The Barton Hills Boat Club
Its fortunes are tied to a changing river.
by Grace Shackman
From the August, 2018 issue
"Some don't know we exist. Others think you have to live in Barton Hills to join," says architect Jan Culbertson, longtime Barton Hills Boat Club member. In fact, the club has existed since 1937, and no, you don't have to live in Barton Hills to join.
At its heyday, the club regularly hosted two-day regattas, competing with clubs from as far away as New York state. In those halcyon days there was a waiting list, with Barton Hills folks given priority. Today, the races are just for fun among the members, and there is no wait list. Only three of the thirty-six member families live in the village and everyone pays the same yearly fee of $355.
Barton Pond was created in 1912-13, when a Detroit Edison subsidiary dammed the Huron and built a hydropower plant. Alexander Dow, then president of Edison, thought the hilly land on the pond's north shore would make a wonderful place for high-level Edison employees to live and developed Barton Hills in the 1920s.
The idea for the boat club started with John Waite, a U-M law prof and Barton Hills resident. In 1937 he approached his friend Robert Angell, a sociology professor who didn't live in Barton Hills but was a sailing enthusiast. Together they enlisted another Barton Hills resident, Art Moehlman.
Waite and Moehlman went to Huron Farms, Edison's real estate branch, to ask permission. Huron Farms agreed to rent the land to them and build a boat dock and rustic clubhouse but balked at the suggestion of building tennis courts.
That June, the Ann Arbor News announced that "A new boat club has been formed by Barton Hills residents and other sailing enthusiasts to stimulate sailing on Barton Pond." The article reported that there were already twenty-two members, fourteen from Barton Hills and eight from elsewhere. They had ten small sailboats and planned to buy ten more.
Moehlman was elected the club's first "commodore." By 1939 the club
was in full swing, competing in regattas with the Orchard Lake Club (near Pontiac) on each other's waters. Closer to home, they challenged the U-M Sailing Club, who beat them in a race that year.
Every Sunday morning the club members raced against one another on Barton Pond. At the end of the season, the person with the most cumulative points was declared champion. They also held separate races for children.
Newspaper reports about the club ceased during World War II but started up again in 1947. By 1955 they were clearly in full gear as the Ann Arbor News published a full-page spread illustrated with eleven pictures. "Usually every Sunday about half a dozen boats race when there's a breeze," the paper reported. It went on to say that "although competitions are important for serious sailors, others find the quiet wooded spot ideal for relaxing and that boats moored in the middle often use for swimming."
The rule of the club has always been no motorboats, with the exception of the motorized float used by the race committee. Composed of two or three people, the committee would determine the path of races based on wind conditions and then set up buoys to guide the participants. A race was usually four times around the course, ending upwind. The committee would blow a horn to start the race, then monitor it and enforce the rules. Infractions were penalized by sending the offender around in a circle, costing it valuable time.
Since the boats varied in size, time to complete the course was adjusted by a handicap based on the size and sail of each craft. By 1962 things had been simplified by limiting competitors to two standard types, two-person Snipes and one-person Bantams (later replaced by Lasers).
In the 1960s, opponents included the Jolly Roger Sailing Club of Toledo and the Goguac Yacht Club from Battle Creek. The list of regatta partners continued to grow in the 1970s, and some Barton Hills members were such serious sailors that they competed in regattas as far away as Mackinac or Bermuda.
Attorney Bruce Laidlaw, who had learned to sail at Camp Michigania, joined in the early 1970s. A friend asked him to help her sail her Snipe, but because the club had reached its limit of fifty-five member families, he had to start as an associate member. He remembers at their first race, one of the participants got so mad at a race committee ruling "that he sailed to the committee boat and said 'I'm going home.' I was horrified, thinking 'what kind of club is this?'" Though he now spends summers up north, he is still the club's webmaster.
Architect Russ Serbay joined at about the same time as Laidlaw, also because a friend needed a second on her Snipe. He remembers that many club members became friends with members of competing clubs. Serbay and other members put up some of the visiting participants in regattas at their homes, and their guests usually returned the favor when the Barton Boat Club competed in their towns. Regattas always ended with a big party, usually at someone's house or at member Harry Hawkins' business on South State.
