Donated historical photos bring a family to life
By Steven Wade Veatch & Cheri Dundon
For the lucky among us, there is one summer we experience that is so intense, so magical, that we never forget it. The summer of 1906 was like that for the seven children of Henry Seibels Wannamaker (1861-1955) and his wife, Mary E. [Filley] Wannamaker (1863-1946).
Henry Wannamaker had arrived on the Frankfort side of Crystal Lake several years earlier to help organize the Congregational Summer Assembly (CSA), a Congregational Church summer camp for ministers and laypersons. He would make trips there each year from his home in Elyria, Ohio, where he was a pastor of a church. (Henry had been asked to investigate the possibility of establishing a summer Bible college, and in 1900, the Cleveland Association of Congregational Churches met to consider this question; Wannamaker would become a key figure in the early CSA days.)
Following marital problems in 1905, Henry Wannamaker left Ohio and traveled to New Mexico. He started a town there that he named Amistad—Spanish for “friendship”—and promoted the area through church newsletters. Meanwhile, Mary took the couple’s seven children, ages two to 16, and left for Crystal Lake in Northern Michigan.
A 43-year-old Mary Wannamaker—now separated from her husband—owned a large section of land, which she called “Oberlin,” across from the CSA camp on the western shore of Crystal Lake. During the spring and early summer of 1906, the Wannamaker family lived in a tent on the property in the nearby woods, close to the lake. They shared their land with bears, foxes, deer, and bloodsucking mosquitoes.
About mid-summer, she bought a cottage in the woods near Crystal Lake, not too far from Lake Michigan. This was a relief after living in a tent in the woods earlier that summer.
Inside the cottage, they shared dinners and talked around the kitchen table. They read in the newspapers about what then-President Theodore Roosevelt (R) was doing and discussed the alarming reports of the devastating San Francisco earthquake that destroyed much of the city while killing some 3,000 people and leaving a multitude homeless.
With Henry Wannamaker’s departure for the Southwest, Mary’s father sent her 29-year-old brother Walter Filley (1877-1961) from New Haven, Connecticut, to Michigan in 1906 to help his sister and her seven children.
Walter Filley—who had just graduated from Yale University—was determined to have a high old time with his nieces and nephews before he returned home to New Haven, where he had been helping with his father’s successful photography business. A few years prior, Walter had served in the U.S. Navy, later joining the militia in 1898 during the Spanish-American War, so spending a summer with his sister’s family was sure to be relaxing, compared to his time in the Navy, a war, Yale, and working under his father.
With the guidance of Uncle Walter, the summer of 1906 sparkled with wonderment and pleasures for the seven Wannamaker children, despite the absence of their father. This summer was so intense, so captivating, that the Wannamaker children never forgot it. Many years later, one of these children—the oldest, Phyllis Wannamaker (1889-1976)—recorded this about those dreamy days when she was 16 years old in an undated letter to her brother Vic (1898-1989), who had been eight years old at the time of that summer:
“I believe it was the pleasantest summer I ever spent. Uncle Walter [Filley] taught us all to swim and float and made us a boat and taught us how to handle it and then read to us and taught us to notice more around us—the woods, etc. He tried to teach Cleora [1893-1974, so 13 years old at the time] and me how to dance and took me to several parties at Davis Inn in Crystalia and made us all enjoy ourselves.”
Crystalia is located just to the north of the CSA on Crystal Lake, along what is now M-22. This tract of land, Crystalia, changed ownership several times until W.L. Davis became the owner before the turn of the 20th century; he later subdivided the land, named the community and its streets, and then sold lots to affluent businessmen.
In 1899, Davis had built a lodge in Crystalia and gave it the name “Three Pines.” He later added a dining room onto the lodge, and the place became known as the Three Pines Inn. (A sign for it can still be seen today along M-22.) The residents of Crystalia, the CSA, and surrounding areas swarmed the Three Pines Inn every Sunday evening for their legendary chicken dinners. This is likely the “Davis Inn” that Phyllis mentions in her letter, the place where she and her sister Cleora went to parties with their Uncle Walter Filley; it was at the Inn that Uncle Walter taught the two girls to dance.
Beyond dance lessons, swim lessons, and boat-making, Walter Filley had a substantial impact on the lives of the Wannamaker children that summer. After warm weather arrived, he spent a lot of time with them. Each morning held the promise of a summer day, and he would take them out and awaken them to its possibilities and wonders. Everything was as bright as a new penny for the Wannamaker children.
