Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Old Swimming Hole

I want to thank my cousin Shirley Huffman for her booklet, Spoken Treasures of the Past, which provided me with some of the local history of Almena Township, including her recollections of Blocker’s Pond, as well as some of the photographs used here.

The Paw Paw River flows for 89 miles through Michigan’s Van Buren and Berrien counties before joining the St. Joseph River near its debouchment in Lake Michigan at Benton Harbor. It watershed, covering roughly 445 square miles, consists mainly of farmland, orchards, vineyards as well as quickly vanishing swamps and wetlands. There are several small streams in the Almena township that join to form the Paw Paw River. At one time, far up in this river’s eastern headwaters, near the tiny hamlet of Almena, in the township’s southwestern quadrant, there was a small impoundment known locally as Blocker’s Pond, or Miller’s Pond, depending on whom you were talking to. It was situated on an unnamed feeder stream flowing northwards from Mud Lake and Lime Lake to its confluence with the main stem of Hayden Creek.

Southwestern Michigan was long home to the aboriginal Potawatomi of the Algonquin family and it was they whom the French explorers first encountered in the late 17th century. LaSalle, who spent the winter of 1680-1681 along the shores of Lake Michigan near what is now St. Joseph, navigated the Paw Paw River to its headwaters and encountered the Potawatomi as did the French trappers who operated throughout this region until the end of the French and Indian War, in 1763, and the ascendency of British traders and influence in the region. Settlement increased significantly following the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 and soon small communities began to appear along the banks of the region’s many rivers and streams.

The first permanent settlers began arriving in the Almena area in the early 1830s and Jonas Barber constructed a sawmill on Hayden Creek around 1835. The boards produced there were used to construct many of settlement’s early buildings. A gristmill operated by a fellow named Brewer was erected around the same time a mile or so west of Barber’s Mill and adjacent to a small pond on the small feeder creek flowing up from Mud Lake. A third mill, S.B. Fisk’s gristmill, was constructed along Hayden Creek in 1844 and continued to process white and buckwheat flour and cornmeal under the name "Almena Mills" for many years. It was later converted to a sawmill by William Piffer and used for the manufacture of wooden crates until 1935 when it was torn for the construction of three fish ponds.

My story, however, begins with Brewer’s Mill and the small dam that was erected near the mill. The small pond that existed prior to 1835 grew in size and volume behind the dam and for almost 80 years, until 1912, provided the water powering the gristmill (which also contained an apple press, stored ice taken from the pond during the winter, and served as the area’s first post office until 1865) while also serving as the local fishing and swimming hole. The size of the pond is subject to debate . . . anywhere from three to ten acres. Around 1840, Burton Hipp took over the operation of the mill and dam and constructed a boarding house nearby to house the mill workers. The area became known as Hipp’s Corner and the mill continued to serve the community until 1906, when the dam collapsed and the pond drained, although the mill remained intact. A new dam was eventually built to replace the old one and the pond once again returned to its former configuration to support the mill operation.

In 1908, my great grandparents, William K. and Sophie Miller, purchased the mill and boarding house from Hipp and the enterprise became known as Granly Farm. The replacement dam collapsed again in 1912 during a torrential rainstorm and the resulting flood washed the mill downstream. Although the dam was once again replaced, the mill was not. The old boarding house became home for William and Sophie Miller and their two children, Hildur and Volmar (my grandfather). They added a wing to the eastern elevation of the house to serve as a cannery for their tomato crop, and during its peak operation it produced 700 cans daily. They also cultivated and harvested grapes which were then taken by horse-drawn wagons to the train depots in nearby Paw Paw and Mattawan, as well as to the farm market a few miles east, in Kalamazoo. Another farm, owed by Eric and Hattie Blocker who had come to the area from Chicago, was located at the opposite (southern) shoreline of the pond, and their apple and cherry orchards were situated along the pond’s eastern shore line.

My great aunt Hildur Miller married Willard Rumsey in March 1916. William and Sophie moved to a smaller house on the farm property and the newlyweds took over the operation of Granly Farm. They also operated the small Almena Cider Mill which was constructed at Hipp’s Corner around 1917. It pressed apples and grapes until it was sold in 1955 (it remained in operation until 1964 when it was sold again). It was eventually damaged in a fire and razed, but for several decades it remained a local landmark known to all.

