Please note that this article was part of the now defunct Web site of the Fox Island Education Association.
The original links, e-mail addresses and the like aren't working any more. E-mail addresses were deleted
by the FILA Webmaster to avoid spamming.

Many thanks to Cathy Allchin for the permission to post this excellent piece.

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South Fox Island
Preserving the Past & Preparing for the Future
by Bradley Boese

Preserving the Past.

There have been many times in the last 18 years when I felt a certain frustration when trying to convey my passion for S. Fox Island. The response was a kind of blank look and a lack of enthusiasm. It seemed to me that so few people had been there and it was so far off the more frequent boating routes, that it would be futile to mount any effort to preserve the lighthouse station and promote public access to the natural beauty of that gem out in Lake Michigan. But I was wrong! The public lands on South Fox and the lighthouse station have been prominently in the news this last year. A Traverse City Record-Eagle survey ranked the issues raised by a proposed land swap between the DNR and the owner of the private property on the island as one of the top five news stories in 2001.

When I moved back to this region this last August after being away for more then 10 years, I was impressed that the land swap controversy had brought together a surprisingly large and diverse group of people. The one common thread that runs through this group is that they have been to the island; some to hunt deer, some for the fishing or pleasure boating, and others out of curiosity about the historic light-station or environmental concerns. They had all been touched by the place in such a way, that any perceived threat to public access of the island's natural beauty and environment, any endangerment of that environment or the cultural heritage of the light-station and other historical residents of the island, could not go unopposed. After following the issues for a short time in the papers, I decided to get involved because I felt I had a somewhat unique perspective and experience on South Fox.

Summer 1984 After many years of work in youth employment for Northwest Michigan Human Services Agency, I was hired by Traverse Bay Area Intermediate School District (TBAISD) Youth Employment Services in the summer of 1984 to organize a clean up project of the S. Fox Island lighthouse site, and to re-secure the buildings. In coordination with the DNR and with the enthusiastic support of the private property owners at that time, I supervised a crew of ten Michigan Youth Corp members, ages 17-21, on four rotations of 10 days on site and 4 days off. This may have been the most extended stay by any group on the public land of the island since the light-station was automated in 1958.

Two weeks before taking the crew to the site, I flew to the island with Ron Krepps, the DNR official with responsibility for the site. The purpose was to do a pre-inspection, decide what work might be accomplished and familiarize myself with the island. As with many others who have gone there for the first time, I was hugely impressed with the site. From the standpoint of organizing for the project, I had a number of concerns: the logistical difficulty of the project being foremost, along with the isolation and the need for the crew to be self-sufficient in every way. The following week, a few of the crew members were hired on to assist in gathering equipment and supplies. The whole crew was brought together for a week at a mainland MYC camp west of Traverse City. I insisted that our crew prepare, eat and clean-up with our own mess gear. This was a hardship in the first days, but helped to identify shortcomings in my preparation, and tap into individual skills. The camp had a "ropes course;" with the help of other staff members we put the crew through a number of team building exercises that proved invaluable when we arrived at the island worksite.

We flew out of Charlevoix airport on two ten-seated Britain Islanders, one of them with the seats removed to accommodate gear and any needed building supplies. Without the use of a boat or motorized transport of any kind, we carried or dragged everything from the island airstrip to the lighthouse station. For example, all the windows and doors of the old lighthouse and the officers' quarters that were in need of being secured, were boarded up with plywood transported that way.

What we were able to accomplish in a short time with the expenditure of about $2000 for tools and materials, was far beyond the expectations of the DNR. More importantly, being involved in the project had a remarkable effect on the people involved. By design, the crew was made up partially of what is referred to today as "at risk youth," and an interesting coed mix; some headed to college and some headed nowhere without direction. The work schedule was set to accommodate an educational component focused on the environment, history and the arts. Through readings I brought, I tried to instill in the crew a sense of the history of the station and how they were the continuation of a long line of caretakers. Everyone seemed to respond to this challenge and everyday people were doing remarkable things when faced with difficult tasks or new opportunities.

I'll relate one story. Potable water was an issue. While a visit by the Health Department was unlikely, because of work site rules we could not just take our water from the lake without treating it. The well at the light-station was inoperable even with a new hand pump because the screen and any check valve that may have been at the bottom were corroded shut. We could have drawn our water from the gas powered well pump at the hunting lodge by the airstrip, but on our first hike up the west beach we found spring water flowing from the clay layers of the perched dunes less then two miles from our camp. It was decided that this could be the tastiest and most convenient source of drinking water, as it was closer and an easier hike from the light-station.

