Gull Island Memories

When you look out on Gull Island–forever preserved by the Leelanau Conservancy in 1996–it’s hard to imagine that someone once lived there. This summer we heard from a woman who did just that. Dorothy Mays Ives, 95, today lives in Amherst MA, and has recorded her memories of a summer spent on the island when she was just 19. The year was 1937 when Dorothy was hired by Professor Ustick of Harvard to provide cooking and household help at his family home on Gull Island. Recently her daughter, Carolyn Dingman, helped her mother to record her memories and developed photo negatives that show the island, the house, and the family.
“At 95, my mother still lives independently in her own home despite being legally blind,” writes Carolyn. “We feel this resilience was developed early on.  In the two years before her summer job at Gull Island, her life was turned upside down by the loss of both her parents during the Depression.  In spite of severe hardship, she went on to finish at Simmons College, School of Library Science, and worked as a librarian in Amherst before she became a mother of four.”

Dorothy’s Memories

It was 1937, the end of my junior year at Simmons College in Boston.  The Ustick family contacted the Dean of the college looking for a cook to travel with them from their home in Cambridge to Gull Island, Michigan, where they had a summer place.  I needed a job for the summer and was glad to be hired.

Family boat tied up at dock

Family boat tied up at dock

We drove out from Cambridge, I’m pretty sure in two cars with one pulling a rowboat on a trailer.  The ensemble included Prof. Ustick, his wife, two daughters, myself, and a Harvard student who would be doing outside chores.  I remember the trip took us out from Boston to Western Massachusetts, where I had never been, and on through Ohio on the way to Traverse City and Northport.  It was a long trip, several days, and as there were no motels we stayed in cabins along the road or in houses that rented out rooms.

Approaching Gull Island by boat from Northport, MI

Approaching Gull Island by boat from Northport, MI

Once in Northport we rowed out to the mooring of the family boat, brought it back to the dock, loaded up, and then made several trips back and forth to Gull Island, transporting our belongings and supplies.  It was a trip of perhaps one and a half to two miles each way.  One of the photos shows the boat we used, and another shows the island’s dock.  The island was flat and there were clusters of trees.

I had been hired to cook and I found the kitchen at the back of the house.  There was no electricity or running water; cooking was on a kerosene stove and there were kerosene lanterns to light the house.  I believe there was a cistern for water in the kitchen which was filled by the Harvard student.  And of course there was an outhouse.

In the main house there were two large fireplaces, one at either end of the building.  An enormous, wide wooden table filled one half of the main room; it could sit perhaps 8 people on each side. The other half of the main area was a sitting room, and a flight of stairs led to the 2nd floor.

Closer view of house and shed

Closer view of house and shed

As I recall, I slept in a space over the kitchen in back of the house.  I was very aware that I was not a guest or member of the family, I was there to work.  This may be because I grew up as the daughter of servants, and I had worked as hired help the previous summer.  I would take the meals I had prepared from the separate kitchen into the main house to be served on the large, long table.  There was never a tablecloth, it was just bare wood.  I did not sit at the table and eat with the family but served the food and returned to the kitchen area.

A vivid memory of my time on the island is making cherry pies.  I had learned to make pie crusts a year earlier, and the Ustick family and their guests would bring unsealed cans of processed cherries from a mainland cannery for me to make into pies for dessert.  The kerosene stove had two burners, and there was a portable oven that could be placed over the top for baking.  I tried very hard to make sure the juice from the pies did not run over onto the stove during baking.  I didn’t mind making the pies or preparing muffins for breakfast, but I did not like to cook the large lake trout that the family brought to me from fishing expeditions, perhaps because I had no experience.

Dock at Gull Island showing rocky shoreline

Dock at Gull Island showing rocky shoreline

The shoreline of the island was covered with rocks and there wasn’t a beach area for swimming.   A plank of wood led across the rocks from the house to the dock, and people would have to use the dock to dive into the water if they wanted to swim.  I had not learned to swim, and on my days off I would walk to another part of the island to sit and read or write letters.  There were two daughters, one perhaps 15 and the other around 6 or 7.  The older daughter would be taken to the mainland by boat so she could attend dances at the yacht club.  Shopping also was done on the mainland.

I seem to recall there were frequent visitors, some from Harvard, who would go out with the professor for fishing on the lake.  Since there was no beach on Gull Island, we would sometimes boat over to the mainland with a picnic and drive across the peninsula.  There we came to a sandy shore that went on for miles, and I remember tall dunes and something called the “singing sands.”

I have a memory of having to go out to get kerosene for the stove, or some other outdoor chore, and having gulls swoop down on me.  They seemed to have built nests everywhere, and you had to be careful where you stepped.

Outing to the beach on the other side of the peninsula with Ustick family.  Dorothy is 4th from the left.

Outing to the beach on the other side of the peninsula with Ustick family. Dorothy Mays Ives is 4th from the left.

