Northern Michigan People: Charlton Heston's Northwoods Boyhood

Northern Michigan People: The iconic film star Charlton Heston forged a lifelong bond with Northern Michigan during young days of hunting, fishing and acting out the books he read during long hours of solitude.

The guy who parted the Red Sea on the silver screen was trying to clear his drainpipe. Charlton Heston—fresh from his star-making performance as Moses in The Ten Commandments—feared that one of his son’s diapers had clogged the sewer. It was January 2, 1957, and Heston had returned to his Northern Michigan boyhood home of St. Helen for the holidays. He wanted to be around family, read a few scripts, and relax in the hometown that he had left but never had stopped loving.

The diaper crisis forced him to take drastic action. “My various loafing projects had to be put aside while I helped dig up the sewer line,” he wrote in his journal. “Since the ground is frozen more than a foot down, this is no idle task.” Despite his best efforts with a pick, the pipes remained blocked. For temporary relief, Heston trekked to his family’s hunting cabin about five miles west of town. “I did manage to resurrect from the bat guano in the attic up at the lodge an ancient but intact chamber pot, which works the way they always did,” he wrote. The diaper finally loosed itself the next day, with the help of a plumber’s snake purchased in West Branch. Yet even Heston, who would go on to play epic movie heroes such as Ben-Hur and El Cid, had to make two trips to the hardware store before he had a snake of the right size.

By the time Heston died in 2008, he had become one of America’s great leading men, known for his chiseled good looks, resonant voice, and ability to play everything from the title character of Macbeth on the Shakespearian stage to the astronaut George Taylor in Planet of the Apes. He won an Academy Award for Best Actor (as Judah Ben-Hur), served as president of the Screen Actors Guild, and lent his fame to political causes. In 1963, Heston joined the March on Washington and stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial as Martin Luther King Jr. announced, “I have a dream.” A generation later, he served as president of the National Rifle Association. In 2003, President George W. Bush awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

A Boy from Up North

Although Heston spent most of his life in Hollywood and its environs, the actor always thought of himself as a boy from Up North. “My first recollection is digging in the sandy Michigan earth with a red toy shovel,” he wrote in his 1995 memoir, In the Arena. “I also remember picking up kindling for the kitchen stove from the backyard, and feeling the sharp edges of the split quarters of pine against my arms, though I was surely too young then to have chopped them, as I did later.” He lived his first 10 years in St. Helen, just east of Houghton Lake—and he never forgot it. “The Northern Michigan of my boyhood is still in my blood,” he wrote in a 2000 book, The Courage To Be Free. “Where else but in America could a lanky country kid named Charlton sprout in the anonymity of the Michigan northwoods and forge a life that makes a difference?”

He was actually born just north of Chicago, on October 4, 1923, and nobody knew him as either Charlton or Heston. Those names would come later. On the day he arrived in the world, he was John Charles Carter, the first and only child of Russell Whitford Carter and Lilla Charlton. When their son was just a few months old, they left Illinois and moved to Russell’s native St. Helen, so the family breadwinner could take a job in a sawmill. They lived mainly on a hill in a home known as the Carter Mansion.

The two-story house was no mansion by modern standards, but it was large for its place and time. Russell’s father, John Carter (the grandfather of Charlton Heston), had enjoyed a successful career as a real estate developer and entrepreneur who founded a magazine called Carter’s Weekly, which he sold to a company that turned it into Redbook, the women’s monthly that’s still in print. In 1902, Carter bought 144,000 acres in the eastern part of Roscommon County. The lumber industry had come and gone, and Carter sensed an opportunity to sell parcels of a denuded wilderness. He opened a sales office in Chicago and offered 40 acres of farmland for $1,000. When Russell retuned to St. Helen with his wife and infant son in the 1920s, the family was well to do but not wealthy.

“It was a marvelous childhood,” said Heston. “The forests of Michigan were a wonderful place for a boy to grow up, even though it was a bit lonely.” He attended a one-room school in a building that has been moved from its original location and now stands shuttered and dilapidated along St. Helen Road. At one point, it had 13 students spread across eight grades. Three of Heston’s classmates were his cousins. One was Marion Foehr, who remains a part-time resident of St. Helen. “It seemed like he wanted to act, even at that age,” she recalls. “He always wanted to perform.”

