South Bar lake sits quiet and still except for the croaking of frogs and occasional plop as a fish breaks the surface and leaves behind it the tell-tale rings that spread out and out until the motion of the disturbance disappears among the reeds of the lake. A mist rises off the water as the summer mornings can be cold against the rising sun and heat of the day. In the early days of Empire trains loaded with tree trunks rolled across the lake on the pylon bridge to their final destination and the large cutting wheels that turned it all into lumber. Even now the pylons jut out from the lake marking a trail that has long since disappeared from the landscape. Men and machine made for steady industry and employment for the small village in the early years. South Bar lake and The Empire Lumber Company were only the first stop on a long voyage to other towns and other rail lines.

I tend to forget, as I think back on those marvelous summer days at Springdale Farm, about the sacrifices made to afford us the opportunity to spend so much time there. Of course, when one is eight years old those kinds of deep thoughts are barely grey wispy clouds in the back of the mind, so prevalent are the more immediate thoughts of sun and sand, trees and trails. from my earliest memories my dad worked for the Grand Rapids Post Office. He retired from there in the mid-eighties as the senior supervisor. In 1967, however, he was still a mail sorter, and worked Monday through Fridays. Dad would bring us up north and then return home to work his shifts and come home to an empty house. (vacation for him?) We would spend upwards of a month and a half between Uncle Frank and Aunt Louise’s farm and My Grandparents cabin and woods near Mesick. During the week at Springdale farm we would run amuck through the fields and woods, go to the beach and dune climb, visit great-Aunts and Uncles in the village of Empire and wait for the weekend and dad.
Fridays after he got out of work, he would jump in the car with our dog Suntar, a beautiful Husky-Collie mix that he brought home one day in the palm of his hand, and he would head for the farm. He usually got there right around our bed time but that was ok because he would send us off with the reminder that there would be no sleeping-in in the morning. We were going fishing at South Bar lake! Oh, we could hardly contain ourselves. It wasn’t even dark yet and now we had to contend with the imagined monster blue gill we would catch! My dad liked to fish and he liked to take us fishing. Unfortunately, he hated the smell of cooking fish. It would turn him green! He always found somewhere else to be when my mom cooked up the mess of fish we had caught, descaled and cleaned. The fish were always cooked on the grill in the back yard. The picnic table was covered and set, and we’d all dig in…except dad. He’d make a ham sandwich and a cup of coffee.
Saturday morning we’d hear dad’s voice rising up the stairs “Mike, Kevin, Shannon, lets go!” Covers would go flying like a hand grenade had gone off under the blankets. Aunt Louise and mom were already up, They were still in their nightgowns and housecoats with breakfast on the table. Eggs, bacon, pancakes and toast with jam. Dad stood there with a cup of coffee and watched us eat. He had picked up a container of worms on the way north and had taken the time to strap our cane poles along the passenger side of the car. They must have been a good eight feet long. The line was wrapped around the pole with the hook poked into the bottom edge. There was a slight chill to the morning but the sun was already shining and it promised to be a golden summer day.
Mike and I clambered into the back seat of the car from the driver’s side and Shannon did the same in the front seat. We drove the few miles from the farm to the Empire beach which separated South Bar lake from Lake Michigan by a couple hundred feet. We ran back and forth between the car and the end of the short but wide dock that jutted out into the small lake about fifteen feet while dad untied the poles from the car. Dad used a rod and reel while we used the more kid-friendly cane poles.

We were already experienced in baiting our hooks, even Shannon. Shannon was fearless when it came to worms, toads, and other creepy crawlies. There were lots of times we’d find a toad in the yard and Shannon would be the one to pick it up so we could look at it.

She was only five or six at this time. She wore sneakers and overalls with some sort of plaid short sleeved shirt. Mike and I, nine and seven, wore the basic red ball jets, jeans and white t-shirts. Mike and I were trying to outdo each other in casting out our line. The poles and lines were the same length so the deciding factor would be our arms. We could swing the line out pretty good but the difference between them was almost nil. Shannon did not want to be out-done and wanted to get her line out by ours. A couple fish were caught and tossed back for being too small. The last of the morning mist was rolling off the lake when Mike and I swung our lines out to their maximum length; we were proud of our efforts. Shannon stood at the end of the dock and swung her line out in a mighty heave…and heaved herself right off the dock! Sploosh! Everything was commotion and excitement! All we saw was Shannon’s long blond hair spread out like a lily pad on the surface of the water. Her shocked eyes, just under the surface of the lake, were wide with fright, cheeks puffed and lips puckered as she held her breath. There was A mighty splash and dad was in the water. It seemed as if at the same time he was dropping into the lake he had ahold of Shannon and she was rising out of it. Dad held her up to us and we helped her onto the dock while dad got her pole and climbed onto the dock himself.
We had no words at first, we had no towels; no change of clothes. We could do nothing but strap the poles to the car and head back to the farm. Once the shock of the situation had worn off Mike and I couldn’t stop laughing. The hair, the eyes, the puckered lips…dad didn’t think it was funny. Of course, dad and Shannon were wet and cold, but we were seven and nine, and boys. I have this image in my mind of a Norman Rockwell-esque painting of a cut-away car with dad, grumpy and wet behind the wheel, Shannon, wet and shivering silently in the seat next to him, while Mike and I continue to laugh and make flailing motions with puckered lips in the back seat. We didn’t catch any fish that morning except the big blonde one dad pulled out of the lake while the mist burned off and the sun continued to climb into the day. We went back to South Bar lake on Sunday afternoon and caught a mess of fish. Shannon stayed dry, and on the dock and dad stayed away from the grill at dinner-time.

