Saturday, November 10, 2018

The 100th Anniversary of the End of World War I

by Bryan Whitledge

Sunday, November 11, 2018 marks the 100th anniversary of the end of fighting in the First World War. Long-simmering tensions across Europe exploded into official declarations of war after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand on June 28, 1914. Approximately 20 million people - military and civilian - died as a result of the war and nearly 24 million service members were wounded because the conflict. The impact of war stretched far beyond the battlefields of Gallipoli, Verdun, or Flanders. Thousands of young men from Michigan enlisted and made their way overseas.

In an era before satellite phones and internet video calls kept members of the service in contact with their loved ones, hand-written letters were the way those on the front sent and received news to and from home. Some of these letters have been preserved over the past 100 years. They give us a glimpse of what life was like during the Great War.

Letter from R. Wiltenburg
Private Lake sent a letter to a friend in Brooklyn, NY dated November 1, 1918 that shows how much caution men on the front took with daily activities. He mentions his desire for leave time away from the front to a place with “electric lights” that can be used at night time. This was different from his experience at the front, where, “if you light a match at night here, you will hear something singing in the air (and it is funny music).”

Another letter comes from Rudolph Wiltenburg of rural Ottawa County, Michigan, who wrote to his brother in December of 1918, after the fighting had ended but before all of the troops returned back to US soil. He wrote about the rumors that he would be returning soon and his plans after he was done in the Army: “Sometimes I think of going back to farming, and if the opportunity looks good, perhaps will. […] We may have a chance to get a little farm close [to] home and, as we talked [about], work it together.”

Plans for the future are common themes in letters from Doughboys. Dreaming of the future didn’t necessarily mean after the War was over and everyone returned home. Some of the dreams are like those of Alex Bayne of Grand Rapids, who sent a letter to his father in July of 1917. Bayne was recuperating from an injury, but that did not lessen his ambition to join an aviation unit. He wrote to his father, “I feel very lucky and also greatly indebted to Coty for making me acquainted with most of the men in his escadrille. […] They are the nicest bunch I’ve ever met and I’m certainly going to try and make good in school.”

During the War, the speed of letters crossing the Atlantic was quite slow and news was infrequent. Many servicemen note this in their correspondence. Alex Bayne closes the letter to his father in July 1917, “Don’t be worried if you don’t hear from me real often – the boats are uncertain and no news is always good news.” Private Lake, writing to his friend on November 1, notes, “I just received your letter dated September 11.”

Letter from F. Sigourney
It wasn’t just mail that crossed the Atlantic slowly. Fred Sigourney of Gratiot County, Michigan wrote a letter to his family chronicling his journey from New York to the front. He was aboard a ship for two weeks to reach French soil. Once on dry land, Sigourney traveled by rail and by foot through different parts of France for three months in preparation for combat. Only then did Sigourney’s unit start their march to the front. They arrived at the front on November 4, 1918, just one week before the armistice ending the fighting was signed. As Sigourney notes, the Armistice was a big deal for everyone – military and civilian alike: “We got news that the Armistice was signed and they rang the church bells enough to break them. Miss Margaret Wilson gave an entertainment in the opera house that night.”

100 years after Fred Sigourney witnessed the bells of the church in Domgermain, France break, we take a moment to reflect on the legacy of the Great War and the lives of all who were affected by it.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

The Tragedy and Crystal Lake

By Frank Boles

On October 17, Stacy Leroy Daniels spoke on the history of Michigan’s Crystal Lake.  Located in Benzie County, Crystal Lake is one of the largest inland lakes in the state. It was considerably larger before Archibald Jones began an ill-fated canal project.

