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History Lives Here Text

The Old Ferry Store

As the years slip by products, services, and institutions that oncewere seen as necessities either disappear completely, become quaintcuriosities, or adjust to new times. The trolley that once provided transportationbetween Saugatuck and Black Lake no longer exists; the ponderouschain-propelled barge that was often needed to carry cars (and sometimes eventhe fire engine) across the river has become a romantic, lace-trimmed toy toamuse tourists; and the Ferry Store long ago switched from life support basicsto fun, frills and extras before vanishing completely as a retailestablishment.

When our family first came to Saugatuck in the early 1930s, the FerryStore was a small frame structure with a lean-to and fenced-off area in theback where the owners, Mr. and Mrs. Ormiston andtheir young son could camp beside the river. The store stocked perishables likemilk, butter, bread, some seasonal produce and a few staples. There was an A& P grocery in the village of Saugatuck, near thepost office, but the Ferry Store was our life line, depended on daily by thesummer residents of the wooded peninsula across from town. The Ormistons were always helpful and accommodating, and theyoften went out of their way to see that individual and special needs were met.

It was with alarm and trepidation, then, that we heard in 1940 that theFerry Store had been sold and would open under new management. The new ownersseemed an unlikely pair: Mrs. Jean Palmer, fragile, citified, trailing abackground of privilege; and Mary Kay Beetles,strong, capable, efficient and down-to-earth. Mrs. Palmer, it was said, hadsuffered a tragic bereavement. The Ferry Store was to be part of her therapy,and she threw herself wholeheartedly into its gentrification. Where the Ormistons had roughed it, camp style, in the back, aspacious apartment, thoroughly winterized, was now constructed. Invited to tourit as it was nearing completion, we were duly impressed with its attractiveplan and numerous then modernamenities. I remember that the bathroom was still being painted, "for the third time," Mrs. Palmer explained, because thepainters had not yet been able to achieve the shade of pink she required.

MaryKay Beetles


FerryStore ca 1944

The store itself still carried some few necessities, but the importantpart had become the enlarged porch area which served as an elegant ice creamparlor. Other snacks and sandwiches may also have been served. The ice creamwas extra special, the "Haagen Daaz" of its day. One would often find an acquaintance loafing at one of theold-fashioned wire table and chair sets, licking a cone and thumbing throughthe old New Yorker magazines whichwere stacked in a corner. The store at that time was a kind of laid-back "in" place where you could buy unusual small gift items as well asimpromptu picnic materials.

Mrs. Palmer provided glamour. Her perfectly coiffed silver curls, hersilk dress, pearls, and dress shoes contrasted with the counter behind whichshe sat perched on a stool. When asked if she ever went to the beach, sheshrugged delicately and spoke reminiscently of white satin swim suits andpadded sun lounges in Nice or Cannes.She was not always present, a heart condition it was said. Mary Kay, on the otherhand, seemed to be energetically everywhere, keeping things humming, hiring andfiring, cheerfully in control. The hours when the Ferry Store was open,however, became more and more irregular, and residents ceased to depend on itfor serious needs. Fortunately, cottages began to be equipped with reliablerefrigeration, so that daily service became less important, replaced by moreinfrequent shopping at supermarkets.


I'm sure there have been several other owners and incarnations of thisbuilding since this time, and even those things that I remember so clearly maybe remembered differently by others. We can all agree, though, that the FerryStore has been, and will continue to be, Saugatuck landmark.

-Helen Gage DeSoto


A store building has been located at the west chain ferry landing sinceat least 1900 when May Francis Heath ran it, getting up at 4 a.m. to bakecupcakes for her customers. Others followed Mary Kay and Jean including themother of Dick Hoffman. Dick was for several years president of the Village of Saugatuckand ran a series of popular river boats based at AnchorPark (now Wicks Park).When R. E. Peterson received the franchise for the chain ferry he also obtainedthe building. The workmen he assigned to refurbish it quickly discovered thatthere was little foundation under the structure on the swampy river bank and,with the high water prevalent at the time, portions ofthe east wall were occasionally submerged. He had the building raised, filledand stabilized the land on which it sat, and built a concrete foundation underit. After a series of short-term businesses the structure now serves as a realestate office, and club house for guests at nearbyHoliday Hill.