A Tale ofTwo Hills
ByHelen Gage DeSoto
When the Gage family bought a lotand built their cottage on ox-Bow Hill in the very early 1930s, they were notreally the strangers to the area that they had thought they were. My father wasvery interested to learn that the Macatawa house on Black Lakewhere he had spent several young boyhood vacations was not far away. Althoughthe property had changed hands since those days and no longer belonged to arelative, he enjoyed taking us to visit and explore some of the scenes heremembered. In his youth Jenison Park,for example, had offered various lively amusements and rides which, whileexisting in our time in dusty, canvas-shrouded dinginess, still recalled happymemories to him.
At the west end of Black Lake,which lies only a few hundred yards from the shores of Lake Michigan, the changes were even more dramatic. The old-fashionedsummer hotel with its long verandah and rocking chairs still stood, but it wasno longer the elegant center of activity it had once been and had few guests.The quaint looking shops to its right were largely boarded up, and most of thecabins lining the sandy trail between the hotel and Lake Michigan were shuttered, locked and deserted.
The high wooded slope rising fromthe southwest shore of Black Lake showed manysimilarities to our Saugatuck forested dunes, both having been shaped inancient days by the same powerful winds, but there was one startlingdifference. The Black Lake hill had once beenthickly built up. My father remembered seeing the lights of some dwellingsshining from its slope, but the popularity of the place must truly haveexploded in the 1920s. More than a hundred cottages were terraced, one abovethe other on a hillside no more spacious than Ox-Bow Hill in Saugatuck!
By the time of our visit in 1931-32 littlewas left. All the cottages had been destroyed in a massive conflagration thathad broken out off-season, too fierce to be contained. No lives were lost, butno whole structures remained. Fortunately, most of the trees had managed tosurvive, the root systems not having been affected. By the time we werewandering through the ruins there was no visible charring and the high forestappeared almost normal. A thick second growth half covered broken chimneys,crooked steps, cracked foundations and twisted iron railings. The inhabitantshad enjoyed paved walkways through their woods, with easy access to every home,whether lower down or on the summit. For us it was like a visit to anarcheological dig or at least a ghost town, but it was also an object lessonabout fire on our beloved and vulnerable hills.
Ox-Bow Hill itself was onceseriously threatened in those early years and it was only through the quickaction on the part of dedicated townspeople that the whole slope was notdenuded. As luck would have it my mother was utilizing a spring weekend tobegin getting things ready for the summer. Down below, at the river's edge, aproperty owner was clearing and burning the winter debris accumulated on hisland. Although he thought he could control the fire by keeping it within alarge metal contained, in practice he couldn't. As he told it later, a suddengust of wind snatched one burning leaf and grounded it at the base of the hillwhere flames immediately took off upward and spreading. He made a valianteffort to run uphill after it, trying to beat it out, but the flames were toovoracious and too fast for him.
It was the villagers who saw thesmoke and came to the rescue. A whole crowd of them crossed the river and camerushing up, carrying pails and kettles. My mother knew nothing of the near-disasteruntil the people arrived and quickly formed a bucket brigade that finallysucceeded in extinguishing both the visible flames and the creeping embers.During most of this the Saugatuck fire engine could be seen inching its wayacross the Kalamazooon the chain ferry. The long way around was really a long way in thosedays. It was fortunate that we were at our cottage and that Harry Newnham had already turned on the water for us.
Some of the trees on the highest point werekilled because fire had crept along the roots and for some years it waspossible to see the narrow fanshaped path of theburning. Little by little, however, we cut down the dead trees and pruned someof the too luxuriant second growth until no trace of the near-tragedy remained.