In 1873 various individuals interested in expanding commerce at Frankfort conceived of a canal between Lake Michigan and Crystal Lake. The canal would open up much of the interior to Frankfort, an idea designed to boom both farming and lumbering.
To accomplish this, Archibald Jones, who had arrived in the area a year earlier, began to sell shares in the Benzie County River Improvement Company.  The plan was straightforward – lower the lake level about four feet, and use that water to raise the depth of the Betsy River. With the addition of a few locks, this would create an easily navigated channel between Frankfort and Crystal Lake.
Survey work was begun, and soon construction started on an approximately eight mile long canal. By August the channel had been dug. What exactly transpired next is a bit unclear. Some accounts have Jones removing the “temporary” dam at Crystal Lake to let the water from the lake flow downstream and wash away much of the remaining dirt in the proposed canal route. Although stories in which Jones “pulls the plug” makes for a good tale, a more likely explanation for what happened is that violent storms washed out the temporary dam, freeing the water from the lake to flow downstream.
Whichever account is true, on Saturday, August 23, 1873 the dam broke, and within a short time the roar made by the water could be heard five miles away. When the roar finally ended, approximately one-quarter of the water in the lake had flowed into Lake Michigan. The water level in Crystal Lake had dropped eighteen to twenty feet, from about 615 feet above sea level to about 595 feet above sea level.

“Shorn of her glory” and “desolate looking” was how some contemporary observers described the lake a few weeks after the dam broke.  Perhaps all might have been forgiven had the canal really worked, but it soon became clear that a boat of any size still could not move up the Betsy River from Frankfort to Crystal Lake.
Unsurprisingly, at the time there was a good deal of finger pointing. In the long run, however, “pulling the plug” created lasting economic benefits that went far beyond moving lumber and agricultural products from the inland areas to Frankfort. Prior to 1873 Crystal Lake had almost no beach.  But by September 1873 almost 21 miles of very desirable beach had been exposed. Eventually a control dam was built and a good deal of legal proceedings resolved who owned all that newly available beach. Today, Crystal Lake is maintained at a level of approximately 600 feet above sea level in the summer, and about a foot lower in the winter. The beach front property is valued at approximately $660 million.
Archibald Jones, however did not to enjoy any of this long-term windfall.  Once it was clear that the Betsy River remained unnavigable, he moved to Illinois and later to Kansas. It was quite a story, one those present enjoyed.

Friday, November 2, 2018

The French in 19th Century Michigan

The French in 19th Century Michigan
By Frank Boles

On October 2nd, CMU Professor Amy Ransom gave an interesting presentation discussing the ongoing presence and influence of the French in 19th century Michigan. Professor Ransom, who has a particular interest in Quebec, used the lecture to talk about the long history of French-speaking people in our state.
Michigan was originally part of New France. And although the British took political control of Canada in 1763, the Europeans who lived along St. Lawrence River valley and near the Great Lakes remained a French-speaking community largely populated by the descendants of French settlers or Metis, people of mixed French and Indian descent. Similarly when the English ceded Michigan to the newly formed United States, the residents of Michigan, located in Detroit, Monroe, Mackinac Island, and Sault Ste Marie, remained a French speaking group of communities, whose political establishment consisted of a dusting of English speaking officials.

Map of Michigan in French from
France at Mackinac; a pictorial record of French Life and Culture 1715-1760 by Eugene T. Paterson 

One of the most interesting points about these French communities during their formative years was the determined independence of the residents. French “habitants” were clear in their own mind that they were not “peasants” under the thumb of some nobleman, but rather free residents of the land, who controlled their own fate. As such they were quite capable of standing their ground against French authorities, and later against British or American political leaders who crossed well established boundaries.

A depiction of Cadillac's Landing at Detroit from
Lingering Shadows of the Fleur De Lis by
Edith Watkins Worley Ash
Professor Ransom also noted that while the great wave of “Yankee” immigration which began to arrive in Michigan during and after the 1820s did much to dilute French influence, it was mixed with  a smaller wave of Quebecois immigrants, who left French speaking, and British governed, Quebec to seek their fortunes in Michigan. The quick ferry ride between cities like Detroit and Windsor made crossing the border between British governed “Upper Canada”, today’s Ontario, and the United States a simple matter. More to the point, no one would ask questions of a French speaking person boarding a ferry in Canada and getting off it in the United States. And a habitant would not be bothered much about something so superfluous as an international boundary drawn on a map he or she had not been consulted about.

From Cadillac's Village: Detroit under
the French Regime by the Detroit Historical Museum
As Professor Ransom easily demonstrated, there remains a longstanding French presence today, seen most notably in a host of generally town and street names. Although contemporary pronunciation of the words would make a true French speaking person shed tears of sorrow regarding what we have done to the language.
It was an interesting talk.

