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Can you get into the Huron Mountain Club? No. Here are 13 things we learned about it.

Oct 3, 2017

Well... it's not an absolute "no."

It's more of a "probably not," given what we've learned about the Huron Mountain Club in reporting this story.

We'll get to the downright practical ways you might get into the club below. In the meantime, we'll just say it doesn't hurt your chances if you’re Channing Tatum, or related to Henry Ford (and even Ford had trouble getting in).

So why are we even bothering looking into this question?

Well, it all started when Elizabeth Lindau posed this question to our MI Curious project:

"Can I get into the Huron Mountain Club?"

If you know anything about the club, you know it's kind of a silly question. The answer would be a simple "not unless you're rich and have some strong connections with other wealthy people."

But Lindau thought there might be some other ways to get in.

“You know, ‘Can I get in?’ could mean either, ‘can I get in as a guest of a member?’ It can mean, ‘can I get in under the radar?’ It could mean, ‘can I get in, like, I mean finances notwithstanding, could I actually become a member of the Mountain Club?’ So I thought I would ask it in an open-ended way to explore any and all of those questions,” said Lindau.

We started off by reaching out to current club members and to folks who have connections to the club. But those conversations quickly stalled, so finding an answer to Lindau’s question took some time.

Some context:

The Huron Mountain Club is a massive tract of privately-owned land northwest of Marquette, in the Upper Peninsula. Lindau says years ago, on vacation, she and her husband drove down a little two-lane road, up to the gate, where there were two guards.

It looked like this:

Gate at the edge of the Huron Mountain Club's property.
Credit Elizabeth Lindau

"We wanted the courage to get out and talk to them and say 'hello' and like, 'hey, mind if we just drive through,' which I’m sure the answer is clearly no," Lindau said. "But we were too scared and we just waved and turned around and we drove away."

Why is this place so fascinating to some people?

Before we answer Lindau’s question, she should know she’s not alone in her curiosity.

Randy Annala is the father of one of my (Kaye's) best friends. He’s lived about 30 miles south of the Huron Mountain Club for his entire life. He still remembers the first time he heard about the club as a kid, from his Uncle Dean.

No trespassing signs are posted around the property grounds.
Credit Elizabeth Lindau

“He started describing it to us, and that rich families belonged, and it was private, and it was exclusive,” he said.

The club was created in 1889 by John Longyear. He started it as a simple "shooting and fishing club," and had to work to drum up enough memberships to run the place.

Today, it's more than 20,000 acres -- that’s equal to about eight Mackinac Islands. The club has 50 “regular members,” who own cabins, and some number of associate members.

Annala says he and a childhood friend got a little bit obsessed.

"We had heard legends about these gigantic waterfalls and caves and deep spring-fed lakes and fish that were in those lakes that had been there since the beginning of time," he said.

Finally, as teenagers, they made an attempt to sneak in. It was the summer of 1980.

"We had all these scary signs wondering what in heaven's name might happen to us if we get caught."

"Well, on the back road then when we got there, lo and behold there was this blasted big gate that had all these warning signs, 'Warning: Huron Mountain Club'," he said. "We had all these scary signs wondering what in heaven's name might happen to us if we get caught. So, as 17-year-old boys, we lost our nerve."

Mum's the word

A lot of the club’s mystery comes from its notorious reluctance to talk to the press.

No members or employees would agree to talk to us about the club. It seems like the first rule of the Huron Mountain Club, is: don’t talk about the Huron Mountain Club.

Eventually, we found the guy who wrote the book about the Huron Mountain Club.

Author Archer Mayor was hired by the members to write a history about the club to celebrate its 100th anniversary in 1989.

Today Mayor's book is out of print. We found one copy at the University of Michigan's Bentley Historical Library.

Mayor still remembers the history he wrote quite well. We'll get to that.

But, back to Lindau’s question. How do you get in? There are several ways:

  1. Be wealthy and wait for a membership spot to open up (only 50 full members are allowed). Then, have the good fortune of being voted in as a member by the other members.
  2. Join as an "associate member" - a member who has access to the club, but has no voting rights, or rights to land ownership. We are unclear on how these types of memberships are doled out.
  3. The club offers its land for ecological research -- so you could get in as a researcher helping to understand and preserve the land.
  4. You could get a job there and work for the Huron Mountain Club.
  5. Simple. Get an invite.

