Column: Hemingway’s Michigan

Summers in northern Michigan helped shape Nobel laureate
John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

Dear Loyal Readers,

Although I was officially on vacation this week, because I spent a few days retracing Ernest Hemingway’s haunts in northern Michigan, I decided to take a couple hours – more than I intended! – to combine two of my previous columns: one that ran in the Detroit News in 1998, and one that Time commissioned in 1999 but didn’t run, due to JFK Jr.’s tragic plane crash the same week.

I was inspired by meeting again with Ernest H. Mainland, Hemingway’s nephew, whom I first met 12 years ago pursuing these pieces. He has become a good friend. Then, after a round of golf, I coaxed another old friend, Jeff Johnson, into joining me for an impromptu tour of nearby Horton Bay. While telling Jeff about some of the stories Hemingway based there, a man named Robert walked down the road and joined us, then invited us for a drink with his girlfriend at his rental cabin just up the road – which turned out to be Shangri-La, where the Hemingways honeymooned in 1922.

Needless to say, when I returned to Chicago on Thursday, I felt compelled to combine my pieces on Hemingway into one narrative, and deliver it to you. Hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed researching, writing and revising it.

HORTON BAY – Ernest Hemingway gave the world novels that are still treasured 49 years after his death, but he gave the folks in Michigan something extra.

Before Hemingway earned wealth, fame and a Nobel Prize for his books about Europe and Africa, Key West and Cuba, he wrote short stories about life in Petoskey, Charlevoix and tiny Horton Bay.

Hemingway’s highly autobiographical stories celebrate the kind of rustic northern living thousands of us have enjoyed since. Written more than eight decades ago, stories like “Summer People,” “Three Day Blow” and “The End of Something” still resonate with Michigan readers.

In 1922, Hemingway made his last visit to the family cabin on Walloon Lake, near Petoskey. A few years after that, he wrote his final piece about the area. But the short stories’ clear, uncomplicated writing introduced a style no one had seen before, and his first tales have proven to be as enduring as the beauty of the region he wrote about.

First Loves

Like many wealthy Chicago families at the turn of the century, the Hemingways escaped the Second City’s muggy weather by migrating to northern Michigan each summer. (This is why Michigan’s west coast was settled not by Detroiters, but Chicagoans.) Ernest Hemingway saw Walloon Lake, about 90 miles northeast of Traverse City, for the first time as a six-week-old baby in 1899, and every summer thereafter through 1921.

At the turn of the century, just getting there required the Hemingways to take a train ride from their home in Oak Park to Chicago, a horse taxi to the Lake Michigan pier, a steamer to Harbor Springs, a narrow-gauge train to Petoskey, another train to Walloon Lake, and a smaller wood-burning steamer to the Hemingway’s cottage.

It was there, and not in the family’s stuffy hometown, that Hemingway first learned about fishing and drinking, romance and writing – the very things that continue to define his legacy.

The people who introduced Hemingway to these pleasures appeared a few years later as characters in his highly autobiographical short stories – often by their real names.

In “Three Day Blow,” Hemingway’s alter ego, Nick Adams, gets drunk while discussing baseball, fishing and women with Bill, a ringer for real-life summer friend Bill Smith. In the unfinished “Summer People,” Adams and Katy – named after Bill’s sister, a real-life flame of Hemingway’s – make love in the forest surrounding Lake Charlevoix. And in “The End of Something,” Nick ends an affair on the beach of Horton Bay with Marjorie, inspired by a local waitress named Marge Bump.

Naturally, in some of these stories Hemingway took reality and twisted it. A few women named in the stories later said they never consummated their relationships with Hemingway. But they were still in many ways so accurate that one biographer described Hemingway’s recollection of the area as “photographic.”

But Hemingway did not sit down to write those stories until after he was married and living in Paris. He could have written about the big cities where he had lived in North America and Europe, but he chose instead to devote his energies to the small towns of northern Michigan. He followed his famous advice – write about what you know – and what he knew best was Michigan’s woods and waters.

Singing a New Song

On the back of his novels, you’ll often find text stating that Hemingway’s “tough, terse prose and short, declarative sentences did more to change the style of written English than any other writer in the twentieth century.” A lofty claim, perhaps, but probably true.

