In this episode, we travel back in time and out to the shore of Lake Michigan. Jazz musician David Jellema recounts the history of the “artist intelligentsia retreat” founded by his father and uncle.
View the short, student-made film version of the interview
Filmed and edited by Garrett Strpko and Kayla Cooper, Calvin University Students.
This film was made possible with support from the McGregor Fellows program at Calvin University, as well as the Calvin Center for Christian Scholarship. Many thanks to Marc and Claudia Beversluis for graciously loaning us historical documents and photos that appear in this film.
For more background
A website for the late Rod Jellema’s work, where you can find links to his books.
David Jellema’s website.
Debra Rienstra: Today I’m talking with David Jellema, who’s going to tell us about the history of the colony. Hi, David.
David Jellema: Hello. Hi Debra. How are you?
DR: Thanks for talking with us today.
David Jellema: Yep.
DR: So tell us about this place. Tell us about the founding of the colony.
David Jellema: Well, it was… Now I’m going to have to get dates back to you at some point, but there was a time in about 1942, 1943 that my father and Dirk Jellema, his first cousin–they were living in Holland–they decided that they were going to have an epic hike from Holland to Ludington and just walk the lakeshore.
DR: How many miles is that?
David Jellema: I think it’s like… I don’t know… It’s more than a hundred twenty miles.
DR: Many, many miles.
David Jellema: Yeah. Yeah, it’s a long ways as it’s a good deal of this lakeshore. And then one summer day, they started out and spent about, I think it was about two or three weeks
DR: Why did they want to do this? Youthful exuberance?
David Jellema: I think so. I think Dirk was about 15 and dad was, you know, about 13 or 12.
DR: They were just kids!
David Jellema: They were youngsters and so they just decided that they wanted to explore the lake and do this kind of epic thing. Remind me to come back to the ending. It’s got a very funny ending. But they had a little knapsack, you know, and they would bring some food and they would sleep out on the beach…
DR: And Mom and Dad were okay with this?
David Jellema: Yeah. Yeah.
DR: It was a different time.
David Jellema: Yeah, yeah certainly. And when they would get to channels they would, you know, ask a fisherman or something to hoist them across the channel. At one point they had to walk all the way around the lake that they had encountered in order to get to the other side of the channel and keep walking.
DR: Spring Lake, maybe?
David Jellema: Yeah.
David Jellema: And I think it might have been at Whitehall where they had to, you know, barter with some guy who said well, you know, what, what is it going to require, and they said, we have some great stories. So we’ll tell you some stories and he said, all right, you know, and he took them across.
DR: This sounds like a Mark Twain novel.
David Jellema: Dad’s father came and picked them up in Ludington after their epic journey and bought them not just one lunch, but two. Along the way they were right about in this area and they had come to a place that had a cottage or a barn, it looked like a red barn up on the hill. Maybe they–and I might be getting this mixed up with another structure that may have been there. Dirk’s place was the red barn. Anyway, they found a place that had a stairway coming down to the beach and they went up to knock on the door and say, you know, we need a glass of water and there’s nobody there. And peering inside, Dirk noticed–Dirk is already a historian–Dirk noticed that all the magazines and periodicals and stuff were set to one date in about 1937. And he said, this place hasn’t been occupied since then. And dad was like, oh really? And they went and looked around and found a corral that was overgrown and such. Years later they made… They figure it out, who–Dirk came back to this area and was trying to figure out who owned this land and such and found out actually who owned that that place.
DR: So it was empty when they went up there.
David Jellema: Yep and remained empty.
DR: Okay. And Dirk went on to become a historian.
David Jellema: Yes. Yes, and taught at Calvin and what medieval history and Russian history and…
DR: One of the legendary Jellemas at Calvin.
David Jellema: And he eventually found the person who owned it, and by chance this person was in town from Chicago, I think, and was here to pay the taxes on it and Dirk tracked him down at his hotel and he said, can I buy this from you? And I think that’s when he got the story, that they had had … this family–this couple that was living there had a child with physical or mental disabilities, and the child one day tragically wandered outside of, outside of the gate that had been left open by an assistant or the help bringing something in, and the little boy tumbled down the stairs and died.
DR: Oh, dear.
