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A Tale of Two Lakes

Author
Grace Shackman

Side by side, separate resorts catered to blacks and whites

People once came from all over southeastern Michigan to play golf, dance, swim, and fish at two resorts on neighboring lakes north of Chelsea. But the guests rarely mingled, because one group was white and the other was black.

Both resorts were established in the 1920s—Inverness, on North Lake, by a white former Detroit business owner, and Wild Goose Lake, a short hop away, by three black families from Ann Arbor. The latter was born in controversy. When word first got out that some farmers were considering selling their land to blacks, neighbors circulated a petition urging them not to do so. When grocer Perry Noah refused to sign—he reportedly told the petitioners, “My father died in the Civil War to free these people”—his store was briefly boycotted.

The sellers, descendants of the area’s original settlers, refused to be intimidated. And that is how dual resorts, each with its own country club and a beach, grew up almost side by side.

The land around the two small lakes, about five miles north of Chelsea, was first permanently settled in 1833. Charles and John Glenn and their sister Jane Burk¬hart came from upstate New York with their spouses and children. Charles Glenn reportedly had decided to move west after his first wife and two young children were killed when flax she was spinning caught fire.

The siblings bought adjoining tracts of government land and built houses. Charles Glenn’s original house at 13175 North Territorial Road still stands. John Glenn had a fancier Italianate house down the road. The Burkharts settled just south of Wild Goose Lake.

Other settlers quickly followed, enough to justify a post office at North Lake in 1836. That year the Glenn family organized a Methodist church. Nineteen people gathered at John Glenn’s house for the first service, with Charles Glenn presiding as lay preacher. Ten years later the two brothers built a small church that also served as a school. In 1866 John Glenn deeded land for what is now the North Lake United Methodist Church. He also gave land for a cemetery on Riker Road.

The land around the lakes, hilly and full of glacial gravel, was best suited to fruit farming. Charles’s son Benjamin Glenn went into the nursery business with his cousins William and Robert, starting apple trees from seeds they procured at a cider mill. (At Wild Goose Lake today, aged apple, pear, and cherry trees are the remnants of a much larger orchard.)

The local Grange built a hall that served as the community’s social center. The North Lake Band, which played in neighboring towns, was based at the Grange Hall from about 1897 to 1906. In 1925 the North Lake church bought the building for $1 and moved it to church property to use as a Sunday school, dining room, and kitchen.

In 1920, Doug Fraser, president of American Brass and Iron Company in Detroit, retired and moved to North Lake. Fraser had ulcers, and his daughter Lauretta had contracted whooping cough, tonsillitis, and diphtheria; he hoped farming would be a healthier way of life for them both.

Fraser and his wife, Laura, bought John Glenn’s seven-bedroom Italianate farmhouse from John’s grandson Fred Glenn. The dining room was so large, Lauretta Fraser Sockow remembers, that the family preferred to eat meals in the sunroom next to the kitchen.

Sockow, now in her nineties, remembers how she loved the rural area as a child. She attended the one-room North Lake School at 1300 Hankerd, now a private home. Her family joined the North Lake church and sometimes hosted barn dances, playing music on their Victrola. Fraser grew apples, strawberries, raspberries, and currants and also raised pigs, but his pride and joy, according to Sockow, was his registered cattle.

Unfortunately, her father eventually developed an allergy to them. “His arms swelled up to the size of a football,” Sockow recalls, and he had to sell his animals and machinery and find another way of making a living.
His property reached all the way to North Lake, so in 1927 Fraser decided to start a resort. Invoking his Scottish heritage, he called it Inverness and gave its streets such names as Glencoe, Aberdeen, and Bramble Brae. He divided the land between his house and the lake into lots for cottages and set up the deeds so that all owners would have lake privileges. He put in tennis courts behind his house, and he built a nine-hole golf course, expanding into additional land he’d bought along North Territorial Road. He moved his family to Ann Arbor and turned the former Glenn home into the golf course’s clubhouse.

Fraser’s gamble paid off. In the 1920s, greater prosperity and rising car ownership created a new demand for resort communities, even in once-remote areas like North Lake. Ads for Inverness noted it was “only sixty miles from Detroit,” and Fraser encouraged potential buyers to drive out for the day to sample activities, such as pony rides for children and dances for adults (the clubhouse living room was big enough to accommodate two sets of square dances simultaneously). Sockow remembers that one neighbor might play the piano and another the violin.
Sylvia Gilbert, who today lives in the house built for the farm’s hired man, says the original clubhouse “was gorgeous. There was a beautiful powder room upstairs, wicker furniture. You could eat in the dining room or the sun porch.” Gilbert recalls dances where people would dress in kilts, and Halloween parties with elaborate decorations. Her house has since been moved from its original spot to 7095 Glencoe, around the corner.

Inverness attracted people of means from Detroit and Ann Arbor. Doctors, dentists, and businessmen built large cottages. Laurence Noah, Perry Noah’s son, earned money by doing chores for the summer people, such as delivering wood and taking away garbage. In the winter, Laurence and his father cut ice from North Lake and stored it to sell in the summer.

A mile away, at Wild Goose Country Club, the members enjoyed the same amenities as at Inverness—swimming, dancing, fishing, and golf. But for the people who frequented it, Wild Goose represented a much rarer opportunity.

