Ernest Hemingway. His name conjures up images of the handsome, distinguished ruffian writer who drank too much and whose personal demons were his eventual un-doing.



July 2nd marked the 50th anniversary of his death – suicide, like his father.  Born in 1899, Ernest spent idyllic summers in northern Michigan, specifically in the Horton Bay area, the place that became, according to Hemingway himself, the source of “everything that was any good” that he ever wrote.

Ernest Hemingway. His name conjures up images of the handsome, distinguished ruffian writer who drank too much and whose personal demons were his eventual un-doing.

July 2nd marked the 50th anniversary of his death – suicide, like his father.  Born in 1899, Ernest spent idyllic summers in northern Michigan, specifically in the Horton Bay area, the place that became, according to Hemingway himself, the source of “everything that was any good” that he ever wrote.

The question asked by many a Hemingway buff is this; “What’s the big deal anyway?” What is it about Ernest Hemingway that is so remarkable that thousands of people around the world are members of the Ernest Hemingway Society? How is it that generations of people who have never read a single word that he wrote are so quickly able to conjure an image of him in their minds; whether an accurate one or not?

After all, his movies were not well received and got so-so reviews at the box office. He was not a great speller, he seldom punctuated his writing, and aside from the 1953 Pulitzer Prize for The Old Man and the Sea, and a 1954 Nobel Prize for Literature, he received few awards for his writing. Of all the great writers in the world, and of all the famous ones who emerged from Michigan or spent time here, why Hemingway?

I posed those questions to Chris Struble of Petoskey, who, along with business partner Mike Federspiel, operates Petoskey Yesterday, a company that provides historical, ghost, and Hemingway tours of the area.  He sits on the Board of Directors of the Michigan Hemingway Society.

“What’s the big deal about Hemingway?” he repeats with a chuckle. “I think we all have asked that question at one time or another at the conventions. It’s not just in Michigan that he is so iconic. He spent a good deal of time in France and Cuba, where he is as well-loved, if not more-so, than here. He grew up in Illinois, worked in Kansas City for a time, served in WWI in Europe, lived in Key West, in London, visited Africa… You could go to any of those places and find that Ernest Hemingway’s name brings smiles to faces.”

“The thing about his writing, I think,” said Struble as we walked Petoskey’s streets as Hemingway did many times as a young man, “is that he gave us the ‘iceberg theory’. “ It’s like he exposed just 10% of the story to us, which gives the reader space to fill in everything below the surface. The stories become very personal and individualized, depending upon who is reading them. It’s a writing technique that is very effective, and very subtle. What he doesn’t write becomes as intriguing as what he does.”

As we walked, Struble pointed to various buildings where Hemingway’s own journals confirm that he visited. “It is believed that Hemingway frequented the Park City Grill and ‘always sat on the second stool’ to drink and write. Was he ever there? Sure, he was. But the whole second stool part is legend. Because he made journal entries nearly every day, we have written records…in his own hand…that indicate that the legend of the second stool is merely that; a legend.”

Does that stop visitors from vying for that seat in order to “have a drink with Ernest Hemingway”?  Of course not, because sometimes what we want to believe is stronger than the truth, and reaching for that common experience links us to the past.
Hemingway’s journals place him in various locals in and around Petoskey. The house at 602 State Street is where he lived when he returned from the war, with serious injuries to his legs. Upon arriving in Oak Park, Illinois where he was born and raised, he received a “Dear John” letter from his fiancée, stating that she intended to marry another man. Young Ernest found solace in the place he loved best, Northern Michigan, where he rented the 602 State Street room and became a man-about-town, often donning a hat and cape, drinking to excess and squiring the young ladies.

“The other part of that,” says Struble “is that he also was in a lot of physical pain from his injuries. He was lucky to have had the physician that he did since at that time the easiest thing to do would have been to amputate both of his legs. Instead, he regularly dug shrapnel out of his skin with a jack knife for an extended period, living in constant fear of infection.”

Hemingway wrote in his journals about the severity of the winter, the only one he ever endured in the area. Until that time, he had known only the halcyon days of summers in Horton Bay, where he would return again and again in adulthood.
Piling into Struble’s car, we drove to the mostly-unchanged, tiny pass-through village of Horton Bay, where the General Store and Red Fox Inn are still in operation, and cater to the Hemingway crowd.

An old bench sits in front of the store’s big window. “People believe that this is the bench upon which Hemingway sat to write, and we have talked to people from as far away as Japan who have made their way to this spot to do the same,” he told us. “Unfortunately, this bench is merely one of probably thousands made at that time, and this is probably a replica of those.” He went on to explain that a photograph that puts Ernest Hemingway on such a bench was taken in St. Louis (according to Hemingway’s hand-written journal entry) …not in Horton Bay.  “But it is fun to imagine that he did sit here, and of course he spent time and money in this building. He probably sat on this porch; just not on this particular bench.”
Down the road, two houses stand: Pinehurst and Shangri La, where Ernest and his first wife, Hadley, hosted their wedding reception. Hemingway’s Nick Adams stories point to this place often. “This road might be the most famous road in American literature,” Struble said. “Hemingway describes it to the letter in at least four stories. He often stayed in the upstairs rooms of Shangri La, and slept on the porch of Pinehurst the night before his wedding.

The two houses remain much as they were in those days, and can still be rented by the week as vacation cottages. “Hemingway loved it here,” Struble continued as we headed into the Red Fox Inn, where a hand-painted wall plaque quotes a letter written by Hemingway to his friend, Bill Horne, in 1920. It reads:

 “We are located at Horton’s Bay on Big Pine Lake, Michigan. The Bay is the place for you Bill. Take it from a writer who should know... Blow up north. Once our particular part of the North gets into you, life isn’t a foul mess anymore…Come up and you’ll be a new man from then on. I wouldn’t give it up for all the wine, women and song in the world – and I was never opposed to any of the great Trilogy.”

Struble said that within the coming year, “about a dozen” bronze plaques will be set by The Hemingway Foundation to permanently mark locations where records confirm Hemingway’s presence.

Windemere, the family cottage on Walloon Lake, where Hemingway spent his boyhood summers, still stands.  Grace Cottage, Hemingway's mother's personal get-away also remains on the family's farmland. Privately owned and inhabited, neither is open to public viewing.

We can however stand in the place where 15 year old Ernest set up camp for himself in the summertime, often shirking some of his farm duties to go swimming and fishing in Walloon Lake. From his writing we learn that he began each morning with a swim, and ended the days the same. A public boat launch allows us to enter the water where he did, looking across the lake to the spot that was the destination of his row boat many times.

Perhaps that is the key to Hemingway’s appeal. He lived life as he ended it; on his own terms. He went where he wanted to go, when he wanted to go there and made his life’s work out of the places and the things he loved best.

Now, 50 years after his death, we can retrace his steps and glimpse what he saw. We can feel the same sense of independence and freedom that nature offers. We can fish the same waters, walk the same streets, raise a glass in the same establishments, and understand why Northern Michigan calls us back again and again. Because part of what made Hemingway “Hemingway” was that he loved the places we love.

That’s a big deal.­­­­­

For information about Hemingway tours, visit www.petoskeyyesterday.com.

Current photos courtesy of Kenneth D. Wright. Vintage photos are courtesy of Michael Federspiel.

Ann Rowland is a contributor to the Mackinac Journal and a regular writer for regional magazines and newspapers.