David Jellema: And so they just up and left and never came back. And so Dirk heard the story–I mean, he wanted to buy it, the guy thought about it for about five minutes and said, I, you know, I’m ready to sell it. You know, because they just came back to pay the taxes and never spend any time there anymore.
DR: It became a tragic place for them.
David Jellema: Yeah. And it turned out for Dad and Dirk to be the sort of fledgling starting point for Dirk. Dad, I think at the time was, when Dirk was here looking into that possibility, dad was in Edinburgh studying, you know Victorian literature.
DR: So these two, let’s go back to these two young teenagers walking along the beach, spotting this place, going and looking around.
David Jellema: Yeah.
DR: And that stuck in their minds. There was something about that part of, that point in the lakeshore and that particular place that stuck in their mind, so that later when they became young adults they wanted to come back to it.
David Jellema: Yeah.
DR: What is it about this spot, do you think, that intrigued them?
David Jellema: Well, that’s a really good question. Part of it is that they had had their childhood on the lakeshore. They had spent, you know, all their time there in Holland, grew up, both in Holland.
DR: So they grew up in Holland.
David Jellema: Well Dirk, Dirk may have been part of from Indiana. And I don’t know how much time he spent there, but dad grew up in Holland year-round and would have… They had places–cottages–out at Maple Beach. My grandparents did, my grandfather’s brother did. Anyway, we have ties to the beaches along there. And they would spend a lot of time, you know, sailing or making a sailboat or fishing. They would go out on the lake and cast a line and catch a whole bunch of perch and bring it back and have a perch fry that day. You know.
DR: Boyhood dream.
David Jellema: Yeah, and the lake had all sorts of magic to it. Uncle Harry Jellema, William Harry Jellema, would ask dad, you know, do you think the lake is your friend? And dad sort of never thought about this, but Harry said… you better not think of this as your friend, necessarily.
DR: Why did he ask that question? What was he after?
David Jellema: Well, the boys spent so much time playing in the lake and all of us have a story of something in which we had a moment of danger, either surfing or sailing or just out there swimming. And when I was a little boy, there’s a divot in the sandbar, and we found that divot and suddenly we’re under, and somebody had to come out and rescue us, so… and the undertows of course, were epic.
DR: Always respect the lake.
David Jellema: Always respect it. And we have books here on all the shipwrecks, the lake shipwrecks and things. Dad was fascinated with that. But they always had this kind of profound sense that the lake was kind and benevolent, but at the same time was furious and indifferent.
DR: It’s a wild thing.
David Jellema: Yeah.
DR: What about the dunes? Your dad seems as if he was especially attracted to the beauty of the dunes.
David Jellema: Indeed he… I don’t know. I think they… It’s just a kind of majesty of these. They would play on the dunes and you have to traverse these things when you’re getting up to the cottages. And so you burn your feet in the late afternoon sun on these and you tumble down them or, you know, sand surf down them or whatever. They’re just… they’re part of what gives us our fortitude and endurance and flexibility as kids. But sleeping in the dunes is a kind of magical thing, too. You’re at the intersection there of sky and light and water and earth. You’re in the four elements; they’re, you know, right there at the shore with you. And I think that kind of magic is what has always drawn people here to this.
DR: There’s something primitive about it.
David Jellema: Yeah.
DR: That connection to wind and light and water. So your dad and Dirk at some point said, let’s buy land.
David Jellema: Yeah Dirk especially…
DR: So how did that happen?
David Jellema: Well, those kind of details I would have to refer you to the recording of dad telling these stories–the details of it. He bought one mile of property. He was shrewd and figured out that this wasn’t going to be beachfront yardage. This was going to be farm acreage and so he bought a whole bunch of it, a whole mile of it really cheaply.
DR: What year was this, approximately?
David Jellema: ’58, ’59, ’60. Something like that. And subsequently, he bought another mile north of here, but the cutoff point was pretty much right down here at the end of Lost Valley Road. And the mile between here and what is called Gray Dunes or at the end of Eilers Road, that’s where Dirk’s house was. That’s where that house was, and where he set up his cottage and…
DR: Did he build a new cottage?
David Jellema: Yes.
DR: So he built something. But this place was actually in existence.
David Jellema: This was in existence. I think this was built in about 1890. There’s a hundred and twenty-five, you know…
DR: So it was built in that time when people from Chicago or St. Louis were coming to Michigan as their resort settlement. And building new places.
