The Queen of North Manitou visits Beaver Island
On Tuesday, July 30th, Rita Hadra Rusco made her first visit to Beaver Island, after having spent five decades two islands away down the lake. This colorful and energetic 82-year-old woman is the author of North Manitou Island, a subject on which she is probably the world's expert. Coming out of Texas as a young woman, her first husband was called to service during WW II. Shortly afterwards, he met Bob Angell, who owned 95% of North Manitou and was looking for a reliable couple to move there and run his operation. Rita was the first to go in 1942, becoming Postmistress and manager of the general store; her husband came along a week later.
What they found was primitive by any standard: a phone they had to shout into at the top of their lungs (they were three rings); ice blocks for refrigeration, cut from the lake and preserved in sawdust; and a gasoline-fired iron that spit soot on a white shirt. The rampant deer herd was planted in 1927; later the island became a hunting club, with men hired to cart apples around for fodder. It all sounds eerily familiar, like meeting a less substantial cousin whose predicament makes us feel we didn't have it so bad after all.
Over the following years Rita witnessed the play of downsizing forces similar to those that threatened Beaver Island when our population dropped to below two hundred. There, like here, the fishing industry began to collapse. Eventually the freight cost wouldn't support the cherry orchards, so people began to move away. It was hard to attract new people because of the limitations of living on an island. And the danger; not everyone was stimulated by flying in with skis instead of wheels and landing on a rough 1700' strip. Soon the school closed; then the lighthouse (shut down in 1933) fell into disrepair; then the docks were a risky proposition. Even before everyone was forced out by the expanding Sleeping Bear Dunes, logistical forces put this island community well on the way to becoming a ghost town.
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