TRAVERSE CITY — Gregg Smith, his two younger brothers and mother spent several weeks every summer on Beaver Island during the late 1940s and 1950s.
To go to the island was to step back in time, he said.
He recalls riding on the running boards of his Uncle Johnny Andy Gallagher’s 1930 aging jalopy when his Aunt Lil took them and his five island cousins on picnics or berry picking. And then there were trips in the car to the South Beaver Head Lighthouse where his uncle was lighthouse keeper for several years before working as an engineer on the Beaver Islander ferry.
He remembers diving down several feet in St. James Bay with brothers Mike and Tim to see the shipwreck remains of the Hattie Fisher, a sunken merchant ship near his grandparents’ house. His grandmother never left the porch doorway whenever they swam or played around the homemade floating raft.
“We were regular Huck Finns and Tom Sawyers,” he said.
He still can see his grandfather’s net shed and the hundreds of wooden floats that supported the pond nets attached to them.
“It was dream place, but we didn’t realize it then,” Smith said.
Both his grandparents — Andy Mary Ellen Gallagher and Lizzie (Green) Gallagher — were first-generation Beaver Islanders born to parents who had emigrated from Ireland in the 1800s.
Andy’s name is an example of old Irish naming structure. Islanders sometimes added women’s names to distinguish their children because so many names were similar on the island. The Andy in Johnny Andy Gallagher’s name signifies that he was Andy’s son.
Smith never met his grandfather, who died in 1939 at age 61 of peritonitis caused by a burst appendix. The family couldn’t get him to the Charlevoix hospital in time to save him
Born in 1878, Andy was the son of Mary Ellen (Roddy) and Bernard “Barney” Gallagher, who came from Rutland Island off the coast of County Donegal. Mary Ellen, a midwife, brought many of the island’s babies into the world. She also was a designated “wailer” at island wakes.
Andy was a commercial fisherman known for his singing during an era before radio when singing, fiddling and storytelling were major forms of island entertainment.
U.S. folklore historian Alan Lomax reportedly recorded islanders in Andy’s net shed in 1938 as part of a national Library of Congress effort in the 1930s to capture and preserve early American folk songs, stories and music.
Like many of Beaver Island’s Irish settlers, Lizzie’s parents came from Arranmore Island, also off the coast of Donegal. She died in 1975 at age 93.
The couple had five children, including Smith’s mother, Marguerite, born in 1913. She was the first member of the family to leave the island to attend college. She later married Gregg Smith Sr. in 1939. After World War II, they eventually became the owners of the Boyne City Citizen.
Smith said the family’s Beaver Island history and his Irish heritage mean a lot to him.
In the 1980s, he and wife Dee took their then grade-school daughters Markelle and Joelle to the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., to hear the Lomax recording of Andy Mary Ellen Gallagher singing.
“It was amazing and I want to do it again,” he said. “The island was full of characters, and I’ve not heard the stories I grew up hearing in a long time.”