One daily chore was to send two of the crew with two five-gallon containers carried between them on a pole to retrieve the water. I usually sent two of the more muscular fellows because 10 gallons of water can be quite a load to carry for more than a mile. After a couple of days of this task, Scott and Cass proposed digging a reservoir lined with a plastic bag to collect the water. The best spring only ran at about 20 gal/hr. and it would shorten the time of the trip if they could just scoop up the water. The next day they took a shovel along. A few days later I was amazed and gratified, when on a walk up the beach, I saw what they had done. With beach rocks, drift wood and other found material they had dressed the reservoir up as a sort of "grotto" that showed an esthetic side of Scott and Cass that was surprising. They were almost comical in their embarrassment about any positive comments regarding their artistic touches.

The nature of the work seemed to bring out the best in everyone. The isolation was an important factor. For most of the time we were there, we were the only people on the island. Our only contact with the mainland was an unreliable DNR radio. All personal interaction was limited to within the crew - no phones, newspapers or radios. Whatever personal past history or "mainland" concerns, it was easy to stay concentrated on the "here and now." Issues like responsibility were easy to address. Anyone not doing their part would usually result in negative repercussions for the whole group: a meal might be late or cold or sub-par, or if someone, through carelessness, broke an irreplaceable tool, the work schedule would have to be changed or the work to be done would be more difficult.

Nearly half of the crew was involved in just keeping the work site functioning; preparing meals, hauling water or material and supplies from the airstrip, so the other half could do the work the DNR had sent us there to do. On a very basic level, we were all part of a daily object lesson, in learning the responsibilities and rewards of being a community member. Finally, the natural environment; the lake, the beaches, dunes and forest in a nearly pristine state, affected us all. The sound of the wind and waves was a constant, except in the deep wooded interior of the island. I personally was awed by the setting. I felt a connection with nature there to an extent greater than almost anywhere I've been.

The buildings of the light-station were in remarkably good condition in 1984, considering the very limited maintenance they had received since being transferred to DNR responsibility in 1971. The glass in the old light tower had been shot out, and the buildings had suffered break-ins; otherwise there had been no vandalism and most of the damage appeared to have been done out of curiosity. We took up residence in one end of the officers' quarters and found the screens still in place under the shuttering. This building was constructed in 1910 and at that time was one of the first buildings in Leelanau County to be built with indoor plumbing. All of the fixtures were also in place with the drain field still functioning. Gratefully, we could use the sink and bathtub and flush the toilets with a bucket of water from the lake.

Preparing for the Future

I have not been back to the island for almost 10 years. When I was there for a private visit in 1992, I found the light-station buildings more vandalized; most disturbing was that for the first time a few of the plumbing fixtures had been removed (a 500 lb bathtub and two sinks). The buildings had not been harmed otherwise, but this evidence of fixtures being stripped was very concerning. I am now alarmed by recent reports of extensive stripping of the fixtures and vandalism of the buildings. A spring trip to the island will determine how recent and extensive is this damage. Regardless of how recent this deterioration of the site, I feel that all the publicity the property has received this last year will generate increased traffic there this summer. With the development plans of the owner of the private property on the island, pressure and the potential for further damage will increase without some effort to protect the site.

When the State of Michigan acquired the lighthouse property from the Federal Government in the 1970's, they were required to submit a plan for utilization that was attached as a Covenant of Deed. A 1978 report by Gerald Stilson of the DNR Waterways Division states the agency's goals for the site since obtaining it from the GSA in 1971:

"Waterways Division acquired this property with the idea of developing it in the future as a harbor of refuge. Such a facility would accommodate the boater with a rustic and historical surrounding. The historical significance of the island could be used to advantage with tours through the buildings and area…The deed of the property charged us with certain responsibilities. One is to protect an ancient gravesite from desecration….the property was obtained from the U.S. Government for public purposes….Our biggest problem at this time is to provide minimum maintenance to the property in order to preserve and protect it until a harbor is developed."

Today, even the DNR would admit that they have not fulfilled their obligation toward the light-station property as laid out in this plan for utilization. The idea of developing a harbor of refuge may have been a pipe dream in 1971 and may still be today. Some would argue that easier access to the island might not be in the best interest of the lighthouse property and the fragile island environment. Regardless, the DNR's failure to follow this plan has been brought to the attention of the National Park Service as a result of an effort in 2001 by the DNR to include the lighthouse property in a land swap with the private property owner. The light-station property has now been excluded from the proposed swap, but at the request of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians and U.S.Representative, Bart Stupak, the DNR has been required by the NPS to comply with the plan for utilization or submit a new one by May of this year. The DNR has openly stated that they do not have the funds, nor does the present administration have the inclination to properly oversee this site.

