PO Box 801
Elk Rapids, Michigan 49629
Phone: 231-342-1058
Email: info@elkrapidsharbordays.org

Our History

Welcome to Elk Rapids Harbor

Click here to view a flyer of the History of the Elk Rapids Harbor Days

Ivan Hubbell, Elk Rapids Rotary Club member, documented in a journal the first 10 years of the Elk Rapids Rotary Club. The following is a section from Ivan’s writings regarding the development of the Harbor and the mention of Harbor Day.

In 1953 Rotary originated the Elk Rapids Waterways Committee for the purpose of developing a harbor.  This is one of Rotary’s outstanding contributions to the village; it is an asset that many people will enjoy for years to come.   This project was worked on for 20 years.

The Federal Harbors and Waterways were contacted and were interested and encouraged the project.  However, no financial aid was available.  At this time, Harbor Day was started to help finance the work.  Rotarians and Rotary Anns worked diligently for years to develop the harbor and the Harbor Day Celebration. The total estimated cost in 1955 was $107,708.00.  The money raised from Harbor Day was not enough, so the appeal went out for donated labor and materials.  It was answered by many Rotarians with trucks, breakwater materials and time.

Yachting caps and badges were sold as a publicizing and revenue raising event.  Rotarians became very fond of their yachting caps, and wore them to Rotary conventions where they became well known as the Elk Rapids Club with the harbor project.  This even inspired a trend for other clubs to initiate their own unique way to publicize their town or club.

After much preliminary work and planning, a map and surveys were finished.  On September 21, 1955 a Federal Permit #55566 was obtained from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to proceed with the work.  An easement was obtained from the Consumers Power Company to cross their land and a road was built to commence work on the breakwater.  Broken concrete and rocks were dumped in the bay along a natural sandbar to form the breakwaters.  Early in 1956 the village constructed a new road across the river to the island forming part of the inner basin and the channel to the outer basin was started.

Through the efforts of one of the Rotarians, the U.S., Army Reserve used this project as a training program.  They brought in heavy equipment, and drilled and blasted to demolish the concrete foundation of the old Elk Rapids Cement Plant.  The rubble and concrete were used for the breakwaters.  This work accomplished a dual purpose – – building the breakwaters and removing an eyesore from the community.

In 1958, the Rotary Harbor Commission was officially adopted by the Elk Rapids Village Council.  It seems appropriate at this time to recognize Mr. Ed Grace as chairman of this huge project.  He devoted immensurable personal time and effort to see this endeavor through to a successful completion.

In 1961, Governor George Romney, speaking at the harbor dedication ceremonies, commended the people of Elk Rapids for undertaking and completing the harbor without any State help. Rotary is proud to have been a vital force in this community venture.

Harbor Day and Homecoming is still an annual event in Elk Rapids, and has grown to a three day event sponsored by the Elk Rapids Harbor Days Association,village, chamber, businesses and clubs.  There is a carnival, parade, car show, and many booths and games.  Rotary sponsors a chicken barbecue for it.  It is always concluded with a large display of beautiful fireworks.

Thank you Elk Rapids Rotary Club for allowing the Elk Rapids Harbor Days Association to post this valuable history about our harbor and the festival on our website.

The above information is courtesy of the Elk Rapids Historical Society and Rotary Club of Elk Rapids.  

The following history is a series of three articles put together by the Rotary Club of Elk Rapids and ran in the Elk Rapids News this past year just prior to the kick-off of the annual festival in August.

Rotary Harbor Day Memories

Rotary Logo

“Rotary Harbor Day Memories” – first of a three-part series recounting the early history of Elk Rapids Harbor Days and how the beloved tradition has endured. Many thanks to Joe F. Yuchasz, Gordon Converse, Keith Hubbell, Jack Blesma, Jim Sak, Lou Sanford, Ivan Hubbell, and Glenn Neumann for their help in collecting photos and information for this series.                                               

