After a slight delay, the second issue of Postcards from Irving is now ready for printing and headed this week to a mailbox near you (ideally yours).
The masthead and table of contents are above. Ignore that zip code typo; it should read 48804, which it will on the actual zines. This volume is introducing a new format: a proper booklet style that still fits snugly in letter-sized envelopes. I hope you enjoy it!
There are a few visual pieces that I may crack and wind up sharing digitally. I posted the Iron River postcard in question (as well as a repeat-photo I took there in August 2021) on the Instagram page, so I’ll post it here too for resolution’s sake.
Enjoy this free preview, and if you haven’t already subscribed or donated to the cause, DO SO RIGHT HERE.
It’s real, it’s available, and it’s all yours if you want one! Subscribe here or email me [tyler AT sonicgeography DOT com] with your postal address.
Why a Zine, and Why Now?
Without giving too much away, this isn’t about Ben Irving as much as it is about the worlds and times he inhabited, and I am still consistently amazed at the things I discover about them. For reasons both personal and professional about which I will go into more detail in Issue One, I’ve decided to self-publish the Ben Irving chronicles, and I’ve decided to do it (mostly) away from the internet.
Those of you who have been following this site for a while may be familiar with who Irving was. If not, feel free to take a look back through the archives so far. Postcards from Irving will take these rabbit holes of research on the man, his music career(s), and his travels and expand upon them with each issue. My plan is to publish and mail out Postcards from Irving quarterly – once per season – with occasional bonus issues or collaborations. I will try to announce/preview each new issue on this website, and still include occasional nuggets from the archives.
Will this Cost Anything?
The ‘Postcards from Irving’ zine/newsletter will be free indefinitely from the date of subscription for anybody US-based, and back issues will be available for $1 each. In order to help offset costs of printing and mailing down the line, I will also be accepting donations. A small donation will get you a shout-out in ‘Postcards from Irving’ and my undying gratitude.
If you are outside of the United States and would like to subscribe to Postcards from Irving please get in touch via the form below or on Instagram.
How to Subscribe
If you would like to have fun and keep it analog (aside from reading about it online here), then direct all correspondence to POSTCARDS FROM IRVING, P.O. BOX 1309, MT. PLEASANT, MI 48804. You are welcome to (1) send me a postcard or letter requesting to subscribe or (2) pay for back issues/donate to the project with well-concealed cash.
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Thank you. I can’t wait to see where this goes.
I scanned these photos with the impression that Irving took them both at Marineland, a marine life expo located on Highway A1A between St. Augustine and Daytona Beach. According to the manager behind Marineland’s social media accounts, the first photo (of a trainer with a gator) was not taken there, but the second photo, which features a dolphin jumping for a treat in a tank with spectators, absolutely was.
This certainly creates more questions about where Irving may have snapped a photo of a trainer with a Gator. I wonder if the St. Augustine area had any accessible “gator experiences” at the time. It may have been at Gatorland, which has been called such since 1954, but that was far down the road in Kissimmee.
Marineland, especially in the last two decades of Florida’s pre-Disney era, was a well-established attraction. The cover of the Marineland guide, which I’ve scanned into JPEG format and will share below, along with a few other highlights from the program, has become an enduring image of Florida’s pre-Mickey tourist trade.
The guide’s opening salvo is particularly interesting, especially because it begins with a reference to Mohammed. The reference was hardly inaccurate (given the can-do attitude that permeated throughout Florida’s post-war attractions), but something tells me a program for a popular tourist destination on Florida’s space coast (ghost to ghost) would not open with a Mohammed anytime this century.
Click to enlarge the above pages and check out their sales pitch to visitors! Read about how new and exciting Oceanariums were at the time. I’ve also cropped and enlarged the “Gull’s-eye” view of the park, which appears to be facing south, looking at the Porpoise Stadium under the Marineland sign.
It’s still difficult to tell exactly which of the Oceanariums (Oceanaria? …It’s not a word I tend to use much in conversation or writing) Irving’s photo of the clever jumping dolphin was taken in. The Porpoise School tank at the foot of those blue bleachers would make sense, but according to the program, the Circular Oceanarium had dolphin shows as well.
