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Welcome back to the second installment of our blog series celebrating Women’s History Month. In this blog you can learn more about conservationist and author Alice C. Erwin (pictured at right). 

Alice Clementina Erwin was born in 1880 in Athens County, Ohio to Albert and Ellen Young. Later in life she married Charles Fayette "Fay" Erwin and lived in Harbor Springs, where she was adopted by the local Odawa tribe in honor of her efforts to protect wildlife, forests and wetlands. Alice passed away at the Petoskey hospital in 1938 and is buried in Lakeview Cemetery in Harbor Springs. 

Alice is best remembered for her writing and her conservationist spirit. She wrote about her observations of nature and all things natural in a series of conversations, “Nature Talks,” carried in a number of Michigan newspapers in the 1920s and 1930s. These included Harbor Springs’ own Emmet County Graphic, the Grand Rapids Press and the Detroit News. Through her writing, Alice became a recognized leaded in the conservation movement in Northern Michigan. Her editor said, “Alice Erwin loved and felt kinship with every living thing.” After her death, Alice's husband Fay published her writings in a book in 1939.

“Nature Talks” in book form is a collection of Alice Erwin's writings throughout the course of one year (see an excerpt at the end of this blog).  It covers topics from native berries and spruce trees to meteorites and porcupines. One memorable passage deals with the installation of nets over the fish-rearing ponds at the Oden State Fish Hatchery. Alice was a firm believer that "bird life need not be destroyed in order to have fish" and was saddened by the killing of egrets and herons at the hatchery to protect the young fish. She suggested a simple method for protecting the ponds stating that “clever uses of wires and poultry netting do the trick more efficiently and cheaply in the long run than patrolling with fire-arms.” 

In his acknowledgments at the beginning of “Nature Talks,” Fay Erwin notes with "greatest happiness" that the plan hatched by Alice to protect water birds was being enacted. The superintendent of the hatchery wrote to Fay that "five of our ponds are already covered with screens and a new project is underway to cover the remaining ponds with the aid of CCC labor." 

Alice encouraged curiosity with her friendly, commonplace writing style that appealed to all ages in her short, daily journals of the world around her. Harbor Springs' history and natural resources are immeasurably enriched by her life and work. 


Nature Talks excerpt

Above: An excerpt of Alice C. Erwin's writings, published by her husband in a book called "Nature Talks" shortly after her death. Click the image for an enlarged view. 

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“On the end of the Point stands the lighthouse with its red light flashing out at night over the waters, looking like a great red ruby set with diamonds as the electric lights are shining around the bay and harbor. What more is needed of nature’s beauty to make the picture complete?”EWWilliams

Elizabeth Whitney Williams (pictured at right) wrote these words in her autobiography, A Child of the Sea, and Life among the Mormons, about the Little Traverse Lighthouse on Harbor Point, Michigan where she was the keeper for 29 years. Her story, much like the Fresnel lens she describes in the above passage, helps to illuminate the trials of a female lighthouse keeper in an age when women rarely worked outside the home. 

Born on Mackinac Island around 1844, Elizabeth’s family had moved to Beaver Island by the time she was four years old. Her father, a ship’s carpenter, found work on the island from the notorious Mormon leader, “King” James Jesse Strang. William’s autobiography focuses mainly on this time in her life. Eventually the schisms between the Mormons and the other groups on the island caused the Whitney family to move to Charlevoix in 1852 and later to Traverse City. 

After the assassination of King Strang and the release of the island from Mormon control, the Whitney family returned. Shortly after their return, in 1860, Elizabeth met and married Clement Van Riper. Clement was a cooper who had come from Detroit to the island for his health. He was soon appointed a teacher at the local Native American school and Elizabeth passed a happy two years helping him by teaching European gardening methods. 


