So, our first winter on Beaver Island was the winter of 1978-79. It was “the year of the blizzard” in Michigan. All over the state, records were being broken, cars were buried and folks were snowed in. I had no idea. I thought it was just Beaver Island…and I didn’t know it was unusual. Dad had warned me that winters on Beaver Island were hard!
We were at the Stone House that winter, four and a half miles from town, one mile from our nearest neighbors. Bonnie and Denny Wagner lived about a mile south of us, in a big farmhouse that they were in the process of remodeling. Their son, Craig, started the first grade with my daughter, Jen. They also had a daughter, Missy, just a bit younger than Katey, and a toddler, Johnny. We all became good friends, and often shared dinners together.
My husband played poker once a week with a group of islanders. He played pool at the Shamrock. I played in a pool tournament that winter, too. Though I am awful at the game, I managed somehow to take third place! Now and then, Terry and I would hire a babysitter, and go to the Shamrock for the evening. Sometimes we played backgammon.
Did you count, as we were going through the rooms of the Stone House? There were four wood stoves! The only one that sat idle was the old cook stove in the kitchen. We had to keep the garage warm enough to keep the water pipes from freezing. We tried to keep the house heated with the other two. Fuel oil was expensive; we didn’t want to use that furnace more than we had to. We quickly used up the wood that had been in the garage when we moved in. Then, our main focus became finding more.
We got slabs from the lumber mill, free for hauling away. They were dirty, and didn’t give out much heat, so we used them only in the garage. We bought wood from people that had extra; we cut and hauled wood when we could. We gathered windfall and dead wood. We used the furnace more than we’d planned. It was a constant struggle to keep warm.
In the middle of February, a massive storm came through. It dumped several inches of snow, took out electricity for long hours and blew down the chimney on the Zanella’s house down the road. It blew a big tree down, right over our driveway. My husband and I looked in awe out the dining room window, where the top branches now reached, and were rubbing against the glass. The tree had fallen right across our car, crushing it. We stared. We turned and looked at each other. We grinned.
“Firewood!!” we said, in unison.
It wasn’t all good. My husband and I separated that winter. He was drinking heavily; we were fighting too much; he was homesick. Work on the island had slowed with the cold weather. He had jobs to do downstate. We decided it would be best to take a break, and see if we could figure things out.
It made for a long, lonely winter. Hours at work were minimal during that slow season. Keeping the fires going was my main occupation. My daughters were now four and seven years old. They were almost my only company, and they went to bed early. Don and Florence Burke stopped in once. Topper McDonough visited two or three times. He’d bring a six-pack of beer. I’d drink one while he had the rest, while he told me stories of when I was a toddler, when he visited my Dad in Lapeer. “You were a little monkey,” he’d tell me, “You could run full out along the back of the sofa! You nearly gave me a heart attack!” It was nice to hear tales of when I was young. For much of that winter, I felt very old.
In the springtime, my Dad came to the island with my sister, Brenda and her son, Alan, with the intent of helping me move back to the farmhouse. The suckers were running in the streams, and Dad taught the kids how to catch them in nets or with their bare hands. They’d keep going back to the creek for more, while Brenda and I stood in the wood shed at the farmhouse, cleaning the fish. The ones set aside for smoking didn’t need to be scaled, but plenty enough of them did. We started with heavy spoons. At one point, Jewell Gillespie stopped in with an electric scaler. It was certainly fast, but sent the scales flying everywhere. I got back to the Stone House at about three in the morning…stood under the shower trying to get the fish scales off my skin and out of my hair…then collapsed into bed. What a nightmare!
And yet, in hindsight, it became a good memory. The kids all certainly enjoyed it! It quickly became a tradition, among myself, my sisters and our children, to come to the island with Dad in the springtime, for a cold, wet and fish-smelling splashing good time!
By the first of May, we were back in the farmhouse for the summer.