From what I can tell, Ben Irving took two road trips through Michigan’s Upper Peninsula: once in May of 1939, and once in August of 1941. In both cases, he drove through from Wisconsin and continued down to the Lower Peninsula, taking one of nine auto ferries across the Mackinac Strait (the Mighty Mac suspension bridge would not open until 1957).
He did not make it to Marquette, the largest town and cultural anchor of the U.P. (Joe Pera decided to set his TV show there, if there may be any doubts) until his second trip. Avoiding a stop in Marquette may seem odd today, but most towns up there that feel like hollowed-out blips on the map in 2021 were robust mining towns preceding World War II. After I visited the Keweenaw Peninsula, for example, it seemed blatantly obvious that mining is why Michigan Technological University is located way up there in Houghton. Also, the location isn’t really too far afield to other North-Country cities like Duluth and Green Bay; it just seems like a massive haul to any of the “trolls” (an endearing term for those folks who live in “under the Bridge” in Michigan’s lower peninsula, about 97% of the state’s population).
As various friends and colleagues had predicted, my partner and I thought Marquette was awesome. Northern cities, especially those as remote as Marquette, have a special charm to them. Locals tend to be good at making their own fun. Much of the city is contained within hills that bottle it on a descent into Lake Superior, where one finds the massive, lumbering ore dock situated down the street from a nice brewery that bears its name.
The Landmark Inn (formerly The Hotel Northland)
Unlike other small Michigan cities, Marquette retained a majority of its beautiful early-20th century stone architecture, particularly along Front Street, leading up to the Landmark Inn, where Irving stayed in August 1941. At the time, it was barely over a decade old and called itself the Hotel Northland.
There are plenty of sources that claim the building is haunted, particularly the Lilac Room on the top floor, where a young librarian allegedly hanged herself in grief over her lover dying sailing on Lake Superior. There are also urban legends that tell of a jealous man who murdered his unfaithful girlfriend and buried her body in the hotel’s foundation sometime in the 1920s. In both cases, paranormal enthusiasts report hearing noises that suggest neither young woman ever truly left the hotel. Of course, the hotel’s spartan official history doesn’t mention any of this.
Though the Hotel Northland’s original era ended with its closure in 1982, the Landmark group refurbished the building in 1995. The results, as one might expect, are grandiose and expensive. Like most hotels who haven’t had a date with the wrecking ball, this one was fairly easy to re-photograph. I stood in front of the Peter White Public Library to get my photo, as the original photographer/painter did ninety years ago. Here is the result:
Harlow’s Wooden Man
My partner and I spent a good few minutes wandering around the corner of Spring Street and 5th Street, where I read in a few different, confusingly phrased accounts that Harlowe’s Wooden Man stands today. The landscape over which he towered 80+ years ago is almost completely overgrown today and encased in private property. At first, I felt the standard type of garden-variety indignity an Urban Geographer like myself would feel seeing any piece of bizarro history is fenced off from public enjoyment. Then, I realized that HWM probably owes his “life” to being neglected in some wealthy person’s back yard. Like countless others who walked down the fencing behind an Advance Auto Parts, I felt the temptation to jump the chain-link fence and get a cheeky selfie with the wooden giant. If he were on public property, the city of Marquette or some niche historical society would have to encase him in some type of panopticon to prevent a bunch of hooligans from climbing onto his withered old shoulders and toppling him into a pile of lumber.
The story behind this highly unusual (though I doubt unique) hidden attraction is unusual in itself. According to local lore, Amos Harlow (the postcard misspelled his name – probably an honest error by the publisher) was out for a walk in 1875 when he saw a cedar tree that resembled a person, so he decided to cut it down and bring it to a hill behind his home, where he added various embellishments, including a cane and fine hat. I don’t know if the cane and hat you see in the postcard image were Amos’ originals, but today the cane is long gone (a reflection of how uncool canes are now, for whatever reason), and his current hat resembles a cage of something that Uncle Sam might wear. Here are a couple of more detailed shots I could get from the other side of the fence nearby:
Today, the Marquette County History Museum names their quarterly journal after him, and it’s entirely possible that Amos Harlow’s descendants live in the house facing 4th Street on that property. It’s fun finding whichever photos of the wooden man taken over the years – the ones which have been digitized, anyway. One photographer who snapped an ironic image of HWM in the 70’s did so from behind the figure with permission from Harlow’s granddaughter, who he claimed lived in the house on the property. Notice, if you click on that link, that the wooden man didn’t have a cane in that picture, either. I would have to do a lot more investigative work to figure out when the old man lost it. Someone had better help him! He’s out in the middle of the woods (and on a hill!) without a cane!
