Explore the life of author James B. Hendryx, the folk hero of Lee Point in Suttons Bay.
In celebration of our 40th anniversary in 2020, we’re digging into our archives and sharing classic stories told over the years in Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine. We hope you enjoy this look back as much as we do! This piece was featured in August 1987.
In 1921, James B. Hendryx arrived in Suttons Bay much the way the famous character of his novels, Black John Smith, arrived in Halfaday Creek—with a dubious, unconventional and colorful past. Before he fled to Halfaday Creek, Black John, according to Old Bettles, a Dawson sourdough, held up the United States Army in Alaska and ran off with a battleship.
“It was only part of the army, a major and three common soldiers, to be exact; and the loot was about forty thousand, lacking a few dollars, and not a battleship,” says Black John in the novel Grub Stake Gold. “The incident was more in the nature of a sportin’ event than a theft.”
Hendryx’s particular peccadillo (as Black John would put it) was committed as well in the spirit of fun and good sport. As a reporter for the Cincinnati Enquirer, Hendryx was sent to Joliet, Illinois, to cover the execution of a man named Jenkins. After he witnessed the hanging and wrote the story, he inserted a colorful headline, which either through a copy editor’s carelessness or Hendryx’s own craftiness, slipped into the morning edition of the newspaper. The good citizens of Cincinnati awoke wide-eyed to the news of the day: “JENKINS JERKED TO JESUS AT JOLIET.”
The uproar that ensued chased Hendryx from his job as a reporter to an outlaw life of fiction writing—a profession, loosely speaking, more suited to his outlandish wit and raw, rogue talent. In 1915, he published his first novel, The Promise, a story about lumberjacks in the north woods. By 1921, the money from sales of his adventure novels and stories was coming in steadily enough for Hendryx to purchase a house and 360 acres of forested land on Lee Point, south of Suttons Bay.
After plumbing was installed, Hendryx moved his wife, Hermione, and family into the rambling three-story house which had been built in the 1890s by Judge Burch from Boston as the centerpiece of what was to have been—and never was—a lakeshore resort. Harold Titus, a fellow writer and companion on fishing trips to Northern Michigan, had alerted Hendryx to the near-wilderness piece of property. It was here, on the shore of Grand Traverse Bay, where Hendryx settled down to a somewhat civilized life of hunting, fishing and writing.
Like Black John, who tricked out a slick profit on all of his enterprises on Halfaday Creek, Hendryx prospered at the old, abandoned resort on Lee Point. While raising a family of two girls and one boy—Hermione, Betty and James Jr.—he wrote 57 novels and countless short stories, most of them set in the wild west and the Yukon gold-rush days. The adventures of Black John Smith, Corporal Downey of the Mounties and Connie Morgan intrigued generations of readers in the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s. Black John, with a quick-draw wit and a double-barreled sense of justice, outsmarted interloping outsiders and kept the miners and reformed outlaws of Halfaday Creek (in his own words) as “moral as hell.” Corporal Downey, meanwhile, using more conventional law enforcement techniques, tracked down and brought to justice men who dared to break the law in the rugged Yukon Territory of gold rush days. In Alaska, the boy adventurer Connie Morgan hit the trail and lived out the wilderness fantasies of every reader of The American Boy, a popular magazine, in which many of Hendryx’s novels were serialized.
Forty years old when he moved to Lee Point, Hendryx brought to his novels and stories the richness of his own experiences punching cattle in Montana and prospecting for gold in Alaska. Born in 1880 in Sauk Centre, Minnesota, the son of the owner and editor of the Sauk Centre Herald, Charles Hendryx was a great-grandson of William Henry Harrison, ninth president of the United States. Hendryx largely ignored this illustrious political and literary heritage while growing up. He preferred hunting and fishing and the lessons of the woods and lakes to any learning to be had in the classroom. By his own account, he was expelled 24 times by the superintendent, mainly because he thought it was more important to run his trap line than to sit in class.
As a teenager, Hendryx explored the woods and streams of Sauk Centre with Claude Lewis, the older brother of Sinclair Lewis, the Nobel Prize-winning author. “Sinclair was three years younger and he was a pest when we were kids,” said Hendryx in an autobiographical sketch published by Ford Times Magazine in February of 1951. “He was always wanting to drag along with us when we went anywhere. You couldn’t get rid of him.”
Hendryx studied law at the University of Minnesota but left after two years with the notion that he had learned enough law to keep him out of trouble. His good sense and his knowledge of the law kept him out of trouble a few years later when he was a ranch hand in Montana. Out on the range, he had become acquainted with Kid Curry and his brother, Lonnie, two members of the notorious Wild Bunch which was led by Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Asked to join a posse that was forming to bring in the Curry brothers, Hendryx had the local harness maker tear up his saddle. “There was an unwritten law that you couldn’t be forced into a posse without your own saddle,” Hendryx said. “The Currys were neighbors and I didn’t want any trouble with them.”