Some days at Springdale Farm were very normal and uneventful. The sun would rise and set with all of us doing very normal activities and rise to another day. There are some days, though, that prick at my memory and events parade across my mind. And that is as it should be; places become special because along with the daily and mundane there are, for one reason or another, events, actions, sunrises or sunsets that cement themselves in the mind to be brought into the light later, perhaps when they are needed, or perhaps to bring to mind a time when it seemed that we were, in our adolescence, doing life right.

Lumberjacks, Snakes, and Woodstoves

We don’t have a wood stove. Even our fireplace is gas flames licking around ceramic ‘logs’. It even has small fiberglass coals that glow orange when the gas flames light up. Our wood use is relegated to the fire pit at our seasonal campsite, which we try to get to every weekend. Since last fall the three empty lots to the south of our house have been cleared of brush and trees and three new spec homes fill the ‘void’ between us and our nearest neighbors. I had asked the contractor what he was going to do with the trees he pulled down. He said: “Put them in your yard if you want ’em.”
After letting them sit through the winter I’m firing up the chainsaw and cutting them up for splitting and stacking. Partly so that they’ll cure faster but also because we’ve been finding snakes in the woodpile…big snakes. One reminds me of a Water Moccasin, thick body-two to three feet long, color and markings fit but we’re told they don’t find them this far north. I’ve never seen a puff adder this big and it didn’t have a rattle. The dogs are curious; Carrie is not. She did take a good picture of it though.

Is there such a thing as a wood snake? Cutting wood with my dad and grandpa we always ran into snakes. It was inevitable. When my folks married they bought a tiny house on five-mile rd on the Northeast side of Grand Rapids, then in the late sixties when our family grew too big for it, we moved, briefly,into my grandma’s house while our new house was being built on our old lot. It wasn’t long after we moved into this house that dad decided we needed a wood burning stove in the basement to keep the gas bill down. We made regular trips north to The Woods for fuel. Early on he would borrow a trailer to haul the wood behind his Plymouth Fury. This was the car of choice for the discriminating lumberjack.The wood was piled in the back yard just waiting for the unlucky soul chosen to start the splitting process.

There I stand in the back yard, sweating through my WLAV Tshirt, shoulder length hair matted to my neck, jaw and forehead. There was no such thing as a man-bun; that guy would’ve been laughed out of the neighborhood, and I didn’t do ponytails. So I suffered. We had mauls, wedges, axes, (one and two bladed), and sledge hammers. After making pretty good headway for a couple hours dad appears with the savior of the hour: the new Chopper 1, a splitting maul with side levers built to force the wood apart once the blade bit in far enough for the levers to catch on the wood edge.

All my fifteen year old brain thought was: “Where the hell was this thing two hours ago?” I tried it out and it actually worked quite well! ‘Try it before you buy it’ would’ve given two thumbs up!
Dad said: ‘Take a break. You want a cold drink?’ I nodded as I pulled my hair back and tied a bandana across my brow. To my suprise, Dad came out with two Budweisers and tossed one over. It was ice cold and tasted great! I’m guessing ice cold anything would’ve tasted great. ” if you’re gonna work like a man you might as well have a man’s drink.” (*just don’t tell your mother).
Dad and I split the vast pile of wood and stacked it. We didn’t really talk about anything but wood and the Chopper 1, angles and force and dad cutting and stacking wood with grandpa up north. We went through two woodstoves while i still lived at home though that was only about another six years.There was a time when the only thing between me and the warmth of that woodstove was a bath mat…but that’s another story.


When my dad finished his 2nd tour of duty in the Marine Corp., he went into business with my grandpa in his Auto shop/filling station on the corner of Sweet and Diamond in Grand Rapids.

Dad, Ken Brooks, pumping gas for a customer.

