Gathering At the Water, in the Dunes

Cottage communities along Lake Michigan’s eastern shoreline feature religious beginnings. // Photography courtesy Vintage Views
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Hotel at Bay View
Hotel at Bay View

There are many cottage communities along Lake Michigan’s eastern shore. Some were founded under religious auspices. The Bay View Association of the United Methodist Church on Little Traverse Bay is one. Designated a National Historic Landmark, it is “one of the finest remaining examples of two uniquely American community forms, the Methodist camp meeting and the independent Chautauqua.”

Bay View began in 1875 as a Michigan Methodist camp meeting. Other locations were considered, but Bay View was chosen since the citizens of Petoskey would pay for an extension of the Grand Rapids and Indiana Railroad from Petoskey to Bay View. The railroad agreed to purchase the property, and the Methodists agreed to improve the site and hold meetings there for at least 15 years.

Work was done to clear the grounds, and a preaching podium was built for the anticipated outdoor audience. The first meeting was held in August 1876 with participants sheltering in tents. Cottage construction soon began, and within five years, about 150 were built. About this same time, there was growing interest in the Chautauqua movement with its educational lectures, classes, speeches, entertainment and musical performances. In 1886, Bay View adopted the Chautauqua program with immense success, and the number of cottages grew to about 400 in the following 10 years.

The hotel at Epworth
The hotel at Epworth

With the end of the lumbering era at hand and Bay View’s success in drawing summer visitors, Michigan lawmakers saw a way to grow the economy. The Michigan Legislature created the Michigan Summer Resort and Assembly Associations Act 39 of 1889, which allowed the formation of corporations for the “purchase and improvement of grounds to be occupied for summer homes, for camp meetings, for meetings and assemblies of associations and societies organized for intellectual and scientific culture and for the promotion of the cause of religion or morality …”

Epworth Heights (now Epworth Assembly) was founded in 1894, a few years after summer resort legislation was enacted. The Epworth Assembly began as a Methodist camp. The initial focus was to build summer homes. Like Bay View, the group was founded with help from local citizens and a local railroad company.

The Citizen’s Development Company of Ludington, and the Flint and Pere Marquette Railroad offered 240 acres and $21,000 to the Epworth Assembly to develop a community presenting “spiritual and cultural offerings to the people of Ludington and environs” during the summer for a period of 15 years. By the opening session in August 1894, a hotel, auditorium and classrooms were completed. For $5 per year, a member could purchase the right to build a cottage on leased land. Several cottages were built in 1895, and within 15 years, there were close to 100 wooden cottages completed. Epworth’s Chautauqua program began in 1896 and continued until 1924.

The Congregational Summer Assembly dining hall
The Congregational Summer Assembly dining hall

In 1904, the Ann Arbor Railroad offered 90 acres on Lake Michigan near Frankfort to the Congregational Summer Assembly for a summer resort, with the condition that improvements are made on the property within five years. Articles of incorporation were signed that same year and shares of stock issued. The assembly began to purchase property surrounding the railroad track, including land along Crystal Lake. By 1906, a lodge with 50 bedrooms for guests was completed.

A program of lectures, including bible study, was offered. The assembly’s first cottage was purchased from a woodcutter, and soon, other wooden cottages were built among the dunes and along the shores of Lake Michigan and Crystal Lake. The Congregational Summer Assembly continues to “promote the physical, intellectual, moral and spiritual welfare of its members,” and the families who own cottages on and around the assembly grounds.

Other communities with a religious focus, such as summer camps, sprang up along the Lake Michigan shore. Some have survived, like Camp Arcadia, founded in 1922 as a nonprofit Lutheran family resort and retreat center. Others, like the 1899 Presbyterian Camps of Saugatuck, have been lost to development.


BLUE Vintage Views columnists M. Christine Byron and Thomas R. Wilson reside in Grand Rapids.

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