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History Lives Here Text

To Push a Mountain in the Sea

ByNina Peasley

 

Nina Peasleycame to Saugatuck before 1920. For many years her cruiser Nan-Su was tied up atthe Singapore Yacht Club dock just behind where the Big Pavilion had stood Shewas a summer news correspondent for the Commercial Record This essay was arecollection of Saugatuck and the day that the Big Pavilion burned which shedid for a Creative Writing class some time prior to 1976.

Lake Kalamazoo was loved by artists,sailors and resorters, as well, of course, by thevillagers who called it more familiarly, "the river." It actually wasa part of it, formed delightfully by a sudden whim to enlarge its scope - afterthe bayou wilderness above it, and just before it confined itself to meanderingbetween the wooded dunes on down past the light house, to finally lose itsidentity in the crystal green waters of Lake Michigan.

To see the little lake on a summer morning from the bridge above thesmall resort village of Saugatuck was to bereminded for all the world of a picturesque Swiss scene. The terrace, roofs,church spires and school house tower led down to the neat white hotels, thefishing dock and several marinas that fringed its shore. Across the lake rose Mount Baldheadthat "monarch of the dunes." Yet returning service men from thePacific, looking on the craggy theatrical illusion of Mount Baldhead against astar-studded night, have more than once remarked, "Kindareminds me of Old Diamond Head.."

It was neitherof those, though, but more like the travel brochures claim, the "Cape Codof the Middle West." Even more than itsphysical appearance, the characteristics of its residents bore witness to theirNew England ancestors, who had come by oxenand ships in the 1830s.

But as thatcentury waned, the lumber supply and shipping dream was slowly buried under theshifting sands. Even the ship builders moved on up the river to "theflats" of Saugatuck to enter into a new mushrooming industry, the summerresort.

It was one ofthese expert ship's carpenters whose fantastic genius conceived the plan forthe Big Pavilion, to house the "biggest ballroom west of New York." It was a great red barn withhigh curving roof, topped with even taller cupolas and spires at each of thefour corners, and the whole outlined with thousand:, of electric light bulbs. Small wonder that the Big Pavilion would become the landmark of thearea.

The slope to the river afforded asecond level for a restaurant and bar, "The Dock," in front of whichwas a wide board walk and dockage for boats. After a Chicago to Mackinac race, even the forest ofmasts from the sleek yachts tied up seven abreast, could not top those spiresabove the pavilion.

Paviliondock ca 1952

Many a nameband today remembers the ballroom, the lofty curved rafters studded with necklacesof lights. Around the promenade were hung chandeliers of various sizes ofcolored globes, like those designed by Frank Lloyd Wright for Chicago'sold Midway Gardens. Everywhere flags waved to addto the carnival spirit which focused on the orchestra shell lit up like atheater marquee.

Whole familiesvisited as they watched the young ladies in bouffant party dresses dip and swaywith the young men in white flannels or silk pongee suits. Middle-aged womensold yards of dance tickets and collected them at the gates to the dancingarea, giving the whole, somehow, the blessing of aLadies' Aid. Or so it was until after that Armistice Night in August of 1945when everyone snake-danced, laughing and crying around the floor. No ticketswere collected that night.

The nextseason styles and freedoms had somehow changed. When the young men returned the"over 21" group preferred the light-heartedness and the combo of"The Dock" to the "Cokes" and stately beat of the ballroomabove.

Changingowners tried to bring back ballroom dancing, but in time were forced tosubstitute bingo, bridge, square dancing, an "Arts Ball," jazzfestivals, everything from antique shows to wrestling. The ballroom was like aVictorian belle who, though she had lost her popularity, kept trying to keep upappearances.

The villagechanged little. There were a few more indoor bathrooms, some fresh paint, andmore sophisticated antique shops, but in spite of the mechanized anonymitywhich was reducing the city folks to conformity and a pasteboard existence, thevillage continued at a three dimensional level.

The roving redeye of the radar on top of Mount Baldhead now searched the skies for apotential enemy, but at Christmas the tower was occupied by an illuminated starwhich looked down on the snow-covered pines across the glistening ice of theriver and the great sleeping hulk of the pavilion, finding its message echoedagain and again m the brightly decorated village.

Thus thevillages lived in faith with themselves and each other, confident that theirhomes, their way of life. would survive the rest ofthis century.

 

MtBaldhead Hotel wreckage after the fire 1959

Until the fallof 1959 when suddenly the Mount Baldhead Hotel in the heart of the village hada flash fire that left only one end standing, a naked cross section of beds anddressers inside three papered walls, like a bombed-out ruin. The fire wasconquered quickly, the wind was off shore and the Old Rail Inn across thestreet served dinner as usual.

But tensionmounted as those in the village began to regard the great empty dry shell ofthe Pavilion, realizing that a fire there held the threat of destroying much ofthe village.

