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History Lives Here Text

Douglas Beach in the Thirties

byHelen Gage DeSoto

Lakeshore Drive runs far above the beach. The bluff it occupies is highenough that the summer houses built on the hillside, though only visible atroof and chimney levels, are still well above their private water frontageareas. Some have footbridges to provide access to the road.

In the 1930s when Iknew it best there was a small store near the entrance to the public park whichsold the usual soft drinks and snacks, and, more importantly for us, rented beachumbrellas for 25 cents an hour. Flanking this was a rather casual parking areawhich consisted of a graveled widening of the road fenced along the edge of thebluff. A long stairway led down through the forest. The lake could only beglimpsed through the thick foliage of the trees on the hills, but the beachitself could not be seen, and we never knew until we got to the bottom justwhat kind of mood Lake Michigan might be in. About halfway down there was awide landing where an attached wooden structurecontained makeshift dressing stalls before the steps continued their descent.The entire arrangement gave the impression that it had seen better days a longtime ago and received a lot of recent wear and tear.

The beachitself was a wide stretch of beautiful, clean sand, scattered with random rocksand stones of every size. Finding a good place to enter the water could bedifficult, as some innocently welcoming sections deceptively concealed piles ofgrapefruit- and melon-sized stones, impossible to step on without turning anankle. In some places, however, the water rippled over rough gravel that was atleast tolerable to tender feet. One never knew where the "good"places were, as even mild wind and waves would cause currents to change all of this overnight, and a real stormmight rearrange even the boulders on the beach.

I remember oneenormous rock that stood just barely underwater at a depth of about six feet.It was always difficult to find under the two or three inches of water thatconcealed it. When located, it made a wonderful diving stand and"King-of-the-Mountain" play area. Squarishand only slightly irregular on top, it was possible for three cooperativepeople to stand on its surface, although generally the joy was in challengingand being challenged for possession. From the beach it was always amazing tolook out over the lake and see someone standing only ankle deep whilesurrounded by people who were obviously swimming in serious depths.

In the summerof 1935 -- I'm fairly sure of the year -- there appeared a real, solidlyconstructed diving platform out in the real deep water. Although the structurelooked flimsy, it had to be very firmly put together because it withstood a lotof punishment that season. It consisted of three long poles supporting aroughly triangular platform six or seven feet above the surface of the water.The poles were firmly seated in the sand of the bottom and were reinforcedabout halfway to the top by a couple of connecting scrap boards. A sturdy ropeladder with wooden rungsprovided access to an elevated standing surface where there was little room forone or two. No one tried to linger aloft, as it was a popular place where, ongood days, a steady stream of young teens could be seen swarming up the ropeladder to dive or cannonball off the deepest side of the triangle. Most of theperformers were boys, partly because they were truly aggressive in takingpossession of the rope ladder, and partly because many of the girls werecontent to stay in the water admiring the male prowess. Most of theperformances were standard kid show-off, but Johnny Fox made even the adultssitting on the sand take pleasure in watching him pause on the edge of theplatform, stand tall, and plunge neatly into the water with hardly a splash.

One day inAugust that summer our family arrived at the beach early and, when my cousinsand I had clattered down those splintery steps, we found the place practicallydeserted. Although the air was clear and windless, waves were rolling in, thelegacy of a storm the night before. We knew that the undertow on such a daywould prevent any diving, but we longed to climb up and possess, if onlytemporarily, that towering perch above the waves. It looked easy, but the swimtook longer than we had anticipated, up one mountainous wave after another.Finally we reach the goal, only a little tired. The rope ladder, however,unanchored by the weight of other climbers proved to be almost impossible tonegotiate. It swung madly back and forth with every wave. With me as ballast,my cousin made it to the top, but I had to be content to remain standing on thelowest rung, clinging to one of the support poles. Fortunately the structureitself was so professionally built that it didn't even quiver. When we swamback (much faster than outward bound, I might add) we found that the adults inour party had been suffering agonies of anxiety and no descriptions of an easythough up-and-down swim could convince them that we hadn't been in danger anddaring fate.

For somereason, we didn't go back to Douglas againthat summer. We finished out the season swimming in Ox-Bowlagoon or at Goshorn Lake, so I never saw that diving standor anything like it again. I always hoped that whoever had constructed it wouldget inspired again, but it never happened. A one-time wonder, its background isstill a mystery to me. The big "diving boulder" though pushed intonew locations each winter, a real challenge to find in July, still provided acenter of fun before we abandoned Douglasbeach for the newly-opened Oval in Saugatuck.

An interestingfootnote: About 30 years later some friends and I, strolling south along thewater's edge past Camp Gray and some hillside beach houses, found ourselves ata deserted but identifiable DouglasBeach. A convenient bench-size rock offered a place to sit comfortably beforeturning back. Its surface seemed strangely familiar and I suddenly recognizedmy old deep water play place, now beached and half buried in sand.

Douglas Beach Rock


Beach Stair c1945- Edith Bosch andElizabeth Pamperien


Douglas Beach