Now is the time for a group of non-profit organizations to get together with a new plan for utilization of the property and begin negotiations with the DNR for a long-term lease for the site. DNR Deputy Director Guy Gordon has recently stated, "There are limited reserves in the state and in the nation right now. If the Leelanau Historical Society or the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians want to make an offer, we would be willing to listen to that. We're open to any ideas on how to renovate that lighthouse." Including the groups he mentioned, environmental groups such as the Northern Michigan Environment Action Counsel and the Sierra Club, have taken an active interest in the public lands on the island. Tom Kelly of the Inland Seas Education Association expressed enthusiasm about including the site as part of their programming. To the extent that the goals of utilization include local school systems, TBAISD would be willing to become involved and share from their past experience at the Beaver Island Light.

For over twenty years, TBAISD has administered the Beaver Island Light-station through its Michigan Works Division - Youth Services. They now operate an alternative school at the site. They have just had an Historical Structures Report (HSR) completed for $20,000 with $10,000 funded through a matching grant from the Michigan Lighthouse Assistance Program of the State Historic Preservation Office. Lighthouse restoration is of such benefit to Michigan that at the state level there is an office and a coordinator whose sole job is to assist with information and seed money as needed. Having an HSR done for the S. Fox light-station would be an important first step toward listing with the National Register of Historic Places. This would facilitate eligibility for historic preservation funding from other government and private sources. The HSR for the Beaver Island Light station estimated the cost of restoration at over $600,000. TBAISD has been awarded a grant of over $300,000 from The Clean Michigan Initiative /Waterfront Redevelopment Grant program which set aside 3 million dollars just for Michigan lighthouses. They were awarded this funding even before they had completed the structures report. Only half of these grant funds were awarded in the last funding cycle with the remainder to be funded in 2002, with a May application deadline. The DNR is not eligible for these funds, but a group of non-profit organizations would be eligible if they are at least in negotiation with the DNR for a long-term lease. It seems urgent to consider that with the present condition of the state budget, these funds may not be available in the future.

A plan for use of the S. Fox site that includes an educational and environmental focus would greatly increase the potential funding sources, and of course, any program of utilization would benefit from a long-term focus of 10 years or more for any serious effort toward a comprehensive program. Since my involvement at the site in 1984, I've carried a vision of what this site could be. Apart from the need for preserving the historical site, it could become a positive work and education environment for youth or a center for the study of the ecology of the islands of Lake Michigan.

Never before have I felt as strongly that this vision could become a reality. I present this vision with urgency because presently, S. Fox is a place that the public is more aware of than any other time, and this too shall pass. I feel strongly that now is the time to begin. This summer, an inventory of the property should be done with a view toward completion of an HSR. The building needs to be re-secured and any short-term remedies applied to prevent any ongoing deterioration.

In October 2001, I attended the "Landscapes of the Community" symposium in Traverse City, organized by the Land Information Access Association. The program was an effort to bring together people working in the areas of art, history and the environment to promote better communication. I attended because I thought it would be a good opportunity to plug back into the community after being away for many years. I knew I was in the right place when I heard the keynote speaker, Tim Chester, Director of the Public Museum of Grand Rapids. Tim had grown up in the Charlevoix area and spent a lot of time on the islands of Lake Michigan. The main point of his address was to present the concept of viewing communities as islands in the way that they can be self-sufficient and sustaining. Islands and communities can also be nurturing, and we can feel removed from the demands of the larger culture. They can foster an environment that promotes personal growth. Even though they offer the illusion of containment, and "Just as certainly as we know that - underneath the waterline - the island and the mainland are one, we know that we are deeply connected to the past and future, and the nurturing we have received has prepared us for communion with the larger culture." He quoted a poem by May Sarton that I think even more literally speaks to the point of what an island environment can mean to personal growth.

On Sark
By May Sarton

The isle is for islanders, some born---
They like being surrounded by
And anchored in the ever-changing sea,
For it is just this being enclosed
In a small space within a huge space
That makes them feel both safe and free,
Tilling small fields under the sky.

The Isle is for islanders, some made---
They are drawn here, the two-in-one,
To be alone together, hand in hand,
Walking the silence of the high plateau
Where bees and heather marry well,
Or down long flights of stairs to caves.
Love is the summer island, safe and wild.

Islands are for people who are islands,
Who have always been detached from the main
For a purpose, or because they crave
The free within the framed as poets do,
The solitary for whom being alone
Is not a loneliness but a fertile good
Here on this island I feel myself at home.

And because I am here, happy among the bees,
A donkey in the field, the crooked paths
That lead me always to some precipitous fall
And the sudden opening out of blue below,
Hope flows back into my crannies now,
I am ready to begin the long journey
Toward love, the mainland, perhaps not alone.

The preservation and future of South Fox Island is OUR responsibility. The time to act is NOW.

For more information or to comment on or become involved with the Preservation of South Fox Island, Please contact:

Bradley Boese
Fox Island Education Association
P.O. Box 4441, Traverse City, MI 49685

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