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Monday, July 7, 2014

More Backward Looks to an Earlier Northport, Michigan

Sam and Margaret McClellan came to the village of Northport from Kalamazoo in 1858, bringing their son and two daughters with them. Ida, the youngest, was three years old at the time, and was destined to become my grandmother. Sam came to open a general store to trade with the Indians, who were being paid for their lands. He bought two lots on the hill in the village, overlooking Northport Bay. When the Civil War broke out in 1861, the family left Northport, going by boat to Chicago where Sam joined the Union Army. The lots on the hill lay empty until 1918, when my father and grandmother built the cottage which was my happy summer home for many years.
- Mary W. Russell, Idyll: Reminiscences of Childhood Summers in Northport

A couple of conversations spontaneously arose recently about the number of people from St. Louis, Missouri, who summer in Glen Arbor. In Leland, there's a big concentration of Cincinnati people. Then the question arose, from where does Northport draw summer people and new residents? My only anecdotal evidence suggested Kalamazoo, which happens to be where David and I lived for years before moving to Leelanau County, and I mentioned several other families now established here who lived earlier in Kalamazoo. Then I picked up this little collection of memories written by someone who was one of my early local bookstore customers. She was from Kalamazoo, I never knew that, and now she no longer lives here in Leelanau Township, so the opportunity for those conversations is gone.

People often ask, "Are you from here?" No. Then, "Where are you from?" Well, I was born in South Dakota, grew up in Illinois, and my family started camping in Michigan when I was 12. I only came to live in Michigan at age 18, but by now Michigan has been home for a long time. Here's how Mary Russell put it in her reminiscences:
I was brought to Northport when I was two years old for the first of many happy summers spent there. I always considered Northport my true home, although I was there only three months of the year for many years. As the saying goes, "Home is where the heart is." 
Mary writes of a boatbuilder who helped her brothers build a "hybrid sailboat" out of scrap lumber scavenged from the beach. The boatbuilder would have been Bill Livingston. She describes going to the home of neighbors for water from the pump after their own well at the cottage ran dry, and that would have been -- or is now -- the home of Will and Virginia Thomas. She tells the story of a neighbor boy who "accidentally burned the garage down" in his attempts to make maple syrup: that "budding businessman" was the late George Anderson. It's fun to read Mary's reminiscences and be able to identify individuals and locate places in town. We never chatted about Kalamazoo, but because she wrote down her Northport memories, I've been able to share them with her by reading her little book.

Much of what she writes took place long before I ever knew Northport, though I've heard stories from other locals about, for instance, the silent black-and-white movies shown down by the creek, picnics on Gull Island, and chicken dinners out on the bluffs where the Garthe sisters ran a restaurant for many years. The cherry canning plant, the little train called "Maude," and the downtown library in an old frame house are all a tiny bit familiar to anyone who's been around Northport long enough to hear old-timers' stories. But it's all the details Mary recalls that make the old days come alive for me, like the big toad she looked for in the grass at the corner of the cottage every time she had to venture to the outhouse at night. Amenities at Northport's marina and bayside parks and beaches have increased greatly, just in the last couple of years, but the picture painted by Mary Russell of the water's edge is quite different.
The waterfront then was a jumble of cattails, pools with tadpoles of varying sizes, frogs, and all sorts of wildflowers. An old house with a board walk built above the swampy area and surrounded by willow trees, stood nearby. Always a lover of nature, I found all of this fascinating. Late, of course, the area was "improved" and all of these things vanished, including the picturesque little fishing docks with their rickety sheds, nets drying in the sun, and gulls perching in rows on the roofs. 
Doesn't that sound sweet? Many of the photographs in this little book -- more a booklet, really -- are attributed to Cherry Scott, and the pictures, too, carry me back into Northport's past.

Other books dwell on area history. In those books names are named, and dates are given, and the information is illuminating and fascinating. But I love Mary Russell's little book and only wish I'd been able to read it while she was still here so we could have talked about more of her memories.
All too soon we grew up and the happy, heedless days of childhood were over. But the memories remain, like a book read long ago, which can be opened again and enjoyed at leisure.
Thank you, Mary, for putting together this little book of your memories so I was able to open it and enjoy your memories, too.

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