The famous Harbor Springs inventor Ephraim Shay was more commonly known throughout the community as Grandfather Shay …
The year is 1914. A gentleman with a fuzzy white beard is hunched over his workbench, scraps of wood from previous creations scattered about. Ephraim Shay’s wife had passed away, work was slowing down and he needed a project.
Inspiration struck. Over the next two winters, Ephraim built more than 400 sleds for the children of Harbor Springs, so no one was left without a present under the tree. If it was on a child’s Christmas list, it would be made.
The sleds, what Ephraim called a “pair of bobs,” were about three feet long, some painted red and green, some with metal runners and some engraved with the name of the recipient, the maker and the year.
A machine shop on Bay Street in Harbor Springs is where Ephraim, who held many job titles over the years—teacher, Union Army clerk during the Civil War, sawmill proprietor—worked on the sleds and numerous inventions. Famous for designing the Shay geared locomotive, Ephraim also created Harbor Springs’ first waterworks system, often referred to as the soul of the town.
Harbor Springs began its annual tree lighting tradition the next winter, in 1915. The whole town gathered on Main Street to celebrate the holiday season with cocoa, carols and the magical lighting of the tree (the beloved tradition continues today, 100+ years later). Ephraim most likely presented the children with the sleds at this event, says Kristyn Balog, executive director of the Harbor Springs Area Historical Society.
Referred to by many in the community as Grandfather Shay, Ephraim passed away in April 1916, only months after that first tree lighting. His obituary in the Petoskey Evening News read, “his kindly face and pleasant smile will be missed by many.” At his funeral, children brought bouquet after bouquet of fresh flowers to the doorstep of Ephraim’s quirky Hexagon House, thankful for the Christmas joy and winter fun Grandfather Shay had given them.
The Shay Hexagon House will be open through December for the Harbor Springs Area Historical Society’s tree exhibit. Designed by Ephraim around 1892, the stamped steel structure has six hexagon-shaped rooms.