Playing Pretend

Yet the budding entertainer usually lacked both audience and co-actors. “There weren’t any kids my age I could play with,” said Heston. “I was simply left to my own devices most of the time. I used to read books, and then I went outside to act out the stories—just me, playing all the parts. 

“If anything, that’s what probably got me started in acting. For a young boy, acting is a pretend game. I pretended I was the characters of all the books I read, and no doubt it planted the seeds of my career.” One of his favorite books was Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson, and Heston imagined himself as the pirate Long John Silver (a role that he would reprise in a 1990 movie). He also imagined himself in the far reaches of the Yukon, deploying his dog Lobo, a big German shepherd, to pull him on a sled, like a scene from Jack London’s The Call of the Wild. One time, his little school put on a Christmas play. “I was Santa Claus, which turned out be to a one-line bit. I spent the evening crouching in a cardboard fireplace, so I could come out at the end and say, ‘Merry Christmas!’ ” It was his first public performance.

These early experiences in Northern Michigan not only created a sentimental bond to the region, but also shaped Heston’s career. “Dad was good at a lot of things of a practical nature,” says his son, Fraser, a filmmaker in California. “He came from an outdoor tradition, knowing how to use firearms, paddle canoes, and wield axes. He was good with physical feats, and it carried over to the movies. He looked like he’d grown up doing this stuff, which of course he had.”

He also grew up with firearms. “There were deer in those Michigan woods, and we hunted them as much for meat as for sport at a time when money was scarce and beef was scarcer,” he once wrote. The gun, he said, was “a standard implement of rural life.” Later on, for him, it became a symbol of American freedom. During a speech as president of the NRA in 2000, he raised a musket over his head and delivered a stark message to those he saw as trying to restrict the Second Amendment: “From my cold, dead hands.”

The young Heston eventually recognized that his child’s play could become a grown-up vocation. “I realized that my youthful game of pretend was actually something adults did too, on stage.” But it wouldn’t happen in Michigan. When he was 10—“in the midst of what I recall as an idyllically happy boyhood”—his parents divorced. Heston moved away with his mother. “It was a traumatic moment, and it affected him for the rest of his life,” says his daughter, Holly Heston Rochell, who lives in Manhattan. “He was always nostalgic about Michigan, which represented so many good things—the freedom to roam the woods, the safety and security of a stable family. I think that’s why he never let go of the family property.”

In the City

His mother married Chet Heston, providing her son with a new surname. They eventually settled near Chicago. The country boy struggled to adapt. “I was very unhappy,” he said. “It was so remote in Michigan that when I first returned to the city I remember actually being scared to death of the automobile traffic and the noise and everything else that goes with a big city.” It didn’t help that on his first day of school in Illinois, his teacher referred to him as “Charlotte Heston.”

Yet the city had at least one advantage over the forests: movie theaters. Heston fell in love with films, admiring popular actors like Gary Cooper and Errol Flynn. In high school, he took drama classes and performed on the amateur stage. In 1941, he received a drama scholarship to attend Northwestern University, where he met Lydia Clarke, the woman who became his wife. The Second World War interrupted his education. Heston served in the Army Air Corps. When the fighting ended, he decided not to go back to college. Instead, he launched what would become one of the most successful careers in the history of acting.

By the 1950s, Heston had become a film star—and he returned to St. Helen whenever his hectic schedule would allow. “I know you can’t go home again, but I wonder why you can’t help trying?” he wrote in his journal in 1956, near the end of a two-week visit. He liked to tramp through the woods, especially on the property he owned west of town, 1,300 acres that included a small hunting lodge and encompassed the mucky but picturesque Russell Lake. “I wonder how long I’d have to spend here to get really tired of it,” he wrote in 1961. The next year, he arrived in St. Helen in a snowfall, shortly before Christmas. “The lodge at Russell Lake still waits unchanged, unchangeable in the woods, silent against the end of the world.” A few years later, he continued to feel the attraction of Up North. “One of the pleasures of being here is that you don’t feel bored with little to do.”

