“I frankly didn’t think I’d live to see the day the state would buy the whole 1,200 acres,” says Juniata Cupp. “When we started [in 1965], someone said ‘This will take 25 years.’ And I thought ‘I’ll be way up in my 70s. I won’t be around.'”
But she is, and thanks to her and hundreds of other southwestern Michigan activists, so are the wild dunes of Grand Mere. Just west of Stevensville, Michigan—90 miles from the Loop via I-94—Grand Mere State Park stretches for almost a mile along the eastern shore of Lake Michigan. Within its boundaries (only 972 acres, actually) are three shallow, spring-fed lakes; dunes up to 180 feet high; dense woods; rare wildflowers, insects, and birds; a maze of twisting trails; and a gloriously empty beach. Unlike the immensely popular and often immensely crowded Warren Dunes State Park seven miles south, Grand Mere until recently has been an almost unknown reason to say “Yes” to the state shaped like a mitten. Without the perseverance of the Grand Mere Association, it might well now be a sand mine or a can factory.
We turn a corner in the woods, and there it is—a nearly vertical wall of sand. There’s nothing looser than the fine-grained downwind side of a dune, and nothing harder to climb. But the wide-open vista at the top is worth it. The dunes fall away, then rise again, seeming to hold the great lake between them.
The late-summer symphony of color might have been the work of an old master: the tawny sand, the light greens of grapes and grasses, the darker greens of the trees—-all echoed in the lake, where alternating belts of dark blue and blue green are accented by white gulls and breaking waves. Somewhere along our way the continuous roar of wind in the trees and waves on the beach has replaced the roar of the interstate traffic behind us.
On the horizon, a little south of west, is the only sign that the far side of this water is any different from this side: there’s a tiny projection that might be the top one-quarter of the Sears Tower. Without binoculars it’s impossible to be sure–it’s probably just our imagination.
“Grand Mere,” says Chuck Nelson, director of Sarett Nature Center north of Benton Harbor, “is just a sweetheart of an area.” Like other dunelands on Lake Michigan’s southern and eastern shores, it has unusually diverse plant and animal life; unlike the others, it has the three smaller lakes on the landward side–part of an “embayment” cut off by sand spits several thousand years ago, as prehistoric Lake Michigan dropped by gradual stages to its current level. The lakes–unpoetically known as North, Middle, and South–add to the ecological diversity of the area. South Lake is farthest along in its progress from open water to marsh to wetland to (relatively) dry ground; together the trio offer an almost textbook example of ecological succession.
Both the plenty and the diversity doubtless appealed to the Potawatomi and Miami and other tribes of Indians who camped regularly in the area. Even after the U.S. government rounded up the remaining tribesmen and shipped them west in the late 1830s, local rumor has it, a few managed to stay and live out their time in the manner of their ancestors. Just where they hid no one knows, but even then Grand Mere would have been one of the most secluded places in southern Michigan. No farmer cared to plow sand when he could find more-fertile ground inland. Even the name is obscure–no one seems to know whether it originally meant Great Mother or Big Sea, but in any case locals pronounce it, midwestern style, to rhyme with “here.”
T.W. Dunham bought the 1,100-acre Grand Mere tract in 1865, and two years later started a commercial sawmill with which to process its thick stands of virgin white pine. Dunham eventually built his own pier and scow to ship the lumber out. When the big trees were gone, he planted a peach orchard. As the 20th century began, Chicago increasingly made its presence felt on the east side of the lake. The Dunham Resort, on Lake Michigan northwest of Middle Lake, catered to Chicagoans arriving by rail to spend a weekend or a summer month. On South Lake, a Mr. Rich from Chicago managed the workers in a commercial cranberry bog. Juniata Cupp has written an informal history of the area that recalls “During the height of the cranberry harvest in the years of 1900 to 1912, nearly 500 people could be found picking cranberries, moving slowly across the bog in a kneeling position, in long unbroken lines. Strict foremen would supervise the operation and at the sight of a few overlooked berries would tap the picker on the shoulder with a cane. . . . ” The pickers, mostly women and children, earned 75 cents to $1 a day.
