Editor's note: This article was published in Grand Traverse Scene magazine's Fall 2021 issue. Pick up a free copy at area hotels, visitor's centers, chambers of commerce or at the Record-Eagle building on Front Street. Click here to read GT Scene in its entirety online.
His storied legacy is rooted in the woods and the water of northern Michigan.
And while Ernest Hemingway’s literary genius would be etched elsewhere — on battlefields, in jungles, on the sea and plentiful places between and beyond — the 20 years young “Ernie” summered in northern Michigan with his family at the dawn of the 20th century would play a pivotal role in the development of an unmatched style of writing that is still appreciated, and celebrated, today.
“There’s no doubt that the woods and waters of northern Michigan played a tremendous role in all his writing,” said Dr. George Colburn. “His love of water, and Mother Nature, had been embedded in him during his summers here.
“His deep-sea fishing, his love for water — all that Mother Nature — it’s all learned up here in northern Michigan. He spent three months every summer up here and almost all the trips, until the Model T came along, were by boat, to Harbor Springs and Petoskey. It was somewhere around 1914 that the family finally took about eight days to get up here in a Model T.”
Until then, the Hemingways would make their annual summertime journey from Chicago to Harbor Springs by steamship, a sometimes white-knuckled ride across the unpredictable waters of Lake Michigan. Once they ported in Harbor Spring, they would travel by one train, and then another, and another, through Petoskey and on to Walloon Lake, where they finally ran out of tracks to continue. So, they would travel again by boat, and more often than not even by horse-drawn wagon to their cottage affectionately named, Windemere, which still stands, today.
“His was a very adventuresome family,” said Colburn. “Every year was just amazing. They were a well-educated family —he knew operas, he knew symphonies, he read literature. But the idea of taking a three-week old kid up to an unfinished house on Walloon Lake in 1899 is beyond my comprehension.”
Colburn, 83 of Petoskey, researched, wrote and produced the 90-minute documentary, “Young Hemingway — the Path to Paris,” which has been well-received by historians, and Hemingway enthusiasts, alike.
“My program was designed to tell people the real story of his connection here and what it meant in the long run,” said Colburn. “I thought, ‘well, I did something for history, up here.’”
After spending his youth growing up in Oak Park, a suburb of Chicago, and his boyhood and teenage summers vacationing in the Petoskey area near Walloon Lake, Hemingway traveled to Paris to begin his writing career. He went on to author of such literary giants as “The Old Man and the Sea,” which earned him the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1953, “A Farewell to Arms,” “The Sun Also Rises,” and the Nick Adams series of short stories that were set in northern Michigan and that reflected his own life growing up in that area.
Petoskey businessman Christopher Struble, president of the Michigan Hemingway Society in Petoskey, said “Hemingway’s legacy, not only in Petoskey, but throughout northern Michigan, is reciprocal.”
“Northern Michigan provided the core influence on young Hemingway that helped inspire him to create his legendary prose that changed American literature,” said the 54-year-old Struble, a 1985 graduate of Traverse City Central High School. “And, in return, Hemingway immortalized the very essence of what has made northern Michigan such a special place for so many over the last century and a half, with the critically acclaimed short stories he wrote beginning the moment he left Michigan for Paris to celebrate after his marriage here in 1921.
“Northern Michigan, including Petoskey and Walloon lake, have never been properly credited, and are only recently being recognized for the relevance of this connection between the famous author and the area where he spent his 23 formative summers,” said Struble. “Dr Colburn’s documentary, along with Constance Cappel’s book, ‘Hemingway in Michigan,’ are the two projects that have documented this significant interrelationship.”
A native of Highland Park, Colburn is an independent producer of history-based programming. His previous film projects included ones on Dwight Eisenhower, the Navajo Code Talkers of World War II, and more. He received his bachelor of arts degree in history from Aquinas College in 1959, his masters degree in 1964, and a Ph.D in history from Michigan State University in 1971.
On July 21, just a few minutes after noon, Colburn led a small group of people in singing “Happy Birthday” to Hemingway as they gathered near the Young Hemingway statue in Pennsylvania Park in downtown Petoskey. Born in 1899, “Papa Hemingway,” as he would go on to be called, would have had 122 candles on his cake.
“Every year, on his birthday, we do cake and ice cream for a few hours at noon time at the statue,” Colburn said as he rubbed purple icing from his thumb that had rubbed against the cake. The cake was decorated with lilac flowers.
“For Hemingway, if there was a reason to come into Petoskey, he would walk in,” he said. “Wherever he went he interfaced with the summer people – his pals – in and around Horton Bay. Growing up, it was row your boat across Walloon Lake, and then walk the five miles or so into Horton Bay, which was right on Pine Lake.”
