“These singing sands shift and change year by year,
Sting my eyes or warm my back.
These sands on the shore of the Michigan Sea
Will always be the singing sands.
Lounge singer Patti Shaffner’s “Singing Sands” was a highlight of my “Tales of Lake Michigan and the Indiana Dunelands” Steel Shavings (volume 28, 1998), as was an excerpt from Simone de Beauvoir’s “The Mandarins” about staying in Nelson Algren’s Miller cottage. In an “Editor’s Note” I wrote of living in the now-vanished lakefront community of Edgewater as a leaseholder within the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore:
We watched deer munch on our shrubs, cleaned up after raccoons raided our garbage cans, lost electricity several times a year, and experiences similar to an earthquake after shock when passing rains disturbed the sand under our home. Compensating for these minor inconveniences were the pleasures of hearing the surf on stormy days (“pounding the shore with the throb of an engine,” to quote French novelist Simone de Beauvoir), rummaging for firewood in a nearby ravine, tending plants and garden vegetables, catching sight of toads, possums and even an occasional snake, and observing hummingbirds, woodpeckers, and dozens of other kinds of ornithological specimens, including migratory ducks and geese flying overhead in formation and seemingly honking at us.
Mount Baldy photo by E. Jason Wambsgans
Mount Baldy within the National Lakeshore will be closed all summer. Two years ago, a six year-old almost died when a hole opened and engulfed him under 11 feet of sand. Scientists subsequently discovered seven other cavities at the rapidly-moving dune, which is over 120 feet tall and covers about 100 acres. I have fond memories of visiting Mount Baldy with family and friends.
above, Svanti Nordstrom; below, Miller railroad junction, 1889
I urged Steve McShane’s students to provide information about their family’s ethnicity in their journals, then talked about Swedish immigrants arriving in Miller beginning around 1870. Among the push factors accounting for thousands of Swedes leaving their native land were famine and overpopulation. Pioneer Miller resident Svanti Nordstrom, who had learned of the mostly unsettled area from friends in La Porte and Baillytown, sent letters back to his home village that exaggerated the economic opportunities available. The sandy soil not being conducive to farming, the newcomers hauled sand, cut ice, tended the Michigan Southern Railroad beds, fished, picked berries, planted vegetable gardens, and raised chickens, pigs, and dairy cows. In the absence of an ordained minister Nordstrom conduced services in a schoolhouse until Swedish Lutheran Church was built in the early 1890s. For baptisms, communion, and weddings, members would either go to a church in Baillytown or ask its pastor to visit.
I told the class about Caroline Hasselgren, who came to America in 1880 on a 12-day steamship voyage with husband Hokan (a sailor) and daughter Hanna. Caroline was a midwife, a valuable addition to the community at a time when the nearest doctor lived in Hobart an hour away by horse and buggy in the best of weather and could only be reached via a telegram relayed from Chicago. Caroline and Hokan both worked at Aetna Powder Plant that opened in 1881, Caroline making shells and Hokan filling them with dynamite. Accidents at the plant were not uncommon.
Bathing Beach Pavilion photo by David Tribby
Perusing Jerry Davich’s “Lost Gary” for coverage of Miller (where he grew up), I found mention of Marquette Park Bathing Beach Pavilion, designed by Chicago architect George W. Maher, who previously had drawn up plans for the Elks Temple (later Gordon’s Department Store) downtown and the Gary Heat, Light, and Water Building. Constructed in 1923, three years before Maher committed suicide, the pavilion, according to Davich, employed Hydro-Stone, “a form of cast-concrete block to mimic white Georgian marble, a cost-effective alternative.” Davich added:
The facility was a hybrid of modified Greek and Prairie School architecture, featuring two wings: one for men, the other for women. The upper level served as a picturesque promenade to view the lake.
Three years later, Maher’s recreation pavilion was constructed, finishing the planned, two-pavilion aspect of Marquette Park. Both pavilions still exist but were endangered for many years until rehabilitated for new generations of residents and outsiders alike.
