Ben Irving visits Marquette Michigan, August 1941

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.

Downtown Marquette, MI (with the ore dock seen at left) taken from the penthouse of the Landmark Inn (SonicGeography.com).

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!

It’s not perfect, but it’s the closest I could get to the original angle. ~1930’s (mailed in 1941) vs. 2021.

Thanks for reading, everyone. Have a great weekend.

The Ben Irving Postcard Project: Ludington, MI

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.

Bust of founder Justus Stearns atop the lobby fireplace, Stearns Hotel, Ludington, MI (SonicGeography photo)

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:

Image courtesy of the Stearns Hotel.

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 Stearns Hotel (Ludington, MI) in a 1938-mailed postcard, and in June 2021 (overlay). Both images SonicGeography.com.

The Ben Irving Postcard Project: Belding, MI (1938)

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:

Clipping from the Petoskey News-Review 2/10/66: KILLED BY BRICK. A Belding woman was killed and a 18-year-old girl critically injured Wednesday when a piece of decorative brick and mortar fell from a two-story building they were passing.

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.

Belding, MI. Main Street and Bridge, looking West.

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!

Image on the left property of SonicGeography.com / Image on the right property of the Belding Public Library.

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.

Reproduced image courtesy of the Belding Library.

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.

I genuinely hate WordPress’ new design interface, but this image-slide feature is changing my life.

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.

Chandelier hanging in the Belding Library, Belding, MI (October 2020).

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.