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Rejuvenating Northern Michigan’s Walloon Lake

August 8th, 2016

Article Published by MLIVE on August 8th, 2016. Written by Catie L’Heureux 

Northern Michigan is full of towns that are filled with history. Many of these towns are thriving, while others could use a little extra love. Nothing Northern Michigan can’t fix—just like it’s already begun to do in rejuvenating Walloon Lake.

Walloon Lake Village Fall Streetscape. Northern Michigan Color Season.The young Ernest Hemingway knew Walloon Village as a small but vibrant resort town. That vitality, however, had long faded by the dawn of the 21st century. Jonathan Borisch set out to rekindle that spirit. Catie L’Heureuz explains.

It was Mr. C.J. Mizer who brought the railroad to Walloon Lake, over a century ago. His were the forgotten summers, of fine-china picnics and violin music in dance halls, when kerosene lamps lit the lake at night and only the train brought the summer families to town. The women wore broad-rimmed hats and rustling skirts, the men in stiff three-piece suits, the children eager to trade starched shirts for flannel bathing costumes. In those days the trains hissed to a stop at the water’s edge, and so the first thing travelers saw upon arriving was the lake, right at their feet, a shimmering stretch of aquamarine and blue.

It is easy to forget what came before. Chippewa Indians settled the lake before the first Europeans arrived, in 1852, and established a village on the lake’s southern shore. Walloon was a lumber town, where sawmill workers cut and smoothed pine logs into butter bowls. The Grand Rapids & Indiana Railway originally built Northern Michigan’s railroads to transport lumber, and for several years only the railroaders camped on Walloon’s quiet shores. When the forests dried up, the G. R. & I. advertised the circuit as the ideal getaway route for families from Chicago, St. Louis, and Cincinnati to escape the summer heat.

Mr. Mizer, a station agent in a nearby town, had listened to the railroaders’ lively fishing stories, noticed they had started to buy property around the lake, and realized Walloon’s potential as a summer town. In 1886 he built the Hotel Mizer, the lake’s first hotel, and other resorts soon dotted the shoreline. In 1891, he also convinced the G.R.&I. to lay an extra set of train tracks from Petoskey to Walloon Lake, making it an easy day trip from two towns to the north, Bay View and Petoskey. By 1910, Walloon had become one of Michigan’s most popular summer destinations.

We can imagine Mr. Mizer on his hotel porch those blue-skied mornings, when black smoke curled above the train depot, fathers fetched heavy steamer trunks, and shopkeepers readied their wares for the day’s rush. Because there were no roads, two steamboats ferried visitors from the village to a dozen hotels and boardinghouses around the lake; one steamer’s 5-cent fare included live entertainment, with a 14-piece band performing on the upper deck. At the resorts, the summer people lazed on broad porches with a crate or two of Petoskey Brewing Company beer on hand, and canoed with parasols. The first families built white clapboard cottages, which often lacked hot water. They joined guests at the nearest hotels for dinners cooked by first-class chefs. There was homemade ice cream and fishing for small-mouth bass; kids roasted marshmallows and jumped off swim platforms. As a boy, Ernest Hemingway played with Chippewa children at the Indian camp.

For decades a country-club sophistication reigned supreme. After the Walloon Lake Country Club was formed, in 1904, the groundskeeper swam his horses across the lake each day to preen the golf course; the Walloon Lake Yacht Club was established in 1907. Upper-class families like the Hemingways, Beemans, and Wilsons built charming lakefront houses, and Walloon became known as “The Lake of Beautiful Homes.” By the 1920s cars and roads replaced the railroad tracks, and glossy wooden Chris-Craft boats cruised the water.

In the 1930s the first “17” sailboats were built specifically for racing on Walloon, with 25-foot-long hulls pieced together from scrap lumber and 17-square-meter sails engineered for speed. The lake and village flour- ished as a destination for two groups of people: the family and friends who gathered at cottages around the lake each summer, and the locals who lived year round at the lake’s eastern end, an area nicknamed “the Foot” that held the Village of Walloon Lake.

But as the 20th century played out, the village faltered, and eventually there was nothing much left at the Foot—everyone will tell you—save for a lovely country inn (now called the walloon Lake Inn), the general store, some ram- shackle marina buildings, a post office, and a sliver of a public beach. The Foot’s slow, steady decline began in the 1980s, the descent marked by fire, vacant lots, and abandoned buildings. In the early 2000s two developers tried to revitalize the village with a plan to construct a wall of condominiums at the village waterfront. But people complained the development would block views of the lake and the idea ignited tension with the community.

