It shows when we recount past events to tourists who increasingly are drawn here by old buildings and streets shaded by mature trees, as much as they are by the Big Lake and its beaches.
Even more than memories and family histories documented on paper, those old structures — those bits of the past that are part of our present environment — make this a unique place that can be experienced tangibly by anyone in it. The presence of the past in the present is part of what makes this place anchored and real. We can see it, walk and eat and sleep in the midst of it.
As the physical presence of the past is taken away, perhaps to be replaced by a plaque or mention in a brochure, our sense of this unique place slowly but surely diminishes.
Recent days have seen the physical presence of the past in our midst threatened. I’m talking about two houses in Spring Lake Village. One is located at 114 N. Fruitport Road, and owned and occupied by David and Darcy Dye. It’s a craftsman bungalow and an outstanding local example of that vernacular architecture. It was built in 1918 or 1919 by Ray Fox, a geologist who brought stones and boulders to the site from all around the state: He used hundreds of them to build the beautiful porch and splendid chimney. Scores more are placed in the surrounding yard.
Having fallen in love with it, the Dyes bought the Fox house as their retirement home. Now they may lose it because Spring Lake Township wants to buy and demolish it in order to construct a new firehouse.
Never mind that the township already has two firehouses — one in the middle of the village, another in the northeast corner of the township — and owns vacant land at the corner of M-104 and 148th Avenue. And never mind that the land is in the village and designated as residential by the Village Planning Commission.
Township Manager Gordon Gallagher claims that buying that house, along with two other recently purchased properties at the same intersection, and that paying to clear all three parcels — not to mention paying for new construction — and build anew is more cost-effective and better serves both village and township than sticking with their current facilities.
Even if Mr. Gallagher’s argument made economic sense and actually would result in better firefighting service — and I know I’m not alone in my skepticism regarding those claims — it betrays a disregard for local history. It would deny countless people the simple enjoyment of seeing it when they drive or bicycle past it. Last, but not least, it would take away the Dyes’ home.
There’s also the strong possibility of losing the house at 310-312 N. Park St. Built by John Henry Newcomb in 1841, it is the oldest house in the village. It is older than the village itself.
About 11 days ago, it was damaged severely by fire, and the family that owns it and lived in it have been left in limbo. The family, the Wershems, honor its history and are trying to determine what, if any of it, can be salvaged. The history of that house to a great extent is their own history, because the Wershem family bought it from the Newcomb family early in the 20th century.
If any single house in Spring Lake Village needs to be saved, it is this one. It’s built from timbers milled in Spring Lake, from the trees that grew on our tiny peninsula. It’s a stark and functional design that eloquently bears witness to an era that transformed this region. When you look at the Newcomb/Wershem House, you see the wide, rough planks that comprise its walls. Along with those walls, most of the original windows and a fraction of the roof remain intact. But the interior is in ruin and recent rains only make the structure more vulnerable.
Their house and its contents — declared a total loss in economic terms — were fully insured, and the Wershems are waiting for the insurance company to process their claim. If the house is to be saved or if parts are to be salvaged in any significant way, the Wershems will need all of the monetary, technical and moral support they might seek. After all they’ve been through, however, they want to control outside parties’ involvement in their attempts to recover from this disaster.
Sadly, these won’t be the last pieces of the past we could lose. But we need to fight to save as many as we can.
— By Janet Tyson. Tyson is a member of the Village of Spring Lake Historic Conservation Commission. She is also a member of the Tri-Cities Historical Museum staff, which will be writing columns for the Tribune on the third Friday of each month.