Elizabeth and her husband were neighbors to the McKinley family at this time, who tended the Beaver Island Harbor Lighthouse (pictured at left). This arrangement would prove crucial to Elizabeth’s close connection to lighthouses in the years to come. When the keeper of the light, Peter McKinley, resigned his post to due ill health Elizabeth’s husband was appointed to take his place. 

Clement, however, was also often in poor health himself and many of the keeper’s duties fell to his wife, specifically the cleaning and polishing of the Fresnel lens. Elizabeth thought of tending the light as both a duty and a pleasure writing, “My three brothers were then sailing, and how glad I felt that their eyes might catch the bright rays of our light shining out over the waste of waters on a dark stormy night.” 

Women taking on light-keeping duties unofficially for ill husbands or other family members was more common than the strict gender divides and roles of the day might have suggested. Light keeping was normally thought of as a man’s job, involving heavy physical labor and an enormous investment of time. However, many woman rose to these challenges and earned the respect of their communities through their actions. Only a small number of these women were ever officially appointed as light keepers. Elizabeth would become one of those few after a stormy night in 1872.

On that night Clement rowed out to help rescue the crew of a sinking ship during a storm and never returned. His body was never recovered and the sole duty of keeping the light burning in the tower during the three-day gale fell to Elizabeth. Clement’s death left Elizabeth “weak from sorrow” and other sorrows soon followed including the deaths of two of her brothers and three of her nephews to drowning. A few weeks after her husband’s death she was officially appointed the keeper of the Beaver Island lighthouse.


In 1875 Elizabeth remarried, this time to photographer Daniel Williams, and requested a transfer to a mainland station. Only the last few pages of her memoir reflect upon her time at the station to which she was transferred, the Little Traverse Lighthouse. The lighthouse had only just been finished when Elizabeth arrived there in 1884. Situated at the tip of Harbor Point, the lighthouse would be home to Elizabeth and husband for the next 29 years. (Pictured at right, the lighthouse and fog bell on Harbor Point, Michigan, taken by Elizabeth's husband, Daniel). 

Elizabeth retired from light keeping in 1913 and she and her husband moved to Charlevoix, Michigan. They spent another 25 years together in quiet retirement before they passed away, within 12 hours of each other, in 1938. 

Did you know: The Historical Society's archive houses some of Elizabeth Whitney Williams' personal items, including several aprons and a pair of gloves which can be viewed in our online collections database. 

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Harbor Springs loves its traditions particularly those associated with holidays. In 2015, we celebrated the 100th anniversary of a community Christmas tree placed in town, a tradition started by local contractor George B. Hartung. As a young man, Hartung cut and hauled a Christmas tree into downtown Harbor Springs for the townsfolk to enjoy. 

Of the first community Christmas tree gathering, the Petoskey Evening News reported in their December 27, 1915 issue that two thousand people were in attendance at the event held on Christmas Eve in Zorn Park. “Ideal weather conditions combined with 100 percent pure Christmas enthusiasm made Harbor Springs’ first municipal Christmas tree a grand success and an event long to be remembered.” 

Hartung's grandchildren remembered him fondly. "It was his idea that Harbor Springs needed a city tree and he had the equipment," said granddaughter Mary Booth. "He was just a lumberjack at heart." George Coveyou remembers his grandfather as a very honest and good man. "It was a great experience to grow up and spend time with him."

The Evening News wrote further about that first gathering in 1915. "The address of welcome was followed by several well selected musical numbers by the children from the public school, and then came Santa Claus with 2,400 sacks of candy and nuts which were distributed by this genial old friend to the good children of this community. Much credit is due the band for their efforts in making the entertainment complete. The idea of a municipal Christmas tree seems to be a good one. Our citizens joined in the movement regardless of religion or politics and stood united, with one aim in view; namely, the dispensing of Christmas cheer among the people, both young and old of the community.”

image2 Hartung grandkidsAt left, George Hartung holding his grandson George Coveyou with his wife Ida May holding granddaughter Mary Booth at the 1941 Fourth of July Parade.