Cranberries soon came cheaper from other states, but resort land so near to Chicago never went out of style. In 1908, architect Frederick Lindquist and real-estate broker James A. Fox built beachfront homes and started a subdivision now known as Waverland Beach, near the south end of the Grand Mere area. Family tradition portrays Lindquist as an early-day conservationist. Lake-going barges known as “sandsuckers” would stand offshore, pulling up lake sand from the bottom to ship to foundries for metal-casting molds. Lindquist would stand on the shore, shake his fist (or sometimes a gun), and yell, “You’re ruining my beach–get away from here!”
Neither orchards nor subdivisions nor organized resorts quite caught on here, though, except around North Lake, which today is largely privately owned. Two speculative “Stevensville syndicates” based in Chicago in the 1920s were busted by the Great Depression.
As early as 1938, state natural-resource planners had noted Grand Mere as a “prime recreational area in southwest Michigan.” “We did a study in 1956,” recalls James Hane of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources Parks Division, which identified Grand Mere and other possible park spots. “But funding was never available, so nothing happened.” The sandsuckers did not lack for funds, however. In 1953, Manley Brothers sand mining company (headquartered now in Chesterton, Indiana) opened a processing plant in Bridgman, Michigan, and began acquiring “sand rights” to hundreds of acres along the shoreline. Interstate 94 went through about 1958, obliterating at least one Indian camp and part of the Dunham dune area for fill at Exit 22. Before and after that incursion, University of Chicago botanist Charles Olmsted brought his students over regularly. Wrote Cupp, “For decades, many people just took Grande Mere [the gallicized spelling is frequently seen] for granted. They roamed the winding roads, climbed to the top of the highest dunes, and fished from the tiny jewellike lakes. Many from Lincoln Township enjoyed the solitude for years . . . ”
They were rudely awakened from that solitude on April 26, 1965, when the Saint Joseph, Michigan, Herald-Press announced that three parties—Manley Brothers, Chicago attorney Victor Peters, and Cook County Circuit judge Philip Shapiro—had assembled 1,200 acres at Grand Mere for “clean industrial complexes, commercial buildings with possible high-rise apartments, golf greens, a landing field, boat marinas, and residential sites.” The three property owners were anxious to obtain a sizable water supply, bring in a railroad spur, and proceed promptly with “dredging, grading, and otherwise changing a wilderness into usable space.”
All they needed to get started was for the Lincoln Township board to rezone the area from residential to industrial. “Unless neighborhood objections should pose unforeseen problems,” noted the reporter, “this is regarded as a formality.” They did, and it wasn’t.
The township board—like most local politicians anywhere—may have been in the developers’ pockets, but the township itself was not. Within four days a group of appalled neighbors had met, and on May 13, 1965, the Grand Mere Association was born, with officers, bylaws, and a crusade. Its members ranged from Whirlpool executives and well-connected doctors’ wives like Juniata Cupp to hot-tempered locals who had even protested the advent of I-94. They invited naturalists to visit, contacted teachers who had used the dunes as an outdoor education tool, and on an unseasonably cool Sunday sponsored the first of an annual series of public hikes—anything to get the dunes on people’s consciences.
“The people who started the organization were criticized for trying to save their own backyard,” recalls Juniata Cupp. “A lot of people criticized them for destroying dunes to build their own homes.” Now they wanted to close the door behind them. Cupp lives in Shoreham, five miles north of Grand Mere. The fledgling group asked her to join its board, as both a known environmentalist (a member of Indiana’s Save the Dunes Council and president of the Saint Joseph Valley Audubon Society) and a crackerjack photographer. “Then when I came on, we were criticized as outsiders.” Catch-22.
Despite these attacks, the group grew and prospered. In August it held a major public meeting that featured, among others, Professor Olmsted and Herbert Read of the Save the Dunes Council (“Don’t Put an Iron Curtain Along Our Lakeshore”). They received a helpful telegram from Interior Secretary Stewart Udall (he urged careful studies before “irreversible actions which may be regretted by future generations”), $1,000 from a local garden club, inquiries from local state representatives, and a ringing endorsement from the editor of Benton Harbor’s News Palladium: “The Grand Mere Association deserves support from far and wide in its efforts to save a bit of Nature for generations yet unborn.”
