Local beaches have rich history

Published 10:18 am Friday, May 14, 2010

Beach grass on the shore of Lake Michigan catches the late afternoon sun. Photo by Terri Gordon

Off the Water

The western shore of Michigan comprises the world’s largest freshwater dune system – much of it available for people to appreciate as beaches and parks. Berrien County boasts nearly a dozen beaches, not counting access areas.

Southwest Michigan’s beaches are available today largely because of generous and thoughtful people. Inspired by Teddy Roosevelt’s parks movement, philanthropists like J. W. Tiscornia, Edward K. Warren and John Nellis Klock gifted their communities with public beaches. Their aims were twofold: to preserve expanses of natural environment and to leave it for the public to enjoy. The parks remain as testaments to the foresight of the people who preserved them, and as prime jewels in Berrien County’s treasure trove.
Jean Klock Park is one of the oldest parks in the state. In 1917, J. N. Klock and his wife gave the city of Benton Harbor ninety acres of Lake Michigan shore. The park was named for the Klocks’ deceased daughter. At the park’s dedication, Klock told the city: “The beach is yours, the drive is yours, the dunes are yours, all yours. It is not so much a gift from my wife and myself, it’s a gift from a little child. See to it that the park is the children’s.”

Also in 1917, Edward Warren, of Three Oaks, and of Featherbone Factory fame, set up the Edward K. Warren Foundation. Into its hands he placed roughly 1,500 acres of Lake Michigan beach, with high and wooded dunes. He purchased the land in order to preserve it, and was effectively the first to preserve dune land. His purchase became Warren Dunes State Park in 1930.

J. W. Tiscornia started Auto Specialties in St. Joseph/Benton Harbor, in 1918. He married and bought a home on the lake. He was a generous man, known for his philanthropy. As his neighborhood grew, people used land adjacent to the pier as a beach.

The land belonged to Tiscornia, but he didn’t mind. What is known as Tiscornia Park today was given to St. Joseph by Auto Specialties in the early 1960s, after Tiscornia’s death, and in accordance with his wishes.

What began in the late 1880s as the boat livery of Logan Drake and Louis Wallace grew into a popular tourist destination with boardwalks, concessions, a bath house, a roller rink, a dance hall and even an amusement park. In the late 1930s, Drake’s son-in-law, Horace Terrill, took over the operation and kept the amusement park going until 1972. Terrill sold what is now Silver Beach, in St. Joseph, to LECO Corp. in 1977. In 1990, LECO sold the beach to the county. Silver Beach is one of Berrien County’s more popular beaches today.

Another beach that narrowly escaped development is Grand Mere State Park, 1,200 acres of interdunal wetlands, inland lakes, and high-relief dunes. In April 1968, the United States Department of the Interior recognized Grand Mere for its uniqueness and declared it a National Natural Landmark (www.nature.nps.gov/nnl). It became a park in 1973.
Its rich diversity supports a variety of wildlife. Herons, ducks, and geese use the inland lakes, and migratory birds of all types pass through the park.

While the area is now protected as a critical dunes area, Grand Mere is hardly untouched by development. Various enterprises, including a sawmill, cranberry cultivation and orchards have all been tried on the land. Private homes line its edges.

In Bridgman, Weko Beach sits between two high dunes on Lake Michigan, It connects with Warren Dunes State Park at its southern end. The city acquired part of the beach as a gift from the Martin-Marietta sand mining company and purchased the rest. The beach is named after the families who built and ran the original Beach House, taking the W-E from Weber, and the K-O from Kolander. It’s pronounced to rhyme with “gecko.” The Beach House started as a soda bar, with a dance hall added later. Today the Beach House holds a concession stand and rental facilities.

Other area beaches include Lion’s Park Beach, Hagar Township Park and Rocky Gap County Park. To the south is New Buffalo Beach. Its harbor sits where the Galien River empties into the lake. Each beach has its own story and its own appeal, but all afford folks places to frolic and enjoy the lake and its shore.