When Hemingway started writing, he borrowed not only Horton Bay’s scenes and people, he also wrote in its voice. When Hemingway’s readers fell in love with his character’s direct dialogue – so unlike the sophisticated speaking style of Oak Park or the baroque sentences of Key West – few realized they were hearing the clear, clipped phrases of northern Michigan. And it wasn’t Sherwood Anderson or Gertrude Stein who first told Hemingway to reveal his characters through their own words. It was Bill Smith, a Michigan fishing buddy. From these gifts Hemingway built the foundation of his deceptively simple style.

Hemingway sought to “describe without frills, without the imposition of attitude,” wrote Anthony Burgess, who, in addition to writing “A Clockwork Orange,” also produced a brief biography of Hemingway. “This sounds easy now, chiefly because Hemingway has shown us how to do it, but it was not easy at a time when ‘literature’ still meant fine writing in the Victorian sense, with neo-Gothic decoration.”

“The Hemingway tune is in the ears of all young people who set out to write.”

Hemingway picked up that tune in northern Michigan, and sang it his entire life.

A Sense of Place

In Paris and Pamplona, Oak Park and Key West, the locals shamelessly sell their connection to Hemingway to gullible tourists. The annual running of the bulls in Spain, an event known to only a few Americans before Hemingway described it in his first novel, “The Sun Also Rises,” is now televised live each year on ESPN. And Hemingway’s favorite Key West watering hole, Sloppy Joe’s, has plastered his likeness on everything from key chains to condoms to a website, complete with a 24-hour “bar-cam.”

While other towns have sold off their Hemingway history piece by piece to gullible tourists, the place Hemingway loved the most – northern Michigan – has exploited his legacy the least.

Despite the locals’ fierce protection of the Hemingways’ privacy, however, some Hemingway buffs manage to find the secluded summer home anyway. One stranger once walked in, uninvited, and was happily poking around the home when Ernest Mainland emerged from the shower. “What the hell are you doing here?” Mainland asked.

“Well, it wasn’t locked,” the man said.

“We still have a chance of keeping tourists away,” Mainland says, “because so far they haven’t banned land mines.”

Although he sells insurance in Petoskey, Mainland doesn’t use his middle name on his cards nor on his door. He says even most of his friends in town don’t realize he’s Hemingway’s nephew, and he likes it that way. Mainland’s son, Ken, has read only one Hemingway work, “The Old Man and the Sea,” simply because it was required reading at Petoskey High School. “It was all right,” he remembers. “I wrote my report on it and moved on. I think I got a ‘B.’”

The Hemingways’ cozy cottage is now dwarfed by million-dollar homes, but Walloon Lake is just as cold, clear and captivating as it was one hundred years ago, with the cool morning mist burned off by the sun each afternoon, exactly as Hemingway described it in a high school poem.

A few months before his wedding to Hadley Richardson in 1922, he confessed his fear that married life would keep him from his boyhood paradise. “Guy… loves a girl and the goddam (sic) streams can dry up for all he cares,” he wrote a Michigan friend. “Only the hell of it is that all that country has as bad a hold on me as ever … and you know how it’s always been… At night it comes and ruins me – and I can’t go.”

His fears proved correct. After their honeymoon at the family cabin, Hemingway never returned to his favorite place.

He should have.

Still the Same

If Hemingway traced his old footprints today, he would have no trouble finding his familiar haunts.

To escape his overbearing mother, Hemingway thought nothing of rowing a mile across Walloon Lake, then walking three miles along roads that are still quiet, dusty and scented by the pine trees that line the route, into the tiny town of Horton Bay.

Upon arriving in the two-road town of Horton Bay (which sits on the shore of a cove of the same name) Hemingway would discover the white clapboard church where he and Hadley were married burned down decades ago, but he’d easily recognize the Horton Bay General Store, which has the same facade, the same wooden floor and the same fare of ice cream, candy and fresh bait. He might notice a small revolving rack filled with his paperbacks, and a guest book with entries from Syria and Argentina, Germany and Japan, but he would not see his face staring back at him from tacky T-shirts and trinkets.