And one summer person, returning to Evanston with a bright green “Save Grand Mere” bumper sticker on her car, was flagged down at a Lake Shore Drive stoplight. Another motorist called over: “What’s wrong with your grandmother?”
Meanwhile, Manley Brothers began mining and hauling away sand from the south end of Grand Mere. Neither township, county, nor state yet had any laws regulating sand mining, but the land was zoned residential, wasn’t it? Well . . . The Herald-Press quoted Lincoln Township supervisor Harry Gast Jr. as saying that he had no power to act against the company, since the mining was not a commercial venture under the zoning ordinance: no buildings had been erected, and no business transactions were taking place on the land! At the time Gast supported development–and mining, of course, would have been its first stage, a profitable way of turning “wilderness” into “usable land.”
The would-be developers brought a “compromise” plan to the township board in June 1966. They asked that only the northern 400 acres, around Middle Lake, be rezoned, leaving the southern two-thirds of the area for recreation and wildlife. The Grand Mere Association would have none of it. “You’re not saving anything by approving this request,” spokesman Frank Lahr told the township board. “They’ll just expand the area later on and take over all the dunes and haul all the sand out in barges docked in that marina.”
Grand Mere was becoming a statewide issue. An obviously delighted E.G. Gillette, president of the Michigan Parks Association, wrote to the GMA that her group “had about written Grand Mere off. . . . Frankly, for a long time I had wondered if there would ever be so much as a squeak from local people over that way to have Grand Mere steered into some better use.” The state Department of Conservation drafted a “preliminary master plan” with 900 parking spaces and 200 campsites for the area. But in June, the Michigan legislature broke up in anger when the house and senate couldn’t agree on how to fund a state purchase.
That fall, the Grand Mere Association faced the likelihood that the township board might well OK the “compromise” no matter how many protests were made. If so, a majority agreed, they would petition and take their case to the township voters in a referendum. It was a gutsy idea, as support for their cause seemed more popular outside the township than within it. Saint Joseph’s Lions Club supported preservation, but not the Lincoln Township Lions. The Berrien County Sportsmen’s Club and several area garden clubs endorsed their cause; the Watervliet Rod & Gun Club even took out a Grand Mere Association membership. GMA volunteer Betty Schmidt wrote a note to Carl Sandburg on his 89th birthday, and on January 30, 1967, got an unexpected reply from the former resident of Harbert, Michigan: “Save those dunes. They belong to the people. They represent the signature of time and eternity. Their loss would be irrevocable. Good luck.” But how many votes could a poet sway in Lincoln Township?
On February 11, the township board did approve the rezoning. In two days of petition passing, the GMA got more than twice the number of signatures needed to put a referendum on the ballot for June 6.
The previous campaigning for public favor looked tame now. Both sides—the “commercialists” and the “conservationists”—blitzed with outside endorsements, tours, advertisements, fliers, newspaper articles, and radio and TV publicity. A sympathetic newsman led Grand Mere Association sleuths to a Gary, Indiana, city councilman who told how sand mining had even undermined his city’s sidewalks. That gave conservationists a wonderful scare headline five days before the vote: “Will Grand Mere End Up Like Gary?” The township officials had at first argued that development was needed to produce more tax money for schools; now they struck back with their opponents’ own weapon. Said the headline to a newspaper ad: “A No vote will not save Grand Mere—Planned Development can!”
Cupp had let her lawn run wild during the frantic days of the campaign. But since she didn’t live in the township, she had no role on election day. She spent it pulling weeds with a vengeance, coming indoors now and then to check with association precinct watchers. By day’s end the lawn was weed-free and Grand Mere was, for the moment, saved: Lincoln Township voters rejected the rezoning, 905 to 683.
About the time of the referendum, the Grand Mere Association got its first real toehold in the area. The Walker family offered its 22 acres in Waverland Beach for sale, and gave the association time to raise a down payment rather than sell to Manley Brothers. The fund-raising went well, and within three years—with some help from the Michigan chapter of the Nature Conservancy—the “Grand Mere Natural Study Preserve” was owned free and clear. Not in itself a distinctive or unusual area (it’s now been absorbed into the larger park), it served then as both a rallying point and a clear sign that the Grand Mere Association meant business. In order to make donations tax-deductible, the Kalamazoo Nature Center held the title deed, while GMA members paid for taxes and maintenance.