 

Then, on May 6, 1960, the fire siren blewlong and loud. Had it been Saturday, it would have been just the traditionalblowing of the whistle at noon, so that all might set their timepieces to getin step for another week. But this wasn't Saturday, this was Friday, and itwouldn't be noon for another ten minutes.

Black smoke was curling up from thePavilion as the whole community shared one solemn thought, the direction of thewind. It had been gentle, but slanting in the path of the hotel across thenarrow street. The trash man said it had been so, ten minutes before the alarm.Wally, the yachtsman, verified it, and none were more sensitive to weather thansailors.

 

Theend of an era- the Big Pavilion burning May 6, 1960

 

It was not surprising then, that sameplanned for evacuation in the village. Mrs. Ball took her suitcase from the topshelf to the fire. It contained family photographs. Though it was May thebarber rushed home to put his wife's fur coat and a few things:!n the car before leaving it on the hill by the highway. Directlyacross from the ballroom entrance, Emily Lamb of the Hollyhock Restaurantwasn't thinking of herself as usual, when a half dozen boys offered to carrywhat they could to safety. The heat had "cracked a window, melted theplastic tops of the sugar jars, and a pink candle leaned until it was bentdouble when Emily decided to have her son's record collection carried to coolerquarters.

Fire departments from 13 communitieshastened to assist as telephones and radio spread the news. Fire brands flew upin the air landing across the wide lake, setting fire to the dry woods and a twostory house on the first hill beside Mount Baldhead. It seemed likeonly moments later that the school bus, filled with boys, wet brooms andblankets, arrived and the hills were filled with ant-like figures, beating outthe sudden fires that appeared everywhere.

One of the cupolas from the Pavilion,dragging a fiery tail of tarred roof, slipped from its high perch and landed inthe lake. It went down the river like a flaming Viking ship going to itsultimate destruction. Men in boats pushed it with boat hooks on dawn thechannel lest it set fire to the docks, cottages and, woods. At last it spentitself near the oaks and weeping willows which James FenimoreCooper had used as an Indian site in his book Oak Openings.

The professional fire department from Holland made a record run to shoot a Niagaraof water over the hotels nearby. It was their chief who said that never hadanyone seen such courage as those local volunteers who continued to fight thefire with blistered faces and hands.

The Saugatuck Woman's Club was meeting thatafternoon in the brick building just behind the library. A former resident wasscheduled for a book review and the Woman's Club president was serving coffeeand special chicken sandwiches from a recipe from Marshall Field's to the speakerand the board.

The Civil Defense leader reported that thearea had been alerted by radio far a tornado, but the breeze continued gentleand turned riverward as the walls, in one last burst of flame, collapsed. Andthen the rains came.

Saugatuck wassafe!

 

Coffee and sandwiches were brought byneighbors to the firemen. The druggist's supply of Unquentinewas distributed to the firemen. It was, as a minister said, as if "thewhole town had become a fire department." Typical of such independentaction is a paragraph from The Commercial Record's report: "The cruiser Liza Jane was tied up in back of the Hotel Saugatuck, whenJulie Dorn tried to get back to the hotel for a better look,the skipper barred the way brandishing a wicked boat hook. He stopped her, butnot until after she had delivered a stiff reprimand."

The Woman's Club president and her guestswent back to their chicken sandwiches, only to have a telephone reminder thatRoberts says you must open and close a meeting, and, besides, members and guestswere arriving. Again, lunch was abandoned for the book review.

The book was Billie Burke's A Feather on MyNose. At its conclusion a former Woman's Club president, Gracie Wilson, whosehusband and two sans were still fighting the fire, rose and said. "this has been a wonderful review, yet all the time Icouldn't help but think of Nero fiddling while Rome burned. We ought to have been thankingGod our village is still here."

This, too, was the theme of thenext week's Commercial Record, "Thank God, it's happened. It's over."

I thought of Saugatuck then as like Moses at the Red Sea. Both were stories of fear, of faith, and deliverance fromevil.

Time, too, for me to appraise thesentimental accumulations that have grown in a life that has paralleled that ofthe Pavilion. I must reduce them, somehow, to a suitcase of all that was reallyimportant in a world of uncertainties.

Debating between the worth of suchintangibles I found a couple of tiny loosened pages from a "Y" pocketBible left over from World War I. Rescuing them from a wastebasket where I hadtossed them, I read, "For verily I say unto you, that whosoever shall sayunto this mountain, `Be thou removed and be cast into the sea, and shall notdoubt it in his heart, but shall believe, those things he saithshall came to pass, he shall have whatsoever he saith."

And as Wallytold how the breeze had moved slightly counterclockwise, but just enough tocarry the embers out over the river, until after the wall collapsed, heremarked with his special smile, "Someone must have surely beenwatching."