From Montana, Hendryx and a friend headed to the gold fields of Alaska, a trip they financed with $1,400 won in a poker game. They were at the tail end of the gold rush, however, and except for the plots and characters mined for use in later novels, Hendryx spent much of the 14-month stay in Alaska chopping cordwood.
Simply stated, his credo was, “Never let your work interfere with your fishing.” Nevertheless, many a fish swam free in Grand Traverse Bay while Hendryx, a prolific author, worked on the two to three novels he published every year. He spent the mornings writing in a small log cabin hidden in the woods near the big house, typing stories hunt-and-peck style with his index fingers. The cabin, and his bedroom inside the house, were stocked with maps that he could pull out to check the geographical accuracy of the travels of his characters in Alaska and the Yukon.
“He almost never took a vacation,” says Robert Loomis, Hendryx’s son-in-law, remarking that even on his long trips to Canada, Hendryx took along his typewriter and worked on his stories. “But then again,” Loomis adds, “his whole life was a vacation.”
While Hendryx spent the mornings enlivening the dramatic action on Halfaday Creek, he sometimes devised plots to liven things up on Lee Point. One morning in the cabin, he took a razor and shaved a number of gaps in his big handlebar mustache. His daughter, Betty Loomis, remembers how as a girl, she met him coming back from the cabin in the afternoon. “Daddy,” she said, “what happened to your mustache?” Acting puzzled, he ran his fingers over the gaps in the mustache. “Oh my!” he said. “I fell asleep in the cabin and the squirrels musta sneaked inside and nibbled away at my mustache.”
In later years, he worked in a room upstairs in the main house. The family remembers how he used to laugh out loud while writing his stories. “You’d hear the clicking of the typewriter and then the sounds of him laughing,” recalls Betty. “Then more clicking and more laughter.”
A tall, lean, rugged man with sparkling blue eyes, he invariably wore wool pants and a flannel shirt, sporting always his handlebar mustache and a ten-gallon hat. “Even in the middle of summer, it seems he was always dressed for winter,” says his daughter Mittie (Hermione) Swartz. “The kids in high school called him Trapper Dan.” The showman in Hendryx relished the role of cowboy and backwoodsman and he often rode his horse in full western attire in the parades held in Suttons Bay and Traverse City.
In wild-West tradition, the Hendryx place on Lee Point resembled a large spread in the hills of Montana. He built a corral (of which there is no longer any trace) where he broke wild horses himself until his wife convinced him to hire a cowboy from Montana to do the hazardous work.
Over the years, the house was the site of an endless number of all-night poker games. The players included James Milliken—father of former governor William Milliken—Harold Titus and Carol Detzer, both fellow writers, and sometimes a priest from Leland who had to leave early on Saturday nights in order to be able to say Mass on Sunday mornings. “One of the enduring memories from childhood is the sound of poker chips clinking downstairs as I went to sleep in my room,” Mittie says. Hendryx also spent many Saturdays at Jud Cameron’s barbershop and pool hall, playing cribbage and poker with the gang.
When more and more people settled in Northern Michigan, Hendryx sought a wilder country and bought a cabin on Basswood Lake, north of Thessalon, Ontario, where he took the family on summer vacations. Up in the Canadian wilderness, Hendryx would put a pack on his back and a canoe on his head and take off alone on week-long trips in the backcountry. His instructions to his wife concerning his return were simple: he would be gone for a week, but if he did not return in seven days, she was to allow him three more days before she sent anyone in search of him.
An excellent horseman, Hendryx was regarded by those who rode in a car with him as a terrible and terrifying driver. He valued a car with big tires and plenty of ground clearance so that he could fly over rugged logging trails to his favorite hunting and fishing spots. One day, while washing a blue station wagon that he had owned for years, he suddenly dropped what he was doing, ran inside the house and dragged his wife outside to look at the car. Blue wheel covers were visible where the water had washed away the layers of mud. “Look,” he said. “The wheels match the car!”
Sometimes in the winter when snow closed the roads on Lee Point, Hendryx would have the hired man clear a path to the shore of the bay and he would drive off in the car, over the ice to Traverse City. One time, after a day of poker playing and grocery shopping in town, the car broke through the ice on the return trip. Hendryx salvaged some of the groceries before the car sank in the freezing waters. A farmer happened along and yelled, “What in the world are you doing, Jim?”
Hendryx yelled back, “I’m starting a grocery store, you darn fool. What did you think I was doing?”
Hendryx died of lung cancer in 1963. Although he always smoked, he laid off the bottle later in life after “doing a pretty good job of drinking” when he was young. He appeared as the featured guest on the television show, “This Is Your Life,” in May of 1956. When asked by host Ralph Edward if he would do anything differently if he had the chance to live his life over, Hendryx replied, “I’d do twice as much of it.”
“He was a nonconformist in the best sense of the word,” Betty says. “He might have broken some rules, but he never did so to hurt anybody.”
“He didn’t live by the book,” says Fred Swartz, Hendryx’s son-in-law. “He wrote the book.”