Back to Previous Page

History Lives Here Text

Excerpts from "AmericanPlan" by Celia Gamble House

 

TheWilliam Gamble family of Chicago first came to Saugatuck in 1901 at theinvitation of Dr. George W. Gray of Chicago who had recently begun the ForwardMovement Camp, an operation designed to get poor children and families out ofthe cities in the summertime and give them an opportunity to live in theMichigan woods. He asked a number of Chicagofamilies of higher social standing to attend also. In 1909 the Gambles builttheir own cottage on Riverside Drive, just south of what would become Camp OakOpenings (later Pine Trail Camp) overlooking the river and in 1919 their oldestdaughter Celia, married Edwin H. House, a Saugatuck fruit farmer. Later in lifeCelia wrote an autobiography, couched in a fictional story of the family ofMary and Charles Vincent and their summers in the village of "Westport." Hermanuscript was transcribed and edited by Katharine (House) Allen, one of herthree daughters, who said that to her knowledge the story is completely factual.Below are excerpts from the 144 page book that relate to early days at what wasto become Camp Gray, and life in a cottage on theriver. The manuscript is accompanied by a list giving actual equivalentsfor fictional characters, for example Dr. Gray becomes Dr. White in the book. John Gardiner is the fictional equivalent of Edwin H. House, whomCelia (called Martha in the book) later married.

 

The trip was a delight to them from thelast sight of Chicago, a string of lightswinking out over the dark horizon, and the smooth crossing in the breezy littlestateroom, to the early awakening on the Michiganside. A sudden slowing down of the propellers aroused them. They opened theireyes to the sun-flooded stateroom, whose white walls and ceiling were flowingwith golden ripples reflected from the quiet water outside. They rushed to theporthole and saw a sight they never forgot, the shore of Michigan on a summermorning green and gold, with the sunrise above in the sky and below in thewater. The heavenly quiet after the noisy docks and the throbbing of the engineall night seemed a tangible thing. No city, no wind, even. Justpeace.

 

Dr. White was like a lover introducing themto his lady. "It's good to have someone to share all this with me,"he said. "The local people are so busy, and the people in the city wonderwhat I find to do over here, and why I like it so well."

 

"Well, we can see why you likeit," answered Mary, and, before the day was over, she saw what he found todo. As they walked along, he explained his method of path building, how he wastrying to make level walks through the woods so that even those who were notclimbers could enjoy them. The sandy soil was easily worked, and he cutshelf-like level stretches along the sides of hills, preventing the sand fromshifting by driving stakes into the ground above and below and filling in thespace above with brush. All the brush which accumulated from the necessarycutting was saved for this purpose, and the larger logs were used for stepswhere these were needed. They were secured with stakes driven into the groundbelow them and the ground between them was leveled. Keeping thus to oneelevation involves a great deal of winding around thehills; so the paths were longer than necessary for arriving anywhere, easy, andbreathtakingly lovely.

 

The tents in which they lived were adelight, thanks to Dr. White's good mechanical sense, and they never knew howmiserable tent life can be. For their tents were open at both ends to permitfree passage of air; they were equipped with extra flies which made them proofagainst summer rains; and they were made a comfortable height for Mary by beingset, not on the wooden platform itself, but on the edge of a twelve inch boardwhich boxed in the platform, thus adding twelve inches to the height of thewalls. The tents were pitched where they received direct sunlight a part ofeach day, and the platforms were raised sufficiently off the ground to insuredryness underneath. Both the platforms and the flies extended several feet infront of the tents to make a little sitting room where callers were usuallyreceived. Camp etiquette prescribed a discreet "halloo" whenapproaching a tent and the visitor stood at one side of the entrance untilinvited to enter. Meals were plain but ample, clothing plain and not too ample;floors were scoured by walking about on the particles of sand which seemed tobe ever present.

 

Life for Mary, thus simplified, became veryfull and rich. Every day they bathed in Lake Michigan.Nearly every evening they had a drift wood fire on the beach while the sunsetfaded and the stars came out. Early every morning Mary, from her bed, could seethe fishing boats go out to the nets in the gray or rosy dawn.

 

The charm of their free summers grew upon them during the long absenceevery year and Westporttook on a glamour that never was on land or sea. Mary herself, felt the magicof wakening in Westport, so very far in spirit from the great, drab, hustlingever-alien city of Chicago.There was a soft lightness in the air, always a clear glow in the sunlight, amusical whisper in the trees that always welcomed them.

 

It was fun, too, toreturn to a village where they were recognized and welcome. They did not yetknow the feeling that the natives of a resort town have when the first summervisitors came back. It was more than anything else like the cheerful goodmorning that children give their teachers on the first day of school. It meansthat their personal and community lives are over until fall, that from now onthey must hustle and not miss a chance to earn a dollar. It is their deadlinetoward which they have been gardening, painting, carpentering, spring cleaning,and sewing. Indeed, this deadline has been on their minds since away back inthe fall when they began preserving and making jelly,and all through the winter while they quilted and made aprons and "fancyarticles" for the church bazaar, held cannily in July. It means that theymust move out of their neighborhood parties and club meetings must be suspendedfor three or four months, the end of leisure

and the beginning of the campaign.

