Last summer, when Sally and Mason Pilcher headed north from Ohio to their family cottage in Michigan — the little haven they’ve been escaping to now for more than 50 years — they brought their two grown children with spouses and grandkids in tow. But the Pilchers don’t own their cottage.
They don’t need to.
Dotting the serene shores of South Lake Leelanau, Fountain Point Resort is a genuine step back in time. Here, the same family has been welcoming generations of other families back “to the cottage” every summer for 125 years — actually, 19 simply furnished cottages of varying sizes that sleep 2-13 people — as well as eight guest rooms in a two-story hotel wrapped by a rambling veranda that faces the lake.
“My grandmother was staying at one of the cottages when my mom came to visit her one day,” Sally Pilcher shares. “While she was there she noticed a handsome man on the beach playing with a little boy. She assumed he was married and was a little put off when he approached her, but he explained the boy was his nephew. They had their first date that July at the Blue Bird Café in Leland, which is still there, and were married six months later.
“We still stay in the same cottage where my father stayed the summer he met my mother.”
Saving a Legacy
Erik Zehender, son of the current owner, Susan J. Nichols, knows something of tradition.
His grandparents, like the Pilchers, were also from Ohio and had vacationed at Fountain Point every summer since 1911. For 25 years, their children and their grandchildren continued that pilgrimage, too.
Then, in 1936 — when the Depression took its toll and back-taxes prompted the property to market — his grandparents bought the place.
“They paid $17,000 for 55 acres of land, 20 buildings and 150 feet of frontage on Lake Leelanau,” Zehender recaps, adding they ran the resort until the mid-1960s. “It was always a summer place, so they still lived in Cincinnati in the winter.”
Eventually, they handed it down to Erik’s mother and her sister, who enjoyed running it until 2008, when taxes again began taking their toll. “Michigan isn’t a friendly state to conserve and preserve a large family property,” Zehender says. In 2009, when a chance to sell the land to a developer with plans for a subdivision arose, the tax man advised it. Zehender’s mother was conflicted.
“It was hard to look at a pot of gold and not take it,” he shares, “especially when my mom wanted to retire. But that meant selling not only our family cottage, but the cottages of all the other families who had been coming here for generations.”
In the end, tradition won; Zehnder moved back to help keep Fountain Point’s legacy alive. “We are the oldest waterfront resort in Michigan by a year,” he notes; the next is Mackinac Island’s Grand Hotel, which is the same age as the Eiffel Tower in France.
Preserving the Past
Such loyal use over time has also taken its toll on the resort’s structures, still the originals that first housed guests who arrived by steamship in 1889. But while remodeling the family cottage often ignites mixed opinions, hundreds of families at Fountain Point speak in one voice.
“There are families who have been coming here for five or six generations,” Zehender says. “They don’t want things to change — renovations are done to keep the status quo, not to keep current.”
Original furnishings and artifacts are abundant, as is documentation of the resort’s history, displayed in a museum at the Hotel, which also includes a 100-year-old billiard table, ping-pong, foosball, library, wicker furniture and original porch chairs, in which moments being lulled by the historic artisan fountain can be spent.
There is no TV.
“There are no screens to stare at here,” says Zehender, who spent every childhood summer in these woods and waters, and loves watching children who visit doing the same. “Kids have to look at each other. They run in the grass down to the water. They climb trees. They play games. They walk in the woods. And they form friendships.”
“When kids are about 4 they begin to run free in a pack,” Sally Pilcher shares. “The rule is, ‘If you can’t see your cottage, you’re in the wrong place.’ That’s everyone’s rule — and everybody watches everybody else’s kid. It’s like it used to be.”
It’s also a place grown-ups can unwind and play, too, Zehender says, whether it’s fishing or tossing a ball around with their kids or just sitting together around a bonfire to talk.
“We look forward to being here every year,” Sally says. “It’s just home.”
Visit fountainpointresort.com to learn more.