The association’s next achievement was a useful piece of propaganda. At a meeting of the Save the Dunes Council in Indiana held shortly after the referendum, Cupp learned that the U.S. Department of the Interior was designating certain special areas as “national natural landmarks.” Could Grand Mere qualify? A federal survey the following summer showed that indeed it could. The visiting scientists identified it as having “outstanding geological formations,” “an ecological community significantly illustrating the process of succession,” “a habitat supporting a vanishing, rare, or restricted species,” “a seasonal haven for concentrations of native animals,” and “examples of the scenic grandeur of our natural heritage,” among other qualifying items.
There was one small, easily overlooked catch to this federal endorsement: for Grand Mere to be actually designated a national natural landmark—as opposed to merely being eligible for designation—its owner(s) had to agree to keep it in a natural state. And this continued to seem most unlikely. In May 1968, just one week after Senator Philip Hart made the landmark announcement, Lincoln Township’s board approved yet another rezoning request from the developers. This time, owner Victor Peters asked for a mere 65 1/2 acres between the I-94 interchange and Middle Lake to be rezoned. He hinted coyly to the newspapers that Marshall Field’s was looking for a southwestern Michigan location, and that he had “high hopes” that Stevensville (!) might be chosen, but of course he couldn’t talk to Field’s unless the zoning was right.
Should the Grand Mere Association fight this too, or let it go by? Several board members thought it quixotic to try to prevent the commercialization of a freeway interchange, no matter how close it was to Grand Mere. The News Palladium, once a supporter, now harrumphed that “minor adjustments will not desecrate this sanctuary.”
While some GMA members chose to sit out the campaign, the rest mobilized once again to get out the petitions and then get out the vote. They portrayed this comparatively small rezoning request as a “foot in the door to a complete sand mining operation.” To refute the idea that the federal government had conferred some blessing on the area, Peters made public a letter he and his wife had sent to Secretary Udall: “We must irrevocably and finally inform you that we shall develop this area and that the designation of our property as a National Natural Landmark is unalterably refused.”
On the other side, local restaurateur and GMA stalwart Emil Tosi paid for an ad out of his own pocket, teasing readers with a headline about a “romance” between him and Sophia Loren. In the fine print, he explained that instead he had been “quite mad about” a “wild beauty” in the community for years—”Lady Grandmere,” who now needed to be saved from the “LAND RAPISTS.” “The materialistic marauders are back again to mount another assault on our local Beauty Queen,” he wrote. “We defeated them before—let’s do it again!” Whether because of or in spite of Tosi’s exuberant copywriting, in November 1968 voters again turned down the rezoning, 1,747 to 1,433.
Grand Mere still wasn’t saved, and it still couldn’t be officially designated a national natural landmark–but the owners’ development plans were stymied for the time being.
By now the Grand Mere Association had a routine, which included spring cleanups of the area, an annual May walk, and regular educational tours. Cupp has had two arthritic knee joints replaced—in part, she figures, because of all that dune climbing. On one particularly exhausting day she took a class from Notre Dame around Grand Mere in the morning. That afternoon, she was summoned back to shepherd another group whose guide hadn’t shown up. “When we came down that second time,” she recalls, “my knees were killing me, and I said so.” One of the college students chirped, “That’s what keeps you young, Mrs. Cupp.”
The Grand Mere Association stayed young by continuing its battle against sand mining, described in a 1967 newsletter as “still the sinister specter that hovers over the area like a black cloud.” In 1970, the township, under pressure, began requiring permits for mining. A 1974 sand mining project next to the nature study area brought the township into court against Manley Brothers.
