Editor's note: This story was published in Grand Traverse Business magazine's Winter 2018 issue. For more stories from the magazine, click here to read GT Business in its entirety online.
ARCADIA — Even resident ghosts find peace at the Watervale Inn.
The quiescent get-away has delivered rest and relaxation to vacationing families since 1917, and while many visitors return year after year, a few kindly spirits never leave. Ever.
“The Watervale Woman is an apparition that floats around,” said Jennie Turner Schmitt, the 51-year-old manager of the property. “The Farm House is 'the' cottage that people swear is haunted.”
Blithesome or brooding specters afloat or not, the Watervale Inn has maintained a family-friendly spirit all its own since being given new life a century ago by Schmitt's great-great-uncle, Chicago ophthalmologist Oscar Kraft.
Napping along the southern shore of the Lower Herring Lake in Benzie County, the historic resort and its 500-acre settlement of seasonal cottages will open in May for its 101st season.
Born in the twilight of the 19th century to bed down sawmill operators, lumberjacks and other Paul Bunyan-like characters, economic woes soon suffocated Watervale to the point that within a few years it became nothing but an abandoned, broken-down ghost town. Its post office, meat market, general store, hotel for single lumbermen and small homes for married lumbermen were boarded up and left to an unkempt, uncertain future.
The boom-to-bust life of lumber baron Leo Hale and Watervale might have been lost to cobwebs and history if not for Kraft, who was looking for a place that could serve as a summer respite for family and friends.
“He (Kraft) bought it to be a family gathering spot for his family,” said Schmitt. “The town was falling down, but he got to work fixing it up.”
Purchased in 1917, Kraft was quick to make initial repairs and just one year later — in the spring of 1918 — he invited his first guests to stay. Ever since, families have been coming back year after year, generation after generation.
“A lot of people who come back sort of have dibs on their spot,” said Schmitt. “People who come here are pretty traditional. There are no TVs, no (land line) telephones and we don't have a lot of external light, so when it's dark, it's dark.”
Dick Taylor and his wife, Melanie, moved onto property his dad bought just a stone's throw away in 1970, five years before Taylor worked for a summer at the resort as a teenager. His family has vacationed at the Watervale Inn for decades.
“That was the best summer of my life,” said Taylor, 60. “There's a common bond here — a continuity — that stretches on for generations.”
Guests have gotten to personally know those who run Watervale. And Schmitt said she and her staff know their customers by their first names, as well as their “likes and dislikes.”
“Most of our guests return to the same cottage, the same week, year after year, but we always have openings,” said Schmitt. “Typically, the beginning and end of the season has the most flexibility.”
Open May through October, Schmitt said Watervale has been restored to become a community of 14 cottages, three buildings with suites of rooms with private baths, and its namesake inn that has 18 rooms, with shared baths on each of its two floors.
A wondrous labyrinth of walking/hiking/biking trails — some elevated along the Lake Michigan shoreline — wind their way through adjoining and nearby dune and forest lands.
“The cottages are decorated the same,” said Schmitt. “A typical room has either a queen or full bed, dresser, chair, wooden floors and screen doors.
“We host a Mother's Day dinner, which is the opening night of our dining room. We serve breakfast and dinner on weekends, beginning Mother's Day through Columbus Day, and breakfast and dinner daily during the summer season — middle of June through Labor Day.”
Schmitt's grandmother, Vera Kraft Noble (a niece to Kraft) in 1960 purchased the Watervale properties along with her husband, Vernon. After her death in 2005, the land was inherited by her daughter, Dori Noble Turner (Schmitt's mother) and her siblings.
The inn, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and as a State of Michigan Historic Site, still has a time-honored dinner bell on its front porch to beckon guests at 6 and 7:15 p.m. So many guests stay during the summer that dinner is served in two settings.
“During our busy season we serve between 180 and 200 meals daily,” said Schmitt. “Our dinners are four courses: soup, salad, choice of three entrees and dessert. We try to source locally, and everything is homemade. On Wednesdays, during the summer, we host an outdoor barbecue.
“There are no curfews, or lights-out, but we do request quiet after 11 p.m.”
Schmitt said upgrades and improvements are constantly being made.
“Every cottage has been lifted up — they were all built on cedar stumps — and foundations put in,” she said. “We have remodeled all of them and have put bathrooms in several of them.
“Most of the big projects are done, but we do try to tackle a few upgrades every year. The next big project is to repair our tennis courts.”
The spirit that lives at Watervale is real, alright. Just ask Matt Pritchard, 54 of suburban Chicago, who said his family has returned to the Mayberryian setting summer after summer.
“I know people who are well-traveled who say there's nowhere like it in the world,” said Pritchard.
“It's a place you don't have to lock your door. You can go to a bonfire, walk the beaches of the small lake (Lake Herring), or the big lake (Lake Michigan).
“People keep coming back because of the spirit of the people who run it,” said Pritchard. “They put in a lot of effort to make sure it stays old-fashion Michigan. It's a place you want to be with your family.”
IF YOU GO
Open: May – October
Watervale Inn, 1244 Watervale Rd., Arcadia, MI 49613
Contact: (231) 352-9083, watervaleinn.com
Driving distance to:
Frankfort — 7 miles
Manistee — 29 miles
Sleeping Bear Dunes — 32 miles
Traverse City — 42 miles