Thanks for reading, everyone. Have a great weekend.
I began the Ben Irving Postcard Project in earnest in 2013 when I first inherited and began cataloging his collection of postcards. Even prior to my research into the history of the Postal Service and tourism in America, it made sense how many featured hotels. Of course the hotels wanted to make it convenient for lodgers to advertise the place, even if the recipients would never stay there or even visit the city. The penny it cost to send a postcard in 1938, run through an inflation calculator, would amount to only 19 cents in 2021 (17 cents cheaper than the still-paltry 36 cents it currently costs).
It also stands to reason that, coming out of the Gilded Age, hotels were among the fanciest and more forward-thinking buildings in most American cities. As I’ve previously written, structures like the Hotel Floridan in Tampa were, as of Irving’s 1938 stop there, the tallest building in the state. Some smaller towns had little to advertise other than their spartan hotels targeting travelling salesmen. Others were more a cocktail of heritage, mythology, and utilitarianism.
In the case of Ludington, a beautiful town on the Northeastern shore of Lake Michigan, the Stearns Hotel was just that. The Mason county seat, Ludington has long been a summer destination for sailors, golfers, and beach bums alike. It is also a boarding location of the car-ferry which crosses Lake Michigan into Manitowoc, another source of income and attention. In 1903, lumber baron Justus Stearns founded the city’s first “major” hotel at the corner of Ludington Avenue and Rowe Street, across from the relatively new Mason County Courthouse (completed a decade prior to the hotel). I assume the “major” designation means that, through the city’s 19th-century growth, the only lodging options were smaller boarding houses and temporary outposts.
The above postcard, which Irving mailed in October 1938, is a bit more detailed on its inverse side than most. It mentions a manager named E.T. Moran, and it also references the “World Famous Ossawald Crumb and his Unique Art Collection.” Otherwise, the details on the inscription space were straightforward: 100 rooms, rates from $1.75 ($33.41 in 2021 – still a bargain), and a Dining Room (which I can only assume refers to the Grand Ballroom, detailed here).
One great thing about still-operational hotels from these postcards is that they’re ostensibly open 24 hours, so I can actually visit the interior of the depicted buildings at any time. Unfortunately, in too many cases (especially the grander hotels in larger cities), the hotel’s corporate ownership hires a revolving door of desk attendants and managers who couldn’t be bothered to learn about the history underneath their feet. I can’t say I blame them, since the job is stressful enough between having to dress up, spend most of the day on your feet, deal with whiney patrons and run things up to your boss’s boss’s boss’s boss at least once a week in order to afford rent, groceries, and gig tickets.
Fortunately, the Stearns Hotel, which has been owned by the Bowden family since 1964, is not one of those. When my partner and I got to the hotel, we walked into the Rowe St entrance (engineered for loading in lodgers’ luggage and kids), passed by several historic photographs (more on those in a moment) and met Randy Bowden and his son-in-law Jeff Urka, who were helping customers at the front desk.
Randy was a font of information about the hotel, having practically grown up in the building. Obviously, his family purchased the hotel almost three decades after Irving stayed there. He mentioned that he had a vague recollection from his 60’s youth of the original Stearns Hotel neon(?) sign visible in the lower right hand corner of the 1938 postcard, but he couldn’t remember if the sign was preserved anywhere. He also said his father would likely have known (or known of) E.T. Moran, but that Thirties wave of management was long gone by 1964.
One comment that Jeff made regarded how the 1938 postcard pre-dated a door and stairwell cut into the Rowe Street entrance. He gestured over to a nearby wall, where a framed picture hung featuring a postcard almost identical to Irving’s, save for that key difference:
It appears that the hotel added the Rowe Street entry stairwell sometime in the 1940’s. As much as I can’t be arsed to care about car makes and models, it would be helpful to have my father’s memory of American cars from the post-war era just to more accurately date these things.
