Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - Sept. 18, 2009

On the road to Paradise

I imagine some folks spend their entire lives planning to reach Paradise and never succeed. Husband Art and I arrived last Thursday night at about 8.

It was much smaller than I had imagined. The main and only intersection is controlled by a flashing light. When a person arrives as late as we did, the eating options are reduced to take-away pizza or something from the convenience store. By 9 p.m., both of these are closed.

There is a Best Western motel and a couple of other inns, but they seemed oddly out of place in this otherwise small place. We stayed at the Vagabond Motel where we had simple, yet adequate accommodations.

For breakfast or lunch, Shirl and Carl Clark's Berry Patch is hard to beat. It also doubles as the local bakery. A person arriving before 7 p.m. can and should have supper at Brown's Fish and Chips. The owner's efforts with whitefish won him recognition in a recent New York Times article. I can always tell when Art really likes something without him having to say a word. The telltale sign was there during supper on Friday night. He ate the whitefish by itself, savoring the flavor without it being masked by the accompanying tartar sauce, cole slaw or French fries.

Paradise, Michigan and the one-time nearby village of Shelldrake were once important places on the east coast of Whitefish Point. Today if people have heard of any of these places, it's because of singer Gordon Lightfoot's song about the freighter Edmund Fitzgerald. It sank in Lake Superior just 17 miles from the point's lighthouse 34 years ago this coming Nov. 10. All 29 crew members perished.

But the area was well known late in the 19th Century. The local tall white pine forests were harvested to help build the homes and mansions of Chicago, Detroit and many other Midwestern cities. Then, after the timber was gone, the barren lands became a perfect habitat for blueberries to flourish.

And blueberries were why we were there. Art's grandfather was in the produce business during the Depression. Between the strawberry, raspberry and cherry season of summer and the apple season of fall, there was a gap. He asked Art's Mom and Dad to see if they could find a reliable source of blueberries in Upper Michigan that he could then sell to the stores he served in Appleton, Wisconsin.

By the time World War II was reaching its conclusion, Art's grandpa, uncles, brother and hired men were hauling more than 4,000 cases a summer. They drove the 600-mile round trip every few days on gravel roads using worn-out laundry trucks with synthetic tires - the only equipment available during the war.

But even more quickly than the business grew from its beginnings in 1935, it crashed after the war. Blueberry plants have a strange quirk. To produce heavily, the above-ground part of the plant must be destroyed every other year. During the Depression and the war, locals just set the fields on fire, which also served to kill off competing plants.

But after the war, America turned its attention back toward matters here at home and one of those was conservation. The marsh burns were stopped and the huge blueberry harvests were a thing of history by the 1950s. In another way, America's love of the blueberry fostered by the huge numbers produced in Upper Michigan also sowed the seeds of its eventual failure. Commercial growers began working to produce strains of the berries that could be grown on commercial farms. Once they succeeded, there was no reason to have the local Native Americans and settlers of the Upper Peninsula head out into the wilds with a blueberry rake.

For the sake of his family history research, Art wanted to visit the place that was once so important to his family. He was born too late to see when it was a destination for those seeking the "blue gold," as the Paradise locals called it. Today, most of the people who live in the area have never heard of Shelldrake. There are still some blueberries and, in fact, we picked a cupful when we were wandering around a small cemetery. We even each had a piece of delicious blueberry pie from the Berry Patch. But the numbers are nothing like they used to be.

Still, the people are nice and the scenery is wonderful. I don't know if it's Paradise, but it's close enough for me.

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