All things considered, it was a very interesting summer and I felt lucky to have a job in the midst of the Depression.  Once the summer came to an end, I did not have any further contact with the Ustick family or Gull Island.  Only recently have I learned through internet research the names of the family members:  William Lee Ustick, Eugenia Blow Miltenberger Ustick, Ellen C. Ustick (later Ellen Williams), and Eugenia E. Ustick (later Eugenia Detzer).  None are still living.

13 responses to “Gull Island Memories”

  1. C. Lambert says:

    Beautiful story about the early history of Gull Island, thank you for researching and sharing!

  2. Evy Sussman says:

    Thank you for publishing this memoir. After years of looking out at the chimney standing alone, “guarding” the island, it is wonderful to have a bit of this special history.

  3. Judy Livingston says:

    Very interesting story as I’ve heard so many stories about this house!

  4. Linda Miller says:

    What a treat to put faces to the family who lived on Gull Island! On a boat tour with the Conservancy some years ago, we passed close to the island, with only the chimneys remaining to hint to the previous inhabitants. Dorothy’s fond memories of this place are evident from her narration – a glimpse back to a time we can only imagine!

  5. Lisa Johnson-Force says:

    Thank you for this awesome story. I grew up in Northport staring at the island with nothing but two chimney stacks sticking up. My father still lives there. I never heard any stories of life on the island until this. I eeally intetested me. Thank you for sharing. God Bless you and your family!!

  6. Theresa Stamos-Underwood says:

    Dorothy and her family stayed in our cabin in 1963 when they came for a vacation. Our cabins overlook the bay and in the distance is Gull Island. Dorothy told me the story of how she worked there. After they left she sent a lovely letter and some of the pictures you are showing. The story was very nice. That island is intriguing to many.

  7. Kathleen Firestone says:

    Brian Price, maybe you would like to scan in the Gull Island painting I gave to the Consevancy. The cook is included near the back corner of the building.

  8. Lynn Contos says:

    My Great Grandfather, Byron Woolsey worked on the construction of this home/cottage. I remember hearing that they worked in the winter to avoid the gulls. Unfortunately, he lost a horse through the ice while going back and forth to the mainland.

  9. Marie Backer says:

    I am a friend of Dorothy’s daughter, Carolyn. I have met Mrs. Ives once and now regret that I did not have the foresight to inquire as to what she was doing during the summer of 1937! I can only imagine myself at age 19 in the role of cook with a couple of kerosene burners and a portable oven with cherry pies to be baked–not even mentioning breakfast, lunch and dinner! Mrs. Ives continues to be an inspiration–thank you, Dorothy and Carolyn, for documenting this chapter of your life!

  10. Mary Helen Ayars Ray says:

    I also enjoyed the write-up about Gull Island. My family started to visit the area in the 1920s and told stories of taking a fishing charter boat from Northport in order to sight-see in the area. The captain insisted that the Ustiks were not in residence, so moored the boat at their dock. To my mother’s chagrin, the Ustik family came down the beach to greet our family and invited the boatload in for lemonade. They also told our family a similar story as Dorothy’s about the daughter going to dances on the mainland and, if it was too rough and windy to return to the island, they would blink car lights from Northport, as a signal that they would return the next morning. The singing sands beach must be the stretch of beach owned at that time by the George Smith family in Omena, because it was not built upon and we as children often picnicked there

    Mary Helen Ayars Ray

  11. Carolyn Faught for Paul Skinner Facebook comment says:

    This comment, which contains some cool history, was posted on our Facebook page 2.4.2015 after we posted a photo of a vintage postcard from 1966.

    Paul Skinner

    February 3 at 6:18pm

    The house I believe was constructed approx 1910 by from what I was told by a senior professor from Yale or Harvard. He and his family vacationed for several summers until eventually they were beaten by the Gulls that nested there each summer. The family then built a home on the mainland south of Northport and intended to use the contents of the island home in their new cottage but never did. Sometime in the late 50’s or early 60’s Sarah George who related this story to me and who lived opposite the island was cruising past. It was then that she noticed the door flapping in the breeze and went ashore to investigate. She and her son discovered that the cottage had been partially vandalized so she took it upon herself to save the contents. She then spent several years trying to track down the original owners with no success. Fast forward to the early 2000’s and Sarah became a good customer at our store in Empire a buying antiques and garden pots etc etc.. Sadly Sarah passed away several years ago and her son asked me is I’d like to purchase items the family didn’t want from the estate, which I did. One item I did buy was a beautiful hickory desk that had come from the Gull Island Cottage. Finally I know Sarah appeared in various Leelanau Post Cards in the 50’s & 60’s I wonder if that’s her and her son on the bow of the boat???

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  12. Thomas Baird says:

    Interesting story and photos. It’s too bad vandals had to break into the cottage, causing the gulls to eventually wreck it completely.

  13. James Locke says:

    In the year of 1968, I saw pictures from Camp Shady Trails of the family been attacked by the seagulls. Full report of the attack from the old Traverse City News paper.

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