On Beaver Island a hundred years ago red-bearded Jimmy Strang was crowned king. He was a real king with an army, a harem and an angel for a first minister, the de facto suzerain of a considerable chunk of northern Michigan, the first province of the empire of Michilimackinac. On Beaver Island there has been regicide, genocide, arson and murder. Feodor Protar, physician, editor, naturalist, philosopher, and perhaps also a royal fugitive from the czarist police, lived 32 years on Beaver Island and lies buried under the pines. Whatever he was, he is remembered on the island as a saint. Few czarist nobles, real or fraudulent, are so memorialized. Fifty years ago, along Paradise Bay on Beaver Island, wild horses raced on St. Paddy's Day, and the beasts were cheered in Gaelic. And only yesterday on Beaver Island, with the temperature at 10� below zero, the wind driving out of the northwest from the Porcupine Mountains, a hunter went diving in icy water for a wolf.
The Beaver Archipelago is a chain of 13 islands casually scattered across northern Lake Michigan. The archipelago lies 25 miles northwest of Charlevoix—an aggressively touristy, skiish, summer-cottageish town on Michigan's lower peninsula—and 50 miles south of the Straits of Mackinac. Some of the islands are little more than overgrown sandbars, but others—Squaw, High, Hat, Garden, Hog, Gull, Trout and Whiskey—are considerable. The largest in the chain, and the largest island in Lake Michigan, is Big Beaver, some 13 miles long and six wide.
Big Beaver rises out of the water like a rough, elongated bull's-eye. First there is the field of the blue lake, then a ring of white surf, another of silvery dune beach and then the center of the island, dark green and heavily forested. At the north end of the island is the kidney-shaped bay called Paradise, said by sailing folk to be one of the snuggest anchorages in the Great Lakes. Along the Paradise Bay shore is the only permanent settlement of the Beaver Archipelago. This village is called St. James, named for the old Mormon king, James Jesse Strang.
Jesse Strang was quite a boy. Born in New York and admitted to the bar at 23, he dabbled in a variety of careers—schoolteacher, newspaper editor, politician and temperance lecturer—before moving west, where he came into contact with the new religion, Mormonism. He met Joseph Smith, founder and prophet of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, in Nauvoo, Ill., who was impressed with Strang. When Smith was murdered soon after, Strang was one of four ambitious young converts who claimed succession, but Brigham Young—by then a leader of the movement—excommunicated him.
In 1847, at the age of 34, Strang and a small following settled on Beaver Island, and within seven years almost the entire population of the island was Mormon. Strang took five wives and declared himself king. Poorer Mormons, who could not afford more than one wife, became jealous. In June of 1856 two men whom Strang had severely punished shot the king in the head. Within hours of his death, a mob of unbelievers from Mackinac swept the island and gave the 2,600 Mormon residents 24 hours to leave. They did, and Strang's cult died.
People—Ojibways, French and Irish as well as Mormons—have thought well enough of Big Beaver to have lived there for many centuries. The charm of island life aside, the principal attraction of the Beavers has been that the entire archipelago is a bank rising above the floor of Lake Michigan, the lower elevations of which are underwater and covered (or were until 20 years ago) with great schools of lake trout and whitefish. The last group who came to exploit these fish were the Irish, and after a century they still very much dominate Big Beaver.
For many years the community was self-sufficient, isolated culturally as well as geographically, and it had a minimum interest in mainland affairs. Gaelic was commonly spoken, and English was spoken with a rich brogue. The clans, Gallaghers, McDonoughs, Gillespies, La Frenieres (a French-Canadian lumberjack walked across the ice one winter to the island and stayed), intermarried, and some islanders lived and died without ever leaving the archipelago.
This pattern of life was abruptly ended by the eels. In the early 1940s the lamprey eel slunk into the Great Lakes with devastating results. At the end of World War II the catch of trout and whitefish was some 22 million pounds. A decade later it was less than three million because of lamprey predation. The commercial-fishing industry in the lakes and the economy of Beaver Island were destroyed. As a result, many of the younger islanders were forced to emigrate to the mainland. Those who remained after a few very lean years discovered that, as a replacement for fish, tourists could be profitably hauled in from the water.
Beaver Islanders always have been clannish, but they never had been hostile to mainlanders. It was simply that, while they had the fish, they had no particular reason to make it easy for visitors to get to the Beavers or to entertain them once they arrived. The eels changed all this. Now there is a new ferryboat that, in good weather, makes the run from Charlevoix to St. James in a choppy two hours. There are five hotel-motel combinations on the island and four public eateries. Yacht facilities are available in Paradise Bay. Despite these changes, Beaver Islanders have lost neither their island, nor their heads, as have tourist-oriented citizens throughout most of Michigan's Water Wonderland. Tourist facilities are confined to the immediate vicinity of St. James. Pileated woodpeckers remain; neon-breasted knotty-pine cocktail lounges have not become established along the sandy island lanes. Lacking the conventional resort entertainment, the island is a better than average resort.
Archie La Freniere, who owns Big Beaver's principal social center, The Shamrock Bar, is a fairly typical modern Beaver Island entrepreneur, operating in a mixed-tourist economy. In addition to The Shamrock, Archie has a piece of the ferryboat and a string of tourist cabins. In the right season and mood he will make arrangements and serve as guide for bass fishermen and deer, rabbit and pat hunters.