East Jordan's Charles Eisendrath
International journalist, professor, and inventor of the world's favorite grill.
By Al Parker | Dec. 7, 2019
Noted journalist, college professor, inventor and Charlevoix County cherry farmer Charles Eisendrath didn't set out to write a book.
“I'd been writing these essays and putting them away in a box,” he explained in a recent telephone interview from Ann Arbor. “I thought there might be 75 pages or so, but there were 350 pages. They were originally intended as sort of a personal history to be shared with friends and family, but a friend suggested I see if they could become a book.”
He took his boxed collection of essays – 23 in all written between 1983 and 2018 – to Heather Shaw at Mission Point Press in Traverse City and asked two questions: if they were any good and if they could be a book.
Yes and yes were her answers; the collection of lyrical, poignant writings was eventually transformed into Downstream From Here: A Big Life in a Small Place, in bookstores across northern Michigan and at Amazon.
“These essays explore a variety of human love that doesn't ask anything in return, but sometimes receives it anyway, although in ways you need to learn how to feel,” writes Eisendrath in the book's introduction. “These essays are about the loves of a place you inhabit only temporarily, but which inhabits you permanently. And here again, loves, plural, is no typo.”
Eisendrath's special place is Overlook Farm, 146 acres on Lake Charlevoix near East Jordan, where he has returned during every one of his 78 years. There he grows cherries and finds peace.
The Yale graduate's resume is impressive. As a Time magazine foreign correspondent, he covered wars and upheaval in northern Ireland, Biafra and Chile, where he found himself smack in the midst of the violent 1973 coup that toppled Salvador Allende and his Marxist democracy and installed General Augusto Pinochet.
In one essay, Eisendrath details the thick atmosphere of danger and deceit in turbulent Chile the way a heavy January snow blankets the Charlevoix countryside.
“It was scary,” he recalled.
Along with his wife and two sons, Eisendrath made it out of Chile to the relative safety of Argentina.
“I found that I couldn't trust my reflexes, even in Buenos Aires,” he wrote. “The city was calmer than Santiago, for sure, but still dangerous for young American families like mine. I wrapped up the week's coverage, arranged for a replacement to come from the Rio de Janeiro bureau and asked for R&R leave.”
His boss refused his request.
“I felt that there was no need to honor his judgment – let alone abide by it – and decided to depart anyways, leaving word that I could be reached at a farm in northern Michigan. Three days later, Julia, the boys and I were on a plane headed home, bound for Traverse City and then East Jordan.”
After his time at Time, Eisendrath became director of the Livingston awards for Young Journalists and the Knight-Wallace Fellows at the University of Michigan. These programs bring American journalists and a handful of international reporters to Ann Arbor each year for an eight-month paid sabbatical. The writers audit classes at the university, travel abroad to places like Brazil, Turkey and Russia and attend seminars in a house donated by former “60 Minutes” anchor Mike Wallace.
Alumni of the fellowship and the awards make up a glamorous list of journalists, including Charlie Gibson, John Broder, Molly Ball, Thomas Friedman, Christiane Amanpour, Evan Osnos, David Remnick, Michele Norris, Ira Glass and John U. Bacon. Eisendrath took over the once-bankrupt program and transformed it into one of journalism's most prestigious fellowships with a $60 million endowment and an annual budget of more than $2 million.
But on his current book tour, Eisendrath notes that most of his readers are less interested in his days of derring-do as a foreign correspondent or his success at U of M.
Rather, they are more excited about his quiet life at Overlook Farm and the Charlevoix County neighbors who have helped him more than a few times over the years.
“Within three miles of Overlook farm live three men who symbolize what you don't see until something takes your consciousness by the elbow and gently leads you to another world located inside your mental planet,” he wrote about Glen Seagraves, Bob Howard and Glen McCune. “Picture the flames signaling Moses that this was no ordinary bush. You look at neighbors differently, you listen for a special voice.”
Seagraves receives special attention in the book.
“I'll start with Glen Seagraves, who charged $10 an hour for designing a little part that went into several million GM cars and trucks manufactured during the 1970s and into the 1990s,” wrote Eisendrath. “It was the small plastic gizmo on steering columns that activated trouble blinkers. Doesn't look like much, but legions of high-priced, fancily educated engineers of the (then) biggest corporation in the world reached out to somebody in overalls whose sole engineering credential was a pinstripe cap.”
Seagraves never asked for a percentage of the royalty, which would have meant big bucks.
