Topinabee History

Founded in 1881 and 1882, the community of Topinabee was named after the Potawatomi chief Topenebee, who primarily resided in southwestern Michigan. The name Topinabee means "he who sits quietly." The Potawatomi Chief Topinabee (or Topenebee) was chief of the St. Joseph and Elkhart tribes sometime between 1783 and 1826, during the United States treaty period. Another younger Potawatomi tribe chief by the same name was later chief of the St. Joseph River tribe sometime between 1830 and 1840, during the American Removal Period.

Beth Chamberlains Memories of Topinabee in the 1920’s

The Chamberlain family were long time residents of Topinabee and Beth reminisces about her memories of the early years in Topinabee.  Available online from:

Part 1 - The Railroad

The Michigan Central Railroad, a branch of the New York Central, ran from Detroit to Mackinaw City and had depots all along the way. Our Topinabee depot had a large area of land with it which went at least two blocks along the tracks. There was more land one-half mile south where the Section Master’s home was located. It was on the lake side next to the railroad. There was a siding from there up to the depot where they would take off the freight trains for the passenger trains to pass. When I was small the depot was open all year. About the time I turned 6 or 7 we had only a summer Station Agent. The depot was a large building painted greenish beige with a dark green trim. It had a well house at one end of the platform and an artisan well at the other side where many people in town got their drinking water. The railroad station itself had a baggage room on the south end. The next room north was the waiting room with the old fashioned benches with iron dividers. There was a pot belly stove in there and the ticket agent’s window was on the north side of the room. There were two doors on it - one on the front and one on the back. The ticket agent had a fair sized room in the middle. He had a telegraph connection there for sending telegrams and keeping track of the trains. The local people could send and receive telegrams there.

The north end of the building was an empty large room, approximately the size of the waiting room and when the summer agent was there he usually lived in that section. There was no plumbing in the building. They would have to use the outhouse at the south end of the platform. One summer the agent brought his whole family with him because there was an epidemic of polio down in Detroit. So there were about 6 people living in that room. They had it divided by putting up ropes and hanging sheets between sections.

There was a well house at the south end of the platform. The Station Agent filled 5 gallon carboys and loaded them on a freight car on the siding. The water was used throughout the New York Central System. There used to be a water bottling company called Sanitis Spring. We as kids used the station to play Ante-1-Over and it didn‘t seem to bother the Station Agent much.

On the north side of the station platform was a park with a garden which was landscaped every year by the railroad gardeners. The garden is still there. It has a circle in the center and it was squared off with cement posts and pipes and the kids in the village used it to tumble around on the pipes. There was another section of the park that had a baseball diamond and in the spring everybody played - the adults as well as the kids. Mr. Kennedy, the owner of the other store in Topinabee, organized the games and everybody wanted to be on his team.

On the very north end of town was a grove of beech trees and every summer there was an oriole family living there. It was the only time I’d seen the hanging oriole nest. They came every summer for years. I suppose it got too congested with cars and they left.
Close to the south end of the siding there was a large scale near the Mail Route Road where the railroad would put off the coal cars. Clem Connors, a local contractor, would come down and put his truck on the scale and weigh the amount of coal someone had ordered and then he delivered it. My father ordered the coal every year from the Hopkins coal mine in Ohio. The Hopkins had the cottage on the beach between the Ashman and the Bindley cottages which is presently owned by the McPhersons.

The railroad owned the beach in front of the park. It included a large, permanent picnic table where my mother would serve Sunday picnic dinner in the summertime quite frequently - much to my father’s disgust but it didn’t stop her. The beach was public and anyone could use it. Directly in front of the station on the lake side of the tracks was a dance hall and the Vorce family ran it for some time but eventually it was taken over by the hotel and a live band would come every summer to the hotel and play Wednesday and Saturday nights. All the kids would sit on the bank of the railroad bed and we could look through the windows and watch everybody dance and listen to the music. Our folks would let us stay up until the night train came on those nights.

Topinabee in the 1980’s but it was there a long time. There was a dock next to the willow tree. One summer we sat on that dock at night and watched a huge forest fire in Presque Isle County. It was a tremendous fire which closed the roads and burned for about a month. On the north beach we didn’t usually swim because it was a clay bed but we used to take the clay out of the lake and use it for modeling.

For most of the 1920’s there were four passenger trains a day serving Topinabee- two going north and two going south. The morning train was met by everybody that was up. It brought in the papers from Detroit and the mail for the day. It arrived around 7-7:30 AM and you would hear it whistle when it went around Grandview Beach and that was the signal for everyone to run down to the station. The noon train, southbound, was the one we took when we went to the doctor in Wolverine or to the dentist in Gaylord. The second northbound train brought us home around 4 PM so we weren’t gone the entire day. Most people didn’t have cars in those days and traveled on the train. The night train left between 11and 11:30 and most people going to Detroit took it and slept. It had a couple of Pullman cars on it for the resorters in the summertime. The railroad also ran excursion trains on Friday nights north and Sunday nights south. A lot of families stayed for the summer and the fathers came up Fridays and went down on Sundays. They ran the excursion trains even after the other passenger trains had stopped running. There were also two regular freights a day -one north and one south - and often there were extra freights and that’s when the siding got used the most.

