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Published: Saturday, 8/9/2003

For a small place, Beaver Island boasts extensive history

History lessons 50 years ago at our Hogwarts-style school north of London were all about memorization. Dates. Kings and queens. Prime ministers. Battles. Treaties. Laws. And more dates. All to be learned, remembered for exams, or recited back in class to an owlish, begowned Dumbledore clone, when we'd much rather have been outside playing another game of Quidditch ... or cricket ... or whatever.

The trouble with Brit history, of course, is that there's so much of it. Two thousand years and counting, so by the time we got around to King Canute turning back the waves, Alfred burning his cakes, and King Harold being shot through the eye by an errant arrow, we were already exhausted. And thoroughly bored. And it was only 1066!

All this comes to mind because one the greatest joys of travel for us - besides the food, of course - is digging up all the lusty history on the places we visit and learning about the frequently colorful cast of characters peppered throughout that history.

Take little Beaver Island, for example. Just 54 miles square. A mere sliver of real estate stuck 25 miles into the north end of Lake Michigan. But a place so beautiful and so liberally spiced with intriguing personalities.

It even had its own monarchical moment, when Mormon leader James Jesse Strang, a protege of founder Joseph Smith, took his followers, all 2,600 of them, across to the island in the late 1840s and proclaimed himself king.

Strang reigned from 1850-54 (thanks, Professor Dumbledore), and by all accounts was a pretty good king, taking the island economy from wilderness to moderate civilization, before he began to antagonize his people, marry multiple wives (five of them), and finally get himself shot by a couple of unhappy subjects.

Then there's the Russian recluse, Feodor Protar, who arrived on Beaver in 1893 (under somewhat mysterious circumstances) following careers on stage and as editor/publisher of a successful German-language newspaper in Rock Island, Ill.

Highly educated, well traveled, and a follower of Tolstoy, Protar bought an old log cabin in the woods on Sloptown Road (don't you just love those Treasure Island names!) and dedicated himself to self-sufficiency, as in living off the land, letting his hair and beard grow, and bathing a couple of times a year in a large barrel on his front porch.

But he also ministered tirelessly to the physical and pharmaceutical needs of his impoverished neighbors ... and their animals. And the islanders loved him for it. When he died in 1925, they built him an iron and fieldstone monument and preserved his log cabin as a place of pilgrimage.

During our recent visit to the island, we stayed at the Beaver Lodge, a simply marvelous and evocative place with staggeringly beautiful views out over Lake Michigan to uninhabited Garden Island. And Squaw. And Whiskey. A beach out front that runs for miles. A superb restaurant, specializing in the local whitefish. And sunsets to die for.

Beauty and food aside, though, Beaver Island, for us, was mostly about history. Colorful and stormy history.

But at least there were no dates to memorize. No exams to take. No Dumbledores. And above all, no demerits!



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