Another consistent feature from photos of the hotel’s first few decades was the ivy that blanketed the entire exterior of the building that was visible in the picture. As cool as ivy looks, it is a pain to maintain, can overwhelm a building with insects, and wreaks havoc on the mortar which hosts it. The north wall had grown so withered under these circumstances by the 1960’s that the building owners decided to tear it out and install some office space for extra rental income. The Tiki Video Nightclub, one of Ludington’s hottest week-end night spots, is split between the old space and the new both literally and aesthetically. I don’t know how many “video nightclubs” still exist, but something about that concept screams Eighties to me (which could be a good thing).
Today, the hotel has been reconfigured to 65 rooms, down from the original 100. Bowden attributed this to the shifting needs and desires of guests over the past five decades. In Irving’s time, the hotel served mainly travelling salesmen, who were typically fine with a bed and a sink. As the lodger base diversified and began to include more couples and families, their accommodation expectations expanded.
Bowden also mentioned that the Ossawald Crumb Art collection hung in the hotel for ages, but was removed relatively recently. Because I hadn’t grown up in the Mason County region, I had no idea who Ossawald Crumb was. According to this 2016 article in the Holland Sentinel, Ossawald Crumb was an apocryphal/mythical figure, invented by Justus Stearns’ son Robert in 1932. The collection is still in the Stearns family, apparently residing with Robert’s grandson Robert Gable somewhere in the region. It most recently emerged at a Ludington Area Center for the Arts special event in 2018.
Given the history-consciousness of the Bowden family, it didn’t shock me to see that they were way ahead of me on the repeat-photography. Anyway, here is the overlay. Enjoy the rest of your week(s)! Thank you again to the hotel owners and staff for their help with the hotel’s history.
The Ben Irving Postcard Project: Norwich, CT
In one of our concluding lecture-discussions of our Spring 2021 semester, my North America class and I talked about ways we can be tourists in our own backyards. Though most of us live in Mount Pleasant, there are several corners of the city which are completely foreign to us. Relatedly, most of my New Yorker friends, including those who’ve lived in the city for their whole lives, have only really seen about 25% of it with their bare eyes. To me, that reality isn’t discouraging at a time when Google Earth and Streetview make (virtual) flânerie unthinkably accessible. Either way, it’s reassuring to know that you don’t need to buy a three- or four-figure plane ticket, gouge yourself on a hotel room, and adorn yourself in the common “HEY! I’M A TOURIST” attire (typically a tie-dye shirt emblazoned with the city’s name) to participate in tourism.
I haven’t lived in Connecticut for almost twenty years, but every time I return, the place feels less familiar. Of course that’s understandable, though, since a lot has changed infrastructurally in two decades given the heightened cost of living, shifting demographics, and the Nutmeg State’s perpetual intermediary orientation between two of North America’s most expensive cities. I can barely remember a time when the Quinnipiac River Bridge (which I thought, for much of my childhood, was literally named “The Q”) wasn’t under construction. Driving over the (decently) completed iteration still feels odd. I can probably rest assured they’ll need to rebuild it again in less than ten years.
Truthfully, though, when you’re young, your local and regional landscapes are highly dependent on your engagement with the world outside your bubble. When my friends and I got our drivers’ licenses, the farthest we would go on a quotidian basis would be the Wendy’s across town lines or maybe, if I had a chunk of change to spend on CD’s, to a record shop two towns over. My high school girlfriend lived three towns east, and that twenty-minute drive to her house felt like the height of rebellion. On rare occasions, we would all venture to farther reaches of the state: perhaps going to support athletic friends in their road games or heading to New Haven or Hartford for a concert. Typically, when friends and I were home on breaks from college, we would venture into the cities, but I don’t remember, save for shows at Toad’s Place or the Tune Inn (RIP), having real directives other than killing time.