“Blacks had no place to go,” explains Mercedes Baker Snyder. Her father, Charles Baker, along with Donald Grayer and Iva Pope, bought the land and organized the resort. Baker, co-owner of the Ann Arbor Foundry, was interested in the venture because “he loved golf, and blacks couldn’t play at public courses,” explains Mercedes’s husband, Charles Snyder.
The partners developed the club on the 250-acre farm of Sam and Fred Schultz, who were descendants of the original settlers, the Glenns. The petition drive that residents of North Lake started to keep out the black resort community didn’t deter the Schultzes. After the sale was completed on June 1, 1927, the Wild Goose Country Club was formed, with ninety-three lots for cottages and a stretch of communal lakeshore with a fishing dock. As at Inverness, the original farmhouse eventually was converted to a clubhouse. A nine-hole golf course began behind the clubhouse and went across Wild Goose Lake Road toward the lake. A dance hall was built on a hill.

Pawley and Carrie Grayer Sherman, Charles Baker’s father- and mother-in-law, became the first residents when they moved from Ann Arbor to the farmhouse. Mercedes Snyder, who came out for weekends to visit her grandparents, remembers it had three bedrooms downstairs, two big living rooms, and a big kitchen, but no plumbing. Her dad would play golf while the children romped around, walked in the woods, or swam in the lake.
The first two cottages, one built by the Shermans, the other by Donald Grayer, were log cabins made from Sears Roebuck kits. A couple more cabins were built before the Depression. The rest of the eighteen or so members merely owned unbuilt lots, which sold for $100. “At that time most Ann Arbor blacks worked in fraternities or cafeterias,” explains Charles Snyder. “Fifty cents an hour was considered a good wage, so they couldn’t afford to build.”

Most of the members were relatives or friends of the organizers. A much larger group, consisting of other friends and extended family members, came to visit and swim, dance, or golf. Visitors often traveled for hours to get there; in those days there weren’t many recreational facilities open to blacks.

Coleman Castro used to come in the 1930s to fish with Don Grayer Jr., his future brother-in-law. Ann Arbor resident Donald Calvert recalls coming out in the late 1940s or early 1950s to swim with friends at Wild Goose Lake. Back then, he says, the resorts favored by his white classmates, such as Zukey Lake or Groomes Beach at Whitmore Lake, did not allow blacks.

In its heyday, Wild Goose hosted big dances organized by Jim and Harriet Moore (a Sherman daughter), who moved into the clubhouse after the senior Shermans moved out. The public dances attracted blacks from all over southeastern Michigan. U-M dentistry graduate D. J. Grimes, who was one of the first black dentists in Detroit and a cousin of Jim Moore, told his Detroit friends about the dances and also put Moore in touch with good bands. Ann Arbor residents would go home after the dances, but the Detroit visitors often stayed, sleeping in rooms the Moores rented to them, either in the clubhouse or in another house they built across the road.

The lakeside resorts’ golden age was brief. Once the Depression hit, “people didn’t need cottages. People didn’t need to play golf,” says Sockow. Sales at Inverness dropped so precipitously that her father had to incorporate and bring in other investors to keep going. Although he ceded control of the development to a board of directors, he kept managing the country club until his death in 1952.

Cottage building completely stopped at Wild Goose Lake during the Depression. The dance hall was knocked over during a big storm in the 1930s and was never rebuilt. Russell Calvert, Donald’s brother, remembers that the golf course was still there in the late 1940s and 1950s but had become less popular because by then blacks could play on municipal courses. It eventually fell into disuse and is now overgrown.

North Lake residents and Wild Goose Country Club members apparently reached a state of grudging coexistence after the failure of the initial petition drive. Wild Goose people patronized North Lake businesses and report they were treated well. But the two groups did not socialize much.
After World War II, building at both lakes resumed. The prewar cottages were winterized and often enlarged, and the old prejudices began to ease. In the 1960s a Wild Goose resident, Bessie Russell, joined the North Lake church. “They were glad to have her,” recalls Mercedes Snyder. “They needed someone to play the organ.”

Today, both former resorts have turned into bedroom communities where working people and retirees live year round. At North Lake, the Inverness Country Club is going strong, with a waiting list to join. Buying a house in the original subdivision bestows automatic membership. The clubhouse has been replaced with a more modern building that looks like a ranch house.

The Wild Goose clubhouse was sold and is again a home. Much of the communal land, including the golf course, has also been sold and is divided into residential lots awaiting development.

The biggest change at Wild Goose Lake is that the population is now about 50 percent white. “As older blacks die, young blacks don’t want to live in the country,” explains Charles Snyder. But residents still often have family connections—including some that cross the old color line. Members of one of the new white families are the in-laws of Coleman Castro’s son, Tommie.

7-5-1 Doug Fraser boating on North Lake with daughter Lauren “Courtesy Sylvia Gilbert

7-5-2 Glenn House, later the country club “Courtesy Sylvia Gilbert”

7-5-3 Inverness clubhouse today “Courtesy Adrian Wylie”

7-5-4 Shirley, Sherman, Carl, and Mercedes Baker at Wild Goose Lake with their father, Charles, and grandfather Pawley Sherman. “Courtesy Mercedes Snyder”

7-5-5 Wild Goose sign “Courtesy Adrian Wylie”

7-5-6 Original plat for Inverness “Courtesy Sylvia Gilbert”

7-5-7 The first cottages at Wild Goose Country Club were log cabins built from Sears Roebuck kits “Courtesy Mercedes Synder”

7-5-8 Mercedes Baker Snyder and her husband, Charles, still enjoy the lake. “Courtesy Adrian Wylie”