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Beacon Archive

February 2003
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The Way it Was

Seventy years ago, in February of 1933, the Depression was roaring through the country and affecting Beaver Island as well. When fishing closed down in the fall, people began to look around for any paying work, but there was very little. A construction project had been funded–the replacement of the Little Red Schoolhouse, which had burned, by the Roosevelt School.
The only problem was, the materials were in Charlevoix, and the Lake was frozen over. The ice was thick, but covered with drifts of snow. It would be a dangerous crossing, but something had to be done to put meals on the table, so it was decided to take the risk.

Emmett McCann took charge of the situation, organizing a party of 5 men and 2 trucks to head for Cross Village on February 15th starting at 8:30 am. A compass course was laid out for Cross Village. Charley Martin and Stan Floyd went first in an old Dodge touring car converted to a truck and towing two sleighs. They had to get out and sound the ice every so often. Bringing up the rear was Pat the Truth in a 1 ½ ton Ford truck, with his brother Archie and Emmett McCann.

The ice was smooth and for the first few miles the going was good. By noon they were within six miles of the mainland, but here they ran into ridges of ice pushed up by the changing weather that were too tall to get past. They ran into some fishermen who did not think they'd be able to make it to Cross Village, but said cars had been driving out on the ice from Charlevoix. Thinking they might find a route there, the Beaver Islanders headed south.

Their spirits lifted when they caught sight of Charlevoix’s water tower, but then the lead vehicle hit a severe crack in the ice and came to a stop, with the sleighs they were towing slamming into them powerfully enough to puncture the gas tank. Charlie jumped down, pulled the sleigh and truck apart, and found the hole. Holding it shut with a finger, he told Stanley to find or make a plug. After racking his brain, he came up with the paper bag in which they'd wrapped their lunches. All that was left in it were a few fig cookies, which they mashed up and used, with shreds of the sack and melted ice, to make a kind of paper mache. They tore a handkerchief into strips and tied them together, and then used their concoction as paste to make their linen bandage stick to the tank. After jacking up the truck and shoveling ice chips into the crack to fill it, they resumed their trek.

The light snow that had dogged them began to thicken, and they lost sight of the water tower. Luckily, the winter mail was being carried by plane, and the pilot, a man named Harder, saw their meandering path from the air and figured out that they were disoriented. He made three low passes, getting their attention and pointing them in the right direction. But as they approached the beach their progress was blocked by a dauntingly huge ridge of pushed-up ice. They had come so far, but the ridge extended in both directions as far as they could see and it looked like they would not be able to reach their load–until dozens of Charlevoix residents who had heard about their approach grabbed picks and shovels and marched out onto the ice to chop them a channel. They cut a path, and the intrepid Islanders were able to reach shore just as darkness fell. Needless to say, the arrival of the Islanders was sufficient reason to hold several parties at which post-Prohibition celebrations were carried on throughout the long night.

The next day no one was in shape to load the trucks, but on the following day everyone was mustered out to strap materials on board and send the caravan back across the lake. No one had come up with a way to permanently patch the ruptured gas tank, but the make-shift band-aid looked like it might hold for one more trip.

Their initial route was so far to the north that they decided to try running a straight line to the Island. The larger truck was now pulling the two sleighs. The ice was clear and fine, and they put several miles under their belt before they came to a 30'-wide crack. The open water had frozen over, but the ice proved to be only an inch thick. Nonetheless Charlie and Stanley backed up, got a running start, and managed to make it across with their lighter vehicle. Archie and Emmett got out of the big truck and stood back while Pat the Truth steered in a large loop to get up speed to try the crossing. Just in case, as he approached it he climbed out of the cab and stood on the running board, steering with one hand. The ice visibly sagged, but to everyone's relief did not give way.
Soon Sand Bay was off to their left and they were running north, parallel to the shore. They came to another frozen-over crack, and decided to try the same trick. This time the ice cracked under the second sleigh, which sank down enough to catch its runners and tear them off. They unhitched it, drove on to the harbor and into St. James, and then came back with an unloaded sleigh for the rest of the materials.

The mission was a success, providing winter work for a handful of men. The school was completed that spring, and held classes the following semester for kids from Greentown and parts south. After it closed, it became Ruth Colby's summer home. Now that she too has passed away, it's on the market, ready to have its history extended through some as-yet unknown owner's dreamed-up make-over. The basic structure still stands tall with pride over its rough journey seventy years ago across the formidable ice.


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