Home » I Stayed At The UAW’s Vacation Hideout In The Middle Of Nowhere. Here’s What It Was Like

I Stayed At The UAW’s Vacation Hideout In The Middle Of Nowhere. Here’s What It Was Like

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The phrase “go to your happy place” is often used to discuss a place where you can mentally escape from your stresses. Maybe it’s a tropical paradise, maybe it’s a cozy spot curled up with your dog in a blanket. For me, it’s a slice of Northern Michigan.

The Walter and May Reuther Family Education Center, also known as the Black Lake Conference Center, is a multi-use facility and retreat on 1,000 acres in Presque Isle County, Michigan. It sits on the south end of Black Lake, the sixth-largest inland lake in the state. It’s made up of the “Old Lodge,” the “Upper Lodge.” “traditional hotel style rooms” and 50 full hookup campsites. The center’s website says it has 228 rooms and can host up to 395 people at a time. Features include an Olympic-sized swimming pool, lake access with a sandy beach, a boat dock, a large gymnasium, and scenic trails. There’s a golf course that Golf Digest previously ranked as the #69 best public course in the country and #5 in Michigan.

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In the summer of 2020, my family like many others, was looking for remote camping locations. That’s when we discovered UAW Black Lake was now welcoming the public. This after decades of operating something akin to an “Area 51 site.”A secret spot that was sectioned off for years, leaving many to wonder what was inside.

Where The Hell Is Onaway?

The nearest settlement, home to 920 souls, is the city (yes, city) of Onaway. And of all coincidences, it’s known locally for the phrase “Onway Steers the World,” as it used to be home to the American Wood Rim Company, the world’s biggest supplier of wooden steering wheels. Some of its customers included Durant Motors and Oldsmobile. However, a fire on January 14, 1926, broke out in a sanding machine and quickly spread through the building. Four people died and it marked the end of the American Wood Rim Company.

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Why Would You Build This In The Middle Of Nowhere?

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Image: Google Maps

Why would a labor organization have a retreat like this? Decades ago, the fourth UAW president, Walter Reuther, was looking for a unique space to meet a variety of needs. While researching this location, I had the chance to talk with Gavin Strassel, the UAW archivist at Wayne State University. He says Black Lake became Reuther’s passion project. There was scenic beauty, the location was intentionally remote, and it was affordable. The land also had a preexisting hunting cabin–now known as the “Old Lodge”–that has since been expanded. There’s even a legend that Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz honeymooned at the lodge. It’s quite lovely and it’s not uncommon to see weddings at the lodge’s beach during the summer.

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A view of the Old Lodge from the beach.

Reuther grew up in Wheeling, West Virginia. It had a fair amount of industry but also gave him the chance to access nature, giving him a deep appreciation. Per Strassel, Reuther’s photos and letters paint a picture of someone who appreciated hiking and fishing. He “believed that nature was something that could be calming and relaxing.” It also aligned with the union’s goals and mission. At that time, the UAW had a Recreation and Conservation Department. Acquiring this space would give workers a chance to see an environment worth saving and make use of it as well. Because when you’re fighting for vacation time, it’s beneficial to give people a place to play.

By 1967, the union had acquired the land and work had begun. Three years later, Reuther and his wife, May, showed off the main buildings to other UAW leaders.

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Walter Reuther (center) examining construction, Photo: Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State University

Tragically on May 9, two months before the UAW was set to host a landmark assembly with the U.N. at the new facility, Reuther died in a plane crash while on approach to the Pellston Regional Airport, roughly 30 miles west of Black Lake. All six people onboard, Walter, May, their nephew and bodyguard Willy Wolfman, architect Oscar Stonorov, and pilots Goerge Evans and Joseph Karrafa, were killed.

Factoring In The Environment

Stonorov was not only the designer of the space but a close friend of Reuther. The center’s website says they “were committed to preserving the oak, pines, maples, aspen and hemlock trees on the site. He (Reuther) and Stonorov wanted the Center to be a lesson on how to build without destroying nature. Reuther personally examined and tagged practically every tree on the site and, in some cases, construction lines were altered to preserve a particular piece of nature.”

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Model of Black Lake Conference Center’s main building, Photo: Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State University

Strassel also says there was an overseas influence, both on the modern minimalist style and approach to the retreat.

“Ruth there was influenced by Scandinavian traditions for labor union traditions,” said Strassel. “I think it’s a focus on member education. And not just having people take classes but giving them a place a nice setting where their brains can be away from the daily grind and they can focus on learning.”

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A view of the Black Lake Center’s main building from across Fisher Creek.

Parallels To Today

While talking with Strassel, I was surprised to learn how much early environmentalism was part of UAW history. The opening of UAW Black Lake predated the Carter administration by almost seven years.

