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Early Days of the Saugatuck Oval

Incredible asit may seem, there was a time in living memory when Saugatuck had no publicaccess beach. Lake Michigan was there, all right, bordered by a broad strip ofthe most beautiful golden sand in the world, but it was effectively barred tomost inhabitants of both sides of the river. Thickly forested hills, concealingunexpected ravines and ridges, brambles and deadfalls, as well as patches ofpoison ivy, discouraged all but the most determined and dedicated hikers. Thosewho wanted to swim in the lake or sunbathe on its shores usually drove toDouglas Beach, parked on its high bluff, descended its long, LONG stairs (whichhad to be wearily climbed on returning), and tolerated the ubiquitous stoneswhich in those days infested the water's edge.

By the middle1930's the era of sun-worship was well and truly entrenched. Swimsuits hadbecome skimpier and more revealing (though nothing even approaching currentmodels!), and a deep even tan had become a status symbol. A resort without anaccessible beach would soon be no resort at all, appealing only to the aged andinfirm. Clearly, a prime necessity for Saugatuck was a good road to the onlypossible section of beach: the stretch between the OldHarbor and Camp Gray.

At first, there was some argument about the advantages ofutilizing the old Water Tower road through the woods and angling back acrossthe sand. This route was even surveyed, but it was finally decided to cutdirectly through from the Ferry, in front of what was then the Ferry Inn, laterthe Beachway. On the low bluff above the beach properan elongated oval roundabout provided extensive parking and, incidentally, gavethe place its name: the OVAL. The slopes lying between the three sets of stairsleading down to the sand were planted with sand cherry and poplar forconservation purposes.



The brand new Oval ca 1937


A single waterfaucet, privy-type toilets, and some trash cans completed the amenities thatfirst year, but it soon became evident that some protective measures were alsoneeded. A life guard stand appeared, and a section of the water was marked offwith heavy pilings and rope. A life guard way hired to watch swimmers,administer first aid, pick up litter, and generally keep order.

I was probablythe third person to hold that job, and when I applied for it, I was surprisedto find that my bosses were only minimally interested in my hard-earned RedCross certificates in life saving. They wanted someone to be reliably on thespot and bossy enough to be seen to be in charge. My hours were from 10 a.m. to5 p.m., and my duties were to take care of raising and lowering the flag, topick up the previous day's trash, to prevent any problem behavior (such as theattempted consumption of alcohol), and, of course, to keep an eye on the water.The Clerk swore me in as a Deputy Marshal, and I wore a badge on my swimsuit toprove it. Fortunately, Harry Newnham, my immediateboss, who in those days was the manto see about EVERYTHING, made regular rounds and always appeared at the beachat least once a day, and sometimes more.

Ididn't often have any problems to report, but when there were those who defiedmy "authority," Harry made short work of them. Most of these werepeople who expected to and were determine to imbibe, but I remember one manwho, egged on by his friends, strutted around in the nude and refused to put onhis trunks. Harry arrived in time to arrest the whole gang and I never saw anyof them again. There was never anything even approaching a close call in thewater, thank goodness, mainly because I insisted that swimmers stay inside theropes at all times and close to the shore when powerful waves were rolling in.



Lifeguard sat here ca 1954


Originallythere was only a tiny refreshment wagon parked near the flagpole, but laterthere appeared a cement block structure providing dressing rooms and realtoilets, as well as junk food, ice cream, and soft drinks. The first suchbuilding, although sturdily constructed, was knocked dawn by a tornado and scatteredevery which way, like a toddler's toy blocks, but it was soon rebuilt biggerand better.

Duringthose first years everything at the Oval seemed to be going better and better,but in the late fifties the city fathers made a mistake. Many townspeople enjoyeddriving over to their beach and parking on their Oval to watch the changingglory of sunset over the lake. Unfortunately, the bushes and other plants onthe slope supporting the pavement had grown high and now interfered with theview. Much to the shock and displeasure of my conservationist mother (amongothers, I'm sure), those obstructing growths were removed. Harry Newnham, whose crew was doing the clean-up, said thatalthough he had warned of possible disastrous consequences, his orders were to goahead. Of course, it was only a matter of time before the denuded slope eroded,the pavement cracked and crumbled and the neat, convenient parking lot becameuseless.



