The Klaves

The Klaves - My Father’s Dream

by Charlotte (Klave) Schiller

Norm Klave's homebuilt boat

My family tree is deeply rooted in the waters of Portage Lake. My grandparents bought a cottage here in 1933 and my father began to dream of building a marina. As a child, Norm Klave had a passion for boats. At fourteen years old, he built his first boat in a shed behind their home in Wyandotte, Michigan. He purchased the mahogany planks, one at a time, with money he earned raising rabbits and delivering newspapers. Although he finished his boat in two years, her maiden voyage was delayed by World War II. Returning home in the mid-1940’s, Dad launched his boat, giving rides at Newport Beach Club for fifty cents apiece. Although he no longer owns her, that first boat still resides on Portage Lake.

Simple Beginnings, at One with Nature

The original homestead of Norman and Elizabeth
Klave where Klave's Marina is now.

In 1947, Mom and Dad built a two bedroom Sears & Roebuck log cabin on three acres along the south shore of Portage Lake. A man of many talents and much energy, Dad was the bus superintendent for Dexter Schools. He also drilled wells, repaired outboard motors and did various other odd jobs. Dangling from little brass hooks on our fieldstone fireplace were keys to various lake cottages. In the spring, the keys disappeared as Dad opened up cottages, turned on plumbing, put in docks and launched boats for the summer people. In the fall, the keys would reappear to hang once more above our mantel.

On one side of our property, Dad cleared brush and trees, making a path to the lake. Using cinders from a Dexter school boiler he filled in a two track driveway where the path had been. Then he sanded the beach and dug a well, installing an old fashioned hand pump so we could get fresh water as we played along the shore. The woods, the lake and the marsh were my childhood playground. I knew the name and location of every wildflower from the earliest pussy willows to the violets, dogwoods, marsh marigolds, wild geraniums, turban lilies, jack-in-the-pulpits, blue bottle gentians and cardinal flowers, to the asters in the fall. I savored the wild raspberries growing in the woods and the marsh. I knew when the birds returned in the spring and which ones stayed through the winter. I knew when autumn was eminent by the flocking birds performing an aerial ballet in great swoops of precision, perfecting their skills for the long flight south. From a very early age, I was most at peace in the natural world where I receive messages and answers to the uncertainties of life.

The Marina Begins—Paradise Changed

Dad’s dream of building his marina unfortunately meant the demise of my natural paradise. A canal was dredged for mooring boats and buildings to house the store and service department were constructed. Over the years, I watched as the berry bushes and the wildflowers disappeared while the marina took shape. The marina required the efforts of the entire family. My mom called it her sixth child and often it took more energy than any of the rest of us. My parents both had full time jobs elsewhere, working at the marina nights and weekends and my siblings and I all had jobs to do. Pumping gas at the fuel dock was often my task, but I avoided the marina as much as I could, so my job became housecleaning and cooking. Doing household chores suited me because it gave me the freedom to spend time with my two very different sets of friends, the summer lake friends and the winter school friends.

Age does bring about a certain wisdom and understanding. I know now that my early resentment of the marina was due to the loss of my childhood paradise. I didn’t know how much I would come to love the marina later in life.

Little Portage Lake Ignites a Dream

Several years later, I returned to marina life. My parents were exhausted from working two or three jobs while keeping the marina going and had turned it over to my brother and sister. They made some needed changes and the business was beginning to grow. When they purchased another small marina on Little Portage Lake, they hired me as manager. Little Portage Lake remains mostly unpopulated surrounded by marshes and forested areas. From my first day on the property, I was mesmerized. Although the buildings were old and neglected, the setting awakened part of me that had long been dormant. The marina property is divided by Hell Creek*, with a three acre section and the buildings on one side. Opposite the buildings, on the other side of the creek, is a ten acre plot transitioning from grassy area to marshland and finally to Little Portage Lake’s lovely shoreline. From my office window, I watched and heard the migrating birds, listened to the frogs and the peepers and observed the change of seasons. The seeds that had been planted when I was a child began to sprout. I started to dream about this becoming a place where children and nature could connect.

The Laughing Duck

In 2008, Dr. Reichert gifted this land as the Reichert Nature Preserve. On a beautiful fall day, I visited the Preserve for the first time with a friend. I felt like I’d stepped into heaven. As we walked, we came upon a very elderly Dr. Reichert. Leaning on his walking stick, he was engaged in quiet conversation with his grandson beside him. I longed to be part of that twosome and hear the stories of a man who spent so much of his life with nature. I was struck by the legacy he was leaving and my heart, where the little woodland waif still dwelled, filled with overwhelming warmth. It was a life changing moment for me; it fanned the flames of a dream long dormant.

For months the Little Portage 10 acre property dominated my thoughts. One day I was working in my garden, thinking about the nature center that I wanted to build. I envisioned a center that would reconnect children with the natural wonders of water, marsh and woodland, a place where they could learn about wildflowers and wildlife, and the colorful, local history of Hell Creek and the Huron River. Known locally as Hell Creek, it is actually Portage Creek. As I made a mental list of all the obstacles in my way, especially the financial obstacles, my inspiration began to fade. That’s when I heard a voice say, “Let the money go and let the dream come.”

The Nature Center Journey Begins

Since hearing that voice, I have shared my dream with so many people. They’ve lent support, proposed ideas and suggested funding possibilities. My brother, Kerry and my sister, Norma have started moving things forward by making needed improvements to the property.

Meeting Victor Banta, whose photographs add so much beauty to my book The Laughing Duck, is one example of my belief that people with the right skills will show up. It was his idea to combine his photographs with my words and produce The Laughing Duck book as a fundraiser for Laughing Duck nature center.

Reflections, Acceptance and Gratitude

In 2011, Klave’s Marina celebrated 50 years in business and The Laughing Duck book is as much a commemoration of that milestone as it is a statement about our dreams for the future. We’ve survived many very tough times and have grown stronger and more grateful as a result. Five generations of family have worked here. It is a tribute to my mother and father that the strong family ties and the faith in God that they instilled in us have held us all together. So my dad’s dream, Klave’s Marina, remains our homestead, the place where we gather on the picnic grounds for special celebrations.

Norm Klave at 90 (2011)
Rafting to the island.

My dad celebrated his 90th birthday in 2010. He summers in an apartment on the Little Portage property. Almost daily, he drives a riding lawn mower to Hell Creek and onto a flat pontoon barge, maneuvering the barge across the creek with a long pole. He drives the mower up onto the island where he spends the day mowing and trimming bushes and trees. There is a pretty, park-like picnic area there now. It’s his little paradise. At ninety years old he still dreams of things he wants to accomplish. The Laughing Duck nature center is our family’s dream, to give back to the community and to the environment that has given so much to us.

Thank you

This story would not be complete with out expressing how, over the years, my immense appreciation has grown for my father’s dream, Klave’s Marina. I feel incredibly privileged to have spent most of my adult life working beside my family. We truly appreciate the support of the boating community and the long relationship with customers and employees who have become like family.

This story was originally published in The Laughing Duck, a photographic memoir of life on our lakes. Local photographer, Victor Banta contributed most of the photography and endless hours of design and layout work. The book explains that the Laughing Duck name came from my childhood belief that the mallards were laughing as they quacked endlessly in small groups along the shore.

You can purchase our book, The Laughing Duck at Klave’s Marina and at Ed Bocks Feed and Stuff in Pinckney. All proceeds from the sale of book are donated to Laughing Duck Nature Center, the non-profit organization which will provide environmental, ecological and recreational programs for families and children.