Tuesday, October 5, 2021

A Fall of Fires: The 150th Anniversary of the Peshtigo and Great Michigan Fires

by Gillian Macdonald

Headline from East Shore News,
October 13, 1871
October 8 marks the 150th Anniversary of world’s deadliest forest fire. In our evermore climate-conscious community, a look back at this devastating event shows the sheer power of the environment.

On Sunday, October 8, 1871, the Peshtigo Fire leveled a broad swath of Wisconsin and Michigan. Cast in the shadow of the Great Fire of Chicago at that same time, the fires at Peshtigo, Holland, Manistee, Port Huron, and beyond swept through the Midwest devastating and eliminating towns in Wisconsin and in the upper and lower peninsulas of Michigan. The Peshtigo Fire has largely been forgotten as a result of the notoriety of the Chicago Fire, despite being more deadly. The unnaturally dry conditions in the fall of 1871 created conditions ripe for fires. Historians and meteorologists have pointed to the wind cyclones that formed over the eastern plains as the culprits for spreading the fires.

The fires in Michigan devastated 2.5 million acres of forest (an area the size of the state of Connecticut). Between Peshtigo, Michigan, and Chicago, the wildfires of October 1871 killed between 1500 and 2500 people--the deadliest wildfire in recorded human history. Uninterrupted drought had plagued the Midwest in October of 1871 and the logging town of Peshtigo in northeast Wisconsin became a tinderbox waiting to blow. Residents fled into rivers and Lake Michigan to escape the firestorms that engulfed the town and spread into Menominee County in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

Coined as the Great Michigan Fire, that same Sunday, residents in Holland, Michigan, were served the same fate by hurricane-force winds and fires on the coast of Lake Michigan. The winds spread embers across the state and, in just 30 hours, forest fires marched through Grayling, Manistee, Big Rapids, Midland, Bay City, and finally reached Caro where dry conditions were even worse. Faced with 100-foot flames, residents in the Saginaw Bay-area, like those in Peshtigo, rushed into the waters of Lake Huron to escape the blaze.

Painting by Dennis Matheis, from cover of The Holland Fire of October 8, 1871
by Donald van Reken (ca. 1982)

East Shore News (Oceana County), the Escanaba Tribune, and the Sanilac Jeffersonian are among the newspapers that reported on the devastation. The article in the Escanaba Tribune detailed that the “streets were lined with men, women and children fleeing for their lives.” In the same article, Mr. Place (the gentleman sent to the scene) confirmed the decimation of Peshtigo: the “fire came upon them so suddenly that it was not in the reach of mortal power to stay its fury.” The Sanilac Jeffersonian reported on the damages in Port Huron, specifically in Rock Falls, Sand Beach, Elm Creek, Port Hope, and Huron City where residents suffered estimated losses of $10,000 to $100,000. East Shore News described scenes of devastation from Muskegon and Peshtigo, told of how the city of Holland burned, detailed Big Rapids as “entirely destroyed,” reported every house in Birch Creek burned, and lamented “most horrible scenes took place at Peshtigo.”

Destruction in Chicago,
October 1871
The fires of October 1871 served as a warning about land-use practices of the time. The subsequent 150 years have seen a transformation in the mitigation of wildfires. The National Weather Service now has incident meteorologists who support firefighters battling wildfires across the US. But that doesn’t mean that wildfires are no longer a problem we must contend. As the climate changes and weather patterns shift, long periods of dry weather are creating new threats across North America and the globe. Our awareness of the issue has dramatically increased thanks to climate change activists such as Greta Thunberg. As we witnessed 150 years ago, we should never underestimate the destructive power of forest fires, even in the water-rich Great Lakes region.

Friday, October 1, 2021

A Stroll Down Newspaper Lane

by C.J. Eno

For anyone that hasn’t had the pleasure of checking out Clarke’s Digital Michigan Newspaper Portal, it contains digitized collections of newspapers throughout the state, many of which were digitized right here at the Clarke. This year, assisted by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services and administered by the Library of Michigan, we sought to expand this valuable resource to its fullest extent. Libraries and universities across the state were scoured for digitized newspaper collections. Genealogical societies, historical institutions, commercial newspaper archives, contemporary newspaper sites, governmental entities, and everything in between were also thoroughly searched for accessible collections of Michigan newspapers. Once found, each was vetted, and the data recorded for incorporation into our portal. The stated goal of this endeavor was “to create the single most comprehensive, publicly accessible, online tool available to researchers that identifies online Michigan newspaper resources.” We can proudly proclaim that this has been accomplished in a big way.


The number of newspaper titles on the Portal has nearly tripled to an impressive 1067 and now cover every county in the state (where previously, only 64 of 83 counties were represented). If you don’t have the wherewithal to scroll through all these newspaper titles to find an 1879 copy of the Wexford County Pioneer, we’ve included a helpful drop-down box to select which county you’d like to search. While not all of these titles’ collections are free to view, the majority are, and we’ve included a designation for each title to help users know what to expect in this regard. Digital newspapers from today or 200 years ago can be found within the Portal, with helpful date-ranges for each title’s collection posted next to its entry.


While working with these digital newspaper collections, I’ve come to appreciate how much information can be found within. I don’t mean the obvious kind of information that would pique the interest of any historian, like myself, but rather information that can transcend multiple disciplines and interests. For example, the Portal essentially holds the entire evolution of print advertising in Michigan, which could be analyzed in countless ways, and offer palpable inspiration for any student of business or marketing. Have you ever wondered if print advertising was better in the 1920s or the 1960s? Nothing stands in your way now; pit them against one another for your amusement. Are you a fan of literature? Many newspapers ran serials of fiction from issue to issue that, taken together, form into lengthy novellas. Also, unlike readers of the past, you won’t need to wait another week to find out what happens to the daring captain, wealthy heiress, or intrepid explorer. Stitch together your favorite, make a trip to your local copyright lawyer, and then get a quick production deal with Netflix. I won’t stop you. Have you ever wanted to read foreign-language newspapers in Finnish, Arabic, Spanish, German, Italian or Hungarian? Now they’re just a click away. Will you be utterly baffled by the jokes made in comics from 100 years ago? More than likely but find out for yourself. How big of a deal was Harry Houdini in the public sphere? Were crossword puzzles easier or harder decades ago? How garish were hats in 1923? Just a little browsing through the Portal and you’ll find your answers.