Sometime during this partnership they won a 30-06 rifle in a promotion. This was the gun my dad used for hunting from that point on. He hand-checkered the stock with tools that have since passed to my brother Carl, along with the rest of his hunting gear. Dad and grandpa seemed to have similar dispositions and past-times. Dad said he didn’t come from a very demonstrative family. He knew he was loved because he and grandpa did things together. They cut wood. They fished. They hunted. During family get-togethers at grandpa and grandma’s house they sat across from each other in the living room barely saying a word, but my dad knew. He could see it in my grandpa’s eyes. They didn’t vocally say ‘I love you,’ or hug. When I came home from Summer Camp staff as a 17 year old I was a hugger. I said ‘I love you’. My dad would just nod; and it took a couple years for him to hug back. That changed after a while but at the time I didn’t care. I knew.
One hunting season not long after he returned from service Dad was up at the cabin. This was in a time when deer were plentiful and bucks hung from tree branch and poles. Between grandpa’s cabin and Uncle Herb’s the deer hung like rows of corn after the first week of the season. One day Dad, Uncle Bill Masters, and Grandpa were heading back out into the woods after lunch. As they drove down the county road they saw old man Bullock and his boys firing their rifles across Mr. Pike’s field toward my grandpa’s woods.

My dad pulled over and asked them what they were shooting at. Mr. Bullock, standing a little ways off the road told my dad that there was a big buck standing at the tree-line of my grandpa’s woods just below the big hill. The distance to the deer from the road was probably about the length of three football fields. Mr. Bullock’s sons were laying atop a rise about a third of the way through the field firing round after round. The buck just stood there looking. Grandpa said “ Nobody’s even coming close Kenny; he’s not even flinching. My dad got out his 30-06 and rested it on a fence post along the road. Sighting in with his scope he could see that it was a big buck. The rack was spread wide but he couldn’t tell how many tines it had from that distance. The deer could hear the shots but was apparently unconcerned. It was just noise. He continued to browse and occasionally lift his head to the rifle shots. Mr. Bullock said: “ C’mon Kenny, at least go up by the boys. You’ll never hit him from back there.” “Nope, I’m good.” Said my dad. He loaded a clip into his gun and chambered a round. The Bullock boys kept plinking away, and the deer just stood there.
When my dad settled himself and looked through the scope, my Uncle Bill said that he and my grandpa just held their breath. KRACK! My dad quickly worked the bolt and chambered another round. He missed, but he was close enough that the buck bolted along the tree-line. Dad never looked up. Sighting again, he led the deer and KRACK! The buck went down with grasses and dirt flying as the rack plowed into the ground. Dad dropped him on the run! The Bullock boys just stared back from the rise while Mr. Bullock whooped and hollered, laughing and running up to my dad. ‘Kenny, that was the most amazing shot I’ve ever seen! You did it! You really did it!” Uncle Bill was dumbstruck. “I can’t believe it. I just can’t believe it.” Grandpa just beamed. Nobody went out into the woods that afternoon. This is the story as I heard it from my dad and my Uncle Bill. There was probably a bit of luck in the shot, but my dad spent his time in the Marine corp. as a Drill Instructor and Range Instructor. I’m guessing that played a part.

Twig and leaf

How does one encapsulate a place and time into a few short sentences? How does one light a fire within another with memories and words? Springdale Farm, Uncle Frank & Aunt Louise’ home was the birthplace of memories for me. Only a couple miles from the Dune Climb and the Glen Lakes it carried the flair of an exotic, (to an eight year old)vacation place. The Welch homestead on Welch road had field, wood, and hill to run, climb, and crawl through until bedraggled and scratched, hair blown and tangled with twig and leaf a boy would come through the back screen door with a twang of spring and slap of door on jamb, flushed with a day of sun and woodland adventure to a half hearted scolding for being out so long and looking like something that a woodchuck carried to a brush pile.
Earth. Soil, and Nature. An article recently read that children would be better off and more healthy if they just got a bit dirty now and then. There is something in the earth that connects us and heals us. It makes us whole, both physically and spiritually. Christian tradition tells us that God formed Adam from earth. Take it for what it is, the connection bears it out. Perhaps this is why I needed to share this experience with my own children; why my grandchildren have been to Springdale Farm, and climbed the dunes and walked the same fields, and climbed the same hills that captured the heart of their grandfather fifty-odd years ago.
We need to come back to the earth. We need to come in at dusk with twig and leaf caught in the hair, cheeks flush and pink with the sun and sky.


