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Stuck on the island…happily

CMU's Biological Station on Beaver Island celebrates its 50th anniversary

Contact: Gary H. Piatek

​By Cynthia Drake, M.A. '08​
Reprinted from 
Centralight, Summer 2016​​​​​​​​​​

​CMU's "northern campus," as some call it, is an island only accessible by plane or boat and sometimes neither, when the weather's nasty.

People still leave the keys in their cars here. The community school is one building for K-12, and fewer than 100 students attend. It's a place where everybody really does know your name.

CMU's Biological Station on Beaver Island celebrates its 50th anniversary this year as an important outpost for university scientific research and summer courses.

The university purchased lakefront property on the island for $1 in 1942. Now it includes a multi-million-dollar academic center with lecture halls and labs and its own 28-foot research vessel named the M/V Chippewa, which moors in the municipal marina.

"I don't know too many computer labs that have a view of Lake Michigan," says Carolyn Works, the university's food services director.

Works, '80, has been there 35 years as a student, employee and a yearlong resident of one of Michigan's most unique, beautiful and unforgiving places.

Carolyn Works"I loved observing nature," Works remembers of her first years on the island 30 miles out from Charlevoix's pristine Lake Michigan shoreline.

"When I came up here for the summer, I brought my sketching stuff and my books to write in. I just love this place. I like the air. Beaver Island's the kind of place that you either love it or you hate it. Or you fall in love with the place and do anything to stay here."

Works, who eventually met her husband, John, on the island, took the third option and happily remained there thanks to her position with CMU.

In addition to the diehard year-round locals and the people who own vacation homes there, every summer brings a crop of college students.

"Every year you see master's candidates up here to work, Ph.D. candidates doing field research. ...It can be a real intellectual atmosphere," says Works.

CMU researchers have studied a host of issues confronting Michigan wildlife there. Some of it hits close to home on Beaver Island, like when CMU teamed up with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to study the growing cormorant population and its effect on local fish.

The university nurtures its relationship with the island and its community, even though the station is five miles from where the locals, live, work and shop.

Works once presented a slideshow to the community of photos she captured as part of a class she took in the 1980s. And each year, the Biological Station hosts a community open house to showcase the research CMU does on water quality and invasive species in the Great Lakes.

Works enjoys living with a foot in both the town and the university, and fostering new connections to the place she's proud to call home. ​

We celebrate the 50th anniversary in 2016, but the story of Central Michigan University’s Beaver Island Biological Station actually began in 1942. In February of that year, Norm Bovee and Charles Anspach worked together to purchase 45 acres on the isolated island in Lake Michigan. Purchase price: $1. Rate of return, invaluable.

CMU erected its first building on Beaver Island in fall 1959 using university funds. The center included a great room, cafeteria and kitchens in addition to men’s and women’s dorms and a garage. In the early years, the new center served as the location of an institute sponsored by the National Science Foundation and offered to biology teachers each summer.

Summer institutes turned into classes, and more building helped to develop CMU’s presence on Beaver Island. Through both physical development and that of curriculum, the biological station became a crucial part of research, education outreach for CMU students. Today, the unique setting of the station provides a wealth of opportunity for scientific research for faculty, students, teachers and visiting researchers. 

Some historic highlights of CMU on Beaver Island include:

1942: Land was purchased, $1 for 45 acres. Norm Bovee and Charles Anspach spearheaded the purchase and joked about who actually gave up their dollar.

1959: CMU built its first building on the island, establishing the Central Michigan University Beaver Island Center. It included a great room, men’s and women’s dorms, cafeteria, kitchens, laundry and garage.

1960: The CMU Beaver Island Center hosted its first first summer academic program.

1964: The first of several National Science Foundation grants is approved to run a Summer Institute for biology teachers.

1966: Matthew Hohn requests and CMU President Judson Foust approves change the name of the growing center to CMU Biological Station on Beaver Island.

1967: CMU students used the island to focus on a range of biology independent study projects, including:

  • Distribution of orchids on Beaver Island
  • Embryological development and behavior of leeches
  • Status of wild turkeys on Beaver Island
  • Transect Study of wood decay and fungi on both coasts of Beaver Island
In total, 39 independent study research projects were completed.

1968: First year the station operated independently of the NSF grants (relied on tuition).

1970: Growing classes caused a shortage in student housing, so men’s and women’s platform tents and showers were constructed across the road from the main building in the campground.

1971: Director Matthew Hohn wrote, in a reflection of his time at Beaver Island, “1971 was the year he saw the true range of potential in the biological station.” Credit and non-credit courses for high school students and a May summer session were added. Many groups outside of CMU’s biology department start utilizing the station.

1980: Student participants from the institutes in the early days of the island are required to submit a field research study, and in 1980 there were approximately 200 different research papers on file at the station. Topics range from entomology and plant and fungi studies to reference guides for fish and bird populations on the island. Twelve Master of Science students have written thesis based on Beaver Island research by this year, including studies on algae, smallmouth bass, grasses and garter snakes.

1983: New buildings included: pole barn/garage with a shop for the vehicles, three new cabins which hold six students each, and added more the next year. Replaced the platform tents in the campground.

1988: The class offerings expanded to include 11 biology courses in a variety of fields. Jim Gillingham’s undergraduate biology research course established CMU as one of the leading institutions to develop courses for undergraduates.

1999: A parcel of land on Beaver Island known as Miller’s Marsh is acquired.

2006: A structure that has been on the island for decades, Whiskey Point boathouse, is acquired by CMU. The former Coast Guard Station had been decommissioned in the 70’s and fallen into disrepair before it was purchased and returned to original appearance. Whiskey Point serves as the gateway to Great Lakes water research at the Biological Station.

2007: The James C. Gillingham Academic Center was completed. The state-of-the-art facility hoses three classrooms, a large lecture hall, library and computer lab. The building replaced labs originally built in 1959, and expanded the capacity of the CMU Biological Station on Beaver Island.

2012: The Biological Station added 12 individually-controlled mesocosm tanks at the Biological Station. This state-of-the-art system is unique to the Great Lakes and allows a wide range of researchers to investigate a multitude of factors. The installation reinforces CMU’s leading research in biological factors affecting the Great Lakes.

2015: The station hosted the 23rd North American Diatom Symposium, an international conference which united researchers from 12 different countries around the world. The bi-annual meeting produced 80 abstracts over its five-day duration, and exposed 90 scientists to CMU’s presence on Beaver Island.

2016: CMU researchers utilize the countless trips across Lake Michigan between the months April of December made by Beaver Island Boat Company’s Emerald Isle ferry. The transit will be critical in the assessment of climate change factors in the Great Lakes as researchers from CMU’s Institute for Great Lakes Research will be collecting key data about the waters with each trip. Read more about data collected by the ferry.

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