Friday, October 19, 2018

Tocqueville Exhibit Opens

By Frank Boles

On October 9, the Clarke Library opened its newest exhibit, Tocqueville’s Two Weeks in the Wilderness. The library’s reference librarian, and resident scholar of early nineteenth century Michigan, John Fierst, curated the exhibit and spoke at the presentation that accompanied the opening. If you’d like to hear the presentation please use this link:

Alexis de Tocqueville’s 1831 trip to the United States resulted in one of the most quoted books describing governance in the young Republic. Democracy in America, published in 1835, was a liberal, French nobleman’s take on the great experiment in self-rule beginning in North America. Tocqueville believed democracy inevitable and overall he found the way it was growing in the United States to be successful.

The Clarke’s exhibit, however, does not focus on Tocqueville’s famous book, but rather a portion of the trip often overlooked – a visit to Saginaw, Michigan. Tocqueville and his friend and traveling companion, Gustave de Beaumont, came to America not just to learn about how democracy worked here. But they also wanted to see two things that Europe lacked: virgin forest and Native Americans. It was for these reasons Tocqueville Beaumont made the spontaneous decision to come to Michigan Territory. The forests of New York State were simply too well groomed by the settler’s axe. The Native Americans they met in the East were not the proud, independent warriors they imagined, and who in retrospect looked suspiciously like an idealized view of their own sense of what the French nobility should be.

What resulted, a long essay by Tocqueville entitled Two Weeks in the Wilderness, is in turns comic, inspiring and tragic. Tocqueville could certainly see the humor in America, and in how he sometimes had to deal with Americans and their idiosyncrasies. As they approached Todd’s Tavern, near Flint, Tocqueville was startled to see a large black bear standing in his path. He could not but wonder, “what the devil kind of country is this, where they use bears as watchdogs?”

Tocqueville also spoke with considerable unhappiness about “Yankee” settlers inability to understand his desire to see nature unblemished by civilization and their consistent disparaging comments about Native Americans. The settlers then pouring into Michigan found equally puzzling why someone would just want to go out and look at uncut trees or talk to Indians.

To find his wilderness, Tocqueville resorted to subterfuge. He visited the federal land office in Detroit early one morning and asked the typical question of where a man might profitably invest money in land. He was told that the land near Lake Michigan was particularly promising, and thus quickly removed that destination from his travel plans. He then casually asked if there were any places he would be wise to avoid. Saginaw, came back the quick reply; a place full of uncut forest, hostile Indians, and mosquitoes.

Overjoyed by discovering a location Americans found wretched, he and Beaumont hurried away to plan their trip. By 11:00 that morning they had rented horses, purchased supplies and were on their way. Saginaw proved everything they hoped for, and of which the land office supervisor thought so little. 

Of the forest Tocqueville would write of how he experienced “the sweetest and most natural emotions of the heart,” emotions he said words could not convey. Being in the forest near Saginaw was one of “those rare moments when the universe stands in perfect equilibrium before your eyes. When the soul, half asleep, hovers between present and future, between the real and the possible. When surrounded by natural beauty and quite warmth, man , at peace with himself amid universal peace, can hear the beat of his own heart, each pulse marking the passage of time as it flows drop by drop into the eternal river.”

Tocqueville was equally aware of the fragility of the environment he found so inspirational. “This savage natural grandeur is about to meet its end, and the idea of it mingles in the mind with the superb images to which the triumphant march of civilization gives rise. One feels proud to be human, yet at the same time one somehow feels bitter regret that God had granted man so much power over nature.”  He knew it would soon all be changed by ‘the impetus that drives the white race to conquer the whole of the New World.”