One of my best friends in Knoxville, coincidentally, also grew up near New Haven. He was seven years younger than me, and he left Connecticut over a decade after I did, but whenever we talked about “back home,” we always came to the same conclusion: where was all the cool stuff when we were growing up there? Very quickly, though, we also realized that most of the “cool stuff” either didn’t exist yet in the 1990’s/2000’s or it existed in various iterations which were restricted from us (or, we had our heads in the sand, a common conceit for suburban teenagers). That’s no more thoughtful than some rockist old-timer asking “where’s all the good new music?” (It’s all over the place and available to stream, Roy. Get your head out of 1974).
All that being said, one of my favorite perks of the Ben Irving Postcard Project has been how the cities Irving visited during the Depression Era have laid out a series of destinations that I may have entirely passed by without a thought in my childhood. For example, I always remember knowing that the town of Norwich existed. They had a Double-A baseball team called the Norwich Navigators, but they were Yankees affiliate, so we never ventured to one of their games. I imagine my father went there for meetings pretty often, but it was never a destination for us, and until this past Fall, I could never remember gazing upon the sheer majesty of their City Hall Building. I won’t say it doesn’t stick out like a sore thumb among the modest, working-class downtown landscape, but unlike literal sore thumbs, it was worth preserving (which they made official in 1983, when the building was 110 years old).
What is apparent, when juxtaposing the 1936 postcard image with the more recent photo, is that not all of the adjacent buildings enjoyed the same amount of preservationist love and affection. It appears that at least one of the multi-family homes on the Union Street side (left, on the image) has been torn down. The United Congregational Church (built in 1857 as the Broadway Congregational Church), whose steeple is visible at the right edge of the postcard picture, doesn’t stand so close in reality. This suggests that the postcard artist may have taken liberties with sliding the Church closer to the town hall, they widened Broadway sometime in the past 85 years, or my angle just wasn’t a good recreation. Even if I had been able to climb up high enough (or rent a cherry-picker, in a perfect world), I don’t imagine I could have nailed the angle of the original picture.
One noteworthy and refreshing contrast between these ca. 1936 and 2020 images is the surprising abundance of green space in the latter. The parking lot in front of the main entrance in 1936 is now a park named after David Ruggles, a local abolitionist who was pivotal to the regional branch of the Underground Railroad. I had grown so accustomed to seeing pre-Interstate Highway Era green spaces disappear under a sea of asphalt, especially in post-Industrial cities. Imagine the placeless example of Hill Valley, CA which Bobs Zemeckis and Gale built out of the Universal backlot, where the 1955 town green had been supplanted with a crowded, loud, parking lot by 1985. The Back to the Future example is even more appropriate here, given how the UCC’s original spire was removed after being stuck by lightning in 1898.
I hope this is the first of many posts about how something as mundane as old postcards led me to discover fascinating places that were, despite being less than 45 minutes’ drive, completely unfamiliar to me. I would encourage anybody to do the same; I promise that you’ll gain a newfound appreciation of wherever you live(d).
In early 1938, Ben Irving took his third (documented) trip through Florida, stopping around the Tampa Bay region on the 16th-19th of January. It’s unclear what his specific business was in Clearwater, but he wrote on the reverse of this postcard (above) that he was on his way across to Tampa, likely around Safety Harbor on route 17.
Shortly after the Great 2020 “Lockdown” began, my partner and I took a drive across to check out Clearwater and seek out a pair of postcard sites from Irving’s collection. We spent half the day there without realizing that Clearwater is basically to Scientologists what Salt Lake is to the Latter-Day Saints. We should have noticed it when we saw the intense glow-up on the Hotel Fort Harrison, which Irving had visited previously in 1936 (and will likely earn its own entry sometime). If you want a harrowing gaze into the Scientologists’ relationship with Clearwater, check out these documents from the Seventies.
Anyway, this entry is about Clearwater Beach, which is a municipality of Clearwater on a long, skinny offshore archipelago across the causeway into the Gulf. It has a more distinct beach-tourism orientation with a major aquarium and, apparently, 100% more Hulk Hogans. On the northern isthmus of the island, right before it tapers off and becomes Caladesi Island State Park, lies the Carlouel Yacht Club, established in 1934.
