Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Cabin Fever Treatment: 1939

This winter has been the coldest in my memory. When my husband paced a path in the floor beside the wood stove with subzero winds howling outside, I suggested as soon as the temperatures broke that he should go ice fishing. I even thawed some Blue Gill from the freezer and we had panfried fish for dinner. It made me think of my favorite fish story from my grandfather John Newswanger.

My mother grew up in Brutus, Michigan, about an hour's drive below Mackinaw Bridge. My grandfather John had always hunted and fished as did his father, and in the winter of 1939 he and three other men took his Model A Ford coup with a rumble seat and drove north to ice fish. They used an ice shanty that stayed out on the frozen waters of Lake Michigan for most of the month of February when the waters remained frozen over. Leaving it longer into the month of March was always chancy as the ice begins to break up by then.


My grandfather's Ford "ran cheap" and they loaded three men in the front, one in the rumble seat and packed it with wood, a cook stove and supplies for a week. The fishermen who accompanied him were Elias Martin, Elias Gregory, and Emerson Eby. They were able to drive all the way out the string of islands and beyond Waugoshance Island to the abandoned lighthouse which was unlocked for some reason. In the telling and retelling of this story, grandfather John seemed quite knowledgeable about the lighthouse. It was a good place to sleep as it had a living room and several rooms for the fellows to stay.


Their fish shanty was about a mile off the lighthouse. The plan was to leave it there the month of February. When they had fished a few days a strong east wind blew in and abruptly swung southwest, raising the water in the straits and they worried it would break up the ice. My great grandfather Elias Martin was sure it wouldn't break up, but the others prevailed and decided they shouldn't chance it. They had only the wind to go by when they made their decision (no weather channel.com), as the ice hadn't changed at all.

Preparing to leave, they returned to the lighthouse but the Model A Ford wasn't running properly. They had likely driven partly on the shore and partly on the ice to their destination and though they'd made it back in past an island or two, they decided to push the car up onto an island and walk the remaining distance to the mainland shore. My grandpa John looked up and saw a thin dark line ahead...

...as they got to it, they saw it was open water!! They were able to jump across the yawning gap of water as the ice they stood on was moving out into Lake Michigan! The fishermen walked eight miles to Carp Lake then another five to Levering where grandfather John gave a man at the gas station a fish to take them to Pellston.

The car was left behind on the island until spring when the water was lower and it could be driven along the shore safely. My great grandfather Elias Gregory had left his spear out in the shanty and sorely regretted it as it was a prized keepsake from my great great grandfather Frank who was a blacksmith and had made it. Elias later drove along the Mackinaw shoreline hoping to find his shanty but it was lost.

And though they regretted the loss, this tale has been told and retold many times and certainly solved their cabin fever in the winter of 1939! Thanks to my mother for preserving the details of this story.
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Blog post by Anne Love-
Writer of Historical Romance inspired by her family roots. 
Nurse Practitioner by day. 
Wife, mother, writer by night. 
Coffee drinker--any time.
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5 comments:

  1. What an amazing story, and a scary one, also! I've always been impressed with the way a huge body of water like Lake Michigan can freeze over - I lived in an apartment on a bluff overlooking Lake Michigan, some years ago. I absolutely loved everything about it, and would leave my bedroom windows open year round - as long as I could hear any waves crashing. It got really cold at times, but I'd just pile on more quilts. I loved walking along the shore at dusk, and walking out the pier to the lighthouse. But living near a large body of water can be dangerous also, weather conditions can change in an instant - one night a young man was swept off the pier leading to the lighthouse, by huge waves. I always heard that Lake Michigan was more treacherous than an ocean, and there are many ship wrecks in it's depths. I never became brave enough to walk out on it's ice.

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    1. May I ask where you lived then Bonnie? Sounds lovely.

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  2. In a quaint little town with cobblestone streets - St. Joseph. One of the most wonderful, and enjoyable, places I have ever lived - and not too far from you. In fact, I drove from there to work and back - in Elkhart, In. - five days a week, because I loved it so!

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  3. P.S. The sailboats on the lake in the spring - with their brightly colored sails - were beautiful! I visited an annual art/craft fair on the banks overlooking Lake Michigan, shore, and lighthouse - and knew I wanted to live there. I lived there for a year - before moving back to Ky.. I also helped a friend operate a weekend ice cream shop on the pier in South Haven, a few miles further north. Loved the delicious wares from the fruit/vegetable stands and farms also!

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  4. Sounds lovely. Right, not far away...

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