“Nah,” Eisendrath quoted Seagraves as saying. “I'm paid by the hour ... things like that don't take long.”
Eisendrath goes on, saying Seagraves identifies with old machinery, especially steam-powered rigs and is the unofficially official chief mechanic of the Buckley Old Engine Show.
“Strolling the lines, Seagraves works his tobacco chaw, carries his long-spout brass oiling can like a stethoscope and hoists kids to bottom rungs of black iron ladders so they can feel hugeness by climbing it,” wrote Eisendrath.
Eisendrath has known Bob Howard since they were boys. Howard later became famous in the Charlevoix area for machining the metal banks for a salmon/lake trout lure called “The Stinger.” A heavy smoker, he was also noted for being able to make just about anything a guy might need.
In describing his third neighbor Glen McCune, Eisendrath focuses on his prowess with wood. The former teacher restores shotgun stocks and canoes, carves 300-pound deer doors, 600-pound bear bedsteads and stunning cherry wood platters.
“McCune's interest departs with the objects,” wrote Eisendrath. “Leaving only a scrapbook reflecting the admiration of others. His masterpiece? It is a lifestyle framed by a homestead that reflects it all in peacocks squawking from roofs, cages for recovering raptors, a rescued printing press from the 1890s and road kill hanging from trees before being fed to his various winged creatures and the peregrine falcons and red-tailed hawks used for hunting.”
Eisendrath fostered his own interest with certain objects. Back in the 1970s, Eisendrath developed an obsession with barbecue grills, sketching them by the dozens. All were versions of grills he had seen and used in his travels in the Middle East, North Africa, southern France and Argentina.
“The Weber, for example, is a wonderful smoker,” he said. “But it's a primitive grill and adjusts the heat by partially putting out the fire and has no means of changing the distance between the coals and burgers. Other grills raise and lower the coals while leaving the burgers in place. None had a system for eliminating flareups. Worst of all, none used the best fuel for grilling, wood. Even a journalist could do better.”
So, in 1977 Eisendrath took his doodles to a welder in East Jordan, who agreed to take a stab at building a prototype. The project moved along nicely until mid-July when Eisendrath visited the man and found his grill parts shoved aside like scrap.
“It was cherry time, when machines broke down at just the wrong moment and had to be welded back in shape right then, overtime included, because picking follows a schedule that determines which orchards make money that year,” he wrote in an essay. “Disappointment continued when the harvest rush was over, for my welder had lost interest and I had run out of summer.”
But the intrepid inventor was undeterred and took his project to a bumper shop in Ann Arbor.
“I took $800 in small bills, ones and fives, and filled a Kroger bag,” he said. “Then I went to this guy's shop and dumped the bag on a table in from of him. That got his attention.”
The car guy agreed to do the welding; eventually two prototypes were made.
“When a friend came for a football game, he asked to see what I'd been up to,” recalled Eisendrath. “I took him to see the two grills, one for Ann Arbor and one for the farm, and damned if he didn't buy one on the spot.”
Eisendrath had no plan to turn his grills into an international business but was interested in obtaining a patent.
“I wanted to patent an invention because of my grandfather,” he said. “He'd held two – a candle-imitating light bulb and, of all things, a crocus. For me, a grill would do.”
The business took off after Eisendrath received a phone call from James Beard, the most famous chef/critic in the nation at the time. Beard paid full price for a grill and his ensuing review of the invention – “Brilliantly thought out and well-constructed.” – sparked a torrent of interest in Eisendrath’s grill.
For two weeks the tiny East Jordan post office delivered orders by the box load. Today, Eisendrath's oldest son Ben owns and operates Grillworks, Inc. with grills operating in 50 nations. (Visit www.grillworks.com to learn more.)
Eisendrath's essays detail his lifelong love affair with Charlevoix County, its waters, its creatures, its boats, its lifestyle and its people.
But with almost seven decades under his belt, he also has some things to say about the value of America’s frontier grittiness – and why that spirit has endured.
“Much that is happening in America these days smacks of losing touch with our essential greatness, part of which is the frontier appreciation of collaboration. It is knitted into our national fabric and worn on battlefields around the world,” he wrote. “I would bet a new set of mapling equipment that experiences like mine seem normal, not only in little places like East Jordan, Michigan, but also in small parts of big cities where people build things together. Instances of the frontier spirit at work are scattered across America like rescue lights in the gloom of a blizzard after dark.”