The children would leave their cottage and walk down a snaking path through the cedar-and-moss-scented woods for their lessons. Eventually, after enough coaching by Uncle Walter, they did not need the water wings and could swim on their own in the pleasant summer waters of Lake Michigan.
One memorable event was a trip to the Point Betsie Lighthouse, just a few miles from their cottage. The children walked around to the lighthouse, perched near the edge of Lake Michigan. They explored the shoreline and watched the waves lapping on the beach and disappearing from the wet sand. Gulls stood in groups on the beach and looked into the breeze. Everyone waded in the water. Joyce “John” Wannamaker (1904-1989)—the youngest of the siblings, only a two-year-old toddler at the time—played in the sand. Everybody then climbed rolling sand dunes that were covered in beachgrass that blended into the forest.
Uncle Walter took the Wannamaker children through the woods often that summer. He showed them how to enjoy their surroundings, to watch the trees sway in the wind, and to listen to small birds chitter. Some days, the forest was still as a stone.
They walked everywhere that summer, mostly barefoot. They sometimes followed creeks and enjoyed standing at the edge of ponds, lined with lily pads and partly submerged fallen logs. They took turns catching frogs and watching turtles. Their shrieks of laughter filled the forest.
Uncle Walter was a hero, as he showed them the beauty and pleasure of the natural world.
Nine-year-old Walt—named after his Uncle Walter Filley—and an eight-year-old Vic especially enjoyed fishing. One day, they ventured into a forest clearing where Walt taught his younger brother, Vic, how to clean a bluegill. The bond that developed between the brothers lasted a lifetime.
The children explored every inch of the forest. They walked through it—past trees and hanging branches—as they made their way to the shores of Lake Michigan, where they freely walked along the beach and likely collected rocks and searched for Petoskey stones. When they returned to their cottage, their bare feet surely whispered on the floorboards as they came in to show their mother what they had collected along the sandy beach.
The slamming of the screen door on the cottage meant the children were out to play. The children would go full throttle each day until evening gathered around them, and then the night turned black and the stars came out. The trill of riotous crickets filled the night; it was time to watch fireflies, then go inside and read until bedtime.
Their world had been content in those pleasant summer days in 1906 at Crystal Lake. A few more summers at the lake cottage would follow—though without Uncle Walter serving as their ring leader. Likewise, the family would spend the winters in a house in nearby Frankfort, just a few miles from the CSA, because the cottage was too cold, with icy gales ripping off nearby Lake Michigan.
Eventually, Mary Wannamaker traveled with her brood of seven to Amistad, New Mexico, to join her husband once again, sometime after 1908; the exact date is unknown.
What is known is that Reverend H. S. Mills had remarried Henry and Mary Wannamaker on October 27, 1908, at the Benzonia Congregational Church. According to the marriage license, Henry was 46 and a railroad employee in New Mexico, while Mary was 45 and listed as a housekeeper residing in Frankfort. Their son, Walt, was listed as the witness. By 1910, the entire Wannamaker family was living in Amistad, New Mexico.
Meanwhile, Uncle Walter Filley later worked for the state of Connecticut as a forester and, at the age of 41, he married 33-year-old Margaret Paton (1885-1987) in 1918; Walter and Margaret raised three children in New Haven, Connecticut, and he likely was as good of a father as he had been an uncle.
Tennessee Williams wrote, “Life is all memory.” The summer of 1906 was a time for making memories for the Wannamaker children. The days passed quickly, and Uncle Walter was a constant star in the constellation of fun during the summer of 1906.
The family photos—more than a century old—reveal an intimate story that brings the Wannamaker children to life for those who see them in these words and photos. And, this story moves us to remember our own special summer days.
Steven Wade Veatch and Cheri Dundon are volunteer archivists with the Benzie Area Historical Society and Museum. This essay is the result of research on the Wannamaker family, after the recent donation of a family photo album. Do you have historical photos that you want to donate to our local history? Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or call 231-882-5539.
Featured Photo Caption: Five of the seven Wannamaker children pose on a beach in 1906: Vic, Walt, Gladys, Cleora, Phyllis (from left to right). Not pictured: Homer and Joyce “John”. Photo likely taken by their Uncle Walter Filley; from the Wannamaker family collection, courtesy of the Benzie Area Historical Society.