Contributed by Dave Benner
Bob Benner, owner of The Ark, stands next to an ice fishing shanty he rented.
I’ve been a fan of historical postcards of the White Lake area for years now. One of my favorite scenes is of “The Ark.”
Not probably the Ark you may be thinking of though. I mean White Lake’s own Ark. Happily, I came across a postcard of the Ark just recently in a collection of area postcards owned by Montague resident Janice Wisniewski.
I only knew a little about it. I knew it was a small square building where you could get food and drink and fish in the winter through the ice. I was intrigued by its basic concept - providing a warm place and food for ice fishing enthusiasts. It wasn’t until I contacted Dave Benner, whose parents operated the Ark for much of its time in the area, however, that I realized there was a lot more to its story.
Dave gave me a 1987 copy of Muskegon Magazine that featured a detailed article about White Lake’s Ark. Originally more of a covered raft with fishing holes, the Ark was built by Earl Sherman in 1930.
The Benner family was originally from Ohio. They summered on White Lake and were regular customers of the Ark. This was one of the first things I found out – that the Ark operated year round, not just in the winter.
When Earl died in 1947, the Benners bought the Ark and became permanent Whitehall residents. Bob Benner rebuilt the Ark and improved it considerably. He placed it atop 110 fifty-five gallon drums. It was enclosed and ringed with a deck. Anchored at the end of Scenic Drive, the Ark boasted a lunch counter, pot-bellied stove, and wells in the floor from which to fish.
But, there was way more than just the Ark on White Lake in the winter.
The Benners also had 65 shanties they rented out and arranged on the lake in rows - a shanty village of sorts. Dave remembers how he and his teammates on the Whitehall High School basketball team took a day off school (paid $10 a day and all the food they could eat) as each winter season began and used a jeep to haul the shanties out on the ice. Each shanty was numbered to help customers find them. They were heated with coal in metal stoves and were built to hold two, three or four anglers.
Bob’s wife, Catherine, handled the food. Hungry fishers could buy a hamburger and coffee and sometimes chili. Dave, along with his brothers Bob and Charles, kept busy cleaning the shanties, building fires in the stoves, and cutting holes in the ice. In the summer, the brothers ferried customers to the Ark and caught minnows to sell.
The family business was a prosperous one for years. Its eventual demise came about because of two factors, one broad in scope and one strictly local. First was the collapse of the perch fishery in the 1950s. Second was a harrowing mishap in 1961 when a strong wind nearly blew the Ark out into the Big Lake. That was enough, according to Dave, to shut down the business. In 1963, the Ark was dismantled and gone from White Lake forever.
I like the story of the Ark. It reminds me of simpler times. It demonstrates how much our area has relied on the lake as a focus for community recreational activities. It also provides an environmental history lesson, revealing how our lake’s past, present and future is connected inextricably with that of the Great Lakes. One of the first invasive species in the Great Lakes, the sea lamprey, was first documented in Lake Michigan in 1936. The unpleasant looking eel decimated the lake trout fishery by the 1950s. Without the lake trout to keep their numbers in check, another new invasive species – the alewife increased in number – which in turn caused the perch fishery to crash. The lesson? Where goes the Great Lakes, goes our lake.
Tanya Cabala is a lifelong resident of the White Lake area. A former educator and professional environmental advocate, she is currently the owner of Great Lakes Consulting, which provides project support and grant writing services to environmental and community nonprofit organizations. More information is available at www.tanyacabala.com. Tanya loves her hometown, loves writing, and loves to hear from her readers. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or (231) 981-0016.