Tocqueville was less successful in meeting his idealized Native. Part of the problem was simply that he could not speak Ojibway. For example, along the trail he meets, an Indian, who did not speak English.  Tocqueville’s initial reaction was to fear the man, but although they could only communicate with signs, soon enough the mood changed. Of the experience Tocqueville wrote, “A serious Indian and a smiling Indian are two completely different people. A savage majesty predominates in the stillness of the former to which one reacts with an involuntary feeling of terror. Let the same man smile and his whole face takes on a simple, kindly expression that lends it real charm.”
Having hired two Native Americans to guide them on the final part of their journey to Saginaw, Tocqueville wrote, “We felt completely in their power. Here the tables were turned. Plunged into darkness and forced to rely on his own strength, the civilized man proceed blindly, incapable of negotiating the labyrinth or even preserving his own life. Faced with the same challenges, the savage triumphs. For him the forest holds no mysteries. He is at home. He walks with his head held high, guided by an instinct more trustworthy than the navigator’s compass….  As they led us by the hand, like children, their smiles seemed almost contemptuous.”
Tocqueville eventually reached Saginaw. He decided it was worth the trouble of getting there, and we hope you will take the time to join us and view the exhibit, Tocqueville’s Two Weeks in the Wilderness. We hope you will also enjoy the companion publication, Aristocracy on the Saginaw Trail: Alexis de Tocqueville In Michigan, written by John Fierst and available without charge in paper in the Clarke’s exhibit galleries or online at 
Our thanks go to Judge Avern Cohn, whose financial support made possible the catalog and maps found in the exhibit.
And for the record, Tocqueville and Beaumont not only found forests and Natives in Saginaw, they also found mosquitoes. 
“This little bug is the scourge of the American wilderness. Its presence would be enough to make a long stay unbearable. I have never been subjected to torture equivalent to what I experienced throughout this journey and especially during our stay in Saginaw. During the day the mosquitoes prevented us from drawing, writing, or remaining in one place for even a moment; at night thousands of them hovered about us. Any part of the body left uncovered immediately became their gathering place. Awakened by the pain of a bite, we would cover our heads with sheets, but they could pierce right through them. Hunted down and pursued by these small insects, we got up and went outside for some fresh air until at last we succumbed to fatigue and slept intermittently and badly.”
Tocqueville’s “triumphant march of civilization” in which he took such pride, seems to have met its match in tiny insects. Then again, we would be wise to remember that the twenty-first century has yet to figure out how to keep “the scourge of the American wilderness” from ruining a camping trip.

Friday, September 21, 2018

CMU Alumni Awards

by Bryan Whitledge

What happens when thousands of outstanding students earn degrees from Central Michigan University? They become outstanding alumni. And a few of the thousands of former Chips putting their stamp on the world will be honored on September 21, 2018 at CMU’s annual Alumni Awards event. This year’s honorees include RenĂ© and Stan Shingles, Isaiah Oliver (2007), Sarah Opperman (1981), Bob Schellhas (1988), and Mackenzie Flynn (2018).

Each year, the Alumni Awards banquet is among the biggest events the CMU Alumni Association produces. But how did this long-standing autumn tradition come about? As with many things at CMU, it goes back decades.

The first Central graduate to be honored as a member of the alumni was Clara Moyer, who, in 1963, turned 100 years old and was honored by the University as the “oldest alumnus.”

Clara Moyer and her dog with
a guest and a copy of CM Life

Four or so years later, CMU created a plan to honor 75 people during the 1967-68 school year. These alumni, as well as other individuals who made significant contributions to the University, would receive one of the 75th Anniversary Awards. Included in the list of recipients are notable alumni such as Dick Enberg - a sports announcer and journalist, Alice Miel - a longtime Columbia University professor and chair of their Department of Curriculum and Teaching, Lem Tucker - award winning journalist, Bob Griffin - a US Senator and member of the House of Representatives, and Mamie Baird - a teacher and social worker in Cotazar, Mexico for over 30 years after graduating with a BS from Central in 1935.

Even though the 75th Anniversary Awards were a success, honoring alums wasn’t quite a an annual tradition at that point. But the seed was planted. Just five years later, in October 1973, CMU presented Clarence Tuma with the first “Alumni Recognition Award” and Malcolm Kienzle with the first “Honorary Alumnus Award.” Four years after that, CM Life profiled one specific inductee into the “Golden ‘C’ Club,” as they called it, Ruth Mavis Williams (1927). While you may not know the name, you know the legacy she left Central 90 years ago – the lyrics to the alma mater!

Since 1973, every fall, CMU has handed out a variety of awards to alumni. Today’s awards include the Honorary Alumni Award, which was handed out first in 1973, as well as the Alumni Service Recognition Award, the Dick Enberg Alumni Commitment Award, the Distinguished Alumni Award, and the Future Alumni Leader Award.

Congrats to all of this year’s winners and congrats to the Alumni Association, for 45 years of recognizing outstanding Chips who have put their stamp on the world.