The club members continued to race one another on Sundays, though in the afternoon instead of the morning. On Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, and Labor Day, they had big picnics and still do. Often members continued coming to parties long after they stopped sailing.
Children were always included. The club's fleet includes smaller boats called Optimists that are good for young people to learn on. The kids all wear life jackets and do capsize drills as well as sailing instruction. Younger ones enjoy hanging out by the water, playing in the mud, while teenagers are drafted to help with the heavy work of hauling boats in and out of the water.
Present commodore Meghan Allen and her husband, Matt, introduced their son, Zach, to sailing when he was three. Jan and Carey Culbertson's sons, Chris and Josh, also started coming at an early age and as young men still love the club. For many years Josh recruited a bunch of his friends to help at year-end workdays. One even came back to help after he'd moved to Chicago.
What could be called the club's golden years ended in the 1980s, when the water along the shoreline gradually became overgrown with weeds. Hawkins, a member since 1954, explains that "in order to keep Barton Pond clear and not clog up the dam with weeds, [Edison] would lower the pond during the worst part of winter … and thus burst all the weed seeds." Lower water also meant the dock and boats could be left out all winter, since they wouldn't be hurt by freezing and thawing. According to Laura Rubin, executive director of the Huron River Watershed Council, lowering water levels is a common practice on recreational lakes.
Edison sold Barton and its other Ann Arbor dams to the city in 1963. In 1982, Ann Arbor voters approved a ballot proposal to reactivate its hydropower plant. To maximize output and revenue, the city stopped lowering the pond in the winter, and the weeds began to encroach.
Now, to reach clear water, club members first must untangle the weeds that stick to their boats. It is a little easier with the smaller Lasers but really challenging with the Snipes.
As the area where boats could sail shrank, so did club membership. The regattas with other clubs stopped. And moving the dock and boats each season increased the work load.
About fifteen years ago the boat club tried introducing weevils to kill the milfoil clogging the pond. The weevils ate the milfoil, but other weeds sprang up to take their place. Chemical weed killers are out of the question because Ann Arbor gets its drinking water from Barton Pond.
Rubin points out that it is a man-made problem. "Dams are temporary structures. Rivers move matter and sediments; dams stop both." She explains that since it is a man-made problem it can have a man-made solution, like lowering the water again.
If the city did that, though, it would lose money because the dam would generate less electricity. Some years ago, the loss was estimated at about $15,000 a year. The watershed council has tried to broker a deal several times, but the boat club could afford to pay only $2,000, and neither Barton Hills nor Ann Arbor was willing to cover the difference. The village said it was the city's problem, while the city was not interested in spending money to benefit the village.
As sailing got more difficult, the club stuck to its rule about no motorboats but it now allows any kind of human-powered vessel, including kayaks, canoes, and paddleboats. When they race, there is a winner in each category.
At the club's low point last year, membership decreased to twenty-four families, and there was a real concern that it might have to close. But new members have since joined, including Noah Hall, who recently moved to Ann Arbor after spending the last four summers with his children on a houseboat on the Detroit River. Hall was looking for a place to access the Huron, and Rubin suggested the Barton Hills Boat Club. He often thanks her.
Though the sailing isn't what it once was, the setting is as beautiful as ever. Chris Culbertson says he often comes by after work, not to sail, but to wind down.
"I come out here and put my phone down and hear the birds in the trees and the wind," he says. "When I think of home, it's hard not to think of the boat club."
from Calls & Letters, October 2018
To the Observer:
Your August feature of The Barton Hills Boat Club, in "Then and Now," held special memories for us. In June of this year we celebrated our 50th wedding anniversary and it all began at Barton Boat Club! In May of 1967, standing on the dock at Barton, we were introduced by mutual friends who were rigging their boats for the races. Our long chat before the races that day continued and we were married in June of 1968. We continued to sail at the boat club for several years and recently dusted off some of the trophies won in the cruising class of boats. Dan was Commodore of the club in 1973! We met wonderful friends there that remain to this day. Thank you for rekindling such special memories in our history of an important (to us) Ann Arbor landmark!
Barbara & Dan Balbach
[Originally published in August, 2018.]
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