Northern Michigan in Focus: The Life of Bruce Catton

Northern Michigan has been home to some historically significant authors like Ernest Hemmingway, but did you know there’s another Pulitzer Prize winning author that grew up in Benzonia?

In this week’s Northern Michigan in Focus, Corey Adkins shows you the life of Bruce Catton.

“This is kind of a compact town and everything is centered on the quadrangle on the top of the hill,” said Jerry Heiman with the Benzie Area Historical Society and Museum.

It was on top of that hill in Benzonia, once called Deity Hill, a young Bruce Catton was growing up. He lived at the Benzonia Academy where his father worked in the early 1900s. It was also where a group of people would shape Bruce’s life.

“When Bruce was a boy he had a predilection for Civil War history, he just soaked it up like a sponge, partly because a lot of the Civil War veterans were still around. They would meet and have conclaves and campouts where they’d all come together. These old fellows would all sit around together downtown and tell stories, and Bruce was always right there listening,” explained Jerry.

Bruce would cast whole regiments of lead Civil War soldiers and hold mock battles in this park, but as he grew up it was his time to serve. World War I was in full swing. He enlisted in the Navy.

“After the war he did not come back here. He wound up in Washington, D.C. and New York City as a writer working for newspapers and magazines,” said Jerry.

But it was his books that would make him famous. His subject? The Civil War.

“In the ‘50s he wrote the Civil War Trilogy. There was Mr. Lincoln’s Army, Glory Road and the last one, A Stillness at Appomattox,” explained Jerry.

A Stillness at Appomattox won a Pulitzer Prize for history.

“So now he’s really well known and he’s a famous guy who hobnobs with presidents and publishing kings and everyone knows Bruce Catton. Book tours and the whole bit,” said Jerry.

Catton ended up writing over 20 books during his career.

“After retirement, when he moved back here, he wrote one more book and it was reminiscences of his years growing up here. It’s called Waiting for the Morning Train and all the stuff we know about his early days in Benzonia came from that book. That has been a wonderful resource for everyone here,” explained Jerry.

This Sunday at 1 p.m. the historical society is doing a historical walk re-tracing Bruce’s childhood. You can see where he lived, where he played, went to church and even walk in the park where he held his mock battles.

“Then we will wrap it up here at the museum on the second floor where there’s actually a Bruce Catton exhibit,” said Jerry.

In 1977 Bruce won the Presidential Medal of Freedom, given to him by President Ford.

In 1978 he passed. He’s buried in the Benzonia Township Cemetery on a hill with a lot of his childhood heroes he wrote about all those years ago. The cemetery is not on the walking tour, but to learn more about this remarkable man is worth it.

“We want everybody to feel the closeness of Bruce Catton. You’re going to be sitting where he sat and we may even read a few passages from his writings,” said Jerry.

For more information on the event, click here.

Categories: Northern Michigan In Focus