Archer Mayor spent one winter at the club doing research for the book, so he got in as an invited employee, and a guest, which he says is the key.

"This is actually a whole lot simpler than it seems," said Mayor. "If someone wants to have dinner at my house, they make a phone call, and they say, ‘Hey, I happen to be really good friends with your friend Bubba...and ‘Oh, well, any friend of Bubba is a friend of mine, come on over.’"

If any club members are reading this -- we know two people named Elizabeth and Randy who would love to come for dinner!

13 things we learned about the Huron Mountain Club

In the reporting process, we uncovered a lot of other information about the club.

Because no members of the club would talk to us, this information is all sourced from other news articles, the club's tax returns, plat maps, excerpts from the now out-of-print book The Huron Mountain Club: The first 100 years, and a very gracious interview given by its author, Archer Mayor (who we should mention has also written a best-selling 28-book series of crime novels).

So, without further ado, here are 13 things we know about the Huron Mountain Club:

1. They own a TON of land.

According to our data (circa 2006 plat maps of Marquette County), the club owns 18,621 acres of land, plus 1,905 acres of lakes that are completely surrounded by club land, which is more than 20,000 acres in total (the equivalent of eight Mackinac Islands). Member cabins, along with a clubhouse and support buildings, are clustered at the mouth of the Pine River on Lake Superior. The club has definitely purchased more land in the last 10 years.

2. They will NOT talk to the press.

We went into this story knowing this about the club, but still made a lot of attempts to get an exception -- to no avail. We separately contacted multiple members of the club, as well as the club's arborist (he is listed on tax documents as their registered agent).

They won't do it.

3. The club's founder envisioned it as a money-making venture.

The club was started in 1889 by John Longyear (also the founder of a large forestry business) as a “shooting and fishing club”, and, basically, as a moneymaking operation. He was going to charge to bring people to the club on his boat.

But as Mayor points out, the Club has come a long way from that vision, and is really a money-losing venture for the families who run it.

"If anyone thinks that the Huron Mountain Club is making money, they need to get back to school and take another finance course. The money the Huron Mountain Club has eaten up of its devoted members is extraordinary."

4. The roaring twenties were the years of excess.

Conditions at the club were rough at first, but cabins and amenities were instituted quickly. Mayor told us that the 1920’s were the height of the club’s ritziness.

"You had chauffeurs, you had maids, you had butlers, you had chambermaids, you had people tending to livestock, you had waiters and waitresses, you had chefs. The list just went on and on, all people catering to the visitors."

He also told us that some of the cabins are quite large.

"One of them was Henry Ford's and it's big enough to put two of my houses [in it], but they're called cabins nevertheless."

5. Henry Ford had to work to get in.

He had a hard time joining, likely because club members feared the publicity his name would bring. From Mayor's book:

"He was both a fascination and an embarrassment, and something about him cut rather close to home with many of the members. As one of them recalled, 'he was sort of a caricature of what everybody else was.'"

There is no hard proof on what finally made him successful, but there are interesting circumstances. A road, route M-35, was being constructed and was supposed to head right through club property. The members were not happy about this. In 1927, Henry Ford bought land that essentially stopped road construction in its tracks. In 1929, he was a member.

6. Dinner was a formal affair (and might still be).

Club members continued with the tradition of dress-up dinner at the clubhouse until at least 1986, when Mayor was working on the book.

"There was a rule that was still existent when I was doing my research; I have no idea if it's still alive, but you had to dress semi-formally, coat and tie for gentlemen, dresses for the ladies, you had to be so accoutred when you came to dinner each and every night. No exceptions. So, dinner was not something where gentlemen could even take off their jackets if it was stifling hot, and it was stiflingly hot because there was no air conditioning in the early days."

7. No phones allowed.

Mayor stayed at the club during the winter of 1986, and recalls that he had to drive to the edge of the property to make a phone call.

