By Richard Fidler
By Robert Downes
It only takes a few moments to fall under the spell of historian Richard Fidlers Gateways to Grand Traverse Past, a beautifully-envisioned tale of the ups and downs of life dating back 100 years ago and beyond.
A former teacher, this is Fidlers third book of history, primarily about the Grand Traverse region but in many ways roaming further afield. Here, for instance, are the scores of black hobos who traveled north on the rails in the 1940s, hoping to pick cherries in the regions orchards, only to be succeeded by imported Jamaican labor and Mexican migrants. Here are tales of circuses which marched in a line of elephants down the muddy streets of Front Street in the 1890s. Fidler lifts history from its dusty grave and breathes life into the past through eloquent writing and intelligent observations full of perception and wonder.
The theme of his book is based on the novel Time and Again by Jack Finney, which postulated the idea of gateways that could lead time travelers back to previous ages. These gateways were commonly buildings or scenes that existed unchanged from early times, Fidler writes in his introduction. The fabric of time was very thin at such points, and with the proper frame of mind, the traveler could rip it aside for a moment and walk back into the past
Fidler notes that Traverse City has many such gateways; he approaches his own journeys into the past in a conversational manner, sometimes assuming the first person. In his chapter, Glimpsing a Forest Primeval, for instance, he describes driving to tiny Ashton Park near Willow Hill Elementary School and Wayne Hill on the west side of town to experience one of the few old growth forests left in Northern Michigan.
He notes that the park property was purchased by the city in 1922, in part because it was virgin timber in a town that had degenerated into a muddy, clear-cut sea of stumps. Thanks to this foresight, today one can still find trees in the park that are nearly 3 feet in diameter with limbs 40 feet off the ground.
How many people in Traverse City are aware that such a natural treasure exists within the city limits? Reading Fidlers account makes you want to visit Ashton Park to experience this wonder for yourself.
Speaking of trees, Fidler also writes about the bent trail marker trees created by the Ojibwe or Odawa people before the settlement of Traverse City in 1850. Once, residential Washington Street served as a section of a long-gone Indian trail extending from the Mackinac Straits to the Detroit area, with directional marker trees still in evidence on the street and at the Civic Center.
Fidler is at his best when his sense of humanity shines through, reminding us through his several books that poverty, starvation wages and struggle were the common fate of most citizens 100 years ago. He offers uplifting stories of people striving to better themselves, but doesnt try to sugarcoat the past:
A hundred years ago, the City was a community filled with optimism, he writes. Traverse City was proud of its recent past, its growth from a tiny village within the last fifty years, its gorgeous setting on Grand Traverse Bay, its prosperous businesses, its churches, and its hard-working inhabitants. At the same time it struggled to present a fair face to the world; saloons lined Front Street and drinkers fought in the streets outside them. Factory workers were paid poverty wages and worked ten-hour days, six days a week. Native Americans were the poorest of the poor, frequently suffering from alcoholism. The Boardman River was an open sewer as it flowed through town and the brown and dusty plains of the city, together with the surrounding hills denuded of trees, presented an abused landscape to visitors.
Fidler captures the tough breaks of those times with his essays on places like Hobo Point, a spot on Boardman Lake where trains used to slow down long enough for down-on-their-luck migrant workers to jump off or on. Of note, the area around Hobo Point still serves as a homeless camping area today -- no different than 100 years ago.
Then theres his account of The Battle of Pine River in which 15 unarmed Mormons from Beaver Island were attacked by a band of 20 fishermen after landing at the Pine River Channel in Charlevoix in 1853. The posse (whose mission has since been under dispute) fled for their lives with six men wounded by musket fire. Their lives were saved only by the arrival of a passing ship which took them aboard and chased off three boats in hot pursuit.
At 138 pages, Gateways is a quick read, but be forewarned: youll likely want to linger over its pages and re-read passages, savoring Fidlers prose and his images of a lost way of life that seems closer than you might imagine.