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Cover page of a scanned document, Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State University

Despite Reuther’s passing, the UAW Family Education Center hosted the U.N. symposium ” The Impact Of Urbanization On Man’s Environment” from June 14-20, 1970. The opening statement in surviving literature is a call to action that, even more than 50 years later, sounds eerily familiar.

 THERE IS A WORLDWIDE CRISIS of the human environment, and the impact of urban settlements on that environment takes place within the broader context of international instability and the difficulty, in highly industrialized and less developed countries alike, of transforming human settlements into true communities. The precarious condition of human life and the human community has resulted in a sharpened sense of solidarity. Society, however, has not yet found the capacity to install that sense of solidarity at the center of attention or in the making of decisions and the carrying out of policies, although such policies may conceivably destroy man himself, either through sudden nuclear annihilation or through a slower but ultimately total destruction of the web of life. Even if man escapes those fates, he nevertheless may well suffer the unhappy future that has been foreseen if world society does not mend its ways: that of the living death of long-term adaptation to a steadily declining quality of life.

Strassel says this conference was the first of its kind and led up to the landmark 1972 U.N. Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm, Sweden.

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The Value Of Living History

Walter Reuther Statue
Statue of Walter P. Reuther, Photo: Black Lake Conference Center

In addition to serving as a lakeside getaway, the center also serves as a history museum of sorts. There’s an exhibit that documents the UAW presidencies of Reuther (1946-1970), Leonard Woodcock (1970-1977), Douglas Fraser (1977-1983), Owen Bieber (1983-1995), and Stephen Yokich (1995-2002). Photos and artifacts from their life and tenure help tell the story of one of America’s major labor movements, which have helped to shape the rights of workers. Strassel believes the exhibit helps demonstrate a direct line between then and now, especially coming off 2023’s Stand-Up Strike. That autoworkers, and labor rights, are a fight that each generation helps advance.

“They might see a lot of similarities between these historical materials and what they’re doing now,” said Strassel.

“You’d hope that by looking at this and making this connection, they might see that the work they’re doing now, decades and decades down the line, this is what people are going to be celebrating. This is going to be what people are studying. That today, this moment in history that they are making, (is) tomorrow’s history and I think that’s pretty special.”

You Gotta Drive North American

Respect for the UAW extends beyond its history and the Center, which stands as a living tribute. It also impacts your parking. Just like how many auto plants across the U.S. strongly encourage driving a car that bears the company’s logo, forcing those driving other makes to park in far-off parking lots, the same goes for UAW Black Lake. To park your car for more than 15 minutes at either the hotel or campground, it has to have been assembled by either the UAW, UNIFOR, or UNIFOR’s predecessor, the CAW. Otherwise, after you’ve dropped off your belongings and gear,  you’re directed to park in a small lot outside the retreat’s grounds. But don’t worry, a security guard on a minibus can shuttle you back to the resort or the campground if needed.

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The family’s camping setup.

This also may or may not be the reason I purchased my 1997 Ford Mustang GT convertible. I got it for a song in the summer of 2021m and while it ran, it’s probably best to describe it as “well-loved.” It’s become the best kind of project car, one that I can enjoy on the weekend and while still learning how to wrench on weekdays. Just don’t tell anyone at Ford that I’ve used a lot of AC Delco parts.

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“Darling, I always wear black. It’s such a happy color.”

Since this area was built for UAW members, that’s probably who you’re going to run into there 95% of the time. This creates a unique sense of camaraderie among the campers as their a shared sense of respect for each other’s work and an ownership and pride of the facilities. There’s nothing worse when camping than trying to go to the bathroom and finding it trashed. That’s never been my experience there, maybe because everyone there knows where the money comes from if something becomes abused and broken.

The first time I visited with my Mustang, I ran into a gentleman who worked at Ford’s Flat Rock Assembly. He said his tenure covered the Fox body to S197. He said it made him happy to see the cars he built at the center, even if the jellybean wasn’t his favorite aesthetic.

A Slightly Too Nice Cabin In The Woods

If you’ve heard of the UAW’s ties to Black Lake before, it might have been because of the 219 corruption scandal. The FBI raided the center and seized documents and records. It resulted in the resignation of then-UAW president Gary Jones. The UAW alleges that he spent more than $1 million of union funds on expensive trips, extravagant dinners and cigars, golf clubs, and clothes for himself and his friends and family. He was sentenced in 2021 to 28 months in prison and ordered to pay $550,000 in restitution. In all, 16 people were charged and at least eight have been sentenced, according to the Automotive News. Those include Dennis Williams, whom an incredibly lavish cabin was built for.

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Photo: RE/MAX Lighthouse

According to Strassel, the union has long had a practice of building cabins on the property for retiring presidents. These are formally gifted to them at their outgoing convention as a “tip of the cap” from the UAW delegates.

