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Club Continues the Traditions of Beaver Island From Grand Rapids

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Near the northern tip of Lake Michigan, about 30 miles off the coast of Charlevoix, sits Beaver Island -- a little piece of Ireland surrounded by water. Irish immigrants settled here centuries ago, and now the island is full of musicians playing in bars and converted garages. It's a unique tradition documented in WMUK's "Golden Days and Friendly Faces." And today, the traditions are continued with a group in lower Michigan called the Beaver Island Club of Grand Rapids.

It’s made up of a bunch of former islanders, now in places like Grand Rapids, Detroit and Chicago. Every year, they all gather at a local hotel to continue on the unique island traditions – and most importantly, to play traditional Irish tunes and dance. On Saturday, the club is marking its 50th anniversary in Grand Rapids – and the annual gathering has turned into a lot more than just a party.

"Approximately 50 years ago, there were many islanders who moved off island and relocated in various parts, whether it be Chicago, Detroit, Grand Rapids," says longtime Beaver Islander and club member Shirley Cole.

"They sought each other out for house parties, which was a tradition we had on the island. We got together for music, dancing, laughter. They started doing this in Grand Rapids, and after the first year or two, [Beaver Island's Holy Cross Church] mentioned they needed a roof."

She says after hearing about the need, the members of this club took it upon themselves to help the island they loved so much. So when the next party came around, they asked each member to just give a little money. Not a huge amount, Cole says, but enough to “re-roof” that church.

"And after that, it just took off from there. Every year they would collect money and donate it back to the island community for whatever needs were apparent at that time. This is 50 years later, and we’ve probably given money to every establishment or institution. Whether it be the fire department, the medical center, the senior center, the cemetery fund, the library fund, equipment for paramedics. It’s really been amazing. What people have been able to do to come together."

When Cole talks about this do-it-together spirit, she says it’s a lot different than just typical hometown pride.

"Oh my gosh," Cole says. "It doesn’t matter if you’re a first cousin or an eighth-cousin-twice-removed, everybody is like family. We trace our roots back to Ireland. We’re all connected, whether it be through blood or marriage. So it’s a very, very, tight-knit community."

She continues: "The community really rallies around each other in times of need. Whether your house burns down or somebody falls off a ladder and breaks a back or foot or is laid up. There have been all kinds of benefits. Too numerous to mention."

Cole says this connection is what started these gatherings fifty years ago. People left Beaver Island after the summer, but they didn’t want to wait a whole year to see these close friends again. So they arranged the party. And they brought down island musicians like Ed Palmer to play that unique Beaver Island style of Irish music. Cole says it’s still the same today.

"You know, that’s what the entire party is. Not only trying to keep the island community together but preserve the traditional island music that we were born and raised on. So we bring the island musicians down and they play for us all night. It’s a great coming together. Irish music mixed in with island music."

"And that dance floor is packed​," she says. "My dad used to say, the floor boards in the hall would be flapping like loon wings when they all would be out there doing a Beaver Island stomp, which is a dance unique to the islanders. Kind of a two-step with a shuffle in between. Everybody’s got their twist on it, but that’s what it’s called, the Beaver Island stomp."

But Cole says there’s something historic about these gatherings, too. Beaver Island is a tiny place. Only about 650 people live on it. Every year, people leave for new jobs or new families. So the community is spread out. But Cole says that it’s at these gatherings in Grand Rapids where the entire community can come together and share these traditions and songs that have been passed down for generations.

"It’s odd, I became part of the club when I moved to Grand Rapids about 15, 16, years ago," Cole says. "And I joined the club because I wanted to carry on, honor my father by keeping the music alive. He always loved the party and very rarely missed one. And since then, in trying to keep this alive, we realized we’re becoming the next generation."

"We’re at that turning point. After 50 years we’re trying to bring in the next generation as well. Fortunately, there are quite a few talented, younger islanders who are carrying the torch. The tradition of island music. That are able to pick out the tunes, sing the songs. So I think we have that going for us. But it’ll be really interesting this year, because we’re expecting a large turnout – both the generation that preceded us in forming the club, and the younger generation that will be taking over."

"I joined the club because I wanted to carry on, honor my father to keep the music alive. He always loved the party and very rarely missed one. And since then, in trying to keep this alive, we realized we're becoming the next generation."

"And most importantly -- to see the music continue," Cole says. "And these are all the songs that our grandfathers and great-grandfathers and great-great-grandfathers sang when they came to Beaver Island years and years ago."

Cole says this year’s gathering is going to be special. Founding members will be there. People will dress up in black ties, suits, dresses, just like they did at the first party. 

But Cole’s biggest hope is that the newest generation of Beaver Islanders can hear that old Beaver Island music and form that unique communal bond that inspired the first party 50 years ago. 

If you want to learn more about Beaver Island, WMUK will also be re-airing our own hour-long special, Golden Days and Friendly Faces, on Tuesday, March 22nd at 8 p.m.  You can find a link to the documentary here.

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