During this project, I saw a national news piece in The L’Anse Sentinel, showing Amelia Earhart making final checks on her Lockheed L10 Electra, for an anticipated trip around the globe. Unbeknownst to the writer, photographer, and eventual readers of Baraga County, it would be one of her last photo-ops before that very plane disappeared over the Pacific. I stumbled upon a story in the True Northerner [Paw Paw] about a family of serial killers in Kansas, the Benders, that preyed upon random travelers in the early 1870s. I had never heard of it, but it seemed to be quite the sensation at the time. For lighter fare, I found a story in the Alma Record about an enlisted cat in the U.S. Navy, and how poor Tom the Terror faced a court-martial for assaulting an officer. Then there’s a story in The Evening Record [Traverse City] that reports the sighting of a sea serpent near the shore of Traverse City that terrified the handful of witnesses that saw it. I also followed a story in the pages of The Calumet News of an expedition to the North Pole to locate the elusive Crocker Land. The explorers (and readers) weren’t yet aware that previous explorer Robert Peary fabricated the entire tale, but it was written in 1913 when there still existed unexplored corners of this world; it was like reading the buildup of an H.P. Lovecraft tale. These are but a mere sampling of what can be discovered in the Portal, whether the search is intentional or not.   

It’s easy to forget in this world of hyper-information that one can still find an unexplored corner; something new (or perhaps simply forgotten) that can spark inspiration or excitement. If that’s what you’re looking for, the Portal is a great place to begin your search. Maybe you’ll find what you were looking for, and maybe with a little luck and patience, you’ll find something better. It’s because within the pages of these newspapers we can see the very zeitgeist of Michigan, in all its parts, as it evolves through the decades. With the luxury of hindsight, we can see it all; the good, the bad, and the upsettingly ugly. A million theses, dissertations, and comparative analyses live within these newspapers, as do a million novels, at least a thousand true-crime dramas, and easily a couple hundred Netflix deals.                 


So, please take some time to enjoy this hefty expanse of new titles on the Portal. From myself, and Ashish Puskar, the virtuoso that worked so hard to get all these new links online (as well as implementing all the new user interface features on the Portal), we hope that it provides you that spark.


Until next time, see you in the funny papers.

Saturday, September 11, 2021

Lest we Forget: Remembering September 11

 by Gillian Macdonald

As the news media around the US girds itself to mark the somber occasion of September 11, we take a moment to reflect on this tragedy. Twenty years ago, the September 11 attacks sent shock waves through the nation and the world. Thousands lost their lives when four commercial airplanes were used to target prominent US buildings, including the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Here in Mount Pleasant, Michigan, the Morning Sun and Central Michigan Life reported on the tragic events. The Morning Sun’s headline read: “Under attack: Outrageous attacks claim thousands.” Susan Field and Linda Gittleman reported on a Western Michigan University student’s grounding by Federal Aviation officials in Mount Pleasant that Tuesday. Jason Schilling was on a routine flight for his aviation class when he was grounded by the FAA. Entering the terminal in Mount Pleasant, Schilling and his friend were confronted with the unfolding attacks on a television mounted on the wall. Schilling commented “We were up there flying. We couldn’t even believe it.” In Isabella County, the Michigan State Police were on high alert and the emergency management center was on partial activation status.

Heather Sonntag from CM Life reported that senior Kristina Bukoski thought “the devastation on her television was staged,” she didn’t quite know how to comprehend the tragedy. Students from CMU’s campus were left speechless and relied on each other and counseling support to deal with the overwhelming loss. In response, the University organized meetings at the dining halls and Bovee University Center allowing students and counselors to meet and lean on each other. CMU President Rao formed an emergency ad hoc crisis management team in effort to control safety concerns across campus. The attacks themselves had forced the cancellation of classes on September 11; by September 12, President Rao followed President Bush’s lead by urging a return to normalcy on campus. The faculty were also instructed to be considerate of individual reactions to the tragedy; students were not excused from class but allowed to leave campus if they wanted.

Twenty years later, we can still abide by President Rao’s words to campus: “It is important that, in the face of tragedies such as this, humans come together in support of and respect for one another, and I feel sure that this will be the case at CMU because of our long tradition of caring for one another.” Life has never been the same, nor should it be. The first memorials to the attacks came in the immediate aftermath and each year, two bright columns of light shine in New York city near the site of where the World Trade Center once stood. Here on CMU’s campus, the September 11 attacks are marked every year with a memorial flag garden situated next to the Park Library. Lest we forget those who lost their lives.

Tuesday, August 31, 2021

A Final Word

Frank Boles

Since 1991, I have had the privilege of serving as the director of the Clarke Historical Library. During that time, I have benefited from the advice and help of many people, to whom I offer my deepest thanks, and for whom I hold the highest regard. They have helped the library accomplish not simply annual goals, but perform a fundamental societal mission of preserving our individual and collective memory.

The Clarke Family

The Clarke Historical Library was founded in 1954 by a generous gift from Dr. Norman Clarke Sr. to his alma mater, Central Michigan University. Dr. Clarke Sr. wrote into the donation agreement an ongoing role for himself and his family. It is a testament to the family’s interest that after Norm Clarke Sr. died, his son Dr. Norman Clarke Jr. continued to represent the family within the library. When Norm Jr. died, his son Norman Clarke III assumed the role of family representative.

The continuity created by the presence of first, the donor, and later, his family gives the Clarke Historical Library an opportunity that few “named” libraries have. It allows us not only to be guided by the purposes established by the founder, but it also creates an opportunity to speak with the family about how changing times might cause us to re-interpret the founder’s statements. Dr. Norman Clarke Sr. was a visionary, but after sixty-seven years even a visionary’s ideas need some adjusting.

I am extremely grateful for the guidance of the late Norman Clarke Jr. and his son Norman Clarke III, the family’s current official representative. My thanks also to James Frye, a grandson of Norman Clarke Sr., who also carries on the legacy of his grandfather in stewarding the library.

The Library’s Board of Governors

The Clarke Historical Library is unique among CMU units in that it has, by terms of the agreement signed with the library’s founder, a separate Board of Governors. The Clarke Board consists of a family representative, four University officials, and five members nominated by the Clarke Board for service and whose selection is confirmed by CMU’s Board of Trustees.

The truth is Boards can be tremendous advocates and also significant pains in the behind. Board members bring fresh insights to the library and sometimes can persuade senior university administrators to adopt opinions that might not be well received coming from a mere library director. But Board members can also micromanage and insist on things best understood (maybe only understood) by them. Fortunately for me, the members of the Clarke Board of Governors have been powerful influences for the better and usually left the messy intricacies of library administration to the library administration. I am grateful for the hard work, good advice, and sympathetic ears given by all those who have taken on the obligations of Board membership.

Although many individuals have served on the Board, let me thank all of them by thanking the current members for their service, including the family representative Norman Clarke III, the three university officers who serve on the board ex-officio–President Robert Davies, Dean Kathy Irwin, the chair of the Department of History, Greg Smith, the five elected members, Board chair Carla Hills, Michael Federspiel, Robert Kohrman, Carlin Smith, Larry Wagenaar, and emeritus member Sandra Bell Croll.