Well, that might sound weird, but experts the Detroit Free Press talked to in 2021 said it wasn’t unreasonable.

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…allowing retired union leaders to stay at Black Lake is understandable, given that their compensation is likely many times less than the corporate executives they face off against during their careers.

However, this was not an “understandable” build according to retired autoworkers Dick Danjin and Frank Hammer.

“It is so exorbitantly unique,” said Dick Danjin, a retired General Motors worker and UAW International representative. “In a full-sun eclipse, it would be shining.”

“The fact that (former presidents) were able to use a cabin for their purposes when they traveled up to Black Lake seemed quite reasonable as an expression of gratitude for the president’s service to the union. I don’t think there was a soul in the UAW who had a problem with it. What’s been done here was not in the same category at all,” Hammer said.

William’s “Cabin 4” was sold in June 2020 for $1.1 million, down from the original asking price of $1.3 million. The Freep says plans included granite counters, stainless steel appliances, a fireplace, a wine cooler, and a hidden storage room.

In theory, the two in line for cabins would be Rory Gamble, who became acting president amid the 2019 scandal and retired in 2021, and Ray Curry, who lost his re-election bid last year to Shawn Fain. I have reached out to the UAW for comment on whether the practice of building cabins for former presidents has been revised or changed since 2019.

Even If You’re Not In The Union You’re Welcome Here

I’m not a member of the UAW. To my knowledge, no one in my immediate family has ever worked for an automaker. However, there are multiple teachers in my family and they’re members of the Michigan Education Association union. Since UAW Black Lake opened its doors to the public, it has offered discounted rates to union members, regardless of which union. This has made going back to Black Lake an affordable way to get back to a childhood spot.

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Dala the Sheltie on the front porch of the Black Lake Cottage, 2014.

My ties with the area are through my maternal grandmother. She acquired a plot of land in the 1960s on the lake’s west side. Initially used for camping with her kids, a kit home cottage was built there one section at a time with occasional contributions from her parents. Growing up, this is where we’d go as a family to escape from the world. In 2015, four years after her passing, my aunt and uncles (who all had 1/5 share of the property) voted to sell. I helped pack up all the furniture and thought I’d never see the lake again. Then, during the pandemic, as we were looking for remote areas to camp at, we discovered UAW Black Lake had opened its doors to the public. According to staffers, this happened around 2011-2012, which would have been during Bob King’s tenure as UAW president.

If you’re in the area or looking for an adventure, you should consider coming to stay here for a night (or six!). Campsites are just $48 a day and the spots come with all the natural beauty this part of Michigan has to offer. And now you don’t have to work the line to enjoy it.

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The beach on the southern end of Black Lake.
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Possibly the most scenic pool to exist in the middle of the woods.
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Any Autopians up for a game of dodgeball?
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Ping pong room off of the gymnasium.
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The bridge that was seen in the model. It gives access to the other side of the pond that Fisher Creek flows through.
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The sitting room just off of the main building’s lobby.
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Lookout from the dining room
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The dining room lookout area being prepped for a wedding.
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Dining room
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On the other side of a wall from the lobby.
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This is the Zodiac Room. According to Strassel, the metalwork was made by Swedish trade unionists. Stonorov designed it to mimic the planet’s alignment on the day Reuther was born.

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CRM114
CRM114
8 days ago

This place was built for the same reason the USSR built dachas for the party brass; so the higher ups could live like royalty while being able to point out that technically the accoutrements belong to the people. The rank and file UAW members weren’t staying here any more often than the regular ol’ comrades were staying at the dachas.

Kyle
Kyle
13 days ago

We stayed here for our great friend’s wedding in October about two years ago and it was simply magical!!! A total hidden gem. Absolutely in love with this area. I was so excited to see you feature this beautiful place here today. Awesome article!

Flashman
Flashman
13 days ago

I used to work as a ranger at Lake Superior Provincial Park, Ontario, which is on the eastern shore of the lake about an hour north of Michigan. Deep in the interior on Wildcat Lake is an abandoned lodge which was built, I guess some decades before the park was created, by General Motors as a fly-in retreat for its executives.
It’s not nearly as elaborate as this, but it is pretty grand for a place you now have to spend a few days canoeing and portaging to reach. If you’ve seen Yellowjackets it’s like that, but twice as big, and a welcome break from tent living for a night. Hunters use it in the fall so it’s also stocked with leftover canned food, oil, spices, kerosene lanterns etc (and mice, lots of mice).
For me it’s also significant as being the site of a small miracle in my life: a couple of days before my crew had reached Wildcat Lodge on one of our trips the sole had fallen off my ancient work boots, and duct tape was not really cutting it as a repair on all those long muddy portages. We arrived at the lodge and I found there a pair of beautiful Browning hunting boots, and which fit my larger than average feet.

