The Michigan North Woods Club
By Jennifer Lammi
It was the spring of 1925 when the recreation committee of the Hamilton Club of Chicago first met to establish a hunting and fishing club for interested members. This meeting was the beginning of the Michigan North Woods Club.
After several trips to the area, they purchased a 43,000-acre site spanning Tilden and Ely Townships, (at the end of County Road 581) in Marquette County. The land was largely cut over by the logging industry, so the private club paid a mere $40,000 to the estate of the late Senator Isaac Stephenson of Escanaba for the property. Thus, the club was born for less than a dollar an acre. Since the newly founded club lacked the working capital to pay for the land, the money was advanced by Oliver J. Westcott, the first vice-president, who was repaid as membership fees were collected.
In May 1926, club directors visited the property and selected a location overlooking Lake Charbeneau as headquarters (the name has since changed to Lake Chabeneau). Even though its shoreline had been heavily logged, one member described the lake as “…a little gem on that quiet afternoon.” Ten days after site selection, construction began on the club’s first building, a cooking house and sleeping quarters for the workmen.
Over the next two years, a road was created encircling the lake, a well drilled, building sites established along the shoreline, ten new homes constructed, and a three-story clubhouse built, designed by architect and member, Francis Dunlop. It was dedicated as the “Chabeneau Lodge” in 1927.
The massive clubhouse was 80 feet long and three stories high with dormers overlooking the lake. The second and third floors were divided into sleeping quarters for visiting members, as only twenty-five cabins were to be built around the lake. In the following years, the lodge was sometimes filled to the maximum with visitors, and at other times nearly empty, making it difficult to maintain food service and operate the lodge at a profit.
The initial goal of 250 members was nearly reached in May 1927 when, according to The Michigan North Woods Club, An Informal History, there were 237 members on the roster. That same year many ventures were initiated in an attempt to raise funds so the club could eliminate the annual dues. Some of these included: a silver fox farm, a fish hatchery, raising chickens, turkeys, rabbits, Belgian hares, and English call ducks.
None were financially successful, and some operated at a loss, though all projects were in line with their stated goal of fostering conservation of natural resources. When the Great Depression hit in 1929, the membership seriously declined as many members became delinquent with their dues.
Oliver J. Westcott, one of the founding members of the club, died in 1938 when he was struck by lightning while fishing in Illinois. His cabin remained vacant for many years. In an infamous event in the club’s history, Club Manager Ted Koski attempted to slide it across the frozen lake to a roomier lot one brisk, winter day, but things did not go as planned.
The club tractor was unable to pull the cabin the whole way, and it became stuck on the ice. Fearing it would be lost, he scrambled to bring in another tractor from town to finish the task. The move took more effort than was anticipated but was Michigan eventually successful. J. Kelly Smith, a CBS vice-president, purchased the cabin after it was remodeled, enlarged, and of course, anchored to the shore.
Over the years, financial difficulties and changing laws have caused the club to decrease in size from the initial 72 square miles. Sections of land were sold to members or exchanged with the government until the property was reduced to a central core of 9,800 acres around Lake Chabeneau. The lodge was remodeled in the late 1940’s and the third floor removed, as the need for extensive sleeping quarters diminished. The salvaged materials were used to construct a guest cabin.
By 2003, there were 28 cabins around Lake Chabeneau, including guest houses, and the Chabeneau Lodge. The membership was filled at twenty-five, with additional associate members. The Chabeneau Lodge is now cozily surrounded by tall trees.
In keeping with the club’s focus on conservation, the members have extensively reforested and selectively logged the property, stocked many lakes and streams with bass and trout, brought in pheasants and ducks, and limited deer hunting. They also planted various types of vegetation to stimulate growth of game populations.
For nearly 100 years, and through many trials and tribulations, the Michigan North Woods Club has rebounded, and quietly enjoyed the splendor of the Upper Peninsula while creating a history of its own.
Editors note:This article was originally published in The Mining Journal’s “Along the Way”in 2003.