Over the past few years, a handful of communities have claimed that the award-winning author Ernest Hemingway had ate, drank, slept, hunted, fished or visited, with little or no actual proof that said statements were true.
It seems everyone wants a piece of Papa’s history!
On August 20, 2019, Fox 17 WXMI in Grand Rapids aired a story “143-year-old house being brought back to life in Ionia” where owner Todd White mentioned one of the more interesting features of the 1877 home is a shooting range in the basement.
“One of the previous residents, her grandpa was an avid shooter, a competitive shooter, and him and Ernest Hemingway would come down here and they’d sit on the stairs … then they would shoot their pistols in the basement,” White said.
Located 40 miles east of Grand Rapids, Ionia isn’t a town that Hemingway ever visited or likely ever heard of. It was not near the train lines that traveled between Chicago and northern Michigan, nor was it near the early roadways where he would have hitchhiked on his way north. It simply is too far removed to have any connection.
When the TV station posted a link to the story on their Facebook, I chimed in with a request for proof that Ernest Hemingway actually visited this Ionia home:
“I would like to see more evidence of this Hemingway story…to my knowledge Ernest Hemingway didn’t spend time in this area of Michigan. He spent his summers until he went to serve as an ambulance driver in WWI at his family cottage on Walloon Lake in the Petoskey area. And after he got married (to his first wife, Hadley) in 1921 they moved out of the country. He may have made one quick trip back to Michigan in later years, but I can’t recall when. Chris Struble, president of the Michigan Hemingway Society could tell you more. I did find info on an Edson Hemingway who lived in the area. Not sure if there is a family connection.”
A woman by the name of Melinda Golden commented on my post: “The Hemingway family lived in what is now our house just around the block. Arthur (A.J.) Hemingway was an avid trap shooter and hunter, so it quite possibly could have been him who he was shooting with. Arthur is Edson’s father and they moved here when Edson was about 8 years old.”
Todd White also replied: “I will get it verified. I spoke with the granddaughter of the owner at the time.”
I’m still waiting for any proof, which I am 100 percent confident doesn’t exist. Ironically, the TV station never picked up on the inaccuracy of the story.
In June 2018, a 9-foot-tall, 200-pound, $20,000 orange metal sculpture by artist John Suave, honoring the legacy of Ernest Hemingway, was somehow stolen from the front yard of the Beaver Island District Library (Beaver Island is located about 30 miles west of Charlevoix, in northern Lake Michigan).
Even though the sculpture was erected in 2016, very few within the Hemingway circles of Michigan knew about it until it disappeared. It was returned and reinstalled about 10 days after it was mysteriously taken…and a rededication ceremony was held this past Labor Day weekend.
The Detroit-born Suave is best known for his orange “Man in the City” silhouette sculptures of a man wearing a 1950s-era fedora which graces more than 60 locations around the state. A blue version of the sculpture was also one of the entries in the 2018 ArtPrize competition in Grand Rapids.
The Beaver Island statute is a bit different, featuring three cut-outs of Suave’s silhouette one on top of each other, with the name Hemingway welded along the upper edge. Unfortunately, there is no historical marker or interpretive sign, so without prior knowledge, most would have no idea that it is mean to honor Hemingway’s time in northern Michigan.
This piece is part of Suave’s “Hemingway Sculpture Project,” which according to a September 6, 2018 article in the Petoskey News Review “is a collection of installations across the state of Michigan that highlight and pay homage to the many Michigan locations that influenced and impacted the iconic author and artist’s life. The project is designed as a fundraising and awareness mechanism for literacy programs across the state and has been highly successful for the region.”
Beaver Island District Library Director Patrick McGinnity said in a press release. “Not only was it a captivating piece, but the significance and its tie into literacy made it the perfect focal piece for our library.”
But one has to ask…did Hemingway ever visit Beaver Island?
While the woods and waters around this 55,773-square-mile island would have likely appealed to the author’s natural side with countless hunting and fishing options, there is no proof that he ever left the mainland for the “Emerald Isle.” In the early 1900s, Beaver Island was an active logging and lumbering area, with fishing, farming and tourism also among the local industries.
Over the years, there have been at least 19 different ferries running between Charlevoix and Beaver Island, with the first exclusive boat run established in 1955 (well after Hemingway’s time in northern Michigan). So, if he were to have visited in his late teenage to young adult years (1915-1921 let’s say), he would have needed to find passage on a freight ship, paddle or row his own boat, or hitch a ride with a local (the population at that time was around 1,000 compared with less than 600 today). He wasn’t a winter visitor, so walking across the frozen lake wouldn’t have happened.
Had Hemingway actually spent time on Beaver Island, he most likely would have made note of it somewhere – either in his own journals or in letters to family or friends. But, alas, no such references have ever been uncovered.
Which again makes one wonder, WHY would a sculpture dedicated to Hemingway be installed in an area where he had no known connection? With recent news of the rededication this summer, discussion began to increase on a Michigan Hemingway listserv, which includes many members of the Michigan Hemingway Society – like Struble, who notes there is no connection between the author and the island.
So, I went right to the source…the artist himself!
“I was working in northern Michigan on a public art project with Crooked Tree Art Center in which I was able to install my sculpture in 40 locations from Mackinac Island to Chrystal Mountain. Throughout the installation process I was interacting several organizations and individuals that are connected to Hemingway,” Suave wrote via email. “The Hemingway Sculpture Project identifies places that Hemingway lived and wrote about and creates a destination in which connections can be made between
Hemingway’s life and writing. These locations happen to be really interesting places, so the project has become more about my self-discovery through the works of Hemingway.”
