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Sweet Summer Vacation Memories of Berrien County
by Elaine Thomopoulos, Ph. D., © 2005

Click photos below
for expanded views

The delicious fruit of Berrien County
Thousands of tourists from Chicago frolicked on the shores of Lake Michigan
The May Graham and other river boats transported tourists from St. Joseph and Benton Harbor to resorts and camps located in the countryside by the St. Joseph River
The Gordon Beach Inn, although completely remodeled, looks much the same
The Emery Fruit Farm Resort, shown here at the turn of the century, became a lively gathering place for Greeks
The General Store of Bethany Beach in Sawyer became a popular gathering place
Planks Tavern, later renamed the Hotel St. Joseph, was furnished better and was more substantial and better equipped the Grand Hotel at Mackinac Island
The 175-room Golfmore Hotel in Grand Beach was located in the beautiful lakeside setting in Grand Beach
The mineral baths of St. Joseph and Benton Harbor, which some thought smelled like rotten eggs, brought thousand of tourists seeking benefits to their health
This artistic rendering shows the Whitcomb Hotel of St. Joseph, as well as Silver Beach in the foreground
By the 1950s, cabins and motels like this lined Route 12
Shadowland Ballroom was added to Silver Beach in 1927
The Crystal Palace on Paw Paw Lake in Coloma accommodated as many as 2,000 people

At the turn of the century, thousands of visitors traveled to Berrien County in Southwest Michigan to escape the sweltering summer heat and smelly, noisy and crowded cities-delighting in the cool breezes off Lake Michigan. Even earlier, travelers came, lured by fresh air and fresh fruit, as noted by a letter to the Chicago Republican, in 1868, "I want to call the attention of your city readers, and especially that class of them who, every season, need a place of summer resort, to the advantages of this locality. Some fine day step on board the steamer Comet, Capt. Napier, at Goodrich's wharf, at 10 o'clock, and after a delightful trip of five hours, you will find yourselves at the town of St. Joseph, a place well known as the center of the great fruit-growing regions of Michigan, and the place of shipment for its hundreds of thousands of baskets of peaches and tons of berries."

The summer visitors enjoyed lazy summers on the beaches and countryside of Southwest Michigan. Upper-class industrialists such as, Irwin Rew, a prominent member of Evanston society, Paul Hoffmann, President of Studebaker, Harold Swift of Swift Packing Company, and Louis Rueckheim, founder of Cracker Jack, built mansions on the lake. The early homes of the well to do included three homes built circa 1916 by Frank Lloyd Wright in Grand Beach.

By the 1920s, ethnic middle-class and blue-collar workers traveled to the haven "on the other side of the lake" to escape the smelly, noisy, dirty cities of Chicago and Gary. It was a welcome respite from apartment living. For many it reminded them of the idyllic country lifestyle they left behind in the old country. Aphrodite Demeur noted, "It was like going back to the homeland." *

The ethnic resort communities (including those of Irish, Czechoslovakian, Swedish, Jewish, African, Greek, Italian, Polish and Lithuanian descent) were scattered in various enclaves through out the area. In the 1930s, Jewish businessmen and professionals bought second homes in Michiana, on the border of Indiana, since it was one of the few communities, which did not have restrictive covenants. The Irish discovered the second home community of Grand Beach (near Indiana) in the 1940s and 1950s. Union Pier has welcomed various ethnicities, including the Czech, Jewish, African-American, and Lithuanian. Bethany Beach in Sawyer, established in 1906, continues to have a strong Swedish presence. Italians and Greeks enjoyed the Stevensville lakeside resorts from the 1920s to the 1950s. In Benton Harbor, Jewish resorts were located on or near Fair Avenue in Benton Harbor, which welcomed Jews from Chicago in the early decades of the 20th century. The Jewish farmers in this area, like many of the other farmers in Berrien County, took in summer borders to supplement their income as farmers. In many cases the resort business brought in even more income than they earned by farming. Mary's City of David, a Christian communal society located in Benton Township, also welcomed Jewish summer visitors and even built a synagogue on the grounds.