In 1926, Pine Lake was renamed Lake Charlevoix.
“Basically, up north Michigan was ignored (by historians) because he didn’t do any writing here and what I learned in interviewing those (Hemingway) scholars in 2012 was the fact that everything about his writing was settled in those early years,” said Colburn. “It was his 20 summers in northern Michigan – the region that we live in here in the northwest corner of the Lower Peninsula — is what he lived with, his whole life.
“He did come back here in the 50s. He was driving from Arkansas to Minnesota to the Mayo Clinic where he was going for treatment and then out to Idaho. He had lunch with an old friend in Petoskey, and he moved on. But he never came back to his cottage, or never came back to that area.
“So, why did he never come back here (to live?), because he did not want to come back and see it had changed,” said Colburn. “ He wanted it to be in his mind his whole life,and in his writing, so he never came back (to live).
“His 20 summers up here represented a third of his life. The thing to remember is that he was recognized for the short stories he wrote about our area, particularly Horton Bay stories, first published in a book, ‘In Our Time.’ Four of the short stories in there play in and around Horton Bay.”
Struble said Hemingway’s early-life presence in northern Michigan has garnered a greater appreciation in recent years with historians, and visitors, alike. And, more and more community recognition has been put on display to honor one of the persons many consider to be America’s finest novelist.
“We have the statue of young Hemingway in downtown Petoskey, along with several bronzed markers placed at various locations that have a Hemingway connection,” said Strubler. “Local establishments with a Hemingway connection that can be visited include, The City Park Grill, the Carnegie Library and The Perry Hotel.
A plaque near the young Hemingway statue reads: “Ernest Miller Hemingway, 1899-1961, Nobel Laureate – Literature – 1954. Northern Michigan and a small cottage on Walloon Lake named ‘Windemere’ became the summer home for the Hemingway family of Oak Park, Illinois, from the time of young Ernest’s infancy in 1899 to the time of his marriage in nearby Horton Bay in September, 1921. The statue is based on a January, 1920 photograph near this spot that shows him ready to depart Petoskey for a job in Toronto. At the time, young Ernie had just spent several months in Petoskey recuperating from World War I wounds and diligently working to become ‘a writer.’ Ernest Hemingway’s first published fiction included a group of short stories written in Paris that featured the adventures of ‘Nick Adams’ in locations around Northern Michigan. These stories, demonstrating his love of the outdoors in this region, brought his revolutionary style of writing to the attention of New York publishers in the early 1920s. A pair of novels followed, and within a few years of leaving Northern Michigan had become a famous author known to readers around the world. Ultimately, Hemingway’s fiction led to Pulitzer and Nobel prizes in literature and an enduring status as one of this country’s greatest writers.”
The photo the statue was molded after depicts the young Hemingway standing with a cane, a suitcase, and with a liquor flask in his jacket pocket. The sculptor, Andy Sacksteder, chose to replace the flask with a book.
On Sept. 3, a “Hemingway Centennial Wedding Reception” was to recognize the Talcott Center in Walloon Lake, in recognition of Hemingway’s marriage to Hadley Richardson, who would become the first of the writer’s four wives.
At the same time, the community will unveil various “art and historic installations” that focus on Hemingway’s life in and around the village of Walloon Lake. Hemingway and Richardson were married Sept. 3, 1921, in nearby Horton Bay.
The Hemingway Homecoming culminates over Labor Day weekend with a reception on the 100th anniversary of Ernest’s wedding to Hadley Richardson in nearby Horton Bay and the unveiling of art and historical installations focused on Hemingway in the village of Walloon Lake. The couple divorced in 1927.
The reception will benefit the Michigan Hemingway Society.
“Fans of Hemingway have been drawn to the Petoskey area for years,” said Diane Dakins, assistant director at the Petoskey Area Visitors Bureau. “The allure of following in the writer’s footsteps and visiting some of his old haunts like the Perry Hotel, Horton Bay and City Park Grill has almost a romance to it.
“The connection between Hemingway and this part of northern Michigan is so great that the Michigan Hemingway Society hosts their fall conference here Oct. 1-3. It will again be at the historic Terrace Inn and 19111 Restaurant in Bay View.”
For more information about the Michigan Hemingway Society, go to michiganhemingwaysociety.org; petoskeyarea.com/media/area-history/the-hemingway-connection; or for information concerning Dr. Colburn and how to get his DVD “Young Hemingway — the Path to Paris,” visit georgecolburn.com. Copies of the Young Hemingway documentary are available free-of-charge to all school media centers and public libraries in Charlevoix and Emmet counties.
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