On Steve Spicer’s Miller website I found this article by David Wiiter about novelist Nelson Algren’s cottage (above):
Nelson Algren bought his beach cottage in 1950, partially from the proceeds from the film rights to “The Man with a Golden Arm.” I was born on Juniper Street, across the Calumet Lagoon from his cottage a few years after Algren had left. However, tales of the man whom many consider to be Chicago’s greatest writer have echoed through my family gatherings ever since.
In a way, a lot has changed in Miller since Algren and Simone de Beauvoir drank, swam, hiked, made love, wrote and enjoyed the dunes area. Yet a lot has stayed the same, and it is not hard for Chicagoans to spend a summer afternoon retracing the steps of Algren in Miller.
For starters, the small white beach house is still there at 6223 Forrest Avenue, largely unchanged. He brought his friends, like photographer Art Shay, and carried on a torrid affair with de Beauvoir there. My late uncle, William Kisslauskiss, used to talk about de Beauvoir whenever Algren’s name was mentioned. “She used to sunbathe nude in the yard of the cottage. I remember the mailman telling me about it, he was shocked,” Kisslauskiss said with a slight chuckle. “We might have nice beaches but it isn’t the French Riviera.”
Apparently de Beauvoir wasn’t the only female liaison Algren brought to the cottage. “Grandma and Auntie used to see the girls coming in and out on the weekends,” Ann (Kisslauskiss) Witter, my mom, said. “We were young and they wanted to protect us kids so they referred to them as ‘his housekeepers.’ They would say, ‘The writer is back for the weekend. He has another new housekeeper.'”
While the house has stayed the same, so too have many of the natural and architectural landmarks around Algren’s cottage. Algren loved to take morning walks and moonlight swims. About a hundred yards northeast of his former house is not only the Calumet Lagoon but the Marquette Park Pavilion. The sandy brick structure and patio seem to stretch out over the lagoon and into the dunes, combining turreted towers, Corinthian columns, Art Deco globe lights, French Colonial balconies and Prairie patios. [Nearby is] the Gary Aquatorium,a giant gray structure with Roman pillars two stories high, a courtyard and wondrous lake views.
If Algren walked from his cottage to the west, it was usually on his way to Pignotti’s Store, at 720 North Lake Street, to buy a quart of Schlitz. A shack that sold everything from beer to bandages, it is now Ono’s Pizza. In a story that is now part of Chicago literary annals, Algren was crossing the lagoon on his way to Pignotti’s one winter afternoon when he fell through the ice. My Grandma and I were in her bedroom near the lagoon and we heard him screaming for help. We couldn’t do anything but luckily there were some construction workers nearby who pulled him out.
My great uncle Steven Parfenoff, a Russian-born sculptor, was the only “townie” that Algren hung out with. During the holidays he didn’t send “uncle” a Christmas card. Instead, he would shove a bottle of vodka in his mailbox, honk his horn, and drive away.
Nelson Algren with Simone de Beauvoir and Art Shay
Photographer Art Shay told Chicago Tribune reporter Jon Anderson Algren’s three rules: Never go to bed with a woman whose problems are worse than yours; never eat at a place called “Mom’s”; and never play cards with a man named Doc. Algren’s poker games at his Miller cottage are legendary; alas, by all accounts the novelist lost more than he won.
Anne Balay is back in town, her last few weeks at the Miller house she loves so dearly. At the recent Lammys, where she won a prestigeous award, Anne met Ms. Founder Gloria Steinem, avant-garde filmmaker John Waters, and Rita Mae Brown, author of Rubyfruit Jungle.
My back was still tight from falling, so I paid a visit to chiropractor Manuel Kazanas, a 1971 Gary Emerson grad. When he started, the school population was almost all white; by the time he graduated it was probably 95 percent nonwhite. He still feels the effects of two serious concussions suffered playing football, one in high school, the other in a rough flag football game at IUN. At the conclusion he noted that we didn’t talk politics. He’s a libertarian, but we share similar views on many issues, including how big corporations dominate American politics.