Whatever their ethnicity, the summer visitors spent lazy summer days swimming in Lake Michigan, rowing boats down the calm St. Joseph River, picking vegetables and delicious peaches, berries, cherries, apples, pears, and grapes in the farms to the east, and watching the sun set while singing around the campfire. They relished three hearty meals a day at luxurious lakeside resorts (such as St. Joseph's Planks Tavern or Grand Beach's 175-bed Golfmore Hotel or roughed it at campsites or primitive cabins at farms in Sodus or Berrien Springs, cooking over a fire or kerosene stove. They came for their health, drinking the cool mineral waters of Eastman Springs in Benton Harbor or soaking in the pungent mineral baths of the Whitcomb Hotel in St. Joseph or the Dwan or Premier Hotels in Benton Harbor. The proprietors boasted that the baths could cure, "rheumatism, nervous disorders, and poor circulation." Families brought the children for a healthier outdoor way of life, away from the dirt, dangers and diseases (such as smallpox or polio) of the city.

In the days before television, children did not complain of boredom. They could swim, boat, fish, explore the woods, or play childhood games. Vaso Powers sums up why free time she had as a kid while on vacation in Michigan made a difference. "It was a very unstructured time in contrast to school and teachers telling you what to do ... and you know after school stuff. I think that unstructured time is really important for people to have as they're growing up. You get some sense of yourself and what you like ... You need to work through your own head and figure out who you are."*

Most came with their families, but some attended camps, including the Chicago Commons Camp, Jewish and Czechoslovakian camps, scout and YWCA camps, or church camps such as Tower Hill, Warren or First Church Camps. Excitement radiates in the early photos of the luxurious steamer ships bringing the vacationers across Lake Michigan to St. Joseph or Benton Harbor. Those going to the country resorts would be picked up by horse and wagon or would travel down the St. Joseph River via riverboats such as the May Graham. Trains also transported travelers from Chicago and Indiana, with train stations found in each of the small resort towns. By the early 20th century, the local interurban electric trains transported people from St. Joseph and Benton Harbor to vacation destinations as far as Berrien Springs or Paw Paw Lake. Early photos show wives and children waiting at the train stations for husbands to join them on weekends. Beginning in the 1920s and 1930s, with improved roads, cars became a preferred method of transportation, and by the 1950s, motels were built to accommodate the highway drivers.

Whatever way they traveled, it was an experience full of laughter, fun, and anticipation; anticipation not only for the lovely beaches and countryside, but also for the amusement parks of Silver Beach in St. Joseph, the House of David in Benton Harbor, or Deer Forest in Coloma, whose friendly deer once delighted children of all ages. Silver Beach had a boardwalk, a beautiful sandy beach, a roller coaster and dance pavilion. Silver Beach closed in the early 1970s and Shadowland Pavilion, the dance hall where many found their mates, was torn down in 1981. Today the beach is a county park and rated one of the ten best beaches in the nation by Parent's Magazine.

The House of David, a Benton Harbor religious community, built an amusement park in 1908 and operated it until 1973. Its myriad attractions included a zoo, miniature trains which traveled a mile around the park, hot-rod cars for children, musical performances and baseball by the bearded House of David team. Tom Pekras, who used to vacation in Stevensville each summer, recalls the thrill of seeing Satchel Paige (the first African-American player to be admitted to the Baseball Hall of Fame) play.

In the 1930s and 1940s, loving couples danced to the big bands at pavilions such as Shadowland Ballroom or Crystal Palace. The big bands included Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong, Wayne King, Jimmy Dorsey, Tommy Dorsey, Les Brown, Duke Ellington, Woody Herman and Count Basie.

Famous men of the past, like Al Capone, Jesse Owens, Carl Sandburg, Joe Louis, Mayor Joseph Cermak, and Mayor Richard J. Daley have enjoyed the attractions of Berrien County. Present day notables who have second homes in the area include Mayor Richard M. Daley, Reverend Andrew Greeley, and many TV personalities including Andy Shaw, Walter Jacobson, Roger Ebert and Robert Jordan.

For more than 100 years, city folk have come to Southwest Michigan to savor all the pleasures it offers: the beautiful trees, colorful wildflowers and chirping birds, the ever-changing colors of the sunset bathing the Lake with a pinkish glow, the sound of waves lulling you to sleep, the smell of strawberries; the breath of fresh air and the friendly down-to-earth people. As Mike Economos so aptly describes it, "It was a great time. It was really nice and carefree youth ... It's out of my mind but it isn't out of my soul." *

*Quotations are from an oral history project conducted by the Berrien County Historical Association and Columbia College Chicago.

This essay was adapted from Thomopoulos' book, "Images of America: Resorts of Berrien County", Arcadia Publishing, 2005.

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Resorts of Berrien County, Michigan

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"Images of America: Resorts of Berrien County" can also be purchased through local book stores, from the Fort Miami Heritage Society, or by contacting the author: thomop@msn.com.


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