Disphenoidal
Disphenoidal
13 days ago

For anyone interested in the history of Walt Reuther and the UAW, read “Midnight in Vehicle City” by Edward McClelland.

Livernoisman
Livernoisman
14 days ago

One of those “you know you’re a Detroiter” things would be when you were a kid “you had a friend who had a friend whose parents had a place on a lake up north and you heard there was a party there in a couple of weeks….”

It’s hard to convey to people outside the Upper Midwest just how many people had places up there. My parents never had the money for it, but it wasn’t uncommon for guys with a lot of seniority in a plant to have one, and of course even more lawyers and execs did.

Most of them were a lot more modest than what’s in this article, but the few times I got to go it was still really nice to hang out at one, even if it meant sleeping on a floor. The traffic could be a different thing, though, if you didn’t time it right.

ES
ES
13 days ago
Reply to  Livernoisman

Up north, or across the bridges. In my extended families, there were a few cottages around West Branch, East Tawas, and Torch lake, but both grandfathers chose to build on the Canadian shores of St. Clair and Huron. I think their generation were able to get in there relatively cheaply after the war, and the expansions of the 401 and 402 in the 50’s made S. Ontario more accessible than crossing the Zilwaukee.

Last edited 13 days ago by ES
Phuzz
Phuzz
13 days ago
Reply to  ES

Torch has a whole lake named after him!?

Slow Joe Crow
Slow Joe Crow
14 days ago

That’s a nice piece of Mid-century Modern. Working an assembly line can be nasty so it’s good the Union provides, although it was probably not much good for workers on the coasts.
As an aside Onaway can be a city because different states have different types of municipality so you can get the city of Granite Oregon, population 38, because Oregon has only one type of incorporated municipality or you can have New York’s bestiary of municipalitys where a town can contain a city, a couple of vilages and a hamlet.

DialMforMiata
DialMforMiata
14 days ago

Straight up Brutalist/Modernist architecture porn. I love it.

Skurdnin
Skurdnin
14 days ago

Fond memories of playing with Legos as a kid here on UAW retreats with my dad. It is a beautiful place.

Peter d
Peter d
14 days ago

The luxury cabin really does not seem over the top- 3 bedrooms and less than 2,000 sq ft. But straight-up gifting the cabin to the former presidents seems wasteful – they should have just added them to the resort with a stipulation that the ex-president’s can stay there for free whenever they want, with a few days planning, then the rest of the time it can be used as a (free) upgrade for regular visitors. Of course you would need to implement a randomized computer program to select the upgrades to prevent corruption.

getstoneyII (probably)
getstoneyII (probably)
15 days ago

I used to vacation up that way, or at least on the same Parallel Line, over on Lake Michigan, near Harbor Springs/Petoskey.

Even Atheists will tell you it’s “God’s Country” up there. It’s that beautiful of an area, and truly one of the nicest places on Earth in the summer. The winter holidays are also wonderful, especially if you are into winter sports.

Up North has been re-added to the Rolodex of places to go visit again. Thanks for the article, John!

edited b/c spell check told me Rolodex was spelled wrong. It wasn’t. It just wasn’t capitalized. Pardon me, Mr. La De Da spellcheck guy. I didn’t realize the influence of the Big Rolo lobbyists in your sphere.

Last edited 15 days ago by getstoneyII (probably)
Freelivin2713
Freelivin2713
15 days ago

Wow, this was so interesting and this place looks great…it would be great to camp/hike here & enjoy nature

Dan Bee
Dan Bee
15 days ago

...bodyguard Willy Wolfman. Why a bodyguard?

Michael Beranek
Michael Beranek
13 days ago
Reply to  Dan Bee

He’s a union official. Do you really have to ask?

Shooting Brake
Shooting Brake
15 days ago

Neat stuff! Thanks for sharing! I’m in southern Indiana and I’d much rather vacation up at a Michigan lake than down on the Florida coast.

DONALD FOLEY
DONALD FOLEY
15 days ago
Reply to  Shooting Brake

Me too.

getstoneyII (probably)
getstoneyII (probably)
15 days ago
Reply to  Shooting Brake

Torch Lake is a really nice spot as well, if you want to shave a little time off of the drive 🙂

AlterId
AlterId
14 days ago

Torch Lake is a really nice spot as well…

Seconded. I particularly recommend the Taillight Grove resort.

Highland Green Miata
Highland Green Miata
15 days ago

I have never been to this particular camp but my Grandparents had a little cinder block cottage on “Huron Beach” when I was growing up, which is about 15 miles away. This part of Michigan was