The Hemingway Family's Northern Getaway


Northern Michigan Line

Northern Michigan has served as a hotspot for vacationers from around Michigan, the United States, and the rest of the world for at least a century. Among these vacationers was the Hemingway family. Hearing stories about Michigan's beauty and the wonderous effects that the fresh air and spring waters had on people's health, Dr. Clarence Hemingway boarded his family aboard a Great Lakes steamer to the pristine landscapes of northern Michigan. Just a year before Ernest was born, Clarence, Grace, and Marcelline arrived at Wildwood Harbor two days after leaving Chicago. Between 1899 and 1921, the Hemingway family, often including Ernest, spent at least part of every year in northern Michigan. Like thousands of other people, they relied on steamships and trains to get them from their homes to their Michigan destinations.

What the Hemingways soon discovered was a region in the midst of change. The lumbering era was coming to an end after levelling old forest groves into stump fields. Tourism was beginning to emerge as an economic force, replacing the lumber trade and taking advantage of railways opened up by the loggers. Large resort hotels were being built on a number of inland lakes, and steamship and railroad companies began to promote the region as a tourist destination. Soon, people from all over the Midwest were enjoying the beautiful views, fresh water, and outdoor activities in northern Michigan.

The Hemingway's journey began at a pier in Chicago where they boarded one of the several Great Lakes steamers that traveled along Michigan's west coast. The SS Manitou was their most common choice. The Manitou was the best known and most luxurious of the steamers with its finely furnished cabins and ornate public areas. Porters would help the Hemingways load trunks filled with clothes, books, and provisions onto the ship and the family would settle in and enjoy the day and a half trip. When the Manitou docked in Harbor Spring, the Hemingways transferred themselves and their cargo to a "dummy train" at the rail station. (These trains were called this because they did not travel on to far away locations. They ran back and forth between local stops carrying people and goods.) The train the Hemingways boarded took them around the edge of Little Traverse Bay to Petoskey with several stops at resorts like Bay View.

Once at the Grand Rapids and Indiana railroad station at Petoskey, they needed to make one more transfer. This time it was to another dummy train that took them to Walloon Village at the shore of Walloon Lake. There they made one more change to a small wood burning steamship that would take them to their cottage. The Tourist, Outing, and Rapid Transit made regular trips around the lake, stopping at resorts and individual docks if signaled to do so by a flag at the dock's end.


Hemingway family portrait

The Hemingway Family spent most of their time in northern Michigan at Walloon Lake. Grace and Ursula's family scrapbooks chronicle their time at Bear Lake, Oak Park and Windemere, Walloon Lake, and elsewhere. According to Michael Federspiel, Hemingway's Michigan roots start in 1898 when his parents, Clarence and Grace Hemingway, bought waterfront property and built a cottage on Walloon Lake. By this point, the area was a well-established tourist resort. The first tourist hotels had opened in the 1800s, and by the turn of the 20th century, these resort hotels were being supplemented by lakeside cottages. The Hemingways' first trip in 1898 was the deciding factor in buying property on the lake front. Dr. Hemingway liked the idea of his family enjoying summers in a healthy natural environment where opportunities for hard work and for enjoying nature were plentiful, instead of staying in a resort hotel. The lake was beautiful and opportunities for fishing, boating, and swimming abundant. One particular parcel interested them more than others. It was a full acre of waterfront on a small bay with maple, birch, and hemlock trees and a lakeshore perfect for swimming. It was owned by Henry Bacon, a farmer whose property bordered the lot, and was close to "Bacon's Landing"—a spot where the lake steamships regularly stopped. Before they returned to Oak Park, the Hemingways purchased the lot on which they would build their cottage and where they would spend their future summers. From then on they spent their summers "up north" in Michigan.

Ernest Hemingway made his first trip to Michigan in 1899. He accompanied his parents on the journey to make plans for and build their summer home—Windemere Cottage. The Hemingway summers began when school ended, and their summers concluded in August. At the lake, most of the time was spent outdoors, where they swam, fished, roasted marshmallows, went boating, and sat around doing nothing. They also enjoyed playing dress up and entertaining family and friends. When Ernest turned eleven years old, the family celebrated with 75 guests whose 20 boats filled the shore. 


Ernest Hemingway with trout


Extract of letter from Ernest to his friend Jim Gamble, April 18 and 27, 1919

1919 was a year of change for Ernest Hemingway. Michigan was his safe haven. Anxious to repair his soul and heal his physical wounds, he wrote to a number of his friends urging them to join him for the summer. This correspondence included a letter to Jim Gamble, who had been Hemingway’s commander in Italy during World War I, where the two had become friends. Gamble had invited Hemingway to spend time in Italy with him, but Hemingway had returned to America. In the spring of 1919, Hemingway wrote Gamble with a similar idea but a significant twist: Gamble, Hemingway suggested, should come to the United States and spend the summer with him around Little Traverse Bay. To persuade his former commander to make the trip, Hemingway wrote several pages describing the delights of Michigan.

The letter’s glowing descriptions of what Gamble would experience made clear just how much Hemingway loved northern Michigan. Hemingway described Michigan as a "priceless place." He mused about the great northern airs and "[a]bsolutely the best fishing in the country. No exaggeration." He went on to describe it as "a great place to laze around and swim and fish when you want to." Historian Michael Federspiel has noted that northern Michigan life served as a hard drive of experiences, places, and observations for Hemingway. It was these memories he would use when writing his stories. By all accounts, Windemere and Horton Bay had a seismic effect on Ernest Hemingway. 

One thing is certain—Hemingway's recollections of Michigan always included the water. Nick Adams fished and spent time at lakes just like Hemingway. His famous short story "Big Two-Hearted River" was built on his own experiences. Drawing mostly on his experiences stream fishing, he wrote: "Nick looked down into the clear, brown water, colored from the pebbly bottom, and watched the trout keeping themselves steady in the current with wavering fins."  His relationship with the water eventually took him to Havana, Cuba, where he forged his 1952 The Old Man and the Sea

Hemingway's Michigan stories carry the reader back to the "wilds" and the waters. Learn more about the Hemingway Collection at the Clarke here.

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