Controversy over what to do at the Foot brewed for nearly a decade, including court battles and a township settlement. Six of the 15 proposed condominiums were built. Then in the summer of 2012, the land was sold to a third developer, Jonathan Borisch from Grand Rapids. His middle son, Matt Borisch, 36, began working to establish businesses in the village. The father and son had already worked together operating a multimillion-dollar Grand Rapids electronics manufacturing company, which they sold to form Amphenol Borisch Technologies in 2010. They prioritized two elements for the village revitalization: a new marina with one of Northern Michigan’s only Malibu boat dealerships and a restaurant. For months the family searched for someone to open the eatery, but finally, with encouragement from a friend in the business, Matt decided to do it himself.

“That way, one block.” Jonathan Borisch, peers at me through horn-rim tortoiseshell glasses one afternoon last Fourth of July weekend, pointing toward his childhood home behind the Walloon Lake Inn. “It was a dream place to grow up,” he says.

We sip cocktails from crystal glasses in the Hotel Walloon drawing room, a quiet alcove with ice-blue walls and luxuriously upholstered sofas. He remembers a more innocent time, when kids raced sailboats off the village marina docks. Jonathan Borisch was born in Walloon, the youngest of three brothers. His father ran
the manufacturing company in Boyne City that is now a division of Honeywell; his mother, who stayed home to raise her sons, occasionally took Jonathan to breakfast at the inn before school. He cleaned
boats and mowed lawns as a boy, preparing cottages for the summer before their owners arrived. In the village, he paid a dime for Long John doughnuts at the Sail Inn Grill and swam at the public beach.

When Jonathan was 10 years old his family moved to Grand Rapids; they returned every summer to a house on Walloon’s South Arm. He met his wife, Mary Kay Bichler, in Grand Rapids—they had three sons and purchased a cottage on the West Arm. (A young Ernest Hemingway is said to have abandoned his rowboat and taken shelter at their cottage during a storm.) But Jonathan found his sons didn’t get to enjoy summertime at the Foot like he had. “We always felt like there was a big hole at the end of the lake,” he says of the waning village.

Matt Borisch and his brothers spent summers and winters on Walloon climbing trees, fishing, and water skiing with friends. Today the Borisch families all live in Grand Rapids and summer on Walloon. Jonathan is a real estate developer, and Matt also owns Tommy’s, a waterskiing and wakeboarding boat and pro shop with locations in Walloon, Grand Rapids, Denver, and Orlando. Matt and his older brother Tom, who owns the AmericInn in Traverse City and commercial investment properties in Michigan, have homes on the West Arm near their parents.

It is fitting that Walloon Village raised the man who saved it. “The idea that there were two classes of people was, I think, more accepted in the early ’60s,” Jonathan says today. So after purchasing the property at the Foot, he welcomed the community’s ideas, meeting with the township board and local business owners to ask what they wanted from the development project. Together they decided to create a public area on the water, for both lake property owners and locals to gather at the center of the village.

During the summer more than 350 people now come to work in Walloon, many of them locals, outnumbering the village population. With the help of Robert Gibbs, an urban planner who specializes in restoring historic towns, architect Greg Presley, and others, the Borisch family revitalized Walloon so that it echoes what it was in Mr. Mizer’s time.

In addition to the waterfront park and marina, there is now Barrel Back Restaurant on the lake, the Walloon Lake Inn, and the 32-room Hotel Walloon. In the village, visitors can find a pastry shop, a salon and wellness center, shuffleboard courts, real estate and design offices, an event space, and shops selling antiques, jewelry, and other specialty goods. Fourteen red-shingled pop-up shops are rented to local entrepreneurs, and two retail stores are housed in historic homes (which were saved from demolition and moved into town).

Last year, the Borisch team received an excellence award from the Michigan Association of Planning. Jonathan is now considering developing community-minded “pocket neighborhoods” in the village—small residences that would cluster around shared courtyards or gardens.

The development has revitalized the town for “the people who live here year round, the people who come here on vacation, the people who have property on the water, the people who have houses in the village,” Jonathan says. “We wanted everybody’s life to be enhanced.”

This summer family-friendly movies play every Wednesday night in the park—people can watch from their boats or the lawn. In the winter, the waterfront park is flooded to make an ice rink with free skate rentals. Snowmobiles and cars line the main street, and Barrel Back’s large central fireplace exudes warm ambiance.

Matt Borisch looks up from his Tom Collins that July 4th weekend, reflecting on what the team has done, and grins at his dad in disbelief. “That was a pretty gutsy move, he says, of building Barrel Back, Hotel Walloon and the rest.” “Or stupid,” his dad says. He pauses. Reconsiders. “Gutsy because it was successful. Stupid if it wasn’t.”

