(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.
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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.

Steaming to Les Cheneaux

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.

Our boats were born Big Water user boats.

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.
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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.

Ken Horsburgh. A great photo of a great guy.

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.

A rite of passage in Les Cheneaux: boating to Mackinac Island. (I count 10 people in each boat.) Photos and text Hessel, Cedarville, and The Les Cheneaux Islands, Copyright 2012, by Deborah I. Gouin for the Les Cheneaux Historical Association

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.

Alex Watson

Thanks Alex, and stay tuned to Woody Boater for Part II of (Re)discovering Hessel, Michigan. – Texx

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17 Responses to “(Re)discovering Hessel, Michigan – Part I”
  1. Philip Andrew

    boom and Im the first person to read your story. There is an advantage to being upside down after all.
    Great background to the show thanks Alex.

  2. Texx

    Hi Philip – You caught me off guard again! It’s 2:35 AM my time and I just hit the “Publish” button on this story 5 minutes ago… and as I was doing a Live Edit I noticed your comment.

    We always enjoy hearing from you, even when it’s winter in New Zealand!

  3. m-fine

    Great intro Alex, looking forward to parts II and III and then the epic film translation by Peter Jackson.

  4. Matt B

    Interesting background. I will be there next year! Nice work Alex, now bring on the pictures

  5. Jim mersman

    Great chapter one! Been to more than 25 of those shows and never knew half of what you’ve shared. Can’t wait. Is there a test at the end? Seems like a great history lesson. Love it. Multiple choice test please. I dont do essays well at all.

  6. Tom Mertaugh

    Alex,
    Great story and well written as always. I look forward to seeing your pictures as you do so well doing that too. There is so much history in this area and thanks for sharing it to the rest of the Woody Boater family.

  7. Alex

    Hoping for Ken Burns filming, w Tim Allen narrating.

    (And Kate Upton in a just a few of the pics.)

    There will be a test, but the teacher can be bribed. For gas money.

  8. floyd r turbo

    Interesting to see the old photos and compare it to my 1924 24′ Hacker Dolphin which looked similar to the one in the photo. It was, by far, the best riding boat I’ve ever been in, proudly built in Mt Clemens. Wish I still had it to bring it to Hessel. Can’t wait for part 2. Thanks, Alex, for taking time to document. Anyone can push a button to take a picture, but the background story takes research and commitment as you noted and gives more meaning to the photos.

  9. Alex

    floyd r turbo. May I call you floyd r? You’re welcome. Tomorrow you’ll see a pic of a Hacker from here much like it (wood-framed windshield) called “Uandi” (as in You and I — took me a couple years to “get it” and stop calling it “you-an-dee” — duh). Gorgeous boat.

  10. Wilson Wright

    Great story about a great place…I remember my first time there…”Why so many U-22’s ?” I asked a local. His answer: ” To us they are like Ford F-150’s”…We haul everything from lumber to groceries back and forth to the Islands.

  11. Alex

    Wilson. He told you right.

    And garbage too.

    That’s what a “utility” was designed for. A floating pickup. In our area, restored or not, pristine or not, that’s what they’re still used for 60 years later. Any why not, right?

    I maintain it’s better for the boat. Ever see a guy love a pickup he’s never put through its paces?

  12. Loren Sattler

    Nice intro Alex, looking forward to the rest of the story.

    The boats were the initial draw for me to the area back in the mid 80’s. The history, beauty and great boating make the effort to get back there often worthwhile.

    BTW, I still have Chuck Letts’ 1978 invitation to the first boat show framed on the wall at the “Palace”.

  13. michael

    The Hamel Reatly boat is a 1926 Follmer 26’…the son of the builder told me this started life as a long deck launch and was remodeled to a utility somtime during the 50’s. I purchased this boat in Fort Wayne Indiana in 2005….went through an extensive restoration and enjoyed it for a few years. I was told Follmer only made 7 of these hulls and mine and the one in the Hessel Museum are the only ones remaining. I’d love to know if anyone has any other info on these boats??