The Dean’s Office

There is a standing joke in the Clarke that I am going “upstairs” to the Dean’s Office to beg for something. I cannot count the number of times I have found my way into the Dean’s Office explaining some “wonderful” opportunity (please note, they were all “wonderful” unless they are also “extraordinary.” That’s my story and I’m sticking to it) that the Clarke could take advantage of, if we could find a bit more money. And most often, the dean found the money.

But the Clarke Historical Library’s relationship with both the dean and the University Library is about much more than about successful begging for dollars. It was about an understanding of and the support for aspirations not always shared at CMU. When CMU compares itself to “peer” institutions the usual suspects are the other schools that compose the MAC sports conference. When I compare the Clarke Historical Library to other special collection libraries, my “peer” group was invariably Big Ten schools, such as the University of Michigan.  

That significant jump in size and scope was something that the dean was sympathetic to and helped nurture. The dean didn’t have to do this–I know many colleagues at other institutions who, when they made this kind of argument, were told that while the administration understood, it wasn’t “feasible.” I was allowed to develop the library aspirationally, rather than being told to think less ambitiously because of existing institutional parameters. The Clarke Historical Library could play with the big kids, and is, in fact, part of their club.

A less fortunate friend once described the institutional support I received by saying, “you’re a lucky guy.” I have indeed been very lucky into whom I reported. I owe a great debt both to Tom Moore, the retired Dean of Libraries, and Kathy Irwin, the current Dean. Without their support, the Clarke would be a much smaller place.

The Clarke Historical Library Staff

I cannot write enough words or find ones that are sufficiently praiseworthy to describe the Clarke staff with whom I have worked. They are the people who, every day, make things happen. They supply the reference service for which we are justly praised. They undertake the “backroom” work that prepares books and archival material for use and enables excellent reference. They do outreach, whether it is planning for speakers, creating beautiful and informative exhibits, making hundreds of thousands of pages from Michigan newspapers available online, or building the subset of CMU’s website that is most visited by people not affiliated with the university. I am so much in their debt I don’t know where to begin to express my thanks.

Given that dilemma let me thank all those I have worked with me by naming and thanking the current staff: Christa Clare, C.J. Eno, Megan Farrell, Marian Matyn, Laura Thompson, Samuel Tibebe, and Bryan Whitledge. Let me also thank two recently retired Clarke staff members, John Fierst and Tanya Fox and another recent retiree from the University Library, Janet Danek, who while she was technically on the Libraries staff also designed exhibits in the Clarke Library galleries. They all perform their assignments with extraordinary merit.

And I hope all of the staff, current and retired, will understand my need to express a special thank you to Christa Clare, who met me at the door my first day on the job and amazingly will be here on the day I walk out for the last time. She has stories – I just hope she won’t tell them.

My thanks also to our student employees. Their energy and work are amazing, and they are always very polite to the old guy, particularly when I start making references to ancient sit-coms that both aired and went out of syndication before they were born. Some of the student employees even know who Gilligan is, although they may not understand why an island was named for him.

The Donors

For all the effort shown by the Clarke staff, it is really the donors that make everything work. There are simply too many donors to thank each of you by name. I know this from painful experience. We tried every year, and usually missed someone.

I cherish each of you as individuals I am pleased to have known, and for the things you have made it possible for the library to do. Three-quarters of the material received by the library arrives as gifts-in-kind. What doesn’t get carted in the door is often purchased with money from donors.

If there are too many donors to thank each by name, let me at least pay special thanks to a small group of donors who, during my time as director, took the extraordinary step of creating an endowment or serving as the major funder of an endowment campaign. These include the late Amanda Boulton, Eunice Burgess, Susan and Robert Clarke (not related to the original donor family), Sandra Bell Croll, Michael Federspiel, Robert Graham, in memory of his wife and daughter, Christa Kamenetsky, Robert and Charles Knapp in memory of their parents, Robert Kohrman, the late Leon and Francis McDermott, Hank Meijer, , Francis and Mary Lois Molson, the late Susan Stan, the late Bill Strickler (whose endowment is housed in the Mt. Pleasant Area Community Foundation) and Jack and Mary Lou Westbrook.

And My Family

More times than I care to count, the responsibilities of being director impacted my family, usually not in a good way. Evenings spent at speaker presentations, road trips to visit donors or to professional conferences–there always seemed to be a need to be gone, and a need for their understanding why. My deepest thanks go to my wife, Valerie, our surviving son Nick, and our deceased son Matt.

A Closing Invocation

What I am most grateful for is that all the effort and support I have described acknowledges the important work done by the Clarke Historical Library. Sometimes, people dismiss what libraries like this one do as unimportant to “the real world.” That is a mistake that values short-term goals over matters of existential importance. In a speech I presented many years ago, and in a slightly different context, I said,

“We cause to be remembered triumph and tragedy. We give voice to those who can no longer speak. We preserve memories for those who can no longer remember. … We are the stewards of humanity’s legacy.”  What special collections libraries and archives do “explains who we are. It explains why we are. It opens a window to our individual and collective soul. Archives are, and will remain, that place where, above everything else, the soul of a person and of a community is both preserved and laid bare. Insofar as any human can find truth, truth is in our holdings. Insofar as any human can find immortality, immortality is in our stacks.”

As I retire, I am humbled by and grateful for all those who have shared this generous vision of what the library does. Your support has made possible what has been accomplished.

I hope you will continue to support the stewardship of humanity’s legacy found within the Clarke Historical Library.


Monday, August 23, 2021

Hello, CMU Negative Photo Index!

[Monday, August 23, 2021. 8:05 AM. Heard over a crackly loudspeaker from a particularly enthusiastic member of the student body…]

Good Morning Students and Faculty!

This is not a test. This is the new Central Michigan University Negative Photo Index!

Time to slide on down to Clarke Historical Library website, and browse through list of eight consecutive decades of CMU photography. Is it me, or does this project look like it took a long time? That’s right, documenting nearly 32,000 rolls of film so you can have access to a catalog of pictures just in time for the new school year.

Want to find a file? Easy! Just open the Clarke website, and head over to Research materials. Under CMU materials, you will find the new Negative Photo Index. Click there, and you will be taken to a landing site for materials. Photos are separated by year, in five-year increments.

Some classics include:

  • 67-416, the Korean Orphanage Drive Greased Pig Race
  • 70-219, Greeks Pie in Face
  • 73-419, Clown Headshots
  • 2002-163, chess match with Smith playing students all at once
  • 3293, Civil Defense Nuns and others learning to use Geiger Counters
  • 3700, Students Laughing at EMU threat sign
  • 4110, Bovee’s Miniature Animals

Is it a little too early this morning for this much information? That’s fine. The Negative Photo Index is here to stay, so you can head there anytime.