The passenger trains stopped running many years ago as people used the improved highways to come and go. The freights held on until the 1990’s when they were discontinued and the steel rails were pulled up to make room for the trail that now runs on the old railroad right of way.

Part 2 - Topinabee’s Founding and the Chamberlin Store

In the 1880s Henry H. Pike purchased a section of land in Cheboygan County. It was a gamble. He platted it, at least the west side that bordered Mullett Lake, and built Pike’s Tavern. Someone else built a resort hotel on the east side of the lake. Both men were gambling on the proposed railroad going to the Straits of Mackinaw going on their side of the lake. Pike won and Topinabee exists because of the railroad. Over the years there were 2 Pike’s Taverns and later 2 Topinabee Hotels. All burned down and all were rebuilt except the last Hotel Topinabee which burned down in the early 1960s.

My father, Ernest C. Chamberlin, purchased the store and house in Topinabee in 1916 from the Turners who had handled general merchandise. Turner appeared, from the records, also to be a druggist. My father did not continue in that field. Papa ran a typical country general store trying to supply all the necessary things needed by farmers and the resort community. Grocery selections were not what they are today. We had coffee and tea, probably not more than 2 or 3 brands; canned vegetables were creamed corn, green beans, yellow beans, pork and beans, spinach, peas and white asparagus. Fish was tuna, red and pink salmon, and mackerel, salted cod fish came in boxes in December. Campbell’s soups had few varieties - tomato, chicken noodle, veg-beef, but not much else. We had canned milk, baking powder, soda, and a few spices - ginger, nutmeg, and cinnamon. We had vinegar, catsup, mustard and salad dressings came much later. The smallest size flour sack was 25#. Sugar came in 100# sacks and Dad opened them and poured it into the sugar barrel where we scooped out the desired amount at 6 cents a pound. We sold butter, lard and cotasuet (cottonseed fat), the latter 2 came in by wooden pails and were dished out into boats (containers). When oleo came into being, it was white with a dye sold with it and the buyers had to do their own coloring. Soda crackers came in bulk. We sold ham, bacon and hot dogs and summer sausage. Cookies came in bulk and were picked out by the customer. No, we didn’t have gloves. We had fresh fruit in season.

In the dry goods department we sold bib overalls - just the pants alone had not come into style yet for the farmers. We sold union suits - one piece winter underwear for men, women and kids. Summer underwear was one-piece BVDs for all. We sold men’s socks - dress and heavy wool for winter. Also we sold ladies silk hose, kids long stockings, red and black wool men’s shirts, bandanas, ladies handkerchiefs, yard goods for dresses and aprons, and thread of all the colors in the rainbow, as well as embroidery floss.

We carried the most necessary drug store items like iodine, mercurochrome and Vaseline, aspirin, cough drops and syrup, cotton balls, bandages, rubbing alcohol, ungentine for burns and boric acid.
Laundry supplies and regular soaps were available: P&G soap, Ivory and Oxydol. Fels Naptha was a good bar soap for laundry and excellent to use after you had been through a patch of poison ivy. Washing soda was used by most house wives probably because we had such hard water.

We sold the Detroit Free Press and Detroit Times (Kennedy’s sold the Detroit News) and the daily was 3 cents, Sundays 10 cents. Magazines of the day included Liberty, Colliers, Saturday Evening Post, Ladies Home Journal, Good House Keeping, True Story and western stories.

As a typical country store we also sold hardware, dry goods, grains, coal and the few available over-the-counter drugs.

One winter there was ice on the storage room roof- the north side of the store. My father thought he had to get up early the next morning to get the ice off the roof. As it turned out he didn’t have to as the house next door burned down and the ice - 4-5 inches of it - saved his store. It was Mr. Bonsecours’ house and he never rebuilt and father bought the lot.

About The Author

Beth Chamberlin was named Margaret B. Chamberlin at her birth in 1919 as the 7th child and 6th girl born to Ernest C. and Grace Chamberlin. The Chamberlin family moved to Topinabee in 1912 from Mackinac City. Ernest operated a country store in Topinabee---The Chamberlin General Store--until his death in 1942.

Beth grew up in Topinabee and attended the one room Mullett Township school house before going to high school in Cheboygan. She graduated from Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo in 1941. Returning to Topinabee she taught at the Wolverine School for one year before going to Ferndale to work in a war plant for one year. This was followed by a three year stint in the Marine Corps. Beth returned to Topinabee in 1984 at 75 years of age to care for her two oldest sisters Florence and Fern and has remained in the village ever since. In between she was employed by the University of Michigan medical school and, after retirement, lived for 15 years in Arizona.

Beth’s Memories of Topinabee in the 20’s were tape recorded in the summer of 2008 by Babs Naylor who transcribed the history into several installments.

This being the first of a series, for appearance in MAPS Newsletters. Beth gave her permission to Babs Naylor for the publication by MAPS of her memoir.

If you have new or updated information about the History of Topinabee, please submit content to us for addition to this category.

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