake Country Gazette. Al Barnes died about a year later. I am profoundly grateful that I managed to have an afternoon with him.
Several years ago, when the idea for an ongoing feature about people who have lived long lives in Northern Michigan first came to me, Jill Baxter pressed a copy of Vinegar Pie and Other Tales into my hands saying simply, "You should talk with Al."
Al Barnes is the perfect beginning place for anyone with an interest in the history of the Grand Traverse region. In addition to Vinegar Pie, he's written 100 Years from the Old Mission, Let's Fly Backward, and Supper in the Evening. For over 50 years he has been writing for newspapers, sifting through records, talking with those who remember the area before automobiles and television. Now 91 years of age and, in his words, mostly blind, Al has himself become something of history. Though sure that if he had his sight he would still be writing, Al is now more or less content to sit in his chair, smoke his pipe, and remember.
Born in South Dakota, he moved to Athens, Michigan at an early age. "I went through ninth grade in school. Walked five or six miles every day--wasn't smart, so I quit and worked. Years later, I was on the board out here at a private school and they found out I hadn't graduated. By golly, they had a special graduation ceremony with a speaker and gave me a diploma, so I'm not dumb."
In spite of a lack of formal schooling, Al has always worked to learn and to help others share his passion for writing. "I spoke to a lot of schools all over. I thought they needed somebody who could speak their language." Al paused, reflecting, "I think that I did quite a lot of good."
I asked Al about the road he traveled to end up in Traverse City. "It was during what they call the Depression; I don't know what the Depression was--I was always in poverty. I was in Florida picking fruit and every morning I'd meet this girl. Finally I spoke to her, finally we dated, and came back here and we married. I never dated but one other girl in my life."
At a later point in our conversation, he recalled his first wife, Alice Gardner who becam Alice Barnes. "She's buried in Traverse City in the cemetery. She was half Indian, beautiful woman, and smart."
The two of them had four children; Zane, who died young, Dennis, Annie and Vicki. Al has remarried to Evelyn, a woman he describes good-naturedly as a "working fool" and "one of the best seamstresses in the world". With pride, he spoke of his great-grand-daughter who is a cadet in the US Navy.
It was hard going in Traverse City of the late 20s and early 30s, Al recalls. "I moved up here and worked at anything I could work at. I helped build the first breakwater, hauling rocks. I was the first lifeguard they ever had on the Traverse City beach. I peddled meat in an old Ford pickup house to house. We lived with my first wife's uncle, he was a butcher. I drove around the area--anything to make an honest nickel. Worked at so many jobs. One was in the A∓P on Front Street, I got ten dollars a week.
"I didn't know we had a Depression, I was just fighting to live. That was what everybody was doing. You didn't think of it as a Depression--it was a way of life. The big shots called it that, but we worked where we could and did what we could. That's when you went fishing to get something to eat, whether it was legal or illegal. I know a lot of people who fished out of season." He paused, recalling more than he would say. "They're all gone now."
He offered his perspective on our modern life. "You know our financial position in history is reflected in one thing: Rent. I lived out on Vanderlick road for four dollars a month. Then I moved to a more elaborate house on the other side of the road and paid $7 a month."
Apparently the price for "elaborate" has increased somewhat.
"I walked down Three Mile Road and cut through the woods by Mammy's house of prostitution. It was about three miles and a half one way. There was a path through the woods then, I wasn't the only
one who walked it."
I said that I imagined he'd seen rent go up a bit in his time.
"Oh yes indeed. $4, then $7, then we moved into town. On Hannah Street it was $12, then up to $15. Then I built a little house on Kelly Street. It still stands, a pretty little house that originally cost me $300. That was during the Depression and we went out into the plains to abandoned homes got doors and windows. There were houses and houses abandoned in the plains, nobody cared if you took a window or door. My brother helped me. As I got a pretty good job I built a two story Cape Cod where my youngest daughter was born, still stands today."
From his earliest days, Al held a yearning to be a writer that never left him. "I wrote crop reports for Michigan Farmer--wrote as a dream. The Record-Eagle allowed me to do a column where I interviewed three or four people on the street and made a column of it, and that was my first real writing. From there (I was a photographer) I put the first photographic department in the Record Eagle and ran it, and I was writing. I went to work doing feature stories and did that the rest of my life. Wrote a column called Century Notes and later wrote it for the Preview. It's been a wonderful, wonderful career."
As an old reporter, Al was able to turn the questioning around during our talk, asking me about my reasons for writing. about history. He instantly understood what I was talking about.
"A lot of stories around this area that haven't been written, that's for sure. A lot hasn't been researched and written, and now the community is spreading so, bulging, that you don't know where history starts, really.
"Right out here at Chum's Corners, there's history there but now it's getting so crowded in--have you been into the store there lately? They've gone crazy! You could get lost in there.
"The beautiful home that Bill Dill had at Chum's Corners, they tore it down. Beautiful brick building, Oh that was a home! It was Dill's Corner in those days. Times have changed and the only thing left is memories in some of the older people and they should get them down."
Trying to reach back to the time when Al was on the other side of the keys, writing instead of being written about, I asked him about one of the multitude of interesting figures he has profiled, a man by the name of Jonas Shawandasa. In Vinegar Pie Al told how he and Jonas walked over the site of Louisville (the Indian name had been lost by that time) near Northport to stand beside what remained of an Indian burial site. From Vinegar Pie:
The name Shawandasa means southward and refers to anything south, such as a trip, a home or a place.
We can lose things in the past if we do not take care as they become buried under new development or the people who hold the memories of what once was pass on. There are things we could learn from the original inhabitants of our area. One is reverence for our elders and the wisdom of their experience. In some ways, they hold a treasure more vital than any we could hope to own.
Jonas speaks the Ottawa language fluently.
"The young folks don't speak it, he explained "and the older ones are leaving. I almost forgot the language for many years and then I began using it."
It is a pretty language: soft like French, musical like Spanish and with a force not unlike Yankee English. It is spoken today by few and read by fewer.
If you would like to spend an hour of enchantment, or to step back into history, visit Jonas and walk with him over the soil where once stood the pagan village of Louisville. Hear him speak of his ancestors, among them chieftains, and look with him as he stands on the bluff and points toward the Manitous.
A memory that dies untold, dies forever.
Once told, it will live on.
mail to nmj
NMJ Land - NMJ Views -
NMJ Community - NMJ Living
NMJ Home Page
webdesign by leelanau communications
northern michigan journal advertisers