Education, Faith & New Frontiers
What a pioneering college of a century ago can teach us today
By Ross Boissoneau | Sept. 4, 2021
Who knew there was a college hidden away in the wilds of western Grand Traverse County back in the 1800s? Students of history do, though even some of them might not realize that the Mills House in Benzonia — the only building still standing from that long-ago social and educational experiment — represents the first effort at college education in Grand Traverse County.
That’s because when this experimental effort to deliver higher education was opened, what is now Benzie County was still part of an expansive Grand Traverse County. Benzie County was, in fact, six years away from being recognized as a separate county when Grand Traverse College was founded in 1863.
“What were they thinking?” asks historian and photo collector Don Harrison rhetorically. “You wouldn’t expect an academy out here.”
“Why here? God knows,” echoes Jerry Heiman. Thing is, in the minds of those visionary founders, God likely did know. They were inspired in large part by the religious ardor permeating their Congregational community. “They were so smitten by zealous focus they came to this wilderness to start a college.”
Plus, there was the very practical fact that here, they could: “There was a lot of homestead land available,” says Heiman.
Just in time for what might be yet another school year of unknowns and uncertainty, Heiman will present a talk about the pioneering Benzonia Academy at 7pm Sept. 9, virtually and in-person at one of the last vestiges of its vision, the Mills Community House. Northern Express reached out to Heiman to learn more about the institution and its unique history.
ON A MISSION FROM GOD
Perhaps not surprisingly, Heiman says, the church, college, and town “were all joined at the hip.” The driving force: Charles Baily. The Congregational pastor led four families north from his parish in Oberlin, Ohio, to settle in the beautiful but largely wild west coast of northern Lower Michigan in 1858. The group’s intention was to create a Utopian society, according to Heiman, one where “everyone was welcome.”
The journey wasn’t easy, but they believed what awaited them was a world worth working for. “They heard rumors in Ohio and took a steamer around Honor to Glen Arbor, a functioning port at the time,” says Heiman. There, they built a schooner and traveled south to Point Betsie and then portaged a low spot to Crystal Lake, which at the time was 20 feet higher and subsequently much larger in area. What is today the village of Beulah was nothing more than a swamp. “That’s how they got to Benzie.”
Their optimism fueled far more than their journey; it was their motivating factor in their belief they could build both a community and a college that — in an exceptional departure from pre-Civil War thinking, even for the nation’s Northern states — would welcome all people, not just those of a certain color or gender.
“[That thinking] was based on the Oberlin model,” says Jane Purkis, a retired Benzie Central teacher and, like Heiman and Harrison, a member of the Benzie Area Historical Society. “The Congregationalists were extremely liberal,” and included abolitionists and members of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.
Purkis corrects herself: “They were way beyond liberal. When you signed a deed [for land], you said you would not serve intoxicants or tobacco in your home. They were politically liberal but enlightened philosophy-wise.” That was encapsulated in the school’s motto: “To afford to both sexes without distinction of color the opportunity of acquiring a liberal education.”
A FLICKER, THEN FLAMES
The college’s first building was constructed in 1863, though classes had begun in private homes three years earlier. But as with so many historical buildings, fire proved devastating. That first building was dedicated in 1869, and five years later it was gone. In 1909, a fire burned East Hall to the ground. It had served as the girls’ dormitory and the home of the headmaster.
Later that year, it was replaced by the Mills Cottage. It was named for the Rev. Harlow S. Mills, who led the local Congregational congregation from 1896 to 1916. “He raised the money to rebuild,” says Heiman.
By then, the institution had undergone some definitive changes. It was renamed Benzonia College in 1891, in recognition of the county’s separation from Grand Traverse County. In 1900, it changed its focus from a post-secondary school to a college preparatory institution, likewise changing its name to Benzonia Academy.
Six years later, George Catton became headmaster of Benzonia Academy, and his family lived on the main floor of the women’s dormitory. His son Bruce, who became a Pulitzer-Prize winning historian, later wrote “Waiting for the Morning Train,” a memoir of his life in Benzonia.
WAR & REMEMBRANCE
Over the years, the population and popularity of the college/academy waxed and waned. Enrollment rose from 13 in the first graduating class to a peak of 150 in 1875.
Eventually, it withered away.
Advances in transportation — roads were finally built in the area, a major change from the days of the institution’s founding — and in education (newly available free to the public) spelled Benzonia Academy’s end. Not helping: a new public high school had been erected barely 200 yards away.
The academy’s final blow coincided with the start of World War I: Its last class graduated in 1918.
Though the staying power of the academy itself didn’t withstand the test of time, the Mills Community House certainly did. In 1925, the building was deeded to the Benzonia Congregational Church. Renovations included an auditorium on the upper level and a meeting space in the lower level.
It’s not a far stretch to say that some of the academy’s founders’ ideals — to open minds, welcome all, and further learning — live on there even today. The middle floor, after all, is home to the Benzonia Public Library, which has continuously operated at the site for nearly 100 years.
Want to learn more about the people and philosophies behind Benzonia Academy? Local history enthusiast Jerry Heiman will present his lecture at 7pm Sept. 9 inside the Mills Community House. You can attend in person or watch online. For details on the Zoom presentation, go to tinyurl.com/zf7s7fn6. Can’t make either? The talk will be posted on YouTube, which you can access via the url noted above.
*Pictured above: A group of male students at Benzonia Academy, circa 1907, one year after George Catton was named headmaster. Photo courtesy of Don Harrison and the Benzie Area Historical Society.