(Re)discovering Hessel, Michigan – Part I
By Alex Watson
Have you ever done something time and again, and then had the unexpected pleasure of experiencing it powerfully anew?
The 2012 35th Annual Les Cheneaux Islands Antique Wooden Boat Show in Hessel, Michigan was such an experience for me.
I was asked to be the “official” photographer for this year’s Show — the first time I’d ever been part of the Crew of nearly 300 Show volunteers. This was in addition to chronicling it for Woody Boater, and to exhibiting two boats at the Show.
Official, meant I just had to be there at 4:00 p.m. to take pictures of the winners. But that simple responsibility somehow affected me. It made me want to learn more about an event that goes back to my childhood, and to surpass what I wrote last year in WoodyBoater (Christmas in Hessel, Michigan) to do justice to the Show in pictures and words.
I decided to be at the Show for the first time from start to finish. Doing this made me recognize it did not start at 10:00 a.m. Saturday, and end at 4:30 p.m. that same day. It made me recognize in what ways the Show was intricate to our special area. And it made me feel, once again, privileged to have a cottage here, and to offer my kids the innocence, fun, and memories of summers in a land where “nothing matters.”
This story isn’t just about our Boat Show. It’s about Boat Show in the context of our area — Hessel and Cedarville, Michigan — the Les Cheneaux Islands.
Wooden boating in Les Cheneaux goes back to the late 1800‘s: a time when boats here were used for simple purposes: fishing and hauling lumber. The excellent fishing and pleasant summer weather soon attracted summer visitors, who arrived by steamships and either vacationed in the area’s classic wooden resort hotels, rented cabins, or built cottages and beautiful summer homes.
In the early 1920’s E. J. Mertaugh saw the potential for the summer residents to own pleasure boats. He became the first Chris-Craft dealer in the country, and Les Cheneaux and Chris-Craft boats became inextricably linked. Mertaugh Boat Works became a powerful dealer and, over time, about 700 Chris-Crafts were sold to area residents.
Because Les Cheneaux includes 36 islands, many of these boats were used to transport residents, guests, luggage, food, and other supplies to island cottages.
One would think this meant hard use and short lives, and in some cases that was so. But you know, something else happened here that really explains why Les Cheneaux is one of the best classic boat areas in the country.
Boats here became part of the cottages. They became family members. And above all, they became part of the best childhood memories.
Because they were loved, they were well maintained. Because of our cool, Great Lakes freshwater, their hulls, bottoms, chrome, and mechanicals were coddled. Because of our short summer season, they were used briefly each year. And because they were stored in ideal conditions — over water in boat houses or in dirt floor sheds near the shore — they did not dry out or rot. Can you imagine better conditions for a long wooden boat life?
Something else in our area ensured Les Cheneaux would become a classic boating haven. The Mertaugh family remained in the business of selling, maintaining, preserving, and restoring wooden boats for three generations.
Think about that. It’s common in our area for a boat to have been sold by E. J. Mertaugh, kept in service and repair over the years by his sons Jim and Jack Mertaugh, and be maintained or restored today by Jim’s sons, Tommy and Danny Mertaugh at Classic and Antique Boats.
One last important contributor. Many boats in our area, purchased in the 20’s, 30‘s, 40’s, and 50‘s are still owned by their original families. Love, uninterrupted.
Fast forward to 1978, through a few decades of fishing, waterskiing, island hopping, picnicking, skinny dipping, and horsing around in all imaginable (and some unimaginable) ways in our wooden boats. The Les Cheneaux Islands Antique Wooden Boat Show was conceived.
Our show was co-founded by two locals: Ken Horsburgh and Chuck Letts. Mr. Horsburgh was fond of saying that “a good day is one during which you use all of your boats.” How spot on is that!
And there’s this, from the 2009 Boat Show program book:
“In his boyhood years, [Mr. Horsburgh] spent much of his time in Firefly, a 24 foot, 1928, triple-cockpit Chris Craft runabout. He recalled taking Firefly to Mackinac Island once [12 miles of open Lake Huron waters each way — a common jaunt by Les Cheneaux Islanders] with 11 people packed inside, on a ride so hard he thought the hull was going to split in half, ‘but it ran like a submarine,’ he said with admiration.”
Hey, sign me up for any Show a guy like this organizes.
Anyhow, both men attended the Clayton Show in 1974, bringing with them Mr. Horsburgh’s 1929 deluxe 26’ Hackercraft, Breezing Through. They had a blast (Breezing Through won Best of Show), and they were so taken by how much the attendees enjoyed themselves, they decided to organize one back home. Both men wrote, phoned, and called on scores of people to launch the 1st Les Cheneaux show in 1978. In Mr. Horsburgh’s words:
“I had to personally twist arms to talk people into bringing their old boats to the show ‘As-Is’. There must have been 75. The 1st Show was a huge success, attracting an estimated 6,000 guests. We set these objectives and many have been met:
1) No old wooden boat would rot away — all would be restored;
2) Skills would be passed down for re-building and even building new wooden boats;
3) The entire community would have fun and benefit;
4) To bring the full and part time (summer) residents closer together and to bring Hessel and Cedarville closer together.”
Above all, Mr. Horsburgh wanted the Show to be fun for everyone involved.
Over the years, our Show has become the leading benefactor of two fascinating local museums: the Les Cheneaux Maritime Museum and the Les Cheneaux Historical Museum. It provides a shot of business adrenaline to local merchants, in an area where the summer season is short. And yes, it continues to achieve all 4 goals Mr. Horsburgh and Mr. Letts set.
So there you have it. The roots of classic boats in Les Cheneaux Islands, and the roots of our local Boat Show.
Tomorrow, Part II of this story will cover the 2012 show. I hope knowing its context will make it even more special to Woody Boater readers.
Thanks Alex, and stay tuned to Woody Boater for Part II of (Re)discovering Hessel, Michigan. – Texx