While this index may not look like much, there is history in every file. Did you know that Central Michigan University used to have a Most Eligible Bachelor Contest? Or, that Homecoming Festivities used to include a huge bonfire (negative 67-447b, look it up)! Some traditions never die, but these files show us traditions that did. It also shows us how the school has changed over the years. From the Sheep Sheds office where CMLife used to operate from, to the old library located in Ronan Hall, Central Michigan University’s campus looks different every decade (something we can all relate to right now).

Maybe you’re not a person who needs to be at the Clarke? You aren’t a history major, why is this important to you? Well, my good friend, let me tell you why! This is our school’s historical record. That seems cliche, but my point stands. If you’re an activist, the photos here tell the story of all activists before you, what worked and what didn’t. If you’re a student who’s curious about our school’s multicultural history, we’ve got photos of the first celebration of Black History Month at CMU, events hosted by students during Asian Heritage Week, and tons of photos of Office of Native American Programs events such as the Women’s Circle in 2000.

Maybe you’re a more technical major, and need some ideas for your senior project. We have photos of labs, student exhibitions, faculty research, and much more. Inspiration is here. Still not convinced? We have pictures of every single professor on campus. Want to see how they looked in the 80’s? Aquanets and shoulder pads as far as the eyes can see.

Thank you, CMU Negative Photo Index. From your professional purpose as a research tool, to your hidden purpose of giving a laugh to those that need it.

This is Nova Moore, and I am signing off to see 81-205. What is it? Guess you’ll have to come and see.

Greeks Pie in the face fundraiser,
Negative 70-219, 1970

Student in sculpture class,
Negative 82-082, 1982

Homecoming bonfire,
Negative 67-447b, 1967

Professor Smith plays chess against all students at once,
Negative 2002-163, 2002

Clown headshots,
Negative 73-419, 1973

Civil Defense Nun with Geiger counter,
Negative 3293, ca. 1960-64

Korean Orphanage Project fundraiser, greased pig race,
Negative 67-416, 1967

Monday, August 16, 2021

In Memory of John Logie

Frank Boles

Last week, I learned that John Logie, a past member and chairman of the Clarke Historical Library Board of Governors, had died. The news caused me to reflect on how important the Board, and its members, are to the Clarke Historical Library.

John was a leading Grand Rapids attorney, an active politician who served as mayor of Grand Rapids, a man very proud of his hometown, and someone very interested in history. I had known of his interest in history for many years, but when I asked him to consider serving on the Board, he was both actively practicing law and serving as Grand Rapids mayor. Despite these other commitments, he signed up as a Board member with considerable enthusiasm.

When his name first was mentioned, I was reminded by the then-CMU University Counsel of an interesting fact. Before I came to CMU, the Board and the administration had gotten into what was often described as “troubled times.” Eventually the Board sought independent legal advice from John Logie, who took on the task pro bono. The problems were eventually solved, but lawyers remember such things. My answer was pretty simple – if there’s a next time, wouldn’t we rather have him on our side?

As it turned out, there was several “next times,” and John played a critical role in solving the problems.

On one occasion, the Clarke received a “cease and desist” letter from an attorney demanding the removal of some material on our website. John led the Board through a careful discussion of the matter, thinking about it both in terms of history and law. In the end, he was satisfied that the history was good. As for the law, he admitted the library could still be sued, but he concluded the other side would not only lose, “they’d look like jerks.” And if they sued, he would happily use his press contacts to facilitate that look. The lawsuit never materialized.

Another example of John’s tremendous importance to the library came as the Clarke more widely embraced exhibits. As we expanded the exhibit program, we also began to occasionally borrow things for display. Since being a borrower but not a lender is a tough position to maintain within the special collections world, we would need to reciprocate by honoring exhibit loan requests made for material from our collection. However, the Clarke had not previously loaned items, and Board members strongly disagreed about what to do.

In what was becoming an ugly situation, John used his great skill to first mediate a reasonable compromise, and then, when one member still disagreed, to carefully lead a formal discussion on the matter. Although the discussion did not end in a unanimous vote, it did end in a way that made everyone comfortable that their opinion had been heard and considered, and more importantly for me, accepting of the outcome. It was a masterful job – one for which I was very grateful. No director wants a warring governing board, or a board on which members go forward holding bitterness towards one another over things said and done in the past. John ensured that did not happen.

But John was more than “our” lawyer. He loved history and was an active advocate for the library. He could, and would, bend the ear of anyone he knew (and he knew a lot of people!) to help the library. He also had a wealth of good stories. John had been in the navy and learned to love the water. He not only had good navy tales, he had his own stories from his annual “Miscreants’ cruise.” John had bought a historic but almost derelict boat, restored it, and he and a few friends took an annual cruise up Lake Michigan to various ports of call. At full speed this mighty vessel could manage to make twelve knots. John’s goal wasn’t to get wherever he was headed fast, but rather to enjoy the ride and the comradery of his friends. 

I am sure others will write knowingly about his skills as a lawyer, politician, and mayor. But the John I knew loved history and as part of that love played an indispensable role in the development of the Clarke Historical Library. I will miss his good advice, his helpful interventions, and most of all, miss him. He was a good man.

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Homecoming Royalty through the Years

By Nova Moore

It is a unique privilege to have the job of going through decades of photographs and negatives to find almost 75-years-worth of images of Homecoming representatives at Central Michigan University. And now anyone can look at image of past Homecoming representatives on the Clarke's website. While we may not know each individual personally, or what their thoughts were while receiving this honorable distinction, all of the Homecoming royalty made an undeniable impact here at Central. Each representative stood for something different on campus, and their dedication to their community came in a multitude of different means. Whyever their peers selected them for this honor, these students were nominated to be representatives of their student body for a reason.

Originally, the role was a single Homecoming Queen and her court, then, it became a Queen and King, and finally, the Homecoming royalty became the Maroon and Gold Ambassadors. Each year, these students demonstrated an important quality that the student body felt they needed to see during their time at Central Michigan. Such as with Jean “Scotty” Chisholm, the first Central Michigan University Homecoming Queen crowned in 1946, who was the representative of a struggling student body merely 7 years after the end of the Great Depression. The petition for Scotty to be queen was unassailable, with a previous class presidentship showing that she truly spoke for the student body. About 25 years later, we see when students demanded social justice on campus and Connie Wilson became the first African American Homecoming Queen at Central Michigan University. She was nominated for her, “Black Pride,” 8 years after federal law demanded the end of segregation in America, but still years before the effects of the law were actually felt. And who can forget the tradition of Elvira Scratch, the unofficial Homecoming Queen candidate that was really a male student dressed in costume, who ran year after year from 1958 until 1982 when the first Homecoming King, John Nader, was crowned.

