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Mills Community House Turns 105

Photo courtesy of Mills Community Association.

Annual fundraiser features Cole Porter music

It’s delightful, it’s de-lovely, it’s “An Evening of Cole Porter” on Saturday, August 2, at 8 p.m. The hour-long musical revue, a fundraiser for the Mills Community Association in Benzonia, will be preceded at 7:15 by complimentary desserts, as well as wine and other beverages.

Performers include David Johnson, an often-featured soloist with the Benzie Community Chorus, joined by Owen Anderson, Linda Beaupre, and Carolyn Burnstein. This foursome, accompanied by Anita Delph on piano, Connie Huber (a “Chenille Sister”) on percussion, and Michelle Robinson on string bass were all once part of the Black Sheep Repertory Theatre. The upcoming “one-night-only” performance is a reunion of sorts for the group, who will create an intimate Cabaret-style atmosphere for this event.

The Mills House has undergone a visible renovation over the past several months, most evident in a stair-tower addition and expanded parking area (gone is the struggle to find a space). The Upper Hall, which will be the site of the fundraiser, has also benefited from a sound booth area, interior paint, window and stage curtain enhancements, and “blackout blinds” (no more glare). Not to mention — hooray — air conditioning and comfortable chairs.

A center of our community for more than 100 years, the Mills Community House was established in 1909 and named for the beloved Reverend Harlow Mills. In 1972, the building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. The Mills Community Association is a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit that is supported by donations, rentals, and fundraising events — not your tax dollars.

Most locals know that Mills was once a high school and before that a college, funded by a group of self-proclaimed “ardent educators” from Oberlin College who settled at the east end of Crystal Lake in 1858. A model of progressive thinking, Benzonia Academy was to be “an institution dedicated to the education of both sexes, without distinction of color or ethnic origin” and with an emphasis on art and music. That vision has endured to this day.

After a disastrous fire in 1909, Reverend Mills managed to rally the community, and $2,200 was raised for a new structure. A wealthy Manistee lumber baron matched the funds, stipulating that the new building be constructed of brick, not wood.

The Academy closed in 1918 and was deeded to the Benzonia Congregational Church, with the proviso that it be used for cultural, educational, and outdoor activities for the community. After a renovation that included an auditorium and gymnasium, the building reopened in 1925 as Mills Community House, which became home to the public library (the county’s first), basketball games, plays, concerts, and proms.
In 2006, another renovation began, and the Upper Level was converted into a small recital and lecture hall, now home to the Benzie County Players. The Lower Level, which includes a large fully-equipped kitchen, is used for various meetings and events.

According to board secretary Marjorie Porter, this “low-cost venue — the closest this county has to a community center — needs more supportive people to take an interest in the future of the building and its continuing role in our educational, artistic, and cultural life.”

Come to the fundraiser, but also visit the Library on the main floor, which has a section for children and young adults, bound volumes of Benzie newspapers dating back to 1888, tapes and audiobooks, several computers, new shelving (designed to match the Mills style), and even a list of the core library that had belonged to the original school. The atmosphere is both modern and cozy but also a trip into the past. Bruce Catton, our native son and Pulitzer Prize winner, slept here. His father was a headmaster of the Academy, and the Catton room contains the complete collection of Bruce’s books. Library director Amanda McClaren will be happy to show you around.

Fundraiser organizers hope for a supportive response from the Benzie community in attending this event that promises to be highly entertaining for all. To reserve a seat at 891 Michigan Avenue in Benzonia, arrange ticket payment, or for additional information, call Mills at 231-882-0591 or the Library at 231-882-4111.

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