There hadn’t been much need to go into the old shed at the cabin. It seemed like the only things in there were an old rusted truck and a bunch of lumber, but grandma needed something. I can’t even remember what but she asked dad to see if he could find it. “I’m sure it’s in there Kenny, see if you can find it.” Dad rolled open the long door of the shed sending light into a space that rarely ever got it. He found what grandma wanted. I wanted to take a look into a shed that hardly ever saw the light of day.
There was all sorts of stuff in there! Hanging against the wall was a rusted old two-handled cross cut saw. I remember seeing movies with lumberjacks using them. “Did you ever use that, dad?” “Oh yes,” he said. “grandpa and I used that all the time before we had chainsaws.” I stared in wonder at the old saw as the door slid closed and darkness hid it from sight again.

Sawdust and woodchips flew out onto the forest floor back and forth, bouncing off the grubby oil-spotted overalls and boots of the man and boy. Clarence kept his blades sharp- He had to; the old cabin had to be heated and wood was cheaper than propane. Originally owned by a lumber company the woods were intersected by a railroad grade that ended just shy of the western border of the property. Another spur cut in from the east at the north end of the 160 acres. Both lines had been pulled up leaving only a long sloping grade, a large clearing at the north end and a few, now rusty, line spikes that are still being found today. All the wood that was fit to be logged was harvested long ago.

The woods had grown up since then. The clearing was still there and the grade still ran rail straight from the east to the west right down the center of the property. It was along the old grade that the man had parked his pick-up. As Clarence, fit and trim at thirty-eight years used the two man cross-cut saw to cut through the branches and trunk of the tree his fourteen year old son Kenny worked the other end of the saw. Once the cutting was done the boy cleared the small branches and stacked the wood in face-cord sections four foot high, eight long with precise sixteen inch pieces. Clarence pulls out his maul and wedges, splitting the larger pieces of trunk while Kenny stacks and clears the brush. The boy and man work silently, the natural sounds of wind and bird punctuated by the dull ‘thock’ of wood striking wood and the high pitched ‘ping’ of maul striking wedge. Clarence straightens up and wiping the sweat from his brow he adjusts his glasses and runs his tongue along his bottom lip. He watches his son stacking the wood with pride. The boy takes the time to stack the pieces tight and straight. Kenny notices the stillness and, looking up at his dad, wipes his face with a leather glove. No words are exchanged but Clarence reaches into the back of the truck and pulls out a couple cold sodas and points one at the boy. Kenny straightens with a smile and nods. The two sit on the tailgate of the truck and listen to the sounds of the woods and feel the hot sun on their cheeks.
The trees are taller. A different pick up sits on the railroad grade. Chainsaws and a plastic milk crate with oil and rags sits on the ground. Kenny, now forty-four years old stands next to the cut trunk of a tree. A chainsaw sits on the flat surface about waist high while he works a rattail file against the curved blade tips of the chain. “Give me four hours to cut down a tree and I’ll spend the first two sharpening my axe.” Is a quote attributed to Abraham Lincoln though no one knows for sure who said it; but in this case it applies. Cutting up a tree is much easier and quicker with a sharp saw. His three sons, Mike and Kevin now teenagers, and even the five year old, Carl, engage in various tasks of hauling brush, stacking wood, and prepping logs for the blade. Clarence, now sixty-eight, lets Kenny do the cutting. Bent and aged by the life he led he is more of a consultant now. He still drives his old truck up into the woods. The boys, sitting on the tailgate for the short trip up the county road, watch the road roll underneath their feet and snicker as the yellow and white center lines slowly snake back and forth from one side of the tailgate to the other. Kenny asks his dad where they are cutting today and the old man says: “Plenty of standing dead on the grade.” Clarence points out trees and his son gets to cutting. He directs the boys on clearing brush and stacking, and he helps Kenny with measuring. He carries a stick, just an ordinary stick with notches on it. Standing to the side while his son starts the saw he bends down and lays the stick against the branch or trunk to give Kenny the measure that, after years in the woods, he doesn’t really need. And he steps away as the saw blade sends sawdust flying. The wood is stacked, saws and boxes stowed in the truck, and the boys are called back from whatever forest adventure took them away from the grade. The woods need to be checked, and the boys watch the two-track path roll beneath their feet while weeds and twigs flick at the older boys’ shoes and pantlegs as they travel from one end of the woods to the other. Driving through the open field at the north end made the boys pick up their feet. The field was full of blackberry brambles which bite and scrape even through blue jeans. Once back at the cabin the three boys carry on with various pursuits while the two men go inside. Grandma Adeline stands at the kitchen window looking out at the boys. “Get some cutting done?” Clarence responds with a “Yeh,” As he walks through to the next room. Kenny just winks at his mother. The two men sit at the dining room table with a beer and a shot of whiskey. No words are spoken. They stare into each other’s eyes and take a sip while a slow cool summer breeze catches a wind chime hanging in one of the maple trees and comes, with the music, through the window to slowly dry the sweat on their brows.

Clarence and Ken Brooks