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Hemingway’s early vacations in Michigan inform his stories, novels

The wood-burning steamer that the Hemingways took from Walloon Village to their cottage. Photo courtesy of Christopher Struble
Ken Burns’ documentary airs April 5

By Jim Bloch

Northern Michigan provides many of the settings, characters and plots for Nobel Prize-winning writer Ernest Hemingway’s short stories. Hemingway’s family vacations on Walloon Lake and his experiences as a child, teen and young man in northern Michigan also percolate in the background of his novels.

Readers of Hemingway are familiar with the international settings of his novels — think Cuba, Spain and Africa. But the more local exotica of Petoskey, Lake Charlevoix and Kalkaska inspired his first successful short stories, especially those featuring a character much like himself — Nick Adams.

Fans got a chance to re-immerse themselves in Hemingway’s Michigania on Feb. 24 when Petoskey-based Hemingway buff Christopher Struble presented “Old Man and the Lake: Ernest Hemingway in Michigan.” Struble, who is president of the Michigan Hemingway Society, spoke via Zoom in a national edition of the Historical Society of Michigan’s series History Hounds, which drew a record-breaking audience of more than 220.

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PBS provides another opportunity to reconsider Hemingway’s life, work and death when it airs a three-part documentary about the writer by Ken Burns. The telecast begins April 5.

Up North

Dr. Clarence Hemingway and his wife Grace, enchanted by stories of the wilderness and fresh air in northern Michigan, traveled from their home in Oak Park, IL, to Walloon Lake — when it was still called Bear Lake — in 1898, the year before Ernest was born.

They could not roar up US-131 in an eight cylinder SUV, a trip that now might take five and a half hours. Theirs was an arduous two-day journey that involved a horse-drawn wagon from Oak Park to the docks in Chicago where they boarded a steamship such as the SS Manitou for a 17-hour cruise up Lake Michigan to Harbor Springs. Two more train rides put them in Walloon Village. A wood-fired steamer took them across the lake to the property where they would build their cottage: Before the couple headed back to Oak Park, they purchased an acre of land on the lake amid a second-growth forest of cedar, pine, maple, birch and hemlock.

A young Hemingway displays a string of fish he caught in Walloon Lake. Photo courtesy of Christopher Struble

The first time the Hemingways drove to their cottage was in 1917 in a Model T; that trip took four days.

Ernest was six months old during his inaugural trip to Walloon Lake in 1899. By 1901, his parents had overseen the construction of their 20 by 40-foot cabin, which they named Windemere. It cost the couple $400 to build. The cabin would grow over the years and come to include a boat house, a bigger kitchen and a three-bedroom annex as the Hemingway family grew to six children.

Ernest’s mother, Grace, was an accomplished singer and spent a year in New York studying opera. She debuted at Madison Square.

“She was also an amazing painter,” Struble said. Her strength was landscape compositions.

The Hemingway children spent their summers essentially outdoors, swimming, hiking, camping and shooting.

“Ernest was very much in charge of his environment in Michigan,” said Struble.

His life-long love of fishing was formed at Walloon Lake and many of his dad’s photos show Ernest and the family displaying their prized catches of perch, trout, bass and pike.

“Clarence was a shutterbug,” said Struble — which accounts for the rich photographic catalogue of the family’s experiences Up North.

One of Ernest’s most famous novels, “The Old Man and the Sea,” focused on a nightmarish fishing trip in the Gulf Stream.

Young man in the woods

After graduating from Oak Park High in 1917, Hemingway did a half-year stint as a reporter for the Kansas City Star. The paper’s style handbook appears to have had a major impact on his writing, Struble said. The handbook emphasized a streamlined form of English — short sentences, short first paragraphs, muscular language.

With one exception, Ernest would spend major parts of every summer at the cottage through 1921, when he and Hadley Richardson got married on Horton Bay on the main basin of Lake Charlevoix, just west of Walloon Lake. Horton Bay would later be reflected in the short stories “Up in Michigan,” “The End of Something” and “Three Day Blow.”

The exception was 1918, when Ernest drove an ambulance for the Red Cross in Italy during the first World War and was so seriously wounded by machine gun fire and a bomb that his doctors gave him little chance of ever walking again. He returned to northern Michigan to recover.

During these coming-of-age years for the writer, the Up North economy was in radical transition from lumbering to tourism. Vast stretches of the state had been clear-cut, leaving acres of scorched stumps as far as the eye could see. The roads and rails built by the lumber barons provided the infrastructure that allowed visitors from around the Midwest relatively easy access to the sandy shores of Lake Michigan and the state’s numerous inland lakes and rivers. There were plenty of opportunities for the young Ernest to rub shoulders with the local residents of the area.

“He loved telling his friends back in Oak Pak about the Native Americans and the lumberjacks he met,” Struble said.

The stories “Indian Camp,” “The Doctor and the Doctor’s Wife” and “The Last Good Country” appear to be set at Walloon Lake. “Ten Indians” includes a description of the wagon ride from Petoskey to Walloon Lake.

The state of Michigan continued to pop up in Hemingway’s novels.

“Hemingway would for the rest of his life make references to Michigan and his youth,” according to “Hemingway in Michigan” on the website of Central Michigan University’s Clarke Historical Library. “In A Moveable Feast he describes writing about Michigan while sitting in Paris cafes in the twenties. In True at First Light he remembers from Africa the sweet taste of cider pressed at Horton Bay and in Islands in the Stream the lead character is asked when he had been most happy. He recounted days at the lake as a boy.”


This year is the 60th anniversary of Hemingway’s suicide. The Nobel-winning writer shot himself with a 12-gauge shotgun, July 2, 1961 in Ketchum, Idaho.

Suicide has been a plague in the Hemingway family.

Ernest’s father committed suicide in 1928, shooting himself with a handgun in the family house in Oak Park. Ernest’s little brother Leicester, then 13, was home. Leicester, also a writer, killed himself in 1982. Their sister Ursula took her own life in 1966. Hemingway’s granddaughter Margaux committed suicide in 1996.

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