Local Rotarians were the driving force in the creation of the Elk Rapids Harbor. In the early 1950s (probably in 1953) the club members decided that it would be good for the town to have a harbor that could attract business. They determined that they would need $50,000 for the project and decided to hold a Harbor Day celebration to raise funds specifically for that purpose. It was a one-day event for many years. Every community group, church group, kids group in the area had a booth. The Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts got to keep the money they raised, but everyone else raised money for the harbor. The first event may have been called “The Fiesta” since they hoped to strengthen better understanding between the year round community and the migrant population that was in the area harvesting fruit. There were games of many different kinds. One of the most memorable games was “Mouse Roulette.” Local children were paid a fee for every field mouse that they delivered in good condition. Those mice were used in the roulette game. The wheel was spun and whoever had a mouse go into their chosen jar won. The kids won candy or a small prize…but the adults actually won cash! We are sure that it was all legal gambling since it was for a good cause and many adults that won donated it to the Harbor Day fund anyway! A “Mexican Wedding” where a couple was married, was officiated by a Rotarian that was also a justice of the peace and there was a street dance to end the first Harbor Day/Fiesta celebration. The success of this first event led to planning to hold the event every year until enough money was raised to build the harbor.

A break wall was the first thing to be constructed. In the early 1950s Joe F Yuchasz met a representative from the Army Corps of Engineers. The representative asked when they wanted to start construction and when Joe said “now,” Joe’s son, young Joe (Joe W Yuchasz, owner of the cinema today), who had tagged along with his dad for the meeting, was pressed into service hammering in stakes to mark where the breakwall should be. It was that simple. 

Construction started immediately after that. Two Rotarians, Gordon Converse and Joe F Yuchasz, owned construction companies and they supplied the vehicles to haul the material from anywhere they could get it. A large portion of bricks came from the old downtown schoolhouse that was torn down, broken cement came from an old factory on the north side of the river, broken sidewalks, cobblestone foundations, and likely some slag from the old iron works. Farmers who collected rocks off their farms usually sold them…but many of them donated rocks for the project.    

When construction began Bob Yuchasz (brother of Joe F and uncle of Joe W) was operating a dump truck filled with material bringing it to the harbor to start the breakwall. He backed in too far causing the truck to roll off the side into the water landing on its top…with Bob still in the driver’s seat! Bob was a “400 pounder”…a big guy who had the strength to open the door and climb out. He was likely standing in about three feet of water. Then the problem was how to get the truck out of the river. It was too steep to pull it back up where it had gone in. There was a boat ramp on the other side of the river that they used. Somehow they got the truck righted and attached ropes and chains to it. They parked a cement truck that was full of sand at the boat ramp and pulled the dump truck all the way across the river and up the boat ramp. Amazingly, it started right up and Bob went back to hauling.  

Once the breakwall was built the next project was digging the channel. When asked how wide the channel would be the answer was, “Depends on the crane bucket operator and how far he can throw the bucket.” The original plan called for a boatlift to transfer boats from Elk Lake into East Bay and vice versa. That part of the plan was just too cost prohibitive so it never came to fruition. In 1955, the Waterways Agency was contacted about the harbor. The initial cost was estimated to be $107,780. Another Rotarian, Ed Grace, was on the village council and he was always cajoling state officials for the funds needed to complete the harbor. 

When it was time to construct a building at the harbor officials consulted with Gene Davis who taught vocational classes at the high school. He recommended a young student named Ron Grammer. Ron designed and helped build the building, which would be the spot where boaters could gather and have meetings. The building included a lunchroom, kitchen and restroom. When the State Harbor commission visited the site they said that the requirements were that the restroom should be in a separate building. After convincing them that it made more sense to have one building instead of two the state requirements were changed. Rotary Harbor Day Memories continue next week.

“Rotary Harbor Day Memories” – part two of a three-part series recounting the early history of the Elk Rapids Harbor.

As everyone knows, the father of the Elk Rapids Harbor was Edward C. Grace. Ed was a prominent businessman in town, a member of the Rotary Club and an avid boater. Ed’s original concept of the Harbor was to develop the pond, at the base of the spillway, on the lower Elk River and to construct a lift to raise and lower boats from the Bay to the upper River. The resounding cacophony, at the time, was to “Open the Gates to The Chain-Of-Lakes.”  It didn’t take but a few years for that idea to be squelched when the folks living on the upper lakes became incensed about the possibility of Alewives and lamprey eels being transported from the Bay to the Lakes. 