 

However, it is easy to smile when old friends smile first and when theysaid, "Signs of spring, if here aren't the Vincents;it's nice to have you back with the birds!" they more than half meant it.So Mary and the children responded innocently to the greetings they received.Mary enjoyed the village people, feeling more at home in Westportthan she ever had in Chicago.She liked their town meeting and the local observances of Memorial Day, whenthey sent a little ship made of spring flowers down the river in memory oftheir own men lost on Lake Michigan. She likedtheir enthusiasm over their gardens, the sun-time whistle that blew for noon athalf-past eleven, and the technicalities of their talk which did not insult herwith explanations of anything, but left her to find out what it meant to saythat someone was "down to Buffalo layin' up asteamboat," "clamming half a mile above the slab island," or"down't the mouth."

 

She gloried in a society where it was safe to address an elderly man as"Cap'n" and where the principal of the highschool was "the Professor." She marvelledat the double delivery system required of the grocery stores who sent orders byriver, if possible, in shabby little motorboats that made more noise than alake steamer, and only if absolutely necessary, essayed the overland route withlight buckboards and scrawny little horses. The stores were fun. There was onewhere it was possible to buy crockery, except that the proprietor always hatedto part with the last one of any item, and a hardware store where all sorts of boatish things were sold.

Although, at first, trips to the village were rare events and thebusiness of life was in the woods or on the beach, as the children were moreand more trusted with errands they learned to know the village for themselves.Jerry, especially was the young man about town who knew where boats were built,how the fish were marketed, what freight was going to Chicago each evening, andhow to make himself useful to yachtsmen whose boats he felt honored to know. Itwas fun to board an old schooner and help unload firewood and they liked to goabout noticing what changes had taken place since the last season. "They'retearing down -- tearing up -- or something -- the old Libbie Carter, Mom, you know, that tug? She's just a big skeleton now. Acouple of men are working there."

 

"And y'oughta see the signs in the woods where the path comesout on the beach -- you know, Mommie - - where thetown kids used to put on their bathing suits? 'Anyonefound dressing in the woods will be prosecuted for indecent exposure'!"Peals of laughter greeted this last and the charming phrase was immediatelyadopted for use whenever they thought they heard steps or voices outside theirtents.

 

"Andthere is another thing they should begin to know something about," [Mary]reflected, "and that is some practical notion of how work is done and whatthings cost."

 

And so that is how it happened that she began taking them to visit thepeach basket factory, and to watch clam fishing and boat building activities.The basket factory was situated at the head of the small lake where the logswere floated down the river in spring and collected in a boom. An endless beltcarried them up into the building, huge black, dripping monsters like greathogs or walruses. There they were cut into lengths which were fastened at eachend and revolved in a machine that sliced off large sheets of veneer. Then followed the cutting, nailing and packing. The smell ofthe wet sawdust, the screech of the saws, and the cleverness of the workmenfascinated the children. A tall Indian, who manipulated levers, charmed Pattyfor he wore a wild rose in his dusty cap. He belonged to a group of Potawattomies who camped nearby to work in the factory insummer, and spent their winters upstream trappingmuskrats.

 

The sandy bottom of the river was apt to shift and form sandbars. Whenthis interfered with navigation, Federal engineers came in and dredged out thechannel. They used a dredge mounted on a barge, and other barges on which thesand was loaded, to be towed out into the lake and dumped. A ship for livingquarters completed their fleet which was of great interest to the children. Theyliked the cook and the cook's cat almost as well as the "drudge." Thehuge dredge splashed tremendously as it went down, and rose with its great jawsclosed on a wagon load of sand. It then swung its dripping load over a bargeand dropped it.

In contrast to the rush and racket of the factory, and the immensity ofthe job done by the Federal Government, the clam fishing was the essence ofpeace and quiet. The fresh water mussels, locally called "clams,"were thin shelled bi-valves, dark and rough outside and opalescent within. Theywere piled up in heaps in some secluded spot on the river bank to be sackedlater and shipped to the button factory. The clammersrowed slowly along in flat-bottomed boats with their lines dragging hooks alongthe bottom. Even this job had its thrills, Mary discovered. Just shells forbuttons were nothing to the clammers. They lived inhope of finding an occasional fresh water pearl.

And once the Vincentshad the fun of going out to the nets in the early morning with a fisherman inhis sailboat. They learned toduck when the boom swung around on the tacks, and were much excited by thescreaming gulls which followed the boat and swooped close to their heads as thefishermen dressed the fish and threw the offal overboard...

Something seemed to be impelling them all [to move] from the fishingand hunting to the agricultural stage of culture. They had outgrown Eden and went forth oftheir own free will to earn furtherfun and experience in the real world. So Charles and Mary began to considerproperty.