The photos of these Homecoming representatives may not give the full story of our dedicated alumni, but they do provide a jumping-off point for students who attend Central Michigan University now to learn about times past. Hopefully, these pictures will inspire current students to read up on the history of our great ambassadors, and they, themselves, can aspire to be agents of change here on campus. These pictures also serve as a blast to the past for alumni who wish to remember, nostalgically, their times here at Central. The addition of this page accomplishes these goals and more, and we are delighted to open up this online gallery to all those who are a part of the Central Michigan University community.

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Aladdin Homes

Frank Boles

On March 4, 2021, Andrew and Wendy Mutch spoke about Aladdin kit homes. 

Aladdin began selling kit homes in 1906. The idea was simple: a person could find the home of their dreams in a catalog and buy everything they needed to build their home from one source. Everything from the floor to the roof, including the paint to use in between, was packaged together in one giant kit. Aladdin would ship all this building material via railroad. The purchaser would pick it all up at the nearest train station, haul it to the construction site, and assemble the house – a home that could be built in a day, as the company optimistically promised in its advertising.

Andrew and Wendy reviewed the company’s history, how its homes were built, and how a person could go about researching if the house they lived in is an Aladdin kit home. They also noted that there were several kit home manufacturers in the United States during this period, and many of them sold almost identical houses. This was particularly the case in Michigan where Bay City was the home to three separate companies that sold kit homes: Aladdin, Lewis, and Sterling. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, each of these firms very much flattered the other.

An Aladdin home and its floor plan as seen in their catalog

You may think that a home created from a kit more than a century ago, by individuals who had little or no training in construction, would not stand the test of time. But as Andrew and Wendy showed, they have found many Aladdin homes still standing throughout Michigan. Some are a bit battered, but others have been beautifully restored and look as if they were plucked off the pages of a 1920s Aladdin catalog. In other cases, the Mutches captured photographs of an Aladdin home before it was razed to make way for new construction.

The presentation can be viewed on the CMU video sharing website chipcast.

The Clarke Historical Library has a special relationship to Aladdin Homes. The company’s papers, including over 60,000 individual sales records are housed in the library. To find out more about the papers themselves, see the Clarke’s description of the Aladdin Company Records. You can also find many of the company’s catalogs online at the Clarke’s website.

Thursday, April 22, 2021

Hemingway Event

Frank Boles

After a year of online presentations that I have helped organize for the Clarke Historical Library speaker series, the Hemingway evening event, held March 31, that preceded the airing of the three-part Ken Burns/Lynn Novick documentary on the life of Ernest Hemingway on PBS, was organized by WCMU with the help of the Clarke staff. It was fascinating to me to see how true professionals make a live broadcast happen.

Over the past year, I have become an amateur, online event coordinator. This was not a job I sought out. The pandemic made it necessary for the Clarke speaker series to move from on-campus presentations to online events. And, all things considered, I thought we had done a pretty good job. I had much to learn from our friends at WCMU.

Clarke speaker series events were unscripted and unrehearsed. I usually contact a speaker about their willingness to discuss a topic. If they agree to speak, we talk briefly about some basic concerns that I would like them to address, but this is usually a relatively short conversation since the topic is “your new book” or a similarly obvious subject. A few details, like the length of the presentation and perhaps a question or two I think the audience might like to know about and that I hope the speaker will discuss, also happen. But the detailed outlines of the talk’s content, are left up to the speakers.

A day or two before the public event I, with the help of Bryan Whitledge, hold a brief “technical meeting” with the speaker. We schedule an online presentation that is identical in every way to what will happen on the evening of the public talk, but do not “publish” the meeting publicly. It is the kind of meeting that, if you know, you know, and if you don’t, no one tells you. It gives us the opportunity to test the software platform, give the speaker some experience in making the software work, and to be sure whatever visual and audio material the speaker plans to use plays properly.

If everything goes right, this meeting only takes ten or fifteen minutes. If everything does not go right, we have the time to determine what is happening, and develop a fix or a work around that we can use in the “real” presentation. Whatever the problem, it is much less stressful fixing it in this environment than discovering the problem five or ten minutes before a public presentation is beginning. That’s happened too – and it did not make for a fun time as we struggled for a fix with one eye on the clock.

Matt Ozanich and the other staff at WCMU are a far more organized in making sure an event is worth the time of the audience. Preliminary meetings were held to discuss what questions he would ask or should ask since we were welcome to propose ideas and answers were offered.

Michael Federspiel(left), Matthew Ozanich(right),
Frank Boles(bottom)

The week of the broadcast, Mike Federspiel and I sat down with Matt for a dress rehearsal. Using the software as we would for the live program, we tested all the necessary features. There were bugs – it took me about fifteen minutes to get into the practice session. We also ran through the questions, and the answers, to agree who would answer which question, for content. Finally, we “did” the broadcast, against a stopwatch to make sure that in the aggregate we were neither too brief nor to long winded.

On the night of the event Mike and I signed in about a half hour early, along with Lynn Novick, the documentary’s co-director, and Sarah Botstein, the documentary’s producer, who joined us from their homes. The four of us again reviewed the outline of the evening’s presentation and the broad sweep of the answers to Matt’s questions.

When a broadcast begins, the speaker’s perspective is very different from that of the host. Having hosted many an event, my job on those evenings is to essentially get off the stage as quickly as possible and enjoy the show. A speaker, on the other hand, is the show and must keep their thoughts organized, their comments at a reasonable length, and try as hard as they can not to say something really dumb! It is surprisingly hard work.

One of the most interesting parts of the live broadcast was the time when the audience was seeing various videos cued up by the WCMU technical staff. Because of a limitation of the software, those of us actually involved could not see what the audience was seeing, so Matt explained what the audience was seeing, and the four of us (on a channel that was not being broadcast) discussed if there were any “likely” things we needed to say to follow the clips or any questions that the clip might raise.

As the clip ended, Matt would “count us in” to when our microphones would again go live, and often pose a question we had just both framed, and to which we had just developed what we hoped was a reasonable answer.

It was truly a pleasure participating in the program organized by Matt and which featured Mike, Lynn, and Sarah. I hope you enjoy the recording of the event, which can be viewed here. But I equally enjoyed watching how true professionals make happen the live, on-air magic that viewers and listeners often take for granted.

