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History Lives Here Text

SDHS Newsletter

 

Adventures on the Kalamazoo

When William Harbert divided his Saugatuck hilltop property intobuilding lots, he provided a 10-foot wide easement to give the future ownersaccess to the river. As Edith Ryder Barron and the Gage family were the onlyresidents of Oxbow Hill, the 10-foot right-of-way was totally ours. A zig-zag track ran steeply down the slope directly in frontof the Gage cottage, crossed the road, and descended the eight or ten feet tothe water's edge.

Pulled up onthe narrow beach and tied to a tree was the rowboat we always rented for theseason from Charley's boat livery. Two sets of oars were stashed in theundergrowth because my cousin and I -- about 12 or 13 at the time (the early1930s) -- considered ourselves a four-oar power rowing crew. Both goodswimmers, though sworn to stay out of the water except in the direst emergency,we spent many hours getting to know the many faces of the Kalamazoo River.

I shouldmention that the cousin who shared these adventures was Dorothy Light, who grewto love Saugatuck so much that, as an adult, she convinced her husband,Courtney D. Osborn, to buy and renovate the other Oxbow Hill cottage which hadbelong to Mrs. Barron. The Osborns were for many years well-known summer residents and yacht owners.

 

As youngstersshe and I considered the river our own waterway. One of our shorter excursionswas upstream to Lake Kalamazoo, where we wouldrow to the boats anchored out in the middle. We would point out to each otherall the finer aspects of design and rigging and try to distinguish between aketch and a yawl. Most of these craft were in the neighborhood of 30 feet inlength, but once we were awed by the appearance of a huge three-masted schooner.

Our next step was to tie up at theshaky slips next to the Pavilion so that we could walk along the dock andcritique the handsome Chris-Craft yachts (and I suppose there were othermodels) which were tied up there. We used to pick out which boat would be"ours" if we had our druthers. I still remember a few of the creativenames gilded on the sterns. NanSu, Lively Lady,Silver Heels, Wanderer, Spindrift. (Dottie and Co'sown boat in the years to come would be named Decibel,creatively connected to his work as an audiologist.) In those early days thenames of visiting yachts were often "immortalized" on the wall of thePavilion's lower level. Today we would call the bold paint and carving,graffiti, but to us it was an interesting historical record, and we had funmatching up the names on the wall with the boats that had returned for thethird or fourth summer.

The FerryStore when it was owned by Jean Palmer and Mary Kay Betties and still soldgasoline. Note the two dogs sitting primly on the fenders of Mary Kay'sconvertible Chloe, at left.

 

Pavilion dock with yachts ca 1938

 

Other days weturned downstream where we had several favorite things to see and places to visit. A few hundred yards past the Ferry landingand the Mt. Baldhead Hotel there was tied up what seemed to us a kind ofpseudo-yacht. It was fairly large and the color scheme was right, white hulland reddish-brown superstructure, but it lacked the smooth lines and glossyelegance of the boats we admired so much upstream. We had been told that thisvessel belonged to a retired gangster, a really dangerous man named Red Barker.I think now that someone was pulling our leg, but we took the tale seriouslyand always rowed past this boat very quietly and very fast. Although curiousand constantly hoping to lay eyes on this desperado (at a distance!), we neversaw a sign of life aboard.

The yacht Kareb was always moored at the Mt Baldhead Hotel

 

A littlefather downstream there was a wonderful old tree whose branches extended over the water. We would sometimes take sandwiches, athermos of milk, some fruit, and whatever books we were currently reading. Itseemed very romantic to tie up there in leafy concealment where we could relax,eat lunch, and read. In reality, it wasn't terribly satisfactory as the rowboatinterior was all bumps and angles, and the wakes of the frequently passingtraffic kept us rocking unevenly, but we stuck it out because we imagined it astorybook thing to do.

Continuingdownstream we discovered a wide clearing on the shore of our own side of theriver which contained traces of a house or serious campsite. Exploring, wefound some stones from a tumble-down chimney, a rusty grill, and, strangely, asturdy wooden rocking chair. This was a place which inspired us to one of ourfavorite and often repeated adventures: a breakfast hike. We were notordinarily allowed to build a fire unsupervised, but when we showed this openwaterside spot to my mother, she agreed that we could safely cook breakfastthere on our own. Our routine was to collect our supplies the night before,rise early and make our way on foot through the forest. The menu consisted ofan orange apiece, bacon, and "one-eyed sandwiches" prepared bydropping a slice of bread with a hole in the center into hot bacon fat andbreaking an egg into the hole. As we sat next to our fire in the early morning,enjoying this feast, a regular parade of Saugatuck's fishing fleet passed by ontheir way to Lake Michigan. The men waved andcalled to us, surely astonished to see two children alone in this apparentlyisolated place, far from any cottages. We were always thrilled to call outcheery answers to their questions.

On days whenwe felt especially energetic, we would row all the way to the mouth of theriver. We knew better than to venture into the channel itself, with itsunpredictable crosscurrents and undertow, but we liked to beach the rowboat andwalk out on the concrete breakwater. We felt quite daring going all the way tothe end where the lighthouse/foghorn structure stood like a giant red Tinkertoy.

One day whenwe had rowed to the end of our world, curiosity overcame discretion, and wedecided to explore around the magnificent white mansion that crowned the hillon the north bank of the river. Anyone entering the channel and headingupstream was bound to be impressed by the sight of the classic facade and Doriccolumns of this antebellum-style house. It had been built and was still ownedat that time by David C. Cook, a Chicagopublisher of Sunday School papers, devotional tracts,Bible study guides, etc. As we knew that it was empty and completely closed up,we thought it would be exciting to walk around the grounds. enjoythe view from the verandah, and peek in the windows to see the layout of thebuilding so alien to most Saugatuck architecture.

 

Cook mansion

As luck wouldhave it, a flapping basement window provided us with an excuse to enter"in order to lock up." Dorothy, being the skinny, agile one, slippedthrough the opening, lowered herself to the floor and in minutes had bolted thewindow and opened the front door for me. Awed, we crept around the dark andshuttered first floor and tiptoed up the enclosed staircase, a far cry from theromantically sweeping descent I had envisioned. There was nothing to see butthe still-pretty paper in the sunny bedrooms and our own footprints in the duston the hardwood floors. We both felt relieved when we stood once more on theporch, with the front door closed and locked behind us. Our "noblepurpose" might have been hard to explain had we been discovered.

The river gaveus many roles to play that summer. Besides our games and imaginings, we madeuseful trips to the Ferry Store to pick up and deliver to the cottage the heavyquart bottles of milk that were needed daily. almost unnoticed as a side effectwas the muscle building intrinsic to all that rowing, and when I got back toschool in the fall my fellow students were shocked to feel my heavily callusedhands and commiserated with me on the "hard labor" I must have beenforced to do all summer.

-- Helen Gage DeSoto

"Charley 's" Boat Livery would have been theestablishment of Charles Hiestand, at the foot of Mason Street inSaugatuck. A rowboat, with double oarlocks just like the ones the girls rowed,has been donated to the Museum and will become part of the permanent exhibit inthe south gallery. The gangster mentioned, probably Red Boltonwho was a frequent visitor to Saugatuck, would have been considered"retired" after 1933 when Prohibition was repealed. The David C. Cookmansion still stands on a hill overlooking the mouth of the river. It iscurrently owned by Frank Denison.