"Old Baldy" Back When

by Ed Howard
Reprinted from Society News, the newsletter of the Arcadia Area Historical Society
June 2018. Volume 24 Issue 1.

It’s now been christened “Old Baldy,” but, we who grew-up within its sway knew it by other favored names like “Big Baldy,” “The Bluff,” “The Blow-out,” or even just “Baldy.” When young, few of us would have guessed that our private little shifting-sand retreat would someday become a National attraction. Many have come, and thousands are yet to come to experience the majesty of Old Baldy.

We’re talking here, of course, about Baldy, the majestic sand dune that is the focal point of Baldy Trails in the C.S. Mott Nature Preserve. These trails, as locals know, begin just north of Arcadia, not far beyond the Scenic Turnout—or “Inspiration Point.”

Guess we should have known it couldn’t remain hidden, not with that spectacular Lake Michigan bluff whose beauty almost magnetically draws beach walkers upward towards it. It’s an irresistible 400 plus foot climb. Bobbie Counsell, long time cottage owner in Arcadia’s Cottage Colony, says in bygone days walking the beach and then making that challenging climb was their means of reaching Baldy. She says that venture also became a “must-do” thing for her children when they vacationed there.

Besides its unique beauty, seems there was also a spiritual draw to Baldy. Bobbie relates that Lois Breimeier, widow of long time Trinity Lutheran pastor Ken Breimeier, told her this: Her husband Ken, when they were both on summer staff at Camp Arcadia in 1948 would take the highway and lead groups north every Wednesday to hold devotional services at the Baldy site. (Note, many refer to the bluff itself as “Baldy.”) If the earliest Americans didn’t make Baldy a sacred site, maybe Pastor Ken did.

My wife, then Joyce Gilbert, recalls those Camp groups passing by their home on M22, at the foot of the “big hill”. She remembers the lively singing of old spiritual songs as they walked past and up the hill toward Inspiration Point. Joyce also has memories about her own 1940s walks to “The Blow-out” (their family term for the Baldy site) with younger sister Betty and summer friend Mary Murphy. It was their favorite thing to do on weekends. Their route was always from Mary’s folk’s Lakeside cottage north and then up the mighty bluff.



North Bluff Hike. The "Blowout." Circa 1940

North Bluff Hike. The “Blowout.” Circa 1940.
This is a photo showing hikers in the 1940s walking on the dune. With wind, weather, and changing shoreline, the dune’s shape and vegetation coverage change from year to year.
-- Miller, Frank W. “CAMP ARCADIA: The First Sixty Years.” 1982. Page 103.

 Satellite View of Old Baldy

Satellite View of Old Baldy
Just north of Arcadia and Inspiration Point is a perched dune with an opening to Lake Michigan at the south end and Old Baldy at the north end.
-- Google Maps

Our little raise-a-little-of-everything farm on M22 where I grew up was probably closer to Big Baldy than any other homestead; our little one room school just off M22 on Joyfield Road was even closer. The bluffs were our playground. If for any reason school was cancelled or let-out early, it was generally “off to the bluffs” with young brother Bernie and school mates Jay and Kenny Fitzhugh. Our route was most always west through the rolling hills and woods to the east base of Big Baldy. Baldy’s east side was thickly wooded and had no fixed path to the top, so the climb could be an effort. But, the anticipated view was always worth it.

You always knew the view would never be as last remembered. Always amazing, but, never the same. The shifting sands and changing foliage made “same” impossible. From the rim we‘d shuffle down into the “bowl”, generally taking a quick look north at “Little Baldy” as we did. (Little Baldy was a constant knob of sand that stuck out from the tall trees and vines to the north. It is now gone or completely covered over with woods and vine.) We’d then enjoy the surrounds awhile before skimming over the sands south to the downward bluff. Looking forward to that gravity-led, fast slip-and-slide to the beach was always a pleasure. Once down, we’d romp north along the beach, picking up any “rare” stones, metal fishnet floats—and the like. On a complete day, we’d reach the old Mortenson farm before heading east and home to do chores.


The View from Old Baldy

The View from Old Baldy
These hikers from Camp Arcadia made the trek up Old Baldy to see the view north along Lake Michigan’s eastern shoreline and Lower Herring Lake.
-- Camp Arcadia Archives Emanual Jass photo collection

After age eleven or twelve, there were many times I’d take quick hikes to Baldy by myself. I guess it was usually on weekends in late spring when chores were light and the mood was right. It was when the woods was in full bloom, animals were really out and about and songbirds were at their best. I usually traveled with the comfort of our single shot, short barrel 22 rifle and a pocket half full of shells. Not much real security against those wild bears I envisioned, but, that old hair-trigger Springfield gave me a lot of confidence. On those solo trips most of the time was spent exploring the woods around the base of Baldy.

Sanda “Dolph” Willsey, a daughter and granddaughter respectively of our closest M22 back-then neighbors, the Dolphs and Stubbses, has very similar remembrances of Big Baldy and its surrounds. She recalls vividly hikes there with friends like Helene Kuberski from Dry Hill, Nancy Fritz from Hunt Road and sister Maudie. For her she says climbing the face of Big Baldy took forty five minutes. One recollection she has was rather humorous; it took place on a warm summer day when she and her group of girls were walking the beach just below Big Baldy. It was hot, and the temptation to take a quick cool dip in Lake Michigan was overwhelming. They were without swimsuits, but the heat was too much. It was strip to birthday suits and “splash” into the water.

Suddenly, to their great embarrassment, a group of boys appeared at the very top of the bluff and echoed out a barrage of “whoops and hollers”. Of course, there was a great scramble to re-clothe with wet bodies. Sanda said they always presumed it was the Howard and Fitzhugh boys on one of their romps.—(But, no,no,no--we’d have remembered something like that.)

Sanda also fondly remembers “Little Baldy”. She loved to hunt around its base. Sanda was a serious deer hunter, and she says the biggest of bucks seemed to hang out in that area. She recalls also, as others do, that around that little guy’s base grew the finest of Christmas trees.

From a Watervale perspective, Dori Turner and Skip (Vern) Noble have some definite early memories of Old Baldy. They are the daughter and son of long time Watervale Resort owners, Vern and Vera (Kraft) Noble. Dori says her Dad introduced them to Baldy at a very early age. They eventually created a well-worn trail directly to that sandy site that even renters could use to find it. Skip, young entrepreneur that he apparently was, used his familiarity with the entire area to give guided tours to Old Baldy--at fifty cents a customer. He hinted that with renters changing every week, business was good.


Paths through the Ever-Changing Dunes

Paths through the Ever Changing Dunes

Well, it seems we’ve here covered early impressions of Old Baldy from about all directions. All who shared these memories know, that, indeed, thousands more will soon be coming to share the beauty of their longtime playground. It is good that all the grandness of Big Baldy is now open to everyone and will be viewed and appreciated by so many. And, we with the memories will still go on enjoying the enduring views,--but, because we knew it long before the visiting crowds, it will never quite be the same.