Monday, April 19, 2021

Processing Ernest Hemingway Collections in the Clarke

by Marian Matyn 

Hopefully, while you enjoyed the Ken Burns Ernest Hemingway special you considered how wonderful it is that these primary sources are preserved and accessible to researchers. This is possible because of the work and dedication of archivists, like me. Since 2002, I have processed Ernest Hemingway-related materials almost every year, either documents created by a Hemingway or one of their friends or family members, or material created about or inspired by them in multiple formats. Following archival standards, best practices, and theory, I process and describe collections of permanent historic research value. Processing primary sources is both a physical and intellectual process. 

Ernest Hemingway’s 1923 passport image of 1923
 on a cover of The New York Times Magazine

First, I archivally appraise each collection, deciding what to retain and why. Most collections include peripheral items of limited or no research value, such as miscellaneous receipts, blank letterhead, and reading material, which I remove. 

Next, I archivally process the collection. If there is an original order to the collection we retain it to demonstrate how the creator used and created it. I create an easy, usable order if one does not exist. Context is critical to maintain the integrity of the collection as a credible primary source. For description, context is also crucial. I must also understand the relationships between the creator and the collection and to people documented in the collection; as well how parts of the collection relate to each other or to other collections, including those in other institutions. 

Ernest Hemingway movie posters in assorted sizes and languages

Describing the collection is necessary for it to be accessible to researchers. The finding aid is a descriptive guide to the collection. It includes vital information such as biography of the creator, physical description of the material, an intellectual overview of the information, context, and other points such as copyright, damage, or an allergy note. Copyright adds a layer of complexity that archivists must understand and document.  Ernest Hemingway material often has complicated copyright.

Once created, I encode the finding aid, making it Google-searchable online to provide digital access to the collection. Finally, from the finding aid I create an original catalog record including subject headings. All of this requires detailed work, understanding, multiple software programs, templates, and technical skills. Special formats like film or movie posters require additional knowledge, description, and housing. The finding aids are accessible at https://quod.lib.umich.edu/c/clarke/ or you can Google Clarke Historical Library finding aids. 

A blueprint of Grace Hemingway’s cottage property

The Ernest Hemingway material in the Clarke includes a wide range of formats, some created by him, his family or other individuals. Other materials were inspired by him or his work. Material most directly related to Hemingway himself is usually found in the Ernest Hemingway Collection, which includes 8 boxes, 9 Oversized folders, 4 reels in 4 film canisters and 52 framed items. 

The second major Hemingway collection, Hemingway Family Papers,1861, 2006, arrived mostly in large plastic tubs in 2010 and is now housed in 49 archival boxes. Upon opening the first letter to flatten it, I realized there were additional letters folded inside. The letters were from several other family members, some written decades earlier than others. Careful processing was required to keep them together for context. This was the case for many letters in the collection. Learning about the relationships between the many Hemingway family and friends in the collection was necessary. The detailed finding aid for this collection is more than 60 pages long. 

A literal wall of processed Ernest Hemingway
 family papers

Creating the searchable, online finding aid is a complex, time-consuming task. For example, consider what needed to be done to create the online description for a single folder containing correspondence written in 1949-1949 to Grace Hall Hemingway from Mrs. J. J. Jepson, Grace’s daughter, Ursula. While it is easy to write in prose a single line to describe what is in the folder, digital access requires nine lines of html text, seen below. Only those of us who encode see the encoded archival description (EAD) finding aid. The EAD is always much longer than the original finding aid.

EAD (encoded archived description)

Multiple penmanship styles, creative spelling, the use of abbreviations, period slang, nicknames, and internal family phrases, all of which abound in Ernest Hemingway-related collections and evolved over the years, pose additional challenges to archivists. 

Four Ernest Hemingway-related scrapbooks were digitized by now retired Clarke staff member Pat Thelen, and are available online. I processed the scrapbooks, created catalog records which are also in the digital description, and linked the online digitized material to the catalog records. If you Google Central Michigan University Digital collections and click on Hemingway Family Scrapbooks, you can access the digitized scrapbooks. 

1917 Ernest Hemingway signature in Marion Kraft
 Larson’s high school memory book

I am proud to say that I was the person who found the Clarke’s first Ernest Hemingway signature in a 1917 high school  memory book of his childhood friend, Marion Kraft Larson. The signature resides in the collection of her Marion’s daughter, Virginia Kjolhede.  Click https://quod.lib.umich.edu/c/clarke/ehll--kjolhede?view=text to see the Kjolhede online finding aid. 

If you have any questions, please contact me at marian.matyn@cmich.edu. 

Monday, March 29, 2021

Ernest Hemingway’s Nick Adams Stories

by Frank Boles

This blog is one of several we are posting in connection with the PBS documentary, Hemingway, produced by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, which will air April 5-7. Be sure to join us on March 31 at 6:30 p.m. for a special introduction to Hemingway when we join with WCMU-Television for an online event featuring Lynn Novick. To register for the March 31 event visit WCMU at wcmu.org/hemingway 

Among Ernest Hemingway’s most memorable characters was Nick Adams, a young man who grew up in northern Michigan. As Joseph M. Flora wrote, “it is safe to say no other character in his fiction is as important as Nick.” He adds, “What was best about Ernest Hemingway emerged … in the character of Nick Adams.”

Nick Adams appears in sixteen stories Hemingway wrote. Readers meet Nick as a small child and see him grow into a young man in stories set in Michigan, learn about his war experiences in Italy, and, after he returns to Michigan, see the effect the war had on him. The stories go on to describe him as a young married man in Europe and even experience Nick as a father talking about his own father.

These stories were originally published in several places over many years and were first compiled as a single volume in 1972, titled The Nick Adams Stories. The 1972 compilation also included eight previously unpublished fragments that give further information about Nick.

Many readers thought of the Nick Adams stories as autobiographical. The similarities between the real Ernest and the fictional Nick are many. The most obvious are that they are both doctor’s’ sons with a mother they find overbearing, they spend their summers in Michigan, a place that they love, and they both live to hunt and fish. Both become writers. But it is a mistake to simply read Nick as Ernest. Hemingway addressed the issue in a Nick Adams story entitled “On Writing,” where Nick, who in this story has already become an author, shares these thoughts about his craft:

The only writing that was any good was what you made up, what you imagined. That made everything come true. … Everything good he’d ever written he’d made up. None of it had ever happened. ... That was what the family couldn’t understand. They thought it wall was experience. … Nick in the stories was never himself. He made him up.”

In his preface to Picturing Hemingway’s Michigan (2010), Michael Federspiel sums up the stories this way:

These stories about a young man’s experiences in northern Michigan resonated with readers on many levels. Those who vacationed “up North” recognized the places and the emotions associated with getting away from home and experiencing the out-of-doors at a relaxed pace. Naturalists dwelled on the descriptions of turn-of-the-century Michigan, and fishermen (and fisherwomen) saw a fellow enthusiast in Nick. Students and teachers pondered the words and style that revolutionized American literature. And many more readers didn’t worry about any literary concerns–they just liked the stories.”