Reassured by the familiarity of his former hamlet, he’d probably be willing to brave a walk down Lake Road to the water. On the way he’d see Dilworth’s boarding house, which provided him refuge in the low-ceilinged room off the kitchen when he didn’t feel like making the long trek back to his parents’ cabin. It’s no longer open for business, and the extra room off the kitchen, where Hemingway’s old bunk bed used to be, is now used for storing rusty croquet sets and barbecue grills. But he’d be relieved to see the current owners have refrained from posting a sign saying “Hemingway Slept Here” – although he did, many times. And unlike the Lincoln Bedroom, this one’s never for rent.

Next door, above the porch, he’d see an old board with “Shangri-La” engraved on it, identifying the place where Ernest and Hadley held their wedding reception 78 years ago. When Debby and Jeff Hutchison decided to buy the home years ago, they weren’t aware of the Hemingway connection. “We just bought it because it was a nice house,” she said. “And it has been.” The people in Horton Bay generally talk about their famous resident as a former neighbor, not a Nobel laureate.

If the locals are nonchalant about their Hemingway connection, Hemingway was unabashed about his devotion to the area. In 1924, while living in Paris, Hemingway started “Summer People,” the first of his highly autobiographical Nick Adams short stories. “Halfway down the gravel road from Horton Bay… to the lake there was a spring,” he wrote, “flowing away through the close-growing mint into the swamp.”

Three decades after “Summer People,” Hemingway started, “The Last Good Country,” in which he wrote, “There was a tin cup on a forked stick that was stuck in the gravel by the spring and Nick Adams looked at it and at the water rising and then flowing clear in its gravel bed beside the road… He could see both ways on the road and he looked up the hill and then down to the dock and the lake, and the wooded point across the bay…”

The same tin cup Hemingway wrote about in 1951 hung from the same forked stick, undisturbed for decades, until the road was paved a few years ago. No one wanted to steal the cup, or memorialize it. They just wanted to use it.

The swamp, the spring and the close-growing mint are all still there, as they were. These days the bay’s natural calm is occasionally broken by the wail of jet-skis, but the dock’s right there, and the point across the bay remains heavily wooded, haunted by the ghosts of Hemingway and his friends.

Hemingway led a glamorous life filled with travel, adventure and famous people, but he always reserved a special place in his memory for the simple summers he’d spent up north.

In 1960, Hemingway finished “A Moveable Feast,” his memoirs of 1920s Paris. Even then, Michigan was still on his mind. Just a few months before he killed himself, he wrote, “The best sky was in Italy or Spain and in Northern Michigan in the fall.”

It still is.

About the author: John U. Bacon lives in Ann Arbor and has written for Time, the New York Times, and ESPN Magazine, among others. His most recent book is “Bo’s Lasting Lessons,” a New York Times and Wall Street Journal business bestseller. Bacon teaches at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio; Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism; and the University of Michigan, where the students awarded him the Golden Apple Award for 2009.


  1. By Dave
    August 27, 2010 at 9:44 am | permalink

    Nothing about the Fox River (Two-Hearted River)? Black flies and bears make journalists uncomfortable? Just kidding :-)

    Cool article, thanks.

  2. By Duane Collicott
    August 27, 2010 at 10:18 am | permalink

    I was once visiting friends in Cadillac, pulled a book off their shelf at random for some evening reading, and opened it right to a story which included the train on which he was riding stopping in Cadillac for lunch. It was a synchronicity moment.

  3. August 27, 2010 at 12:08 pm | permalink


    Nice catch — but that’s a little farther north, as you know! And double points for knowing that “The Big Two-Hearted River” was really about the Fox — but Hemingway knew a better title when he heard one.



  4. August 28, 2010 at 1:44 pm | permalink

    Greetings from Hemingway On Stage.
    I had the great pleasure of visiting the sites you mention as part of my research. The first of my seven Hemingway plays shows a fair amount of Michigan. Would love to arrange a complimentary charity performance in your vicinity if you have a worthy cause to support. Check out

  5. August 29, 2010 at 1:45 pm | permalink

    Wonderful work, John, and a great reminder of the legacy of Hemingway and the places he loved. I’ve been embarking on my own Hemingway odyssey. Michigan is next on the list. Thanks for the beautiful words about what must still be a beautiful place.