Not Just Digging Up Dirt

March 1, 2013 3 comments


Last week, a small but interested audience braved a wintry snowstorm to listen to environmental historian and Great Lakes author, Dave Dempsey, on the value of researching White Lake’s environmental history.  One major point that Dave made is that the research is not all about “digging up dirt.”   He said, “Dirt may be found, but so will heroism.  Both are part of any history.  Reality is complicated.  There are very few unadulterated villains in environmental history.  Much damage was done to the environment by people who didn’t know what they were doing.  And good was done to communities by the same people who were doing so much damage.”

We are finding this to be true.  One of the more recent oral history interviews was of Dexter King, a former manager of the Whitehall Leather Company.  He speaks of how the tannery in its heyday provided 175 local jobs and about half of the tax base for the city of Whitehall.  Dexter recalls how a gymnasium was built, attached to the tannery, and served as a center of many community activities.  There were dinners and family gatherings in the gym.  Both Whitehall and Montague high schools held their basketball games at the tannery’s gym for many years, until they were able to build their own gyms.  Dances were held and bands played.  Dexter recalls one was a nine piece orchestra!  Tannery employees could stop in the gym after work and play informal games of basketball, ping pong or volleyball.  Kids would arrive on the weekend days to play their own athletic games in the community gym.  The Whitehall Leather Company also donated 200 feet of shoreline to the city of Whitehall, to be added to the100 feet donated by the Svensson family, for a city park.

This is the story that our history tells us.  And it’s important to acknowledge. See the video here (scroll down) at the:  White Lake Environmental History website

Your comments?



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Listen to Norm Ullman as he talks about the change in attitude over time in the White Lake area regarding pollution

February 15, 2013 Leave a comment

Read more…

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Listen to the oral history interview of Charles “Chuck” Svensson and Eleanor Carlson

January 30, 2013 5 comments


Finally, we have our first oral history interview posted at our website!  The interview is of Charles “Chuck” Svensson and his sister, Eleanor Carlson. Their family had the White Lake Villa and later on, a campground, adjacent to the Whitehall Leather Tannery.  It’s interesting to listen to the two remember with enthusiasm their childhood fun swimming in White Lake.  They did note, however, that they stayed out of the water when it was “red” from the tannery dyes.  The two also talk about their family’s lawsuit against the tannery – aimed at reducing the odor which they believed affected their business.  They also mentioned how visits to city of Whitehall council meetings ended up getting heated and discussed how it felt to be in the minority in their community over the issue.

The interview is less than 40 minutes long and very interesting.

  • Do you remember the odor from the tannery?
  • Did you ever see the lake turn red?
  • Did you swim in White Lake often as a child?
  • Were you a worker at the tannery and do you have a different viewpoint to share?

Please read more about the White Lake Environmental History project at Restoring White Lake and share your feedback with us!

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One of the first environmental problems on White Lake – logging

December 4, 2012 2 comments


While many of us are familiar with the environmental damage to White Lake caused by the chemical manufacturing era, there was another era that caused considerable damage to White River, the land it encompassed (the watershed) and White Lake.  This was the logging era, 1837 — 1900.

At the height of this era, 16 sawmills ringed White Lake.  Logging drastically changed the White River and White Lake.  Bark and debris sloughed off logs onto the river bottom, causing sedimentation.  Straight channels dug in the coastal marshes to create the log boom area created further problems by decreasing the capacity of the wetlands to reduce nutrient loads, absorb floods, and filter water quality.

See below for a historic photo of the original mouth of the White River, from about 1860 (provided by local history author Dan Yakes).  You can see where the timber has been logged off, as well as the huge number of logs traveling down the river to be shipped across the Great Lakes for a multitude of uses.

To find out more about our logging era, read “Logging the White, The White Lake Lumber Industry, 1837 — 1900” by Yakes, and Steven S. Demos, M.D.  Questions? Your thoughts?

The Mouth of White Lake, ca 1860

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Former tannery subject of heated city council meeting in the 1970s

November 2, 2012 1 comment

Hello there!  We had a successful project kickoff and have numerous events planned for the upcoming months.  Plus, the website is up and fully functioning.

One of our first submissions is an illuminating article from the May 21, 1975 edition of the Montague Observer which describes a fiery meeting of the Whitehall City Council.  The Svensson family had owned the White Lake Villa and Jeanette and Charles Jr. who attended the meeting had built the Windy Cove Campground south of the Whitehall Leather Company.  The couple took the council to task for allowing the tannery a delay in addressing a persistent stench from the tannery’s waste lagoons and in completing a connection to the new county wastewater facility.

The meeting erupted in a heated exchange between council members. Then mayor Richard Cogswell said he accepted the smell as part of the industry’s operations.  Council member Harry Pillinger yelled that he was with the Svensson family and was instructed to keep his voice down.  Read the entire article here and then come back to the blog and provide your feedback.

Is this an issue you are familiar with? If so, let us know your perspective.  What do you think about the Council meeting?

Whitehall Leather Company
Photo credit: Jerry Grady

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Welcome to the White Lake Environmental History Blog!

September 28, 2012 5 comments

Thank you for stopping by! This is a blog for the White Lake Environmental History Project!

I am ready to begin a dialogue on topics of community interest and I welcome your comments.

What is on your mind about White Lake’s environmental history? What questions do you have?  What issue or topic interests you the most?  What would you like to know?