The stories are gripping. Philip Young quotes no less a writer than F. Scott Fitzgerald as saying about, Big Two Hearted River, “It's the account of a boy on a fishing trip. Nothing more – but I read it with the most breathless unwilling interest I have experienced since Conrad first bent my reluctant eyes upon the sea.”

What do these stories say about Michigan? Nick sums up his thoughts about our state in answering his sister’s question of if he is afraid while they walk near Walloon Lake through a surviving Old Growth forest, “No. But I always feel strange. Like the way I ought to feel in a church.” Nick adds, “This is the way forests were in the olden days. This is about the last good country there is left.”

If you have never read the Nick Adams stories, you should. If you have read them, it might be time to revisit the tales. There are few better short reads, few more important pieces of American literature, and no better introduction to Michigan’s “Up North.”


Monday, March 22, 2021

The Michigan Hemingway Collection Today

by Frank Boles

This blog is one of several we are posting in connection with the PBS documentary, Hemingway, produced by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, which will air April 5-7. Be sure to join us on March 31 at 6:30 p.m. for a special introduction to Hemingway when we join with WCMU-Television for an online event featuring Lynn Novick. To register for the March 31 event visit WCMU at wcmu.org/hemingway .

This summary of the collection is an edited version of the text that was printed in the catalog for the exhibit, The Hemingway Collection in the Clarke, which was held in 2019.

Today, the Michigan Hemingway Collection consists of a wide variety of material.

It is concentrated most heavily on Hemingway’s personal and literary connections to Michigan, but also has a wide selection of first, international, and rare editions of his works, dozens of biographies and books about the locations in which he lived and about which he wrote, along with various movie and other forms of ephemera. The most significant items are those directly associated with Ernest and his immediate family. These Hemingway items, coupled with the Clarke’s holdings of northern Michigan materials associated with the years the Hemingways called it their summer home, make the Clarke Historical Library a one-of-a-kind Hemingway collection.

As to be expected, the collection is rich in books and articles written by Hemingway himself. He wrote 10 novels, 20 story collections, 9 works of nonfiction, and dozens of stories published in magazines such as Life, Esquire, Look, Ken, and Cosmopolitan. The collection has first-edition examples of almost all of these and they range from small privately printed Paris magazines with his earliest Michigan stories to posthumously published novels edited by others.

The jewel of the first editions is undoubtedly Three Stories and Ten Poems. Printed in a limited edition of 300 copies in Paris in 1923, it begins with the story “Up in Michigan.” Three Stories and Ten Poems was a prelude to a career writing important novels.

Hemingway’s most famous short story, “The Big Two Hearted River,” is particularly well-represented in the collection. In addition to a copy of This Quarter, the Paris-based magazine in which it was originally published in 1926, the library has extremely rare copies of fine art print editions. Published in very limited quantities, one version even includes an original watercolor fishing painting. Complementing the published versions of “The Big Two Hearted River” found in the collection is an original postcard Ernest sent his father from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula when he was on the fishing trip that inspired the story.

Perhaps no other American writer has had so much written about him as Ernest Hemingway. The Clarke Historical Library has over 250 books and magazines articles chronicling his life, which range from full-length biographies to short feature articles in mainstream and pulp magazines. Especially interesting are the articles in 1950s emerging men’s magazines where his larger than life macho portrayals sold magazines to people hungry to hear of his alleged exploits. He also inspired books written about the locales where he lived and those about which he wrote. On the Clarke’s shelves can be found volumes associated with his life experiences in Oak Park, Michigan, Paris, Spain, Africa, Cuba, and Idaho.

A particularly interesting subset of the Hemingway Collection is the movie-related ephemera. His stories and books resulted in 17 film adaptations beginning with 1932’s A Farewell to Arms starring Gary Cooper and Helen Hayes. Over the decades, leading stars such as Ingrid Bergman, Spencer Tracy, Ava Gardner, and Humphrey Bogart all portrayed Hemingway created characters. To promote these films, the studios launched elaborate publicity campaigns that featured striking posters of various sizes and lobby cards to entice the public into theaters. Campaign manuals filled with clip art, text for advertisements, and marketing suggestions were sent to distributors and theaters urging them to focus as much on the fact that the film was associated with Hemingway as the A-list movie stars the film featured. Supplementing these manuals were publicity photos showing the stars in engaging scenes. The Clarke’s collection of these items is colorful and comprehensive.

The printed material and movie-related items constitute a strong Hemingway collection, but the personal papers associated with Ernest Hemingway himself and his immediate family found in the Clarke Historical Library are what make this collection a world-class one for those looking to better understand Hemingway’s formative experiences here in Michigan.

It is estimated that in his life (a time before tweets, instant messages, and emails) Hemingway composed over six thousand typed and handwritten letters. The Clarke Historical Library is home to six of them. All but one in the library relate to his Michigan experiences. The six-page, typed 1919 letter to his World War I supervisor, Jim Gamble, gushes with descriptions of Michigan summers. Another letter informs his family of securing a Petoskey boarding house room where he hoped to write, while an earlier letter updated his parents on the harvest at their northern Michigan farm. While these were not written to the famous people the established author would come to know, they never the less give intriguing insights into how his Michigan experiences influenced him.

The library is also the home of two examples of his unpublished, juvenile fiction, as well as an early example of his editing as a young author. One of the juvenile pieces is “The Sportsman’s Hash,” a fishing story written and illustrated when he was 10 years old, while the other is a longhand multi-page story set in Michigan lumber camps written when he was in high school. Both of these are examples of the hold Michigan had on the young man’s imagination.

More important than these juvenile pieces are four, heavily edited pages for a short story Hemingway was working on in Petoskey during the fall of 1919. Alternately known among scholars as “The Woppian Way” or “The Passing of Pickles McCarthy” these pages show some of the first attempts by the young Ernest Hemingway to write “serious” fiction for publication.

In addition to these Ernest Hemingway items, the library also has an extensive group of personal papers and photo scrapbooks from his sister, Marcelline Hemingway Sanford. The albums, created by Grace Hall Hemingway (Ernest and Marcelline’s mother), include many things, but particularly photos showing the family fishing, entertaining guests, swimming in the lake, and boating. These albums document the Hemingways first Michigan trip in 1898 through Marcelline and Ernest’s high school graduation in 1917. They are particularly interesting in that the images are annotated by Grace Hall Hemingway. This adds greater depth to the stories and personalities of those shown.

The Hemingway Family papers includes far more than those photo albums. In addition to them are early family correspondence and numerous items associated with the publication by Marcelline Hemingway Sanford of her memoir, At the Hemingways, in which she told her version her relationship with her brother. These papers, along with her photo scrapbooks, give fascinating insights into the Hemingway family and its most famous member, Ernest.

