Personal Oral History Synopsis




On September 23 and October 29, Mary Ann (Johnson) Curtis was interviewed in her home overlooking Lake Michigan in Pier Cove.  A video recording was made of her interview by Jack Sheridan on 10-29-08 when a deeper look at her life was documented.  Her home is filled with family photos, albums, scrapbooks, and years of diverse Curtis and Johnson family artifacts.  Mary Ann’s warmth, humor and vivaciousness seasoned the fascinating story she so readily shared. 


Ensign James Wallace Curtis of Webster Groves, Missouri, married Mary Ann Johnson of Fond du Lac, Wisconsin in 1943, the year after graduating from Dartmouth College.  The Bride was given away by her father, navy Commander Robert Colton Johnson, USNR, an engineer who was in charge of the creation of the air base on Iwo Jima during WWII.  The couple honeymooned on their way to Vallejo, California where Jim’s sub was in dry dock after having been running supplies and extracting personnel from the Philippines.  This union tightened the bond between the Pier Cove Johnson and Curtis families that had already grown close over three prior generations of seasonal encounters.


Mary Ann and Jim had summered each year of their early lives in Pier Cove.  Being a few years younger than Jim, Mary Ann explained that she received little interest from Jim during their early years.  Her early recollections include riding with Ossian Simonds’ in his canoe on the stream that once passed on the surface near her home, “The Porches”. 


It was the famous landscape designer, Ossian Simonds who brought Mary Ann’s grandfather and his friend, John B. Johnson, to Pier Cove.  John B. bought the waterfront property on which he later built “The Porches”.  Joining him were his wife, Phoebe, and their five children:  Marjorie (b. 1882), Paul (b. 1885), Agnes (b. 1888), Laura (b. 1890) and Robert Colton (b. 1894) who was Mary Ann’s father. 


John B. Johnson served as the chairperson of the civil engineering department at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri.  In 1899 he was appointed the Dean of the School of Engineering at the University of Wisconsin, and in 1902 he died in a tragic horse and wagon accident near his Pier Cove home.  His youngest son, Bob, was riding in the wagon but survived and had to run home for help.


After  John B. passed, the remaining Curtis family, led by mother Phoebe (Henby Johnson or “Granny Johny”),  moved to France where it was “cheaper to live” for a year.   Marjorie, the oldest sibling and already at age 17 an independent young woman, finagled to remain in Europe when the rest of the family returned to the USA.  She traveled on her own through Europe, providing a fascinating journal of her travels and progressive views.   


When John B. Johnson was working at Washington University in St. Louis, he met William S. Curtis, Dean of the Law School, and eventually introduced him to Pier Cove.  Not long after, the Curtis family began summering at the original Ossian Simonds’ grist mill which was all that remained of the thriving Civil War era village.  William later purchased the adjacent Adam’s farm in 1904.


Returning to Jim and Mary Ann Curtis’s story, when the war ended in 1945 and after Jim had seen significant submarine service in the Pacific front, the couple returned to Pier Cove.  In 1946 the Curtis family lakefront land west of the lakeshore road was divided between the five Curtis brothers.  Jim wanting to try his hand at farming, a lifelong dream possibly enhanced by his war experience, took over the farmland to the east.  The couple, with George Harrington as builder, constructed a small home on the lakefront that was enlarged several times through the years. 


After struggling with farming for some years, Jim and Mary Ann agreed that they were not cut out to be farmers.  Jim eventually followed a call into the Presbyterian priesthood and, after supervised training at All Saints Church in Saugatuck, he became ordained in 1953.  In 1955 he took a pastoral call to Christ Church in Gary, Indiana.  He remained in this position for 28 years until retiring in 1983. 


While living in Gary, a planned model city in its prime, Mary Ann took a position with the Gary Post-Tribune as a film rating reviewer.  This position afforded her the opportunity to access Chicago for film previews by the press and to meet notable film stars.  She accumulated letters and photos from film stars covering several decades of Hollywood films.  Mary Ann also made her mark in both Gary and Saugatuck as an actress.  Beginning with the original Red Barn Theater in Douglas that remains as the annex to Petter’s gallery on Blue Star Highway, she performed in numerous roles before and after her Saugatuck area hiatus in Indiana.


Mary Ann and Jim returned to their home on the lake to enjoy retirement, but not before purchasing a second-hand motor home in order to travel in support of their son, Bob, who was seriously training to compete in the 1983 Iron Man Triathlon in Hawaii.  Bob finished in the top 10 that year, inspiring Jim, at age 63, to prepare for the 1985 Iron Man.  Jim completed this grueling competition which was recorded by the Wide World of Sports TV coverage.


Neighbors, summer renters and, of course, extended family remember the Johnson-Curtis family gatherings with the annual croquet match marathons.  The copper cup award remains on Mary Ann’s shelf.


Jim lost his battle with cancer on June 5, 2006 and, after a service at All Saints Episcopal Church was interred in Plummerville Cemetery.


At this writing Mary Ann remains in her lakeshore home, active as usual and the oldest remaining member of her family.


John R. Shack (10-29-08)

Reviewed by Mary Ann Curtis (11-11-08)