Meanwhile, the Grand Mere Association had celebrated its biggest breakthrough to date. Judge Philip Shapiro died in June 1967. He had seemed less than enthusiastic about sand mining, and he had not joined Peters and Manley in asking for rezoning. The association hoped that the 383 acres in his estate—including half a mile of beachfront, several of the highest dunes, and all of South Lake—might be available to the state if the price was right. State senator Charles Zollar, a Benton Harbor Republican, engineered a $750,000 appropriation. (“We never would have gotten anywhere without him,” says Cupp fondly. She worked closely with him as GMA’s legislative chairman in those years. “We owe him so much.”) After considerable negotiation, the state bought the Shapiro tract for $613,700 in November 1973. But state plans to use an $85,000 appropriation for signs, walking trails, a boardwalk, access road improvements, and a small visitors’ center came to nothing. “That’s a very typical situation,” says James Hane, in charge of advance and special studies for the Department of Natural Resources Parks Division. “We buy the land when we can, but it may not have priority for new park development. We may have been busy elsewhere in the state.”
The GMA, for its part, lay low. “There wasn’t that much we could do” by way of pressure, says Chuck Nelson, because the association needed DNR’s cooperation in trying to save the rest of the area.
(Another sign of the group’s consolidation also came in 1973, when it published a lushly illustrated 102-page book, Grande Mere, still the most complete and captivating description of the area, and the place where Juniata Cupp’s informal history can be found.)
The township’s battle with Manley Brothers dragged on for years in and out of Berrien County Circuit Court; by the time it approached settlement, the company was obliged by Michigan’s 1976 sand mining law to apply for new sand mining permits from the Department of Natural Resources.
“It was an ongoing, gut-wrenching battle,” says Chuck Nelson, a GMA activist since he arrived in the area in 1971. “A stalemate. They’d apply for a permit, we’d raise the forces against it. The state would have bought the other 600 acres or so at any time, but the price being asked for it was the sand dollar price, including a profit of $1 a ton. So the asking price was $10,000 to $50,000 an acre, while fair market value was maybe one or two thousand.”
The battle might still be going on, except that British Industrial Sand bought Manley Brothers “right in the middle of one hearing,” according to Chuck Nelson (Manley Brothers did not return my phone calls). In 1982, the new owners “came to see us, and they said they’d looked over the area and the community, and had decided that maybe they shouldn’t be here. That was the first sign of enlightenment we’d gotten from that direction.” But the company needed to recover money already invested in Grand Mere. Clearly, it was time to call in the Nature Conservancy again.
The conservancy specializes in facilitating tricky transfers of land into preservationist hands, but this deal was complex almost beyond belief. The boundaries weren’t always clear (it later turned out that GMA members had planted some treasured chestnut trees on Manley’s land next to their nature study area). In many places, the sand rights and the surface rights belonged to different parties. Ongoing lawsuits and permit requests had to continue—what if negotiations failed?—and at the same time be dealt with in the talks.
Both sides wanted to deal, but neither trusted the other an inch. The basic outlines of the deal were clear early: Manley would sell its 490.5 acres in return for being allowed to mine 40 acres at the south end. The main problem was, who goes first? The company needed assurance that the Grand Mere Association would not turn around and fight the remaining sand mining once the state took possession of the land. Obviously the agreement should be null and void in that case—but then the GMA would need assurance that the company wouldn’t in turn put up a stooge who could “object” and blow the deal.
Worse yet, the Department of Natural Resources, which would ultimately own the land, also administered the sand mining law, and so could not be a direct party to the negotiations. But if the outcome proved unacceptable to DNR, the deal would fall through.
Tom Woiwode directs the Michigan chapter of the Nature Conservancy. His ability to package a deal among half a dozen or more parties counted for at least as much as the conservancy’s usual role of having ready money to bridge public-funding gaps. “There must have been a couple thousand dollars an hour [in lawyers’ fees] sitting at that table,” chuckles Nelson in retrospect. (He and Ed Ketterer, a Whirlpool attorney, and Frank Ruswick of the Western Michigan Environmental Council, represented preservationists through much of the talks.) The bargain was no easier to drive for its being expensive, recalls Woiwode. “I was told many times, by everybody, that it was impossible to do.” The Nature Conservancy’s national general counsel later described Grand Mere as one of the most complex of the 4,000-plus deals they had worked on nationwide up to that time.