After the gristmill washed away in 1912, the pond served no practical purpose other than as a swimming and fishing hole, as well as a great place to ice skate during those cold Michigan winters. By the 1930s co-ed swimming was permissible and kids gathered at the pond on hot days to swing from the rope tied to the branches of an oak tree on the shoreline opposite the dam. There would also be races to the big stump sticking out of the water near the southern end of the pond where Hattie Blocker’s chickens pecked along the water’s edge. The pond also served as a communal bath of sorts. Local farm families, after a busy day in the fields and barns, would come to the pond in the afternoon armed with bars of soap to wash away the day’s dust and sweat. After lathering up they would rinse off in the cool water pouring over the lip of the dam to the rocks below. At the end of the day the pond’s surface near the dam was white with soaps suds, yet the next day the pure, clear water had returned as the pond flushed itself clean overnight.

In the early mornings hours, and again later in the day and evening, the old swimming hole became the old fishing hole, and folks would come to the pond with their cane poles outfitted with a length of gut tied to a hook and a can of juicy worms. They would find a shady spot hoping to catch sunfish and bream, and if they were lucky, perhaps one of the pond monsters, a five to six inch bluegill that had wandered downstream from Lime Lake. This lasted until 1949 when the dam washed out again and the pond drained. A new dam was erected two years later and the old swimming and fishing hole returned.

The primary activities remained swimming and fishing when my grandfather Volmar Miller, who grew up on Granly Farm, first introduced me to the pond which maps (even to this day) refer to as Blocker’s Pond. But from that beginning I (and many others) always referred to it as "Miller’s Pond." It was there that my grandfather taught me the ways of the angler, first with a simple cane pole, and later with a spin-cast outfit and finally a fly rod. Volmar was quite the outdoors man and would later serve on the Michigan State Waterways Commission in the 1960s under then Governor George Romney. He had built two small fish ponds on his property just downstream from the pond and stocked them with brook trout from the local hatchery. These ponds were fed by the stream flowing out of the Miller’s Pond. Volmar had constructed a small wooden waterwheel on to which he fastened old coffee cans, each one ladling stream water onto a wooden flume running down to the small fish ponds. We would take turns drowning nightcrawlers in Miller’s Pond for fat bluegills which we later fried up for dinner. Other times we would toss the delicate flies that Volmar had tied to the beautifully-speckled brookies in the small trout ponds. Fishing for trout was a treat, and we would almost always release them after finessing them to the net (although an occasional one found its way to the skillet).

I always looked forward to the quiet walk along the stream and up through the woods to Miller’s Pond. The Blockers had a small rowboat and from time to time I would see someone fishing from it along the opposite bank. I asked Volmar if we might not catch more fish from a boat. He impressed upon me the importance of patience when fishing, like so many other of life’s adventures. Patience, and the proper presentation of the fly to an Argus-eyed trout. Give the fish what it seeks and where it expects to find it. It could care less whether the angler was standing on the bank or sitting in a boat. There was truth in this as we almost always returned home with a stringer of bluegills and perch.

I came to associate the big pond with my grandfather; he spent most of his life just a stone’s throw away. Much of his own personal history is connected with the pond. As a young boy he fell through the ice while skating and disappeared into its cold depths only to miraculously reappear at the same hole. How everything would have changed had he not found his way back to the here and now. I never had a chance to skate on Miller’s Pond. Perhaps I am better off for it.

I visited the pond less frequently as I got older and eventually moved beyond my own Midwestern roots. I stopped to visit Volmar in January 1971, on my way home from New York City and Toronto where I had spent part of my holiday semester break from college. Miller’s Pond and the smaller trout ponds were covered with thick ice and snow drifted deep in the woods between the house and the big pond. Volmar invited me to stay and do some ice fishing, but I was in a hurry to visit my girlfriend who attended college a few miles away. I stopped by again a few months later, on my way home for the summer break. This time Volmar and I tossed some flies and small poppers to the bluegills in Miller’s Pond. One last time we brought back a stringer of fish for lunch. Little did I know that this would be my last visit to Miller’s Pond.

Sometime during the 1970s a swimmer discovered a crack in the dam erected in 1951. State officials came to inspect it and notified the local township authorities, who had jurisdiction over the dam, that it would have to be removed or replaced. This was not the first dam to hold back the pond’s water, but it would be the last one. The costs to maintain the dam and pond, coupled with the many attendant safety concerns, led the township to remove the dam permanently and drain the pond once and for all. I did not return to Almena again until 1994. Volmar had died seven years earlier and is buried in the nearby churchyard. I walked the same path he and I use to take along the stream and up to Miller’s Pond. There was nothing there but the gently flowing stream flowing through a thick stand of poplars and alder bushes. The sound of the water flowing over the dam, the laughter of the children splashing in the pond were forever silenced. But many fond memories remained. I still mourn the passing of this one small piece of my now distant childhood.

NEXT WEEK: Greetings From Asbury Park


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