It would be interesting to see an analysis on the discourse of the term “yacht club” during the Depression versus now (whether the emphases on privatization and exclusivity were different at the time), but either way, Clearwater Beach used a photograph of a Cabana scene there to advertise itself in the pre-Disney era. There were enough families in the area by this point two decades past the city’s incorporation who could afford the $100 membership (roughly $1,950 in 2021), and the Cabanas, facing out into the Dunedin Channel (a smart move, given storm surges off the Gulf), were a good image to sell the area to snow-bound Northerners. It must have worked, since the club operated exclusively in the winter months prior to 1954, when I assume Clearwater’s permanent resident population ironed out. An official 1950 count put the population around 15,000; today it is well over 115,000.
On that initial visit to scope out the Yacht Club, for reasons of privacy and COVID, we were not able to talk our way in. However, I met the club’s General Manager Kelley Williams outside, and we exchanged info. A little over a month later, I was able to line up an appointment to wander the grounds with the above postcard. Kelley took great interest in my postcard, and it occurred to her that they had the original reference photograph somewhere. After some searching, she found it on the wall of a small bathroom upstairs from the central Palmer Room. I was dumbfounded:
Kelley was unaware of who framed the image and ascribed the “ca. 1940’s” caption on the plaque or when they did it, but the postmark on Irving’s postcard proved that the photo was taken sometime in the 1930’s. I have no way to prove my suspicion that the photo was completely staged, but that’s still my suspicion, along with how the picture was probably taken shortly after the cabana housing was completed. Why wouldn’t they have wanted to show it off, along with the mile-plus of sandy beach on their doorsteps?
As much as I hate photos of printed photos (especially those with frame glare), I couldn’t find a scanned version. Here’s the original with a special overlay of the postcard:
I also didn’t realize, even as I was searching for the original depicted site to re-photograph it, that the image captured a profoundly physically different era for the club. In the mid-1950’s, around when the club switched to year-round operation, a fire destroyed most of the original structure. From the history page on the Carlouel website:
During the reconstruction, the decor changed from casual to a more formal appearance. Later improvements included enclosing the bay front terrace, adding the Palmer Room, building a sea wall, roque court, swimming pool, tennis courts, and additional cabanas. The short-course Olympic pool was added in 1962.
I guessed that they would stage the photo right inside the club’s entrance, but I did not suspect how the original waterfront was basically extinct. Kelley did not have access to any old maps or other documentation about the reconstruction, and I suspect few, if any, members from that time are still around to recall it. All I could really do was take a guess based on how the main entrance and banquet hall sit on the club’s classic acreage. I am prepared to be told I am way off, but here are two of my guesses:
I’m partial to the latter, since it also worked with the current setup of the cabana housing, which is now formed of connected units, unlike the individual houses seen in the pre-1938 photo. The landscaping is so radically different from the original photo that I also took the horizon into consideration, as well as how much space the beachfront sand originally occupied.
I also looked up the satellite imagery of the Yacht Club (above), which only served to add to my confusion. If the Club has not acquired or last any land since the 1930’s (which is perfectly unlikely), then those Tennis courts are directly on top of what was once the voluminous beach. Interestingly enough, you can see on this satellite image where the public Mandalay Point Road ends and a private drive of mansions with boats (some appear to be yachts) docked across the street.
Per usual, cracking a little into the mystery behind a landscape depicted on one of Ben Irving’s postcards has generated a bevy of new questions. Maybe I’ll have to go back there sometime. Maybe someone who was there and then will see this and reach out to me. Either way, it was a privilege to do this. Special thanks to Kelley J. Williams and all the Carlouel members and staff on board that day. Until next time…
In my half-decade of tracing Ben Irving’s path(s) through pre-War America through his postcards, I always look forward for opportunities to visit smaller towns left behind by post-War economic “progress.” Sometimes, that “progress” comes at a profound expense, usually as self-inflicted by local decision-makers as externally imposed by state and federal powers. Belding, a small city of roughly 5,000 in Ionia County, is a crystal-clear case study.
From what I can tell, Irving spent October 1938 in Michigan, bouncing around the lower peninsula while headquartered at the Detroiter Hotel. He spent much of the second week in the Southwestern corner of the Mitten, including stops in Benton Harbor, Muskegon, Ludington, Battle Creek (read about that here), and as one would imagine, the then-thriving metropolises of Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo. I’m actually well overdue for entries about his postcards from both Muskegon and Kalamazoo, but those will come in time.