Trips to Michigan weren’t all play and no work. Heston often used the time to plot career moves. On the day he unclogged his drain in 1957, he stopped by the St. Helen post office, which was in the back of a general store. A script awaited him. Heston began to read it that night, but fell asleep, tired from the day’s plumbing duties. He finished it the next morning, phoned the studio, and learned that Orson Welles had been cast as the villain. “Why don’t you ask him to direct, too?” asked Heston. Within a few days, Welles had the job—and Heston, still in Michigan, had a long talk with him about the project. Heston went on to star in Touch of Evil, which came out the next year and today is regarded as a film-noir classic, as well as one of the highlights in the career of Welles.

Memories in Northern Michigan

The sojourns in St. Helen were also family affairs, with Heston seeing his extended relations. “He was such a big guy,” says Nancy Fultz, the daughter of Marion Foehr. “As a little kid, I would look up at him and just go, ‘Wow.’ ” Nancy’s brother, Rick Foehr, recalls a winter escapade. “He once tied a toboggan to the back of his car and took us for a ride. We were covered in snow, and he laughed at how we looked.” 

Nancy’s husband, Dave Fultz, remembers Heston’s distinctive speech. “He was so articulate, enunciating and using proper English. He never said ‘yeah.’ It was always ‘yes.’ ” Dave—whose tie to Heston is by marriage rather than blood—makes an additional observation, referencing the original family name. “All of the Carters have big noses.”

Heston’s two children recall outdoor adventures in and around St. Helen. “I remember sledding on the hill in town—the same one he scooted down as a kid—and walking through the woods to see the Russell Lake property,” says son Fraser. “Dad took me hunting when I was about 10. We shot rabbits with a .22. It was an iconic visit for me, doing what he did as a boy.” Heston had a fatherly motive, judging from what he wrote in 2000. “It was in the woods of Michigan where I learned that boys are more than blank hard drives ready for programming by MTV and video games. They are men in the making. And as far as I am concerned, hunting is one of the most beneficial means of helping a boy make a transition to responsible manhood.”

Daughter Holly remembers a 1974 trip when she was 13. “We drove out to the cabin by the lake. It was just the two of us. It had rained, everything was muddy, and our car got stuck. Dad found some two-by-fours and put them under the tires. He pushed and I drove. That was my first time behind the wheel.”

One of the great Heston family traditions involved Christmas trees. As a boy, Heston would search for a tree with his father. “A proper Christmas tree is cut from the top 10 feet or so of a mature, 40-foot pine, the top being the newest growth, full of sap that holds the needles longer,” he wrote. As a man with his own family in California, Heston would have a tree shipped from the property in St. Helen. “A caretaker would cut it, wrap it in burlap, and put it on a train,” says Fraser. “It was our little extravagance.” They kept it in a fountain on the patio and brought it into the house only on Christmas Eve, keeping a ritual from Heston’s youth. “This was one of his ways of staying connected to his past, of keeping some semblance of Michigan in his life,” Holly says.

Heston tried to preserve his Michigan roots in other ways as well. As a boy, he remembered visiting the Wenonah Hotel in Bay City, said to be the most opulent hotel between Detroit and Mackinac Island. The floor of its lobby featured a 4-by-6-foot tile mosaic of Wenonah, the mother of Hiawatha, the legendary Ojibwe hero. After the building burned down in 1977, the mosaic spent a couple of winters outside, in a Pinconning cow pasture. When Heston learned of its plight, he mailed a $100 check for its perseveration, calling attention to a little-known cause. Today, the rescued mosaic is on display in the Historical Museum of Bay County.

Following Heston’s death, his children sold the property near Russell Lake. A section that included the hunting lodge went to Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources, which promptly tore down the structure. All that remains in a large rectangular clearing is scattered debris and a PVC pipe that spews cold water from an artesian well. In town, the Carter Mansion is gone as well, a victim of fire several years ago. Only its crumbling foundation survives. As St. Helen’s old connections to Heston have started to vanish, however, a new one has appeared. The Charlton Heston Academy, a K–8 charter school, opened its doors for the first time in September, paying tribute to the boy from Up North who became one of the world’s best-known people. 

This article and additional photos are also available in the November issue of Traverse Magazine. Subscribe now!

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