David Jellema: Yeah, although this was a farmhouse and it was not used as a resort. And yes, there are some beautiful, beautiful resort places along on White Lake or in Shelby.
DR: So your dad saw this old farmhouse, and it was a total wreck.
David Jellema: Yeah.
DR: And he said, “I’m going to fix it”?
David Jellema: He says, yeah, what do you want for it, Dirk? And I don’t know what the payment was, you know, some ridiculous something. Dad probably spent fourteen thousand building it up, you know, and fixing it and such. Maybe even less, you know. And this wing was added on much later. This was done during the early 80s, I think. Marty Schultz was the guy who did the actual work. Poor guy had so many headaches trying to figure out how to line things up and what to do with this crumbled fireplace, and some of the stuff was even coming down while he was working on it.
DR: Nothing was plumb I suppose. Yeah, so I understand that your dad and Dirk together had a kind of vision. And the phrase that I’ve seen is “an artist intelligentsia retreat.” What is that? Did it happen?
David Jellema: Well, both of them were intelligentsias. They were both academics, dad being a poet and teaching Modern English and American Poetry at University of Maryland and Dirk teaching at Calvin and a whole bunch of people that they knew around Calvin and among family and such who would want to have a community where people could, you know, there could be musicians, there could be artists, there can be photographers, and poets, and have this kind of place where people would interact around the lake, and it was a kind of utopian sort of vision that they had.
DR: What drove them to seek that, do you think?
David Jellema: That’s a good question. I mean, you know, wanting to perpetuate something of their own childhood. The kind of people that they had in their lives, my grandfather and Dirk’s father–grandfather, or father, I guess, and they were philosophers and teachers and lovers of life and creative and such, and they saw that kind of vision in something that they could do with friends at Calvin and family members, and I think it was just a kind of desire to perpetuate that same sort of magic that they had growing up on the lake and bring it to a place that was new, that was… it had some things happening there. There was that lodge down there when Dirk bought. I don’t dare venture into how that came about and such, but…
DR: They didn’t start that, that was actually there?
David Jellema: Yeah, that was there. And the Dunes Club structure was there too.
DR: And there was a dream of a jazz club that never quite worked out.
David Jellema: That was… no, I’m not sure what that was. Initially I think it was a lodge and a restaurant, but when Dirk bought it he made a restaurant out of it. One wing was fine dining and the middle of it was a bar and then another wing was a, was a kind of a dance music hall.
DR: So Dirk is a history professor at Calvin, and now he’s running a restaurant?
David Jellema: Yeah, he… well, people in the 50s and 60s did a lot more with their lives. It’s amazing what they got into, to me.
DR: Maybe they had less grading than we do. I don’t know.
David Jellema: Yeah, yeah, right, just. They’re not as jaded.
DR: Maybe he was just an extremely capable person.
David Jellema: Yes, he lost his shirt. So, you know. And in matters of selling he wasn’t nearly as keen as he was buying. He had bought property up in, what is it, Sleeping Bear Dunes and some lawyers somehow sort of knived their ways into his legal weaknesses, let’s say. And you know. So you see, he had a difficult time with losing money on his ventures.
DR: But it was a beautiful dream.
David Jellema: He hired a jazz band to play every Saturday night, from some local musicians, one guy from Baldwin, Michigan, who used to play at Jazz Limited in Chicago–it’s a jazz club in Chicago, guy named Don Ingle was the son of someone named Red Ingle and Red Ingle played with Spike Jones. Anyway, the connections go on, you know, on and on. There’s another… the cornet player of that band was someone who was becoming renowned for sounding like this classic historical early jazz cornet player named Big Spider. And so they started a band with some people from Grand Haven High School and such. It was called the Jackpine Savages.
DR: That’s a great name.
David Jellema: Yeah! The Jackpine Savages, and there’s a band now currently named Jackpine Savages that has nothing to do with jazz at all. Interesting. But they played here for, hmm, I’m gonna guess, you know, three to four years fairly regularly and I think even through the winter.
DR: So that was another question I had. This was meant to be a summer retreat.
David Jellema: Yeah.
DR: So the professors would all come out here in the summer with their families.
David Jellema: Yeah.
