Traverse City Record-Eagle

June 23, 2013

Message in a bottle discovery brings ancestor back

Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — TRAVERSE CITY — Nancy Schaefer of Glen Arbor hadn't heard her grandmother's name in years, until her cousin clued her to a whimsical discovery downstate.

Nearly 100 years ago, Schaefer's grandmother, Tillie Esper, and another woman wrote a message on a receipt, stuffed it in a bottle and tossed it into the St. Clair River from Harsens Island. The cursive note dated June 30, 1915 reads, "Having a good time at Tashmoo."

Tashmoo Park was an entertainment stop for passengers who rode the steamship from Detroit to Port Huron. It housed gambling, a roller rink and a dance hall before it closed in the 1950s.

A bit of glass protruding from silt 30 feet underwater near where the steamship docked caught diver David Leander's eye last June. Bernard Licata, president of the Harsens Island St. Clair Flats Historical Society, got wind of the discovery this month and began a search for the message duo's descendants.

Nancy Schaefer and her mother, Bette Schaefer, of Traverse City, who is Tillie's daughter-in-law, were stunned to hear of the find.

"It brought her back to life," Nancy Schaefer said. "We haven't heard Tillie's name in years. It was super exciting -- a connection to our family."

Tillie, who married and acquired the last name Schaefer, lived in Dearborn and had nine children before she died in 1984. Nancy Schaefer remembers her as a hat designer and a stylish, spunky lady. A photo from her 80th birthday celebration depicts a youthful, trim woman.

The discovery offers the Schaefers a glimpse into a time before they hosted Tillie for family dinners and holidays. Nancy Schaefer imagines her grandmother, who was 22 and lived in Detroit at the time, "goofing around" with her girlfriend on the island.

Bette Schaefer is astounded the bottle and its message remained intact for 97years.

"You throw a bottle, you think it'll break. But it sunk in the mud," she said.

The women wrote the message with their names and addresses on a White Star Line receipt. The cork deteriorated when brought to the surface, but the message was legible underwater, Licata said.

"We don't know how it sunk or why it sunk," Licata said.

The Schaefers plan to attend the historical society's Tashmoo Days event July 20 on Harsens Island, where they'll see the bottle for the first time.