If you like to dip and eat smelt, you can thank a program started in the late 1800’s 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 to find out for this week’s Northern Michigan in Focus.
It all started off the shores of Beulah when smelt were stocked in Crystal Lake during the 1890’s.
“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,” said Jerry Heiman with the .
It wasn’t until 1919 when a farmer came down to Cold Creek to get a bucket of water for his livestock.
“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,” explained Jerry.
Word spread fast.
“And by 1927 and it had become a well-known event around the Midwest. They had music and bands and meals,” said Jerry.
Every spring, thousands would show up in Beulah for the smelt. Hotels would sell out, and 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 smell taken out of there in a season, you know, ridiculous numbers,” explained Jerry.
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,” said Jerry.
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,” explained Jerry.
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.
“He liked it so much he came back every year for three or four years after,” said Jerry.
Eventually all good things must come to an end. By the late ‘40s the smelt numbers had dwindled and the event went away.
There are 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,” said Jerry.
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