"You had to travel almost to Big Bay, and there was a little cabin with a phone on a table. You would travel out there many a mile through dirt road[s], and if you were a member of the club and you had to call your office or home or something like that, that's how you had to do it. Now, that was before cell phones. I heard, after I had finished my contract with the club, I heard through the grapevine that they had at that point passed a rule that you could not operate a cell phone from the club. Now, 30 years later, I have no idea what the rules and regs are, but they were very protective of introducing the modern world into their environment."

8. Membership is limited.

There are two types of members: Regular members and associate members.

There are 50 regular members who have voting rights, own cabins and share equally in ownership of the property. There is a cap of 50 regular members.

Associate members have no voting rights and no rights in the distribution of the organization's assets in the event of its dissolution. We don't have up-to-date information on the number of associate members, but Mayor gave us some info in an e-mail:

"Since I haven’t been in touch with the Club for so many years, I would hesitate to affirm that the numbers are still the same. Could be; probably aren't. To quote the book: “…by 1985, [the numbers] were fifty [Regular Members], one hundred and nine [Associate Members,] and twelve Senior Associate Members.

I should add that at one point, there was also a “Provisional Member” category, and no “Seniors." The reason for all this, of course, is and was money—how to pay for all this? Adding sub-categories of non-voting and non-cabin-owning members helped the bottom line somewhat, but—again as the book points out—the heaviest financial burden falls and has always fallen on the fifty full members."

9. The club is expensive to run, and the dues match.

According to tax documents, members paid $1,803,055 in dues in 2015. We don't know exactly how this is split up among members, but as Mayor states above, the largest burden is on the 50 "regular members."

10. The club is more about conservation these days.

The club's interests have shifted over the years, toward conservation of its pristine wilderness. Aldo Leopold was enlisted to help the club with land and wildlife management, and in 1938, he published a "Report on Huron Mountain Club."

Today, a separate organization, the Huron Mountain Wildlife Foundation, facilitates ecological research on the club property. As the club evolved, says Mayor, so did the motivation of its members.

"I met a bunch of people who really see the club not as "something to do on the weekend," but as a cause. And I think that explains in large part how the club has been able to survive for as long as it has, because these people are, and I think quite rightfully, devoted to something they have really created of their own."

11. Club membership has become something of a family responsibility.

Mayor told us,"This is something that you inherit, along with other aspects of family pride and dynasty, and so I think as the older generation of the Huron Mountain Club people go forth and age out, there's a serious discussion to the next generation saying, 'look, here's the membership to the Huron Mountain Club – don't take it lightly. This is serious stuff. And, they have supported it seriously as a result. It's an interesting thing to witness."

12. Their relationship with locals in the U.P. is complicated.

Public access to the Salmon Trout River has been a contentious issue with area fishermen, who've accused the club's guards of harassment.

However, the club also allied with the neighboring Keweenaw Bay Indian Community and conservation groups to fight a local sulfide mine. This left an impression on Randy Annala, who's lived in the area for his entire life:

“I know the members spent money and hired lawyers and the Huron Mountain Club fought tooth and nail to keep the Eagle Mine out, and I think that satisfied a lot of the outdoorsmen, like me and other outdoorsmen and fishermen and stuff like that, who saw that they were on our side," said Annala.

The club also contributes to the local economy -- tax returns list the number of employees at 79 as of 2015, and at least one former employee has gone on the record with fond memories of the place.

13. Today, the club is comparatively un-fancy.

Mayor gave us this description of what summers at the club are like today:

 

"So, when you go to the Huron Club now as a member or as a guest, you'll find that these are just folks that are up there in their summer place, and they drive up there or whatever, and they spend time on the water kayaking or canoeing or whatever and wandering around and maybe doing a lot of fishing, and they enjoy each others' company and then they go home at the end of the summer. There's no excess; there are no hot and cold running servants like there used to be. The place is considerably pared down from its excessive glory years of the roaring 20's. So, I hasten to add that one shouldn't imagine that this is some clownish group of billionaires, self-indulging themselves in playing crap tables at night."
 

You can hear more of our conversation with Archer Mayor here, and you can listen to more of Randy Annala's story about trying to get into the club here