Our First Trip to Portage Lake

By Avery Bartlett, DDS (1903-1996)

In 1909 my father had the opportunity to join the Ford Motor Company, which was a great opportunity and the chances for advancement were good. By 1911 Dad had earned his first vacation. A man who he worked with told him about Portage Lake; he decided we needed a good break in the country.

Plans were made with my Mother’s sister’s family so that we could all go together, sight unseen, to this far away place that sounded so exciting. There were five of us, I being the oldest at 8, my brother 4 and baby Genevieve 1 ½. My aunt’s family were also five in number, also two boys and a girl, but their oldest had graduated from high school so he was to join us later.

We rented a cottage for the last two weeks in August at Portage Lake for what was to be all nine of us at a place called Portage Lake Resort. Getting there was to be quite an undertaking. Neither family had any previous experience living on a lake so we had to do a lot of planning and guessing how to prepare for the occasion. Especially what clothes to take as well as other equipment such as bedding. None of us knew how to swim.

The first objective was to plan for the necessary public transportation. We lived in Highland Park, on the edge of Detroit. We all walked about two blocks to Woodward Avenue carrying all of our things and what we thought we would need. There we took an electric street car marked “Depot” which would take us to the Michigan Central Railroad Station which was a ride of about one and a half hours. Our next destination was the small village of Dexter, where “through trains” did not stop. Therefore, we had to take a much slower Milk Train which stopped at all the little places along the way to pick up milk brought by farmers. This meant it would take our train over two hours to travel the 50 miles to Dexter. It was necessary to contact the Livery Stable in Dexter ahead of time to be met at the station with a horse drawn three seat carriage which would take us the remaining 7 miles to Portage Lake. Not knowing what was available at the little store at Portage Lake we had to pick up enough food in Dexter to last several days. From this point it would take about two hours for the carriage to carry us to the lake. We found that we could not take an early train because Dad and Uncle Russell had to work until noon on Saturday so we did not arrive in Dexter until late afternoon.

All that accomplished, finally we were ready to leave Dexter when Mr. Phelps from the Livery Stable arrived. He was about six foot six and was as wide as any two men. Typical of my Aunt Annie she took one look at him and the nine of us and asked, “Are you going with us?” He laughed and said no he did not think there was room for him but we better get started right away so off we went on the gravel road, on the last seven miles of our journey.

By the time we turned into the little lane called McGregor Road it was completely dark. Trees on either side of the road touched each other overhead and there were thousands of fireflies. The road was so narrow there was no room for two vehicles to pass each other. Fortunately we met none, in fact we saw only a few lights in cottage that we passed. Finally the carriage stopped by two ladies who each had an old fashioned railroad lantern in hand. They led us to the cottage which would be our home for two weeks. The area where we entered was open to the rafters of the roof and seemed to be all bedrooms. Again, typical of Aunt Annie, she blurted out, “How can we live here? Where is the kitchen?” One of the ladies took us down a stairway to what we thought must be the basement and there was what seemed to be another house down there and of course there was the much needed kitchen! The lady explained that the house was built into the hillside. We had come in at the road level and down here we were at the lake level, for it was a two story house. Here there was a large living room and dining table with a wood burning stove and another bed. A smaller room was equipped with a small table, two straight chairs, a pitcher pump and a sink. She showed us how to prime the pump with a bottle of water that apparently was left there just for that use. There was also a good supply of pots, pans, dishes, and silverware. Many of the items carried the letters B B, which we found out later referred to the name of the cottage, Butternut Bunk.

The cook stove was operated with kerosene and she was very meticulous to show us how to use it without burning down the cottage! Before leaving she showed us several “thundermugs”, how to find the “outhouse” on the upper level out back and left us a lantern. In spite of lumpy mattresses and inadequate bedding we all fell immediately to sleep but were up at sunrise the next morning to see where in the world we were. With Dad’s help Mother and Aunt Annie put quite a breakfast together. There was an icebox on the lower porch and our hosts had the delivery man put ice in it the day before and also there was a quart of milk from the farmer nearby. That turned the trick for we had bought cereal in Dexter the day before.

It was a beautiful day and we were all anxious to get down to the lake that lay shimmering out in front of the cottage. It has always seemed to me that every day at Portage Lake was like that, as I spent time there for some part of every Summer for the next 80 years. What a Paradise.