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You've survived Black Friday and Cyber Monday and now the Harbor Springs Area Historical Society invites you to join an international movement connecting nonprofits like us to donors like you - it's #GivingTuesday! The official #GivingTuesday website describes this unique holiday as "a global day dedicated to giving back" when "charities, families, businesses, community centers, and students around the world will come together for one common purpose: to celebrate giving and to give." This December 1, 2015 is #GivingTuesday and we wanted to take a moment to encourage you to give to the Historical Society on this special day.

We've partnered with Network for Good to make your donation go even further. For one day only, on #GivingTuesday, the Network for Good will match a percentage of any donation you make to the Historical Society! This is a great way to make your dollar go even further while supporting history's home in Harbor Springs.

Click the button below to donate!


Why donate?

The Harbor Springs Area Historical Society is a private nonprofit that relies on your generosity to sustain our efforts. With your support in 2015 we have shared stories both large and small, old and new with thousands of people.

During our popular Harbor History Talk series, we reached back in time to share stories of the NM, the Northern Michigan sloop and tapped our feet to the tunes of the Beach Boys while learning about clubs Manitou and Ponytail.

We celebrated stories through special events too including Shay Days (which honored inventor Ephraim Shay), our third annual Blessing of the Fleet and Summer White Party on Harbor Springs' historic waterfront and our special Haynes 100 show and sale honoring what would have been beloved local photographer Virgil D. Haynes' 100th birthday. 

Won't you consider making a donation to the Historical Society on this unique day of giving?

If you've already given this year, know that we sincerely appreciate your support. Thank you!

HSAHS 2015 6670  HSHS 2015 8498 web  HSAHS Anishnaabek IMG 0321 web

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We are honored to announce that the Harbor Springs Area Historical Society was recently awarded a $25,000 grant from the Michigan Humanities Council (MHC). MHC awarded nearly $600,000 in grants to 26 Michigan organizations in the first round of funding for the Heritage Grants program.

Heritage Grants support projects that bring the authentic voices of cultural identity groups to the foreground and help the people of our state understand cultural differences by sharing local stories about race and cultural history. In Harbor Springs, this means supporting the Historical Society's next exhibit, Anishnaabeck Art: Gift of the Great Lakes, which is set to open on Tuesday, June 30 at the Harbor Springs History Museum. 

The exhibit showcases Anishnaabek (Odawa, Ojibwe and Potawatomi) art from throughout the Great Lakes region, focusing on various media, styles and tribes. Using handcrafted items such as wooden tools, quill boxes, baskets and beadwork, the exhibit will explore the political, religious, cultural, and social changes the Odawa and other native groups navigated throughout their history. The exhibit and accompanying programs will also explore stories of assimilation, forced removal and discrimination as well as the stories of leadership and perseverance in tribal communities.

"We are honored to be among the recipients in the first year of MHC's Heritage Grants program, " said Mary Cummings, executive director of the Harbor Springs Area Historical Society. "Working on this exhibit has been an amazing collaboration with collector Bob Streett and Eric Hemenway, director of archives, records and repatriation with the Little Traverse Bay Band. We are looking forward to sharing this exhibit with the public." 

In addition to the exhibit, plans are currently underway to offer several presentations and workshops on specific types of Native art including quill work and bead work presented by local, traditional artists such as Yvonne Walker Keshick and Daniel Chingwa. 

The museum will host a special exhibit opening for Anishnaabeck Art on Tuesday, June 30 from 4:00 pm to 7:00 pm. Admission will be free and light refreshments will be provided. 

MHC Heritage Grant

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Exhibit Hours

Friday & Saturday
11:00 am to 3:00 pm

Office Hours

Tuesday - Friday
9:00 am to 5:00 pm

January 1, 2020

Museum Address

349 E. Main Street
    Harbor Springs, MI 49740

(231) 526-9771

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