Dust to dust, with mystery in between

Posted on March 29, 2016


Back in December I was rummaging around in digital archives to see what I could find out about John H Silkman.  In the 1870s and 1880s he was a pretty big frog in the little pond of Torch Lake Township, with a lumber mill and a whole company town at Torch Lake Village.  The mill was on the shore of Torch Lake, pretty much where the Day Park is now.  The tramway, where the horse is pulling a milled load, went across the road and on out to the dock on Grand Traverse Bay, where the lumber was shifted onto a steamer headed for Milwaukee.  Those barrels on the roof, kept filled with water, were the latest thing in fire protection.


Cameron Mill (1880s, after Cameron Brothers purchased it from John H. Silkman) from the Elk Rapids Area Historical Society collection.


John owned most of three sections of land, a hotel, a fleet of schooners, and a summer home on Torch Lake.  He owned a tug and passenger steamer named the Jennie Silkman after his wife, Rachel Jane.  He owned the Company Store.


Advertisement from the Elk Rapids Progress

Like many developers, investors and Summer People then and since, he lived Away–in his case, in Milwaukee, where he owned lumberyards and sold the timber that his employees harvested and milled in Michigan.  In the 1880s he bought land on North Point overlooking the Milwaukee harbor, where he built a square, gray frame house that became a landmark.  Six decades later his great-grandchildren sold the property to the County of Milwaukee for a park.

That is what brought me to the Wisconsin Historical Society site, which is often a treasure trove.  However, in this instance I found just two little entries about our John and one of those turned out to be incorrect. I shipped off a polite correction and figured that would be the end of it.  Then I had a response:

Thank you for using our online genealogy index and bringing this error to our attention.  The error has been verified and corrected.  We do not have the capacity here at the Wisconsin Historical Society to keep files on individuals or families unless they were prominent in some way.  You are more likely to find that type of information at a historical society or library located in the area where John Silkman lived.

Well.  I guess that put me in my place, eh?  Here I am doing research on a person of no prominence in any way.  This is funny for two reasons.  First, I always thought John had a fairly impressive resume, all things considered.  I see that I lack an understanding of the fine points of prominence.  Second, I believe history is made mostly by people of no prominence even by my standards.  But I digress.

In spite of what I mistakenly thought was his prominence, John interests me.  He was a busy boy Around Here, during a period when photographers were everywhere–yet I have not found a single picture of him.  There are lots of pictures of the Jennie Silkman.  Of course, the steamer operated on the Chain of Lakes long after John sold his properties and retired to Milwaukee for good.

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The Jennie Silkman at the dock in Torch Lake Village, from the Elk Rapids Area Historical Society collection.

The local consensus is that when John’s son Samuel died in 1882, John was heartbroken. By 1883 he’d sold his businesses and all his property to the Cameron Brothers and never looked back.

There is always an undercurrent in the things written about John, as if the writer didn’t like him much but was not about to say so publicly.  In 1875 there was a financial scandal, according to Merritt Hodge, whose reminiscences were published in the Central Lake Torch in 1915:

Everything went alright until about the first of August [1875], when we got word to shut down the mill and stop all work, as Mr. Silkman had failed. In about six weeks everything started again, and it was said that Mr. Silkman paid off his indebtedness of $20,000 at thirteen and one-half cents on the dollar. At this time Mr. Silkman ran a large store doing a business of about $40,000 a year . . .

Look closely at their lives and sooner or later people will surprise you.  When you stop to think about it, you realize that everyone around you right now, in this time and place, is also full of surprises.

No secrets, though. There are no secrets in Torch Lake Township.