Smelt: The fish that made Beulah famous
Over 100 years ago, a tiny fish put a small Benzie County town on the map.
These days, Beulah is mostly a summer destination. But through the 1920s and 30s, an annual smelt festival meant April was peak season.
Local historian Jerry Heiman will present on this unique chapter in local history Thursday at 4 p.m. at the Mills Community House in Benzonia.
“It was just a carnival atmosphere, with people walking around all night long and watching the mayhem in the creek,” said Heiman.
That “mayhem” happened twice per night, when lights strung over Cold Creek flicked on and thousands of people scrambled for a chance to swing their nets through the tiny tributary to Crystal Lake, home to the first Atlantic smelt population in the Great Lakes region.
In 1937, the festival drew 11,000 people to downtown Beulah, and more than 50 tons of smelt were caught in just one weekend.
“Cars everywhere, streets blocked. I mean, it was so many people that half of them couldn’t even get near the creek,” Heiman said. “They had a state police detachment called the smelt patrol that came up to keep order and stop any fights or rowdy drunkenness.”
The event gained statewide recognition, and was even attended by Michigan’s governor for several years.
Heiman said Beulah’s last recorded smelt festival took place in 1954.
Want more news from northern Michigan? Subscribe to the IPR newsletters!