Ernest Hemingway & Northern Michigan
Story by Brian E. Clark
Photos by Tish Lafferty
In 1915, when he was just a mere 14 years old, Ernest Hemingway and a friend hiked, hopped on freight trains and hitchhiked from their homes in Oak Park, Illinois to Petoskey, Michigan, a trek of nearly 400 miles.
Once there, the future Nobel laureate got a room at the Perry Hotel, (theperryhotel.com) where he paid 75 cents for the night. But that wasn’t wasn’t Hemingway’s first – or last – trip to Petoskey. Far from it.
He made his initial journey to northern Michigan as an infant in 1899, not long after his parents built a small, 20- by 40-foot summer cabin near Petoskey on Walloon Lake, which they named “Windemere.” (It’s still in the family, but a private residence. Don’t try to go there now or you may be chased off by a shotgun-toting nephew of the late author.)
And it was Hemingway’s experiences hunting, fishing and tromping in the woods between Walloon and Charlevoix lakes, as well as knocking about with lumberjacks, boxers and well-heeled summer people that Hemingway mined for many of his first stories, including “Big Two-Hearted River” and other tales about Nick Adams, his youthful alter ego.
Hemingway returned to Petoskey – a Native American word that means “Rays of the Living Sun” – nearly every summer for more than two decades. He came here to recuperate after he was wounded by mortar fire during World War 1 while working as an ambulance driver in northern Italy for the Red Cross. And he married his first wife, Hadley Richardson in Horton Bay, which is about 12 miles south of Petoskey on Lake Charlevoix. They honeymooned at the family cottage on Walloon Lake.
Other than Oak Park and his beloved Finca Vigia (Lookout Farm) in Cuba – where he lived for 15 years with his fourth wife, Mary Welsh – he spent more time in northern Michigan than any other place.
Photographer Tish Lafferty and I stayed a night at the 115-year-old Perry Hotel last summer and spent the next morning talking and walking around Petoskey, population 7,000, with Christopher Struble, president of the Michigan Hemingway Society (michiganhemingwaysociety.org)
“Many people seem to think that Hemingway went straight from Oak Park to Paris,” Struble said over coffee from a perch in the Perry Hotel that overlooked Little Traverse Bay. “Or maybe Oak Park to Italy to Key West to Havana to Sun Valley, Idaho, if they know a little more about him.”
“Unfortunately, they skip over northern Michigan. But this was the landscape that formed him. When the glaciers retreated 10,000-plus years ago, they left behind a three-mile mass of land between Walloon and Charlevoix lakes, which became his stomping grounds.
“To really know Hemingway, you need to begin here, where he learned to fish, where he drank bootleg liquor, caroused with locals, observed everything and fell in love. It’s also where he quarreled bitterly with his mother, met influential editors, toyed with his writing style and where he holed up in a boarding house and wrote stories that were initially rejected over and over by a variety of publications. He didn’t give up, though.”
Other than a brief return visit in 1947, Hemingway never returned to Michigan after his wedding at Horton Bay.
“I think he wanted to keep it in his mind as it was when he was young,” said Struble, a jeweler who also leads historical tours.
“Hemingway once said ‘Michigan is the truest part of my memory and I never want to contaminate that,’” added Struble, who has been a passionate follower of all things Hemingway since he first read “The Sun Also Rises” decades ago.
“Hemingway wrote a number of his northern Michigan stories during the time he lived in Paris in the 1920s, so you could say his focus improved with distance,” Struble mused. “Even up to near his suicide in 1961, he was working on a book about Nick Adams and this region, ‘The Last Good Country.’”
Across the street from the Perry Hotel is the former Grand Rapids and Indiana train station, now Penn Plaza. The Hemingway family would have disembarked here after a short train ride from nearby Harbor Springs, which offered a deepwater port for the Manitou steamship. The passage on that big boat took 18 hours from Chicago to northern Michigan. Once in Petoskey, they would have transferred to another depot 100 yards away and taken a separate train to Walloon Lake, where they’d catch a water taxi to their summer cottage.
“Their journey took more than a day and had numerous pieces, starting with a horse-drawn carriage ride from their Oak Park home,” he said.
On Petoskey’s Lake Michigan waterfront, we found the former Pere Marquette Station, where Hemingway’s father would have taken overnight trains back and forth to his medical practice in suburban Chicago. Now home to the Little Traverse Historical Museum, the train depot was the main area station more than 100 years ago. Hemingway referred to it in both “The Indians Moved Away” and “Sepi Jingan” stories.
From the Perry Hotel, we walked through downtown as Struble pointed out buildings that Hemingway would have known and used in his stories. One example, Struble said, was a stabbing that took place in an old hotel that turned up in the “Torrents of Spring.”
Then it was on to 602 State Street, where Hemingway rented a second-story, corner room from Eva Potter, a widow. It was there that he wrote his father, informing him that his goal in life was to be an author and that he had no intention of going to college.
“In the spring, when the snow melted, you might have found raisins, other fruit and cracked corn from Hemingway’s attempts to make wine up in his room,” Struble quipped.
We also walked by the Flatiron Building, once home to McCarthy’s Barber Shop, where Hemingway might have gone for a haircut, a shave and used the public baths in the basement.
We also stopped at the Carnegie Building, former home of the city library, one of Hemingway’s favorite haunts during the summer of 1919 after his return from Italy. In December of that year, he spoke here to the Ladies Aid Society about his World War 1 exploits. After his speech, he met the Connable family, who knew editors at the Toronto Star. That encounter led him north of the border, where he worked as a journalist and foreign correspondent for the Canadian paper.
We also visited the Annex, home to the City Park Grill. Hemingway played pool here, drank illegal hooch and watched bare-knuckle boxing matches in an adjacent parent. According to Petoskey lore, Hemingay often sat in the second seat from the end of the bar and wrote ideas for his short stories and books.
No visit to Hemingway’s northern Michigan haunts would be complete without a stop at Horton Bay, which Struble calls “Ground Zero for American literature.” So we headed south on Highway 31 for the Horton Bay General Store, where Hemingway often stopped before fishing to buy supplies and listen to locals tell their tall tales.
Brian E. Clark is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer and photographer who contributes to the Chicago Tribune and LA Times on a regular basis. He also writes a weekly travel column for the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. A native of Iowa, Clark is a University of Colorado, Boulder, graduate who focuses on adventure travel. He’s a veteran whitewater kayaker and skier who has lived in Norway, Sweden, Brazil and Bolivia. He worked for newspapers in Washington State and California for 25 years, including the San Diego Union-Tribune, before returning to the Midwest. He manages to head back West several times a year when he’s not off in other corners of the globe. Or poking around Wisconsin.