In Search of Bruce Catton’s Benzie County
Lessons the preeminent Civil War author learned in his Benzonia boyhood resonate today.
By Patrick Sullivan | Nov. 3, 2018
The country’s preeminent Civil War author grew up in a backwoods Benzonia, learning about the war from local Union Army veterans decades after the war’s end. Their lessons — about a country divided, states rights, and the price people will pay for freedom — are as relevant today as they were then. Northern Express pages back through Bruce Catton’s past.
Benzonia of 1899 was a pretty quiet place, but you wouldn’t know that from Bruce Catton’s memoir of growing up in the small Benzie County town.
Catton’s book “Waiting for the Morning Train” begins by setting the scene of his childhood: northern Michigan at the dawn of the 20thCentury, when European settlers had almost wrapped up their project to reshape the state by taking as many natural resources as rapidly as they could. Their endeavor was significant, not only in the way it changed Michigan but also in how it enabled the construction of America.
Michigan’s pine trees were turned into lumber that built houses across the country; its copper was turned into wire that electrified the nation; and the iron ore shipped from the Upper Peninsula had already built the railroads — and was about to enable Detroit to make the automobiles that would transform the world.
It was amid the uncertainty of this era that young Bruce Catton grew up.
Later, as an old man, in the 1970s, he reflected on his Benzie County childhood and on the changes that the coming decades would bring.
Catton, who by then was a wealthy and well-known author, found a lot not to like about the 20thcentury — namely its wars and genocides and divisions reminiscent of the ones that led to the Civil War, the conflict that was his specialty.
In particular, though, Catton disliked the automobile. He wrote about how once, in his youth, he’d been watching a baseball game in Benzonia when someone drove up in a car. It was such an odd sight that the game stopped entirely while the players and small crowd gawked.
The automobile, he wrote, “ … would transform our state with a speed and completeness no one could possibly have foreseen, and it would do the same thing to the country, and nobody could comprehend that; nobody would have been able to believe it if some profit had explained it.”
CATCHING THE TOLEDO TRAIN
The father of Benzonia native Harold Case grew up with Catton. They were best friends as boys and stayed in touch all their lives.
(Ironically, Harold Case would go on to own Benzonia’s Chrysler dealership, though that doesn’t seem to have caused any hard feelings between him and his father’s great friend.)
Even though Case knew Bruce Catton since he [Case] was a small child, his best memories of his father’s friend are from when he was a young adult in the 1960s and 1970s, and Bruce Catton was a famous writer who spent his summers in Benzie County.
That makes sense because it was in the 1950s that Catton found success and made the money that enabled him to buy a summer home in Frankfort, one perched on a bluff overlooking Crystal Lake and Lake Michigan, to which he would return each year until his death.
Case vividly recalls Catton’s distaste for cars. To get to Benzie County each summer, Catton would take the train from New York City to Toledo, where his wife, Hazel, who was traveling a similar route by car, would pick him, then drive him the rest of the way.
“He still liked train travel, and he really didn’t particularly care for automobile travel,” Case said. Nevertheless, Hazel tried to show her husband the usefulness of driving, said Case, recalling the time she dropped the author at the train station in Ohio as usual, then hit the gas on their convertible Ford Thunderbird to try and beat him back to New York.
Somewhere in Pennsylvania, however, Hazel got pulled over for speeding.
“I can’t imagine what that officer thought when he got up and looked into the car and saw that lady sitting there,” Case said. “When Bruce got back to his apartment the next day, Hazel was there to let him in.”
Nonetheless, Catton didn’t allow his dislike of the automobile or other characteristics of the 20thCentury get him down.
“Bruce was not one to moan about the past. I think he accepted the change very, very well, and adapted to it,” Case said. “I think he thought Benzie County held up pretty well through the years.”
UPON WAR, THE BROTHERS ENLIST
For Bruce Catton and the rest of his extended family, despite education and careers that took them around the world, Benzonia would always be “home.”
