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In 1922 James McCormick became keeper of the Grand Traverse Lighthouse on Northport Point. He brought with him his wife, Mary, and eight children. While their father faithfully tended the light, the children experienced an unforgettable childhood set against the rocky point panorama.
Summers were a blend of swimming, berry picking and playing games along the beach. Winters were harder. A trip to the privy meant fighting the north wind and struggling through a snowdrift that piled as high as 7 feet. Or perhaps worse, itching under long johns that stayed on until spring. The McCormick children left for school in the dark—a trip that meant walking a mile to meet the sleigh that would take them the rest of the 8 miles to Northport. It was dark again by the time they returned home.
Christmas took the edge off the long, cold season. Snug in the classic white and green building with its festive red roof, the McCormick family celebrated by singing around their pump organ, strapping pie tins to their feet to skate on the frozen lake, and stringing cranberries for the tree. Many decades later, Bette McCormick Olli, the second youngest of the McCormick children, captured the spirit of those holidays in her reminiscence “A ‘Grand’ Grand Traverse Lighthouse Christmas.” Read on to experience the joys of their simple celebration.
It looks like we’re in for a Nor’wester,” comments Pa as he pours a bucket of coal into the magazine of the old base heater. “She’s blowing a gager off the lake right now.”
For an instant the red coals become smothered and blackened by the added fuel, but soon the flickering flames escape the isinglass windows and dance merrily upon the living room walls. In every glass Christmas tree ornament tiny fires begin to glow. The stove burns fiery red again and each window in the old cast iron cathedral sends forth warmth and cheer. Our faces, as we sit around the heater like chicks around a brooder, become as rosy as the cranberries we are stringing to decorate the tree. We withdraw our feet from the shiny nickel fenders where we have been warming our toes after returning from the woods. Somebody says they’ve got chilblains.
Earlier in the day we had trekked into the woods, braving the elements, two of the oldest kids pulling the youngest on a huge homemade green sled which John had christened Iona. The rest of the clan followed in single file, the tassels of our stocking caps bobbing up and down as we traversed over snow covered hill and hummock. Laddie, our little brown dog, trailed behind us, joyously barking and sniffing out every rabbit and squirrel track or plowing tunnels in the light fluffy snow with his nose. Teddy Bear, the calico cat brought up the rear and complained vociferously in her feline fashion, as cats often do.
Far into our enchanted Grand Traverse forest our little train came to a halt. There before our very eyes was what we deemed to be the most beautiful tree we had ever laid eyes on. It seemed a pity to cut it down. However, after a lengthy discussion and after getting approval from the brown dog and calico cat, we chopped it down and hauled it home for parental inspection.