Matt jokingly calls Barrel Back Restaurant’s first day of business, in 2013, a “special kind of hell.” Nearly 600 people arrived on opening night, overwhelming the staff and forcing the kitchen to shut down; the manager apologized to every table and sent everyone home with gift certificates. “That was the whole goal, to
bring people back to the village,” Jonathan says. “It took zero time because they were all waiting for it, and wanted it.” Now the restaurant serves 800 people every day in the summer, with dishes like slow-roasted pork and beer-battered whitefish sandwiches. The wait time encourages people to wander around the village and explore the shops.

Today, Walloon is and is not what it once was. “The pretty has come to town. It just rejuvenated life down here,” says Linda Penfold, who with her husband, Calvin, owns the Walloon Village General Store & Deli. An institution since the late 1800s, the general store still bakes sticky buns throughout the summer; per tradition, families boat across the lake’s often-glassy surface to pick up the warm cinnamon rolls for breakfast. A crew of old-timers still meets there most weekday mornings, sipping coffee and sharing the latest gossip.

But there’s a different feeling in town, too: Last summer, there were mornings when Belle A. Wagenschutz, former manager of Johan’s Pastries of Walloon, handed coffee to the men who landscape the grounds and straightened their name tags. “We have high standards down here,” she said. “I keep those high standards for the Borisches. Everything down here in the village is their baby.” Village business owners meet monthly throughout the summer, forming a quasi chamber of commerce that often convenes at the park’s red-roofed gazebo. Last August the agenda included the Hotel Walloon’s new smart TVs, a wedding party at the Walloon Lake Inn, the DNR’s approval of new NO WAKE ZONE buoys, and a reminder to water flowers in the August heat.

The Walloon Lake Garden Club still plants petunias and marigolds in the village every June, and the fire department hosts winter breakfasts to raise funds for the community. A knitting club, the Knit Wits, meets at the library every week; the Walloon Art Club, founded in 1954, meets at the fire hall for summer watercolor painting classes. The Melrose Township Downtown Development Authority (commonly known as the DDA), which oversees revitalization and economic development in the village’s downtown district, has seen its tax-based budget grow dramatically since the DDA was established in 2004. The funds have provided for new sidewalks, a streetscape project currently underway to improve parking and lighting, and repurposing an original “17” sailboat as the village welcome sign. Melrose Township’s historically minded restoration of the 14-acre public park now includes a trail system, basketball and pickleball courts, and a new war memorial.

Other people started businesses of their own. Angie and Jeff Marshall restored the Walloon Junction restaurant (to open in late July) as well as the Pied Piper Skatery, a log-cabin roller rink where Jonathan Borisch skated as a boy, with a disco ball and gleaming hardwood floors. Local developers repurposed the motel across the US131 highway (previously Dickson’s Lodge) into Bear River Health at Walloon Lake, a 74-bed substance use disorder treatment facility and detoxification center for men and women. Monica and Michael Farrier opened Elvyn Lea, a wooded 44-acre group lodging retreat a few steps south of the village. “It gets harder and harder to do these projects,” says Melrose Township supervisor Vern Goodwin, who went to grade school with Jonathan. “It takes a lot of people to put vision into action.”

One afternoon last August, two college-aged kids working the gas dock laugh when I tell them I’m looking for Matt Borisch. “He’s everywhere,” they say. So I wait. Cars stream steadily past ivory hydrangeas showing heavy-headed late-summer blooms, and boats of all stripes line the shoppers dock. Screen doors creak again and again as people filter through Johan’s and the general store during the lunch rush.Matt Borisch drives up in a black pick-up truck, and we order drinks from corner seats at the Barrel Back bar. I ask how Northern Michigan can do something like this successful project in other towns. “I would rephrase that,” he corrects me, “and say there are so many towns that need something like this for their community, where it doesn’t matter how much you do or don’t make. On any given night in here we’ve got investment bankers from New York City, retired business owners from Arizona, local electricians who battle all the way through the winter working four different jobs. They all wait in the same line, they all eat the same food, nobody gets sweet special treatment from anyone. I think every community needs something like that.”

For years Walloon existed only for the families who remembered Walloon as it once was. Now in winter and summer, the village welcomes people who have never known these shores, and it would seem Mr. Mizer’s forgotten summers have returned.

The bar is empty after Matt leaves to catch a plane to Grand Rapids, the lake hazy below the restaurant’s open garage-door windows. Servers sit in a green booth behind me, sharing a quiet meal before the dinner rush, and the afternoon fades into one of the summer’s last nights.

The 17 Editorial
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