Fireplace at Besser Natural Area celebrates 100 years


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Nov 28, 2023

Fireplace at Besser Natural Area celebrates 100 years

May 15, 2023 Courtesy PhotoThe Kamp Kairphree lodge is seen in this 1926 photo

May 15, 2023

Courtesy PhotoThe Kamp Kairphree lodge is seen in this 1926 photo provided by the Fred R. Trelfa Photographic Collection within the Clarke Historical Library, Central Michigan University.

PRESQUE ISLE — The abandoned fireplace at Besser Natural Area within the Presque Isle community has held a fascination with visitors for years.

Exactly how many years has been a mystery until now.

The 100th anniversary of the building of the fireplace occurs this June. Construction of the fireplace on the north wall of the Kamp Kairphree lodge began on June 26, 1923. It was to be finished when the second Kamp Kairphree season began on July 5, 1923.

In 1922, George and Edith Swain created Kamp Kairphree for girls and young women ages 8 to 18. Edith Rice Swain's sister, Tennie, who lived with the Swains for many years, addressed a letter to her niece, the couple's daughter, Frances, who was in France at the time. Tennie Rice was already at the camp, helping with preparations to open the camp for its second season.

In her letter, Tennie confirmed the date that masons were expected to begin the construction of the fireplace. Frances’ daughter, Liz Babcock, recently shared Tennie's confirming letter with this author.

The girls’ summer camp has a short history. After creating and managing Camp Fire Girls camps and Choir Boys camps north of Ann Arbor from 1914 to 1918, the Swains created Kamp Kairphree in 1922, independent of any youth-serving organization. In 1926, the Swains bought a farm on Lake Charlevoix, between Boyne City and Charlevoix. A group of campers from Kamp Kairphree in Bell visited the farm in 1927 to inspect the farm's facilities. Another reason for the visit was to pose for photos that were to be included in the Swains’ marketing booklet for the 1928 camping season, which was to begin at the camp's new location. After that brief visit to the prospective camp, the campers returned to the original Kamp Kairphree to complete the camp's final summer in Bell.

Signage at the fireplace within the Besser Natural Area indicates that the fireplace was associated with the community of Bell. A Michigan Department of Natural Resources sign is engraved "Chimney from Village of Bell," which claims that it was restored by the Youth Conservation Corps in 1973. The community of Bell was abandoned shortly after the post office was closed in 1911. The fireplace was never really a part of the Bell community.

The Swains had sought a different location for their camp in Bell for a few years. On Aug. 24, 1924, correspondence from George, who was in the Mideast documenting a University of Michigan archaeological expedition, to Edith documents that they considered sites south of Alpena, including the south end of Hubbard Lake, which they had visited in the past. They sought more land in order for the camp's programs to expand.

They wanted a more suitable environment for swimming and boating that could be offered at an inland lake, rather than Lake Huron at Bell. The opportunity to expand equestrian activities at the new location, with its farm buildings and barns, also made that a preferable site for the camp. The Swains maintained Kamp Kairphree at the Lake Charlevoix location through the 1939 summer, the year of Edith's death.

After moving the camp to Lake Charlevoix, the camp lodge on land that the Swains had leased in Bell was acquired by the Alpena Girls League. The League was an organization formed in 1922. It was the only "junior club" in the state to be directly affiliated with a member of the Michigan State Federation of Women's Clubs, the (Alpena) Women's Civic League. Eventually, Jesse Besser acquired the property and donated it to the State of Michigan in March 1966 for creation of the Besser Natural Area.

The fireplace in the Besser Natural Area still stands as a sentinel in tribute to the former girls camp. Two local women tastefully decorate it with natural Christmas ornamentation each year. It survives among tall pines which have risen from the soil where Kamp Kairphree and its lodge used to exist. It serves as a reminder of the warmth and comfort the lodge provided to young women experiencing everything the natural environment that Bell Bay and Presque Isle offer.

A resident of Presque Isle, John Porter is co-author of the 2015 book, "Grand Lake and Presque Isle."

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