It was, after all, where Bruce Catton’s father had been, for years, head of the Benzonia Academy, a Congregationalist preparatory school that closed in 1918, two years after Bruce Catton graduated and enrolled in Oberlin College.
Bruce Catton’s niece, Ruth Catton, was born in Benzonia in 1929. Her father, William, was a Congregational minister who moved his family to a new parish every few years. At six weeks old, she and her family moved to North Dakota, then went on to live in Colorado, Cleveland, and Manistee while she was growing up. Once Ruth became a doctor, she spent 35 years practicing as a medical missionary in India. Nonetheless, she says, “Benzonia was always home.”
Each summer, from her childhood to college years, the Catton families would converge on Crystal Lake — Ruth Catton to a rustic family cottage on the north shore, and Bruce Catton and his family to a rental cabin somewhere in the area (until he’d made it as an author and could afford to buy his summer home). In 1993, Ruth returned for good, settling in her parents’ Benzie County home when she retired.
Her father, William, and her Uncle Bruce had always been close — they enlisted together in the Navy during World War I, cutting short their studies at Oberlin College, though neither man saw combat.
William, along with his son, volunteered again during World War II. By that time, Bruce Catton was a seasoned journalist. He published his first book, about Washington, D.C. during World War II, at the age of 49. The book that would make him famous, win the Pulitzer Prize, and enable him to buy that summer home, “A Stillness at Appomattox” — the third book in his first Civil War trilogy — was still a few years away.
Although the brothers were close throughout their lives, they did not always see eye to eye. For one thing, Ruth Catton said, her father had adopted her grandfather’s hardline stance on alcohol and abstained; Bruce Catton had not.
“One time, it may have been when the Frontenac was still a hotel, or it might have been at the Hotel Frankfort, but Uncle Bruce had been drinking,” she said. “They were all eating together, and the waiter brought the bills and started to hand both of them to dad, and he handed the one over to Bruce, and he said, ‘He can pay for his own foolishness.’”
A MARTINI EVERY DAY
During his summers in Benzie County in his later years, Bruce Catton was friendly but kept mostly to himself and did not get involved in local politics, Ruth Catton said.
“He was not averse to chatting with people when he would go into the post office or the coffee shop or whatever — he would chat with people, but he was private in a lot of ways,” Ruth Catton said.
In his spare time, Catton liked to whittle small, intricately detailed action figures he could arrange inside dioramas to depict famous Civil War battles; he would glue them into place in a box and use covers of Civil War Times magazine to depict backgrounds. (Some of the dioramas are on display at the museum in Benzonia.)
Bruce Catton also had regular Benzie County haunts. He would regularly sign books at a bookstore in Beulah and was also known to be a regular at today’s Hotel Frankfort, known in Catton’s day as the PAC Inn.
“He would go there every day for happy hour and sit at the bar, and people left him alone,” said Jane Purkis, the lead curator at the Benzie Area Historical Society. “And he had a Martini every day.”
Purkis echoes Ruth Catton’s assessment of her famous but reserved uncle and shared a favorite tale about Catton and a cousin that proudly made its way back to northern Michigan.
In the off-season, she said, Catton lived in Manhattan and ate lunch every day at the Algonquin Hotel.
“This is after he is famous. He was extremely private,” she said. “He had his own table, you know, back in the corner, and, one day one of his cousins was in New York, and wanted to have lunch with him. And the maître d put up quite a stink, until Bruce recognized her and invited her to come to the table.”
Around Frankfort, Catton was also known to enjoy a cigarette. Legend has it that he would purchase a pack in town, have a smoke or two down at the park, and then hide the package there before he returned home, not wanting his wife to find them.
In the Catton brothers’ religion, smoking was not as much of a sin as alcohol, said Ruth Catton, but while her father didn’t smoke at all, her uncle at least had the good sense to act like he didn’t: “I don’t think [Hazel] liked it, and he didn’t like to do it in front of her, and she knew that it was bad on his health.”
In “Waiting for the Morning Train,” Bruce Catton recalled how, when one of the Benzonia Academy buildings burned down during his youth, student smoking was blamed: “We were against smoking, not so much because it was bad for the health as because it was morally wrong, and it seemed only natural that erring young men, guided into self-indulgence by the devil, should burn down a college.”