Anyway, here is the original 1938 postcard image scan he mailed of downtown Belding (All Rights Reserved):
One of the first things I noticed driving into Belding was how sparse it felt. There were a few cool-looking blocks around the downtown area, and I saw plenty of cute neighborhoods on the periphery, but it just felt unspooled. I ate lunch at a café overlooking the river and went to get coffee and do some work at Third Wave Coffee, a great indie spot built into the street level of the 1913 Belding Brothers building at Main and Bridge. The owner and operator, Pete, told me a story (soon echoed by an equally helpful librarian) about an old woman who was struck and killed by a falling brick on Main St. sometime in the 1960’s. I found an article confirming that this happened in February 1966, as reported in the Petoskey News-Review (via UPI) on February 10th of that year:
The article gave no other identifying information as to who the two women were, but it does confirm that the incident occurred on Wednesday February 9, 1966. The chances were fair that Belding’s powers-that-were had been looking for an excuse to move on some development contract. Stories like these were all too common in post-War, deindustrialized Michigan. As you can tell from the postcard (and if you’ve spent time in any Michigan city that was less aggressive with the wrecking ball), that crowning lip was a common adornment atop commercial buildings. They were too shallow to provide additional shade or shelter from the elements, but they did look nice.
Unfortunately, as these buildings crumbled, the slight jutting adornments became a severe liability. Detroit, for example, seriously cracked down on owners of derelict buildings that were raining bricks on passersby. Some of these owners decided it made more sense to just tear the buildings down than deal with other potential lawsuits and fines, especially since it felt like everyone they knew personally had vanished to the suburbs.
In Belding, the town’s elders decided that the best course of action was to just rip out the entire two blocks of Main Street depicted and turn it into a mall. Gaze upon its majesty.
I would bite my tongue if anybody I spoke to in Belding, given their half-century of hindsight, expressed any kind of enthusiasm for the mall. I’m sure that COVID had an influence on just how dead that whole area felt across the street, but it appeared that the Chemical Bank building on the right (on the site of what was once the Hotel Belding) had been vacant since well before the pandemic.
Keep in mind that my progress from that postcard image to the repeat-photo I took above was hardly a straight line. Pete identified Main Street, but because most of the pre-War buildings had been torn out before either of us were born, we had no visible reference points to confirm exactly where the photo was taken. I walked over to the Belding Library, named for, just like everything else Gilded-Age in that town, silk magnate Alvah Belding, who spent the last 56 years of his life in Connecticut until his death in late 1925.
I’ve written before how much I love librarians and how they’re some of the best public service workers in the world. The ones at the Belding library were case in point. I walked in and showed the postcard to one librarian behind the reference desk, and within two minutes, she reached into a nearby file cabinet and produced the following photograph, which we quickly realized was the reverse vantage point of the postcard image!
As the caption on the sticker reads, “MAIN STREET LOOKING EAST,” and the postcard image was clearly taken around the same time period, and the orientation of the buildings helped me confirm that the picture was taken of the same block, looking West. She also produced what may be an original print of the earliest surviving photo of the Belding Hotel, possibly taken not too long after 1893, when the hotel was rebuilt following a fire.
One detail to note is the Victorian-style house which stood to the right of the hotel on Bridge Street, also completed in 1893. Naturally, it was also flattened. As the chief history librarian (who returned from lunch and joined in our conversation) confirmed, the Belding Hotel once stood on the corner currently occupied by that Chemical Bank building, and nothing else but a grassy expanse and a sliver of the parking lot.
So, to review: If you’re ever in such a position to make the decision, don’t do to your downtown what Belding, MI did, kids. It doesn’t feel like it even paid off for them in the short run.
A quick photographic lagniappe: the original chandelier from the Belding Hotel, now located and working within the foyer at the Belding Library at 302 E. Main Street.
Thanks for reading, everybody. I hope your Octobers are going well so far, and are sufficiently spooky. Stay tuned for a bunch of inevitable “REDUX” posts of old Ben Irving Postcard Project images, now that I can overlay them with the slider.