DR: And have their intelligentsia artistic moments together, going to the beach, going to the jazz club on Saturday night. Did it actually happen? How long did this Camelotian dream…
David Jellema: It lasted for, you know, let’s say it was–it fostered a much larger sort of development of people who wanted to come in and move away sort of from that vision–at least a good dozen years. There was this exciting kind of… just a sense that they were doing this. We had something…
DR: You were a kid at this time?
David Jellema: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
DR: Who were some of the characters?
David Jellema: First one that comes to mind is George Ramsay, and George Ramsay had a cottage over here. He was an artist that taught in… was it Wittenburg? University in Springfield. Maybe. And his wife. And they occupied that Dunes Club down there for a little while. They were the inhabitants there for a bit. And they were very important in the whole Summer Ventures at Lost Valley that Dad and George and Dirk had envisioned, whereby they would have classes for kids, various classes. There was a photographer, local photographer, here in a newspaper who came and taught some photography. There was a woman who had a place down here named Shannon. She had a lot and she taught Spanish. Spanish courses were… it was hard to get little kids to try to speak Spanish, so we made papier mâché things. And then we had sailing classes and dad did a poetry class and Ramsey did a mural class where he taught the kids how to make a mural and they did it on one of the walls of that Dunes Club interior wall, in the front room there. And then, you know, Saturday–we would do those on weekends, and sometimes we get people from you know, area elementary and junior high schools to come out and participate and such.
DR: How old were you during this?
David Jellema: I think I was probably you know, 10, 11, 12, 13, something like that. It was at that restaurant and I was 10 years old when somehow me and my cousin Phil, and maybe Michael is with me, my brother and I, and a couple other of the local kids, we were just sort of down exploring by the lake and we sat on a dune right next to that and we could see the lake from where we were. We’re underneath the trees there, and there is this jazz band playing in there. And I had only been playing cornet for one year in elementary school and I had been playing, you know, a little you know, I don’t know, Mary Had a Little Lamb and stuff, and I wasn’t practicing but I looked at this and I thought, that’s what I could do, you know. And it was that, that band that sort of sparked me, and knowing that I was out there, you know kind of interested, and then they invited me, and maybe it was another Saturday, whatnot, but I got to meet the cornet player and we talked about mouthpieces. I’m just kind of giddy and such. Bought the record and brought it home. And that’s what I, you know, learn to play along with. He eventually became a mentor of mine, and that very cornet that he was playing on, I’m playing on since about 1992. I bought it from him.
DR: You still have it?
David Jellema: Yeah, and that’s my, that’s my gig horn, and it is from 1965. So it’s as old as I am.
DR: There’s a lot of magic here in this place for you.
David Jellema: Oh, yeah. Another thing that happened when I was eight, my brother John and two friends–one really close friend from this area, almost like a cousin, he was, Bill Smalligan, and then a third boy who was a step-cousin from South Carolina– they were coming home from our church–Clay Banks Church up north here. Just a mile or so. Couple miles. And it was Sunday afternoon and they were coming home and there was a new stop sign and they missed it and got killed. That afternoon it was–they died later that day. So, you know, we had some moments where the kids went over to a cousin’s house in Gray Dunes. And where that corral was, we rode horses for a little while and then came back and found out that, that John had died and all three of them had, yeah. Oh, yeah.
DR: And you were just a kid.
David Jellema: Yeah, eight. And it was right up at this corner here. You have to pass by this corner to get here.
DR: How does that feel for you now?
David Jellema: Um, the trees are not there anymore. The trees that they ended up next to are not there. There was a period in my life when I would walk up to the corner every summer and just, you know, do a kind of, you know, a little pilgrimage walk and just go up to the corner and find four leaf clovers all the way or see deer, you know, have a, just have these kind of nice moments to myself.
DR: Your connection to this place isn’t all joyful boyhood shenanigans. It’s deep family connections, and tragedies.
David Jellema: Aunt Gret died here too. And I was with my girlfriend at the time. We went up and had tried to resuscitate her, and she had a heart attack, and I’d been just with her that morning, walking around her parking lot because she had been recovering from an operation. And so those kind of tragedies, we’ve had a few among the Jellemas and the relatives that have all stuck.
DR: You live in Texas now. Why do you keep coming back here every year?