Tanning at the Oval with zinc oxide, baby oil and iodine ca1950


I don't knowwhat the ambience of the Oval is now, but in my times it was a magical place,equal to a romantic South Sea island or Mediterranean glamour spot, but at thesame time as friendly as a neighborhood block party. Because it was specialvisitors returned year after year, often unable to articulate what it was thatattracted them. Life guards were mostly residents (either summer or yearround), like Baxter Richardson, Johnny Fox, Larry and John East, me; and othersknown and, familiar. Bennie Mocini, who was just apre-teen rapscallion with an engagingsmile and zinc oxide on his nose grew up to take his turn for several seasons,and later my daughter, Gail DeSoto, put in her time at what I'm sure was a verydifferent job from my $5 a day stint in the sun. Ridiculous pay or not, thesecret was that we really loved our work and we were proud of the Oval and theway people felt about it.



The view from the last hill ca1945


I haven't been back in a long time, but I like to thinkthat beach-goers traveling the road through the thick, shady woods can stillexperience a thrill as they top the third hill, when the vast panorama of amany-blued Lake Michigan, a lighter blue sky,and our proudly waving flag opens up suddenly in front of them. At least,that's how it was in the early days of the Saugatuck Oval.

-- Helen Gage DeSoto


The Day of theBig Wave
(As recorded by another early life guard)


In the late summer of 1937 I wasguarding at the Oval beach and it was a terribly rough day, and we, had closed swimming that afternoon due to the undertowand the people were sunning themselves and playing beach ball.

A little girl (nine years old)arrived with her two aunts and to find a more secluded spot, they walked alittle ways north towards the old harbor piers and out of our jurisdiction,where the gals spread their towels and after warning the child to stay out ofthe water, they proceeded to sunbathe. Being a typical kid with a big wetshining attraction splashing in front of her, she got into her innertube and was floating between the beach and the fistsand bar when the wave hit. It was immense and soaked a lot of people lyinghigh on the beach, snatched a lot of towels, sun hats, toys and the like andthen headed back toward Milwaukee with the child in her innertube in itsundertow.

She floatedsouth, quite a ways out and some of the ever-present Lotharios went to herrescue rather than notify the guards who were trained and equipped with a largesurf board for just such emergencies. As these guys sped out into the surf,they fueled out and couldn't make it back. Johnny Stearsgot the kid with the board (her hair didn't even get wet) and I was able tograb one of the guys.

While workingon him, two more washed in and every time a wave broke, another body cameashore until there were nine in all. Two recovered by themselves, leaving sevenfor two kid life guards. By the Grace of God there were a couple of RNsvacationing there, and they were on the beach. With their help and knowledge ofresuscitation four more were saved. Two young men died that afternoon becauseone child didn't mind, or her aunts, knowing that she wouldn't, didn't watchher.

It was atraumatic experience for me, to help load those bodies in the back of FrankWicks' 1911 Ford pick-up to be transported to town.


Saugatuck -Douglas History Bookshelf

[Featuring publications on area history, both present day and in thepast. Offeredas a guide and inspiration for those who peruse used book stores.]


Saugatuck Michigan[1947] 24 pp., b 7/8 x 9, saddlestitched. Photo tour of theSaugatuck area, both contemporary and historic photographs.

The only clueto the publisher of this little book is the notation "Copyright 1947,William R. Simmons, Saugatuck, Michigan" on page 23 alongwith the note "This guide is intended to help you find your needs inSaugatuck..."

Simmons was aformer editor of the Commercial Record and a well-known photographer. There isa summary of history on the inside cover in which he credits May FrancisHeath's earlier history, and the balance of the book is made up of photographswith cutlines. Most of the businesses in Saugatuck in1947 are pictured and profiled.

The booklet is fairly common inused book stores for as little as $5.

Wally Peirce