Meanwhile, realizing the necessity of a breakwall to provide a safe approach in and out of the proposed harbor Ed and his committee of Rotarians proceeded to get the required fill permits from the State and permits to place fill over the ‘bottom land rights’ held by Consumers Power. These permits were obtained in 1955 and the early part of 1956. 

In the spring of 1957, with permits in hand, Ed rounded up a handful of interested Rotarians for a work bee to begin the insurmountable task of building a breakwall. My brother Denny had been a recently inducted member of Rotary and he convinced me to become a part of the work activities. Being easily led, I agreed.

I remember a chilly Saturday morning – Denny and I were standing on a spit of land, behind the power dam down on the Bay. Joe W. Yuchasz was there. That was one of my first recollections of meeting Joe and it wasn’t long before I was overwhelmed by his enthusiasm for village projects. Along with Joe and Ed Grace that day were Charlie Lark, Ivan Hubbell, Web Shippey, Denny and me. Ed explained to us what his vision was for a breakwall and where we could start dumping fill and rubble. He wanted us to know that whenever there was any kind of clean rubble available, that folks wanted to get rid of, that this was the place to dump. Not garbage or wood, but clean rubble. Suddenly a brilliant question was posed: “Ed, when dumping and pushing the fill into the Bay, what direction should we keep in mind?”  Ed stood there. Contemplating and staring out over the Bay and finally answered, “You see that red barn with the silver roof over on the peninsula? Aim for that!”

That was the beginning. Over the next few years we enlisted the help of everyone in town that had a dump truck and a bulldozer. Orv Phillips, Northwestern Specialty (Joe W. Yuchasz), Wanigan Corporation and the Village of Elk Rapids are names prominent in my memory. My apologies to others whose name may have slipped my mind over the years and to others who volunteered their time and efforts.

Rubble came from many sources. The site where the old high school had been torn down was a mess. That was cleaned up. Ed Grace’s brother-in-law was a colonel in the Army Corp of Engineers and, by some quirk of genius, the Corp had several training sessions of dynamiting and blasting the foundations of the original Elk Rapids Cement Works on South Bay Shore Drive. That was all hauled for fill.

While clearing land for a development now known as Mitchell Street, artifacts that had survived from the days of the iron works began to pop up and would fill a book: Slag galore, iron ingots, pieces of narrow gauge rail tracks, bricks by the thousands, bottles, old fire hydrants, just to name a few of the items found. We discovered 62 pieces of formed concrete, 6’ high, tapered in a rectangular shape with a curved saddle formed on the top, that were cast to hold huge tanks in which was stored wood alcohol. Formed and poured into these shapes was a concrete base 7’x 3’. This was a heavy mass of re-enforced concrete each weighing approximately 9000 pounds. We measured them and found that if the tailgate on the dump truck was removed, each foundation would fit nicely. Fred Vermeerch, another Rotarian, had a concrete products plant on 31 next to Wanigan’s shop. Fred manufactured and installed concrete septic tanks. In his operation, he also had a truck with a rail mounted, overhead crane with out-riggers used for setting septic tanks. Fred was immediately contacted and over the next five or six weeks he loaded, and I delivered all the hunks of concrete out to the end of the breakwall, one hunk at a time. Ed Grace was in heaven. He personally walked and guided me to the end of what was then the end of the breakwall. When I raised the box on the first one to be dumped, after the box on the dump truck passed its balance point, the box sprung up by virtue of the weight of the concrete and it slid off the truck and landed in an upright position. Ed looked at me and said, “That was simple, can you do that well with all of them?” He thought I was clever when in reality, it was just luck.

Ed accompanied me on all 62 trips out on the breakwall. Why did I need a guide you might wonder? The width of the breakwall was one car wide at the time. The fill you see now on the north side of the original breakwall is all sand that has been washed in and trapped. The landmass that has resulted from the efforts of building that breakwall now totals, perhaps, seven acres. My cleverness in placing these massive hunks of concrete was not that perfect. I managed to stand 61 of them upright, and only one ended up half tipped over. In the final stages of the breakwall development, these slabs of concrete were ultimately placed to cap off the edges of the breakwall sides, towards the end, as far as they would go. Submitted by Gordon Converse

“Rotary Harbor Day Memories” –  part three of a three-part series recounting the early history of the Elk Rapids Harbor.

