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Cabin boy recalls Huron Mountain Club

MARQUETTE – The wilderness of the Huron Mountain Club is in a part of the Upper Peninsula few people have or will ever see.

Bill Ryan, however, is one of those privileged folks. In fact, not only has he visited the exclusive and pristine club, he lived there while growing up.

Ryan, 84, of Marquette, is a retired math teacher who has worked a variety of jobs, one of which was “cabin boy” at the HMC, located northwest of Marquette.

That title might not sound fancy to some people, but considering the surroundings, it’s impressive.

The Huron Mountain Club was founded in 1889 by a group of families interested in the outdoors and good fellowship. The well-heeled original members included auto pioneer Henry Ford and noted Marquette developer John M. Longyear.

Today it still is the private enclave of the affluent, but it also is the site of scientific research and wildlife studies that include the history of old-growth forests, the area’s diminishing coaster brook trout population and other topics.

Ryan lived with his father, Ivan, and mother, Mamie, along with his brother, Ivan Jr., beginning in the 1930s.

Club members lived either along Pine River or Lake Superior, he said. His family lived along the Pine.

“My dad went up there to race horses for Herbert Perkins,” said Ryan, who noted he was the man for whom Perkins Park in Big Bay is named.

After that business “went out,” he said, he worked as a regular employee for the club, where his mother was a cook for the summer help and the members who visited in the fall.

The Ryan home, he said, was just an ordinary house. Although the members’ homes could be large structures that included open porches on the second story, they all were rustic in appearance.

“Everything was shingles,” Ryan said. “You’ve got to understand the Huron Mountain Club. No paint.”

There were some log buildings, he pointed out, but whatever the building material, they were surrounded by the Huron Mountains, forests, the Salmon Trout River, inland lakes and, of course, Lake Superior.

“It was nice,” Ryan said. “I went to all those lakes.”

Ryan possesses a scrapbook of black and white photos taken by his mother that could be used for vintage postcards. They show the clubhouse, members’ homes, lake scenes, a bear by a building, a beaver, massive trees and little-known features such as Mountain Falls, which, he noted, is more than 80 feet across.

“It’s not advertised,” Ryan said.

He acknowledged he had free rein on much of the area.

“We could go wherever we wanted on any of the lakes,” Ryan said.

He did a lot of trout fishing, but got in his share of boating time.

“We spent a lot of time on the lake in boats,” Ryan said. “We didn’t have TV.”

He earned his keep, if you want to call it that, as a cabin boy.

“I went from cabin to cabin,” Ryan said. “In the early years, every cabin had a water heater that was run by coal, and I had to make sure it was running, and put coal in it.”

Another one of his duties included taking out by skid about 70 trees cut down on the order of John O’Boyle of Dallas, who bought the former Henry Ford home where the trees lined the front of the house.

Ryan acknowledged meeting notable people while living on the grounds, including Ford, who he encountered by chance in the woods, and actress Julie Harris.

“Almost all of them were real nice people,” Ryan said of the residents.

Gen. George Marshall of the Marshall Plan was not a member, but came to the club to visit for the summer, he said. Ryan recalled President Harry Truman putting in a call to Big Bay, the closest town with a phone, and someone having to drive to the club to give Marshall the message.

Such was one of the inconveniences of living at the club.

However, the Ryans and the other residents were not completely cut off from the outside world.

“The only thing we had was a radio, a good radio,” Ryan said. “We listened to Tom Mix.”

What the Ryans lacked in technology was made up for in wilderness, such as the sound of wolves howling at night.

“Didn’t scare anybody,” Ryan said. “Didn’t hurt anybody.”

The deer were tame, he acknowledged, which resulted in a change of policy.

“Finally, they kind of decreed that, ‘Don’t put any food out,'” said Ryan, who noted anglers were limited to artificial bait.

Considering the remoteness and lack of population on the Huron Mountain Club today, it’s understandable why outsiders would want a peek at the gorgeous scenery. However, it’s also understandable why the area should be off limits to the public, considering it’s private land and the source for many environmental studies.

Marley Chynoweth, a master of arts industrial archaeology major at Michigan Technological University, gave a presentation, “The Huron Mountain Club: Existing to Benefit All,” at the Sonderegger Symposium XV held in September at NMU.

“It’s funny about how I was not happy that I couldn’t visit this wilderness that had been talked about over and over again as being pristine and virgin,” Chynoweth said at her talk, “and yet over my research, I realized that there is a reason for it, and I’m very happy there is.”

Ryan agrees with the continued exclusivity.

“Everything they do is to save the trees and the lakes, like no outboard motor or anything like that,” Ryan said, although motors can be used to get to Lake Superior or in the case of a forest fire.

He moved off the club grounds after his father died, and eventually earned undergraduate and graduate degrees from Northern Michigan University and the University of Michigan.

Ryan had a lifetime pass to enter the club grounds, which was lost, but now he has to make a phone call to obtain access. The last time he was there was about three years ago.

However, he looks back on his years at the Huron Mountain Club with fondness. After all, it was when he was allowed to drive a tractor at age 12.

“It was a real treat to live there, I thought,” Ryan said.