I pulled into the town of St. Joseph in southwestern Michigan on a chilly Wednesday afternoon in January to begin my search at the local Heritage Museum for a small chapter in the life of my great-great-great grandfather: the location of Alexander Voorhees’ early 20th century summer resort camp, Camp Voorhees at Ox Bow Bend on the Old St. Joe. Less than two hours after arriving, I headed south out of town on the rural two-lane River Road using Google maps, and forcing the app to continuously recalculate to the route I sought. I found the spot, as indicated by a caption in a local photo history book, at the end of Ox Bow road, just north of Tabor farm and pulled my car to the side of the road.
The sky was low and gray as I put on winter boots and trekked across a small barren plot of plowed up farmland to a steep slope that descended to the St. Joseph River. The hillside was barren except for a thick blanket of fallen leaves that had no doubt previously clung to the now bare branches of the deciduous trees that spotted the riverbank and for the sticky remains of the dormant underbrush.
I managed my way through the scraggly brush to the river’s edge and stood for a long while listening to the flow of the water and looking out over the dramatic bend in the river known as an Oxbow. This is Ox Bow Bend. It would not be until later that evening while looking through turn of the century plat maps at the local library that I would know for sure where the camp had been located; that it indeed had not been under my feet but across the river on the sharp inner curve of the waterway.
Nothing remains of him here, Alexander Voorhees, my great-great-great grandfather, Civil War veteran, man who lived to be nearly a century old. The land has not recognized him. A few photographs record the time he spent, outside among guests and cabins and modest canvas tents and trees and of course the river. But I have brought something of him back, his genes are in mine. This visit is a discovering and a returning.
I walked along the hillside crunching dry leaves beneath my boots and took many photos of the land and the waterway, now flowing solemn and solitary through the early winter landscape. I recorded the sound of the water rushing through a collection of fallen branches and took a photograph looking down to where I stood on the coverlet of leaves. This is all that could be done here – standing and looking and listening, feeling maybe.
I would like to offer a very sincere thank you to the Heritage Museum and Cultural Center in St. Joseph Michigan for their research assistance and sharing of materials including the historic photograph included here. Thank you also to the St. Joseph City Library for the use of resources in their local history room.