In addition to Hemingway Family papers, the Clarke Historical Library is fortunate to have other material that is directly associated with the Hemingway family. It houses photos and photo scrapbooks from his younger sister, Ursula, and a number of books given by and to Ernest’s siblings and parents. All these provide interesting insights into family dynamics and Ernest’s relationship with his immediate family.

While not a member of the immediate family, “Uncle George” Hemingway was a summer and eventually year-round resident at Lake Charlevoix. His family’s guest books and his diaries tell of family guests and visits and, along with Hemingway Family papers, allow us to learn about the family that raised and influenced Ernest.

With the hundreds, if not thousands, of items related to Ernest Hemingway in the Clarke’s Hemingway Collection, scholarly researchers or those simply curious about his life, particularly his Michigan-related experiences and writing, have no better place to visit that the Clarke Historical Library.


Monday, March 15, 2021

The Beginnings of the Michigan Hemingway Collection

by Frank Boles

This blog is one of several we are posting in connection with the PBS documentary, Hemingway, produced by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, which will air April 5-7. Be sure to join us on March 31 at 6:30 p.m. for a special introduction to Hemingway when we join with WCMU-Television for an online event featuring Lynn Novick. To register for the March 31 event visit WCMU at wcmu.org/hemingway .

The Michigan Hemingway Collection began in 2001 with a conversation between the then-president of the Michigan Hemingway Society, Michael Federspiel, and myself.

The Michigan Hemingway Society (MHS) had been organized years earlier. The members of the society, all of whom admired Hemingway’s writing, also believed that Hemingway was deeply influenced by the summers he spent on Walloon Lake as a boy and young man. But the “standard” biographies of the man gave short shrift to this aspect of his life. The biographies acknowledged that Hemingway spent his childhood summers in Michigan, but suggested that the “mature” Hemingway shook the pine needles from Michigan off his clothes when he boarded the boat for Paris, and sailed to fame. To challenge this narrative, Mike Federspiel made a modest proposal: build on the Hemingway material he had collected, and would donate to the library, to create a nationally recognized body of material in the Clarke about Ernest Hemingway’s life in Michigan.

That proposal was a stretch, a very long stretch. Hemingway was a world-famous author. As with any famous person, once he achieved fame others begin to save every scrap of paper he touched. A letter written by the best-selling author Ernest Hemingway had a good chance of being saved by the recipient, and sooner or later, had a good chance of being made available to collectors. And once he began to write seriously, Hemingway himself became a bit of a pack rat, keeping most every piece of paper on which he had written or more likely typed. But what of things from “Dr. Hemingway’s kid,” Ernie? Young Ernie likely saved little or nothing. Although his parents or family members might have preserved mementos of his growing up, it was unlikely anyone else would take an interest in him. He was, quite literally, just one of the kids hanging around the dock and splashing in the lake.

And, making the happy assumption there were things to collect, purchasing them would likely be expensive. Papers touched by acclaimed literary figures sell for high prices. Winning the Nobel Prize in Literature was about as much acclaim as an author can receive.

After some serious thought, and some serious conversations with the then-Dean of Libraries, Tom Moore, I made the commitment on behalf of the Clarke to accept Mike Federspiel’s gift, and everything it implied. This was going to be a challenge.

With Mike Federspiel to make key introductions, the work went well. There was both material worth collecting that remained in northern Michigan, and a willingness to discuss how that material might come from private hands to the Clarke Historical Library. There were people who expressed interest in helping the project along. To show what we had already collected, and to demonstrate commitment to actually building the collection further, in 2003 we planned an exhibit around our then-existing Hemingway material.

As plans for the exhibit advanced, something unexpected happened – an auction house offered for sale a superb Hemingway letter documenting his love of northern Michigan.

The letter was written by Hemingway in 1919 to Jim Gamble, a friend he had made during his time in Italy during World War I. Gamble had written and invited Hemingway to spend the summer in Italy. Hemingway responded, by saying he would love to see his friend, but he had a better idea about where they could meet. Gamble should spend the summer with him at Little Traverse Bay. Hemingway spent pages describing in luscious detail the place and its attractions. And he shared that he knew all the best places to fish and just what to do to catch the really big ones. Although Gamble never came to visit, the letter was a beautiful description everything Hemingway loved and valued about northern Michigan. But like any content-rich letter written by an important author up for auction was going to cost a lot of money.

We quickly decided that if we were going to spend significant money on something as esoteric as a single beautiful letter written by Ernest Hemingway, we were going to have to raise the money for the purchase from private individuals. Many special libraries acquiring material face this criticism, and the irrefutable answer to the criticism is simple – we obtained it because it was important to what the library was created to document and there were people who cared enough about the item to give us the money to make the purchase possible.

We raised money. But when the auction was held, we came up short. The Clarke Historical Library was the second to last bidder, but there are no consolation prizes at auctions. Auction houses do not reveal the name of the purchaser, but with a heavy heart I wrote a letter to the anonymous successful bidder asking he or she to loan us the letter for the exhibit. I sent it to the auction house asking them to pass it on to the letter’s owner. This they did, and the response was something I could not have imagined. A dealer had bought the letter and while he had no interest in a loan, he would happily sell us the letter, with an appropriate mark up for his trouble. We had a second chance. I asked the dealer to hold the letter for us while we found the needed money, something to which he was agreeable.

The problem was I had already found pretty much every dollar that was to be found. I really didn’t know where I was going to find that extra money. But my request to the amiable, and hopeful, dealer made available an extra week to find the money. Without telling me, Dean Tom Moore, who took a personal interest in the project, made a phone call to a person he knew, a friend of the library but not one with an interest in Hemingway. Dean Moore explained the opportunity, the work that had gone into trying to acquire the letter, and the amount of money we still needed. A few days later, I learned that “some extra money” had been found and we could buy the item.

The exhibit had been designed to put the collection “on the map.” Taking advantage of this sudden opportunity to add an intellectually rich, but financially expensive new item to the collection made it clear that the Clarke Historical Library was seriously committed to growing its Hemingway collection. It also demonstrated something more fundamental. That there was a community of interested individuals who would help make that growth happen.

Over the next eighteen years, the Michigan Hemingway Collection was enriched in many ways. Extraordinary material was added, some given, some purchased, and some obtained by a combination of the two. But all that came afterward, and the future hung in the balance for a few days in 2003. What would follow was made possible because of a visionary donor with a dream, the support of a small number of people willing to put their wallets where their mouths were, and a dean, who picked up the phone at a critical moment, and sold both the idea of building the collection and acquiring as a public legacy that one, beautiful Hemingway letter.