“WHY ARE WE GOING BACK THERE?”
There are, in fact, few traces left of Bruce Catton around Benzonia. There is a state historic marker in front of the building where Catton grew up, which is today the Benzonia Pubic Library. Inside the library, there is a collection of his books. And there is a large Catton exhibit at the Benzie Area Historical Museum that includes the Medal of Freedom given to Catton by President Gerald Ford.
“One day, his son, Bill, walked in with a regular old cardboard box — this was after Bruce passed away — and said, ‘Here, you need to have this,’” said Purkis, who is still amazed that such an item is in the museum’s collection. “And it was his Medal of Freedom.”
The exhibit attracts visitors from around the world who are interested in Catton’s life, she said.
Bruce Catton’s summer home on Glory Road is no longer there. Within the last decade, Purkis said, it was sold and torn down to make room for a much bigger home.
“Waiting for the Morning Train” resonated with Ruth Catton and she recognizes, somewhat, the Benzonia depicted in that book as the place she returned to each summer in her childhood.
The book came out not long after her father died in 1972. Ruth Catton believes her uncle wrote it for her father.
“There were some elements in that that made me think that Uncle Bruce was claiming a plea for help as he’s getting away from the religious upbringing that they had, and he’s trying to find his way, and he would have listened to his older brother, and quite possibly he was writing it for his older brother,” she said.
Ruth Catton said she liked her uncle’s books, but when she thinks about them today, there are too many similarities between the lead-up to the Civil War and today that she doesn’t like to think about.
“When I was first going out to India, there was a package on my bunk on the Queen Mary from them as a going away present,” she recalled. “It was copies of his books with autographs. Not very rapidly, but gradually, I made my way through them all. I enjoy his writing. Some of the books I find — not quite sure what adjective to use, but the politics of those days is too close to some of the stuff that’s going on now. We’ve been there before. Why are we going back there?”
“I GREW UP BEFORE IT HAPPENED”
William Catton died suddenly in 1972. Ruth Catton was in New Zealand, on her way back to northern Michigan, when she got the news.
“I was on my way home just for a month’s vacation,” Ruth Catton recalled. “My folks were getting ready to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary, and I was on my way home. My older brother was in New Zealand at that point. We got around.”
Their aunt had also just died, and William Catton was preparing the funeral service for her when he died.
“He’d had congestive heart failure, but he was getting better,” she recalled. “He collapsed on the kitchen floor.”
When Bruce Catton died six years later at Paul Oliver Memorial Hospital, it wasn’t unexpected. Years of heavy smoking had left him with debilitating respiratory problems.
“He’d been a heavy smoker, and he was in the hospital and actually on a respirator, and Bill, his son, was being given the choice, should he pull the plug? And Bill was having to decide that when Uncle Bruce rolled over and pulled the plug himself,” Ruth Catton said. “Whether he accidentally did or on purpose did. But at any rate, rolling over on the bed, he disconnected it and died.”
Ruth Catton said she learned of her uncle’s death while she was in India.
“I heard about it the next morning, listening to Voice of America. That’s how I found out,” she said. “They were giving the weeks news in review or something. I don’t remember who the other one was, ‘Two literary figures in America, Bruce Cotton’ — Cotton is the frequent mistake of our name — anyway, ‘had died.’”
Bruce Catton would be buried in the Benzie Township Cemetery, today located behind the Shop ‘N’ Save. It was a cemetery, he wrote in “Waiting for the Morning Train,” that he’d heard from the Civil War vets he knew in his youth reminded them of Gettysburg.
Those were the same vets that inspired him so many years later to write about the Civil War. There was another reason, he wrote in his memoir, that he felt a connection to the Civil War through his childhood in Benzonia: “Our life was adjusted to something that had been seen in the nation’s youth, before the Civil War; I suppose one reason why that war has always seemed so real to me is that in a sense I grew up before it happened.”