Several years after the original hauling bees to get the breakwall started, the Michigan Waterways Commission entered the picture. I’m not sure of the exact date but suffice it to say, it was approximately in 1958 that the Waterways Commission finally realized that Elk Rapids was serious about the construction of a harbor. Waterways investigated, and appraised, the work in place to that date, and came up with an approximate value of $42,000.00. (Don’t hold me to that figure, I’m writing this from memory). This money would be forthcoming based upon certain criteria. The first being that the Waterways Commission would be dealing with a governing body that would always exist there forever. That meant the Village of Elk Rapids had to become involved. Up to this time, the Village had no say in any of the events that led to this point of the harbor’s development. Another item Waterways insisted on was that no further work would be done until a complete engineered set of plans was developed. As Waterways was picking up the tab for this, Ed Grace, on one of his many trips to Lansing met with Gordon Walker, of Walker Engineering from Birmingham, Michigan. Walker had been recommended by Waterways and so Walker was hired and spent the best part of the following winter surveying, sounding, and measuring the site of the harbor. The following spring, with no work having been done for five or six months, and with the anticipation of possibly seeing an end to the hauling, a group of the “hauling type” of Rotarians, and their followers, met with Gordon Walker, the engineer, at the site of the half-completed breakwall. The purpose of the meeting was to go over the plans, and to listen to all the work he had done for his $18,000.00 fee. Joe Yuchasz stood there listening and finally said to him, “Our truck drivers don’t all have college degrees, and so what should we tell them about what direction to dump their loads?” Walker responded, “You see that red barn across the peninsula…” That’s what 18,000 will get you when dealing with the government!”

If you have a harbor you need a harbor house! Joe W. Yuchasz, my dear friend and friendly competitor, had his company draftsman draw plans for a simple, but attractive harbor house. I was always kidding Joe that whenever he was low on work he’d dream up a job to keep his guys busy. Before he started on the plans, however, he would routinely peruse the town to see what materials his friends could donate to meet his ends. He showed up at our yard one day and eyed a couple of doors and two big picture windows that he immediately incorporated into the building design. Cost to Joe? Zero! Ron Grammer, his draftsman, promptly produced a set of plans. The cost to build the harbor house $10,000.00. The price was right and the value was there but a large problem evolved. There was no money! So, in the spring of 1965, when the township of Elk Rapids was holding their annual budget meeting, five Rotarians showed up for the meeting. Those five included Joe, Ed Grace, brother Denny, Charlie Lark and myself, all Township residents. The Township board operates by home rule statute: all voters have a vote. Back in those days almost no one ever went to a township board meeting. Life was simple then. The township had to set budgets for the upcoming year for such things as the library, cemetery maintenance and some basic office work. This particular night the township board in its entirety was there, all three of them: Scott Morrison, Shirley Morrison and Carl Heller. During the normal course of business one of the Rotarians introduced a motion that the township incorporate into next year’s budget the sum of $2,500.00 to act as seed money for the construction of a harbor house. Guess what? The motion passed! The following Tuesday, the same group of Rotarians showed up at the regular monthly Village Council meeting. We informed the council that the Township had graciously donated $2,500.00 towards the construction of this project and we thought the council should match the donation. They did and we left the council meeting that night all feeling smug in the fact that we had raised a total of $5,000.00. And, with absolutely no coercion! 

 So, now we’re five grand short. At the next Rotary meeting on Tuesday night, we asked for a show of hands of those willing to sign a note, in the name of the Elk Rapids Rotary Club in the amount of $500.00 each. We acknowledged the generosity of the first ten hands raised in the air and subsequently those ten went to see Leo Spencer (a Rotarian) at the State Bank of Elk Rapids. Leo lent the club the $5,000.00, each Rotarian co-signing for $500.00, which was paid back, in full, in just a couple of years. How? Through donations, steak fries and the efforts of club members running different booths at the next few Harbor Days events.

In six weeks, we raised the needed $10,000.00, Joe W. got a building job and he even employed his teenage son, Joe F. to do the ceramic tile work in the bathrooms. Democracy and charity at work! Submitted by Gordon Converse

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