After three years of work, in 1985 “we ended up with a 54-page agreement, born completely of distrust, covering every move,” recalls Chuck Nelson. “But in the process of drawing it up we became fairly good friends. You know, by the time you’ve jerked each other’s teeth out completely, you become kind of friendly.” In a kind of legal timed-release capsule, first the Nature Conservancy and then the state took possession of successive portions of the area. On March 19, 1986, the state came into full possession; Grand Mere had at long last been saved.
But not, perhaps, saved from its friends. The story ends well, but not happily. The collaboration of local environmentalists and state resource managers quickly fell apart over the question of hunting at the brand-new state park. “The DNR is kind of a big hunting and fishing club,” says Chuck Nelson. “That lobby is tremendously strong. They [hunting organizations] had nothing to do with the struggle to save Grand Mere. They just came in at the end and claimed it.” DNR’s James Hane replies that the area had been hunted for generations. “I just don’t think people realized that was going on.”
The historical picture is actually quite murky. Although hunting groups played no role in the three years’ negotiating marathon, they had been involved before then, and hunters were represented to some extent within the Grand Mere Association itself. One of GMA’s very first fliers in 1965 appealed to duck hunters (among many other groups), pointing out that if South Lake were developed, they’d have to seek their waterfowl elsewhere. Several rod and gun clubs signed on early to the Save Grand Mere effort, and the hunting-oriented Michigan United Conservation Clubs offered their backing more than once.
On the other hand, when DNR bought South Lake from the Shapiro estate in 1973, the agency closed it to hunting, confirming the general view that Grand Mere would be a nature preserve and wildlife sanctuary. After the second big purchase, most Grand Mere Association members were understandably astonished to learn that the entire area would now be open to hunting.
“Frankly, I was terrified,” says Glenda Bunker, a GMA activist who came late to the battle and whose family’s property abuts the park. In the face of a fire storm of protest, the Department of Natural Resources beat a prudent retreat and appointed a citizens’ committee chaired by the apparently indefatigable Tom Woiwode. (The Nature Conservancy has no position on hunting.) After some angry public meetings, the department announced a compromise, in which about two-thirds of the park can be hunted (only with shotguns, no rifles or handguns) between mid-September and mid-March, and the remaining areas (most of the dunes and beach) are off-limits at all times.
As it turns out, there have been both fewer hunters and fewer complaints than either side imagined. “I think that issue will fade and be a minor thing in years to come,” says a hopeful Chuck Nelson. He says the presence of hunters has caused Sarett Nature Center to reroute its school field trips, but not to cancel any.
Meanwhile, the park staff at Warren Dunes (administrative headquarters for Grand Mere as well) faces the daunting project of readying a new park with no extra money. One picnic shelter is in place, but no toilets. Manager Richard J. “Joe” Southwood hopes to have a gravel drive and 60-car parking lot ready by spring—but even this minimal improvement will be likelier if Michigan voters approve a state park bond referendum this coming election day.
In any event, Grand Mere is not meant to be the kind of jam-packed active-recreation area that Warren Dunes, with its 2,500-car capacity, has become. “You’re going to get a real natural crowd up here,” says Southwood. “There are several state and county and township parks where you can practically drive up to the lake,” but it’s at least half a mile from the parking lot to the beach at Grand Mere. “They’ll have to really want to see the lakeshore in its natural state.”
The Grand Mere Association—unlike its confederate Save the Dunes Council in northwest Indiana—has disbanded since the purchase and the hunting controversy. The local nature centers have taken over its work of educational tours and interpretation; Nelson says a new group, the Southwest Michigan Land Conservancy, will fill the role of watchdog over places preserved or needing to be preserved.
“It was wonderful to see the spirit people had,” says Glenda Bunker. “It was a David-and-Goliath fight, and it was wonderful to see David win.”
Perhaps some of that spirit has diffused into the general culture. It’s hard to tell, but tucked into one of Juniata Cupp’s voluminous scrapbooks is a manila envelope stuffed with thank-you letters from Bridgman fourth-graders. One, signed “David,” was written in 1974 after she took her slide show about Grand Mere to the classroom:
“Dear Mrs. Cupp,
“I thank you for showwing those nice slides they were very very butoful . . . Grand mer was so nice that I would like to live ther but it was so nice that I relized that I would rather sav the butey in sted . . .”
For more information, see the Visitors’ Guide in this issue.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Kathy Richland.