Cruising into Michigan’s Boating History
By Dianna Stampfler
By the time Walstrom Marine (walstrom.com) launched its operations in 1946, Harbor Springs was a well-established resort community stretching out along the shores of Little Traverse Bay. Once called called L’Arbre Croche (meaning Crooked Tree) by the Native Americans and later Petit Traverse (Little Traverse) by French traders, the village was incorporated under its current name in 1880.
Following service as Navy Lieutenants in World War II, Ward Walstrom, Sr. and Paul Griffeth returned to Michigan and together purchased Melching Garage and Boat Works in Harbor Springs. The business boasted a two-story boathouse (the upper level of which at the time was used as the high school basketball gymnasium and later a roller skating rink, complete with a Wurlitzer organ), 50 covered boat slips, a 50-ton lift built by Henry Melching himself, and the coveted franchise for the Michigan-built Chris Craft line.
Primarily a summer destination, the community quickly took shape as a premier boating locale noted for having the deepest natural harbor on the Great Lakes. The bay was also protected from often aggressive wind and waves by high bluffs and the exclusive Harbor Point, an area favored by the likes of the Fords, Gambles and Wrigleys, as well as other Midwest tycoons.
Second-generation owner Ward Walstrom, Jr. recounts stories of the elite who arrived for the summer in their elegant Rolls Royce automobiles, driven by chauffers who doubled as captains who motored classic wooden boats and larger yachts to seasonal cottages on the point.
By 1960, Walstrom had developed a 100-slip yacht basin and storage/service facility on the east end of downtown. Northern Michigan’s first condo development, Marina Village, soon followed. From there, it was further expansion not only in Harbor Springs, but also in Cheboygan where an 30,000-square-foot heated building, haul out facility with a 70-ton lift and 40 deep-water slips were constructed along the river—with direct access to Lake Huron and within close proximity to the popular North Channel.
To celebrate its 50th anniversary in 1995, Walstrom’s original aging building was torn down to make way for a new facility—which today houses one of two Propeller retail locations (the other is in Bay Harbor) as well as a deposit membership club called The Boat House of Harbor Springs.
The main company operations are now found at 500 Bay Street, in an impressive waterfront building which features a classic 10,000-square-foot showroom to house boating lines like Hatteras, Tiara, Pursuit, and Chris Craft. Walstrom operates storage facilities, a service center and accessory retail shop, in addition to storage buildings further east of town.
Over its 70 year history, Walstrom has become one of the most reputable marinas on the Great Lakes and proudly contributes to the state’s important boating industry. Overall, Michigan ranks third in the country not only for the number of registered watercraft (at more than 900,000) but also for new marine expenditures—boats, engines, trailers and accessories—generating more than $646 million.
Recognizing the value that the freshwaters of the Great Lakes plays in the boating industry, Walstrom Marine was one of the first companies in the state to be designated a “Michigan Clean Marina,” a program that began in 2005. Participants in the Michigan Clean Marina Program voluntarily pledge to maintain and improve Michigan’s waterways by reducing or eliminating releases of harmful substances and phasing out practices that can damage aquatic environments. To date, more than 40 marinas have been awarded certification.
“We implemented a program to address all areas of clean boating and best management practices,” says Walstrom. “These practices are active year round as Walstrom Marine continues to improve and provide the best possible and cleanest environment for our family and friends to enjoy the boating lifestyle.”
Reprinted from Michigan BLUE Magazine.