Cottages of Torch Lake: Harris Beach

Posted on May 6, 2009

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This morning Babs Young and I fortified ourselves with breakfast at Sonny’s and set off into the wilds of the Township on the trail of one of the oldest surviving cottages on Torch Lake, armed only with her camera, my pen, and our notoriety as intrepid reporters.  Plus we had an invitation. 

Maude Harris's log cabin on Torch Lake as it looks in 2009

This is Maude Harris’s log cabin at Harris Beach.  It belongs to Carol and Don Leys—Carol is Maude’s granddaughter—and they had agreed to show us around.  The cottage was built in 1924 by Mayo Zeigler, Carol’s step-grandfather.  She remembers helping Grandpa maintain the chinking from the time she was a little girl.

Grandpa Mayo Zeigelman

Grandpa Mayo Zeigler

This is Grandpa at the pump behind the cottage. Carol says her grandmother Maude drew water from this pump for cooking and washing up. Maude was clever with the three-burner kerosene stove, and had a contraption that fit over the back burner to serve as an oven.  An icebox was kept supplied with ice from Stubbs’ store.

Up North Decor

The traditional cottage is the traditional repository of the cast-off furniture from the city house, and so it was at Harris Beach.  Carol has preserved the family artifacts, and the decor is decidedly Up North: a vintage china cupboard, old dressers, a patchwork of carpet scraps, the obligatory snowshoes and a fine example of the taxidermist’s art.  “Every summer we’d pet the deer for good luck,” says Carol.  “It was our wish for a good summer.”

Fireplace of stones tumbled by the glacier

The fireplace surround is a marvel of stones made smooth by the glacier and mortared in place by Grandpa.  Model ships sail across the mantel. 

Maude Harris's log cabin - lakeside porch

There was no electricity or telephone or running water.  The beds were on the screened porch that ran the length of the lake side; the table and more beds filled another screened porch on the south side. 

The Harris Sisters with their mother: Blanch, mother Lizzie, Maude and Grace

The Harris Sisters with their mother: Blanch, mother Lizzie, Maude and Grace

Maude had two sisters, Blanch and Grace, who had neighboring cottages.  To Carol and her cousins Torch Lake was paradise.  For entertainment they could walk to the post office or to one of the “sweet huts” (candy and ice cream shops) that popped up each summer.  They could listen to the battery-operated radio.  They could play cards or Hide and Seek or Red Rover or Murder.  The older kids could take the younger kids on snipe hunts. 

They could swim in the blue, blue water of Torch Lake.  They could wade out to sandbars and canoe over to Pearl Beach.  They could look for stones and paint pictures and tell stories around the firepit on the beach.  When the whippoorwill called, it was time to come in and go to bed. 

Carol Leys demonstrates the dinner bell

This little bell called the family to dinner on ordinary occasions. A much bigger—and louder—bell announced important matters like the birth of a grandchild, or the absolutely last call to get in here and get ready for bed NOW!

Maude Harris's log cabin in 2009

Over the years there have been changes.  The screened porches have windows and doors now.  There is electricity and running water.  The little cabin that belonged to Maude’s sister Blanch was moved over from next door and attached to the rear of Maude’s cabin, making room for a real kitchen and a real bath.  The big tree in front has grown enormous.  Another is gone.  But the character of the cottage has not changed.  It is a true Michigan “place on the lake,” the place we long for when we are away.  

At the end of every summer Carol’s Grandpa would row her out on Torch Lake so she could fill a bottle with its blue, blue water to take home with her.  She could never understand how the water that looked so blue in the lake could be just plain, clear water in the bottle.  Explanations about refracted sunlight and reflected sky and Ellsworth shale did nothing to clear up the mystery.  It didn’t matter.  Carol knew the water in the bottle came from Torch Lake.  It had an inner blueness, even if you couldn’t see it.  She could look at it and be back on the beach.

Carol has been coming to her grandparents’ cabin since she was four weeks old.  When she and Don were engaged, she brought him with her.  He suggested that there might be other nice places to visit, too.  She offered him his ring back.  He concluded that perhaps other places were not quite so nice as Torch Lake.  They’ve been married for 54 years now, 16 of them spent in the retirement home they built at the back of the deep lot where Maude Harris’s log cabin looks out at the lake. 

Don is a longtime volunteer with the Township’s ambulance service.  Carol volunteers in the gift shop at Charlevoix Area Hospital and works on summer weekends at Mar DeTar’s Brownwood Acres.  They are knitted into the life of this community.  They have planned to leave their little piece of heaven to their three children, so that long after they’re gone, their grandchildren and great-grandchildren will come to Maude’s log cabin on Torch Lake, pet the deer to wish for a good summer, look for stones, hunt for snipe, and swim in the blue, blue water. 

Maude Harris's log cabin in 1924

Maude Harris's log cabin in 1924

Maude Harris's log cabin in 1924 - Lake side screened porch

Maude Harris's log cabin in 1924 - Lake side screened porch

Note: All the color photos are by Babs Young.  The black and white photos are family pictures provided by Carol Leys.

Harris Beach residents descended from the three Harris sisters:

  • Maude: Carol Leys (Don)
  • Grace: Jack Pilkington
  • Blanch: Jim McClurg, Bill McClurg, Larry Tomlinson and Martha McGuire