Northern Michigan in Focus: Smelt Boom in Beulah

If you like to dip and eat smelt you can thank a program started in the late 1800s that planted them in a Benzie County lake.

The smelt eventually escaped and spread throughout the Great Lakes, but something else happened that put Beulah on the map.

Corey Adkins went to the Benzie County Historical Society and Museum to find out for this week’s Northern Michigan in Focus.

It all started right off the shores of Beulah when smelt were stocked in Crystal Lake during the 1890s.

To see if they might become food for the lake trout that were in Crystal Lake and they were fabulously successful and reproducing and nobody paid much attention to them.

It wasn’t until 1919 when a farmer came down to Cold Creek to get a bucket of water for his livestock.

“And came back and you get half a bucket of water and half a bucket of fish so he started telling people around town about the strange phenomenon. So guys were bringing farm wagons from as far away as Thompsonville to fill their farm wagons with the fish for fertilizer. And then eventually sometime in the 20s somebody discover that they were actually pretty good to eat,”

Word spread fast. says Jerry Heiman of the Benzie Area Historical Society and Museum.

“And by 1927 and it had become a well-known event around the Midwest they had music and bands and meals,” Heiman said.

Every spring, thousands would show up in Beulah for the smelt. Hotels would sell out, people would sleep in their cars.

“The figures I have heard is there were up to 1,300 cars parked on the street in a given evening, 20 tons of smelt take it out of there in a season you know ridiculous numbers,” Heiman said.

The numbers got so ridiculous the local game warden put strict times on when people could dip.

“And you only had 10 minutes in the creek at 11 o’clock and a gun would go off the ropes would go down and everybody could get into the creek and 10 minutes later the gun would go off and everybody would have to get out,” Heiman said.

Then at 4 a.m. you had 10 more minutes.

“So what are you going to do between 11 and 4 well all the bars are open and so you could imagine by 4 a.m. they were probably feeling pretty good and when you get that many people feeling that way into a small confined space swinging long handled nets they needed the police presence,” Heiman said.

It took 17 state troopers help patrol the madness. The event became known across the country and beyond. Reporters from around the world would write about the smelt dip. Even Michigan’s governor at the time, Fred Green, got in on the action.

“And he liked it so much he came back every year for three or four years after,” Heiman said.

Eventually all good things must come to an end. By the late 40s the smelt numbers had dwindled and the event went away. There’s many theories as to why but whatever happened it’s still pretty neat to go to downtown Beulah, stand on the Clark Street Bridge over Cold Creek and imagine what once was.

“I wish I had a time machine to go back and spend the night watching,” Heiman said.

Categories: Northern Michigan In Focus