David Jellema: Part of it was, until recently, of course, was just because I would be with my dad for some time. He was 90 when he died. And the past 10 years before that we would come up here together and see what you’re seeing right now: the birds and sunshine, the breezes and the open windows, and wonderful, wonderful, food that we would get, just fish and corn and cherries. And just the time together was really important. But also, I’m coming to the point where I’m starting to have a sense, a deeper sense that this is very much as much a part of mine as it was of Dad’s. And when I, you know, I’ve always kind of felt like this was dad’s place even though I’ve had so much of my time here, and it’s hard to imagine it being mine. Because there are a lot of people who have been through here and a lot of people who have ties to this, and a lot of people who have spent, you know, spent lots of love here. And so I’m feeling that coming back here. There’s their ties to that lake, especially, and it’s been a kind of spiritual womb for me. The death of my brother, my mom’s death, first love, hearing the jazz band for the first time, learning to surf from my brother, and all these kind of really formative life experiences that have become so much a part of how I think in terms of my own spirituality, even that life is a kind of transience. Life is not permanent. It’s not anything you can necessarily count on.
DR: There’s something about that dune and that lake and their ceaseless motion that resonates with that sense of transience.
David Jellema: Yeah, and yet you always have a sense that you have a place where you can you can enjoy that transience. Yeah.
DR: It’s so beautiful. And it’s almost that, the implacable indifference of it, in a way, that gives it that beauty, that mystery.
David Jellema: When confronted with the idea of you know, I’ve got to maintain it, got to pay for it, you know, all those things, they really become secondary to how important it is for me to have just a place and I call my own source in terms of places. I don’t have the same kind of feeling in Bethesda, Maryland or Washington, DC. I love those places, you know, Glen Echo, Maryland, where I spent quite a few years of my, you know, teenage and 20s and such. But I love Washington and would always go back and visit dad, you know, once or twice a year if I could. And Washington does feel like a home, but the kind of draw of this is much deeper. Much deeper. It’s simpler. But it contains, you know, ninety percent of the ingredients that have made me what I am. Dad wouldn’t insist that we get a job for the summer or mow lawns to make money or that kind of thing, and we were kind of spoiled that way. But I think that’s how he grew up and he felt like that was a very generous thing that his parents and his ancestors did for him, and he imparted the same kind of latitudes for us.
DR: It was part of the magic of the colony. Whatever happened to the colony? What’s the state of things now, what’s the future of it?
David Jellema: I don’t think there is much of a colony, per se. I, you know, we get a lot of people who are friends of original owners and who don’t have the same kind of experience, of the vision, or the same… Imagine the different kinds of inspirations that people got from various moments here. That was something that had altered my life, you know, and dad’s teaching poetry in one of these little places. Everybody has something from here that was like, formative. Very precious.
DR: When you think about this idea of refugia as a place where life continues when the outside world is in crisis or…
David Jellema: Yeah.
DR: And we create these places and they aren’t really meant to last forever. But they’re meant to be little incubators of new life. It seems like that’s what this place is meant to be. And it was for you.
David Jellema: Yeah. But it’s also kind of continuity for my life and sort of a grounding in my own life, because a lot of my life has gone this way and that way and this way and that way, and this has always been here. Yeah. I like that idea of a refugia.[David agrees to read a poem by his late father, the poet Rod Jellema.]
These are a few poems by Rod Jellema from a book he wrote called A Slender Grace. Some collected poems.
Remind yourself when you wake to a strangeness
of foreign lights through blowing trees
out the window of yet another hotel,
that home is only where you pretend you’re from.
When familiar sends you packing,
watching for “some lost place called home.”
You’re from wherever you go.
Don’t admit what you’re looking for.
If you say to a baker and Bremen, to a barmaid
in Provence, “Back home we think of you here
as having deeper lives,” they’ll shrug, you wrong
and won’t respond. And then you’ll know:
they’re strangers too. Broken and wrinkled
stones and skin, brush strokes and chords,
old streets and saints you’ve read about,
flute notes in the laughter of foreign children,
the nip of a local market cheese –
there’s a life we almost knew once.
Watch. Just let it in.
The return ticket will take you only
to the town where you packed to get on the plane.
It never missed you. You’ll notice
alien goods in your kitchen, wind in a wall,
losses in the middle drawer of your desk.
Even there, the strange is the cup of communion
you drink, that dim outlandish civitas dei
you’re a citizen of never was a place.
Remember not to feel too much at home.
From A Slender Grace: Poems by Rod Jellema (Eerdmans, 2004).