When asked directly if Hemingway spent time on Beaver Island, Suave wrote: “Patrick McGinty the Beaver Island Public Library Director has evidence that Hemingway did come to Beaver Island to fish on occasion.”
A quick email to Patrick yielded a response: “I’m sorry, but John may have misspoken or just have been mistaken. There is no evidence I know of that Hemingway was ever here. There isn’t any evidence that he wasn’t either, but that isn’t the same thing, of course. The sculpture was placed here because of the Northern Michigan connection in general. As for the library, we do have a display of materials for checkout both about and by Hemingway.”
And there you have it! A little late in the process to reveal such an important fact, but there we have it in writing!
After viewing the Beaver Island sculpture firsthand earlier this month, I was left with another question. What does the “Man in the City” have to do with Hemingway? I mean, I guess Hemingway was a MAN and he lived in countless CITIES, but that’s about it. I expected to see something that actually resembled Hemingway or one of the things he was passionate about such as fishing, hunting, writing, eating or even drinking. What stands is simply a repurposed version of Suave’s already popular art theme.
Don’t get me wrong…I think anything we can do to promote literacy and specifically introducing readers of all ages to Hemingway’s work – especially those like The Nick Adams Stories which are set in northern Michigan – are key to keeping his legacy alive. What I have concerns with is the implication (based on the sculpture’s placement) that Ernest spent time on Beaver Island.
In 2020, Suave planned to install another sculpture at what he calls “Nick Adams Central” in Horton Bay, among other U.S. sites in Oak Park and Key West. Each of those locales makes perfect sense…unlike Beaver Island. No word on if that project ever proceeded to fruition.
Interestingly enough, most national or international writers often overlook Michigan altogether when telling Hemingway’s story. Yet it was the area in and around Walloon Lake where he spent his summers at the family cottage. It was here that he found his love of the outdoors, where he learned to hunt and fish, where he honed his writing skills and where he set his beloved character Nick Adams in a collection of short stories published posthumously in 1972.
And what about the Grand Rapids area? Did Hemingway really belly up to the bar at the historic 1888 Nick Fink’s at 3965 West River Drive in Comstock Park? An establishment that has been (according to legend) a brothel, post office and hotel over the years.
According to the Comstock Park Downtown Development Authority website at www.comstockparkdda.org, “Ernest Hemingway is said to have made the tavern a stop when he traveled to Northern Michigan, and is also said to have based characters in his ‘Nick Adams Stories,’ set in Northern Michigan, on people he met at Nick Fink’s, although none of that is verified.”
Now, Ernest did in fact travel by rail through Grand Rapids a time or two on his way between Oak Park, Illinois and northern Michigan via the Grand Rapids & Indiana Railroad. While it is possible there was a “layover” midway, it is unlikely that he took the time to disembark the train and look for a bar. Especially since he wasn’t even yet 18 years of age on May 1, 1917 when Michigan instituted its Prohibition (which lasted until December 5, 1933). And, had he been traveling with his parents, there was no way he’d be off imbibing since such things were not allowed in the Hemingway family.
In her 2015 book Lost Restaurants of Grand Rapids, author Norma Lewis notes “That’s where a young Ernest Hemingway frequently dined while traveling between his home in Oak Park, Illinois, and his family’s summer home on Walloon Lake near Petoskey…Best of all it still looks like the kind of place where ‘Papa’ would enjoy holding down a bar stool,” Given the celebrity of the Hemingway name, the story was picked up by a handful of local newspapers. Ironically, the nickname “Papa” wouldn’t be used until decades later.
Writer John Barnes was the first to call B.S. on the story in a February 5, 2016 article in The Detroit News, after interviewing one of the restaurant owners.
“It’s not true,” said Nick Fink IV, the last in four generations of namesakes who owned what is touted as Grand Rapids’ longest-serving bar.
“This is how local lore was picked up unchecked by a business association, became known to the bar’s restaurant-chain operator, repeated to an author, ended up in a new book — and legend was sheathed as fact,” Barnes noted.
The DDA website, even on April 8, 2021, still includes the fictitious reference.
Keep in mind, Hemingway wasn’t known as an author until the mid-1920s after he had moved to Paris with his first wife, Hadley. So even if he HAD been at Nick Finks – WHY would anyone remember him? He wasn’t famous. He wasn’t Papa, yet.
Hemingway was also an avid letter writer and those letters have been published in a variety of books and to my knowledge, there is no reference to such a visit (and certainly not with any frequency as noted above).
So why the tall tale? People make assumptions or make up stories which become legend to be told and retold no matter the accuracy.
“People lie,” Nick Fink IV said in the article. “I’ve heard everything, that there are ghosts, that Al Capone visited there. People tell me stuff that I’ve never heard of.”
As for Al Capone, he was another character known to galivant around Michigan. For more, check out Capone (May Have) Caroused Here which appeared in the 2019 “Travel & Adventure” issue of Michigan BLUE Magazine.
For a list of ACTUAL sites where Hemingway is connected in Michigan: http://mihemingwaytour.com/index.php/sites/.
Or, to stay connected consider joining the Michigan Hemingway Society: http://www.michiganhemingwaysociety.org/.