 

But before they bought anything, they did the one thing needed to makethem fall, utterly and finally, in love with Westport. They spent a summer elsewhere. Theywent to one of the central counties to a small lake in the cutover pine region,of tamarack bordered lakes and sphagnum marshes, to live in a log cabin . They all missed the wooded dunes and beach of Lake Michigan.

When Paul was fourteen and Jerry sixteen and a half, the children hearda good deal about correspondence with John Gardiner at Westport regarding abuilding lot. They remembered the Gardiner place vaguely, as bordering on theriver which had been their highway, and they knew very well the high bankfacing westward which commanded a fine view of the mouth of the river. Afterwhat seemed like a long time, the bargain between Scotch-Irish Charles andYankee John Gardiner was made and Mary and Charles began drawing plans for thecottage. A Westportcarpenter was engaged and as soon as spring opened, Charles and Mary began takingweekend trips over to inspect the work. The family rejoiced that their loyaltyto Westport wasnow renewed and made permanent.

A boat was to be a necessity if they wereto keep house so far from the village. So after poring over catalogues andconferring with salesmen, they chose their boat. It was a twenty-four foot openrun-about with an exposed engine amidships and a canvas top which folded backonto the stern deck. They named it UncleDan, because Uncle Dan has "swum every stream he come to till he cometo the Mississip'."

 

Charles sent [the boys] around the shore of Lake Michiganto Westport inthe Uncle Dan. Of the wind that cameup after they started and his anxiety about their safety, he never liked tospeak afterward. He paced the floor and fretted and drove Mary almost todistraction. Mary had to pack for the annual migration whether she was worriedor not. They made the night trip and arrived in Westport before the boys and their boat.

 

Soon, however,John Gardiner set their fears at rest by arriving with a telephone message fromthe sailors saying that they had spent the night in a harbor to the south andwere starting on the last lap of their voyage.

 

 

They were down at the river shore planning[a pier] when the staccato notes of the UncleDan engine broke the stillness. Mary and the girls hurried down from thecottage and joyful shouts from shore answered the toots of the little whistleand the clamor of the ship's bell as UncleDan swept up to a point in line with the pier site.

 

The boys were eager to see the cottage andclimbed up the bank with Mary and the girls. The cottage was all fresh brightgolden pine boards, fragrant still with shavings and sawdust, and full ofvagrant breezes from the many windows, every one of which framed a picture oftree branches spotted with sun and the shadows of waving leaves.

 

"And come out here to the sleepingporch," said Martha, pointing out over the sloping ground to JohnGardiner's orchard. Seen from above, it was a rug of freshly turned earthdotted with the round bushy tops of the apple trees.

 

The cottage was set on the top of a ridgewhich paralleled the river, so that the ground sloped steeply down to thewater's edge on the west side and more gradually to the orchard on the east. Atthat hour, the cool lake breeze fanned the shady western slope and the morningsun glowed on the eastern side where Mary's garden was to be... That evening,as Mary served a buffet supper from the top of a trunk, to a family seated onthe edge of the porch with feet swinging, the Chicago steamer, on its way downthe river passed so close under their bank that Judy said, "I could throwa biscuit down onto the deck."

 

Thelighthouse at the mouth was plainly visible from the cottage and the harborlight, a red flash, dark fifteen seconds, a white flash, and again dark fifteenseconds, oriented then even on the darkest night.

 

UncleDan served them well enough for three or four summers, but at last theywere writing for catalogues again and seeing boats in their dreams. The secondboat, also Uncle Dan, was longer andtrimmer. She carried no top to catch the wind and she cut the water with ahigher plume of spray on each side of the ten foot forward deck. The motor wasunder this deck, which left the cockpit clear for chairs and protected lightfrocks from motor oil. The girls began to run the new boat as it was morereliable.

 

Changes came in the cottage, too. A guestroom became a necessity, so they contrived a room below the sleeping porchwhich was well off the ground, due to the slope. It was a family enterprise andMartha was helping one day with the painting when Charles saw a good sizedsnake glide under the floor. He warned Martha, but she was so intent on herwork that she kept painting. Charles was delighted and the guest room wasimmediately dubbed, "The Snake Room."

 

A series of cooler summers made the familyfalter a little in their devotion to breezes. It became evident that the rivervalley was a draw for lake winds, and all their jutting walls, provided withonly screens and awnings, were wind traps. Charles weakened to the extent ofhaving a small glassed in room built at one end of the sleeping porch. This wascalled "Dad's Hot Box," but it was hot `only by contrast.

 

At last the peach and sweet cherry trees,set out under the neighborly guidance of John Gardiner, began to bear and therewas a small but thriving strawberry patch. When Mary picked the first basketfulof huge fragrant strawberries and sat on a garden bench to rest and cool off,with all this wealth in her lap and yellow roses and forget-me-hots right at hand, she felt that no one could be happierthan she was at that moment.

 

Thefamily continued to use the Gamble cottage in the summertime for many years,but it has since been sold although it still stands, little changed. The House house, on 66th Street, remains in the family, occasionallyinhabited on a year-round basis, by some corner of the family, always afavorite gathering place in the summertime.