FRANKFORT — Chipped plates, stray socks and mismatched furniture have been swept out of the Miller cottage along with sand tracked in by 54 years of bare feet.
The gas and electric lines have been disconnected and the screen door will slam no more as the now-empty cottage awaits the first bite of the excavator, signaling the end of her days.
Perched less than 3 feet from the edge of a bluff overlooking Lake Michigan, the Frankfort cottage is the first casualty of high-water erosion in Benzie County. It is being demolished before it tumbles into the lake.
“I’m very sad about it,” said owner John Miller. “You have to be philosophical, though. We had a lot of good times.”
Miller and his wife Kay Miller bought the place in 1966. Kay and the kids would spend the entire summer there while Miller drove back and forth from Indiana, where he owned a milk and ice cream business.
Miller, who is 90, now lives in Aspen, Colo.; Kay died about five years ago.
Kacey Kuhn, the second to youngest of the six Miller children, remembers when the bluff was “three humps of dunes” from the front of the cottage. Once you reached the bottom it was another long walk to the shoreline, she said.
Kuhn, of Missouri, spent time at the cabin as recently as last summer with her father.
Coming to the conclusion that the cottage had to be demolished was a very difficult and gradual process, she said.
“It was really hard,” Kuhn said. “We knew it was coming. We hoped it wouldn’t happen, but it did.”
In the end the lake made the decision for them, she said.
“If it were up to us, I don’t think we could make the decision,” she said.
The cottage was built in the 1930s in three sections by previous owners, which made moving it back from the bluff all but impossible. The north section is still about 30 feet from the bluff and stakes were put out every five feet in August to keep track of the bluff’s erosion.
It lost five feet since, mostly during a weekend of storms in mid-November when the south bluff collapsed, Kuhn said. A crack also opened up in the cottage’s concrete block foundation, she said.
“In one day it just happened,” she said.
Kuhn and her younger sister, Emily Kloser, and their sons moved everything out of the cottage in three days just before Thanksgiving.
While they were working they were surprised when a stack of cups fell out of the kitchen cupboard. They went outside to see the bubble had moved on a level they had attached to the side of the cabin, indicating that it was shifting.
It wasn’t scary, said Kloser, of Colorado.
“It just reassured us that what we were doing was needed,” Kloser said.
Miller’s first visit to the Frankfort area was in 1953, when he came up for Kay’s 21st birthday. He had just graduated from Michigan State University, where she was a junior. She was working at the Polka Dot, a summer stand at the Congregational Summer Assembly grounds, which was founded more than 100 years ago as a church summer camp.
The grounds are home to several cottages, including the one the Millers later purchased.
“I thought, ‘These cottages are all jammed in here, nobody cuts the grass, the weeds are all growing up,’” Miller said. “After three days I thought, ‘Hey, this is wonderful. This is the way it should be.’ It’s been a wonderful place to have a cottage.”
When they bought their cottage it needed some work, he said. The windows all swung inward and when it rained water came in. A back door swung the wrong way and you had to step into a shower before the door could be shut. And there were mice getting in though a drain that wasn’t properly sealed.
“They had free reign of the house all the time,” Miller said. “Kay would tell the kids stories about them.”
There was also the time about 20 years ago when the roof blew off and nearly a foot of water ruined the inside, which had to be redone, he said.
Miller said bluffs were eroding and cottages were falling into the lake in lower Michigan back in the 1960s, when they were thinking about buying the cottage. But there was a lot of land between the cottage and the edge of the bluff, he said.
“We thought we were safe enough that the water wouldn’t get to us. It comes up and goes back down. Of course this time it hasn’t gone back down.”
Kloser remembers the sounds of the cottage — the slam of the screen door, the clang of the triangle calling them to dinner, the grinding of gears on the 1936 Willys Jeep the kids drove to Crystal Lake.
The Jeep belonged to Kay and was painted white with a pink- and white-fringe top. None of the kids were old enough to drive so they had to stay off the main roads.
“We would just pick up anybody walking and the kids would just be hanging off,” Kloser said.
The cottage did not have a TV set and one was borrowed and lugged in so they could watch Neil Armstrong walk on the moon in July, 1969.
The Miller children spent their days roaming about barefoot, often coming home after dark carrying a red plastic flashlight to keep an eye out for bears, raccoons and porcupines.
“The cottage shaped us all into the adults that we became by allowing that freedom,” Kloser said.
She doesn’t think the realization it will be gone has set in yet.
“It’s hard for us, but you can’t take memories away,” she said.
Kuhn fights tears as she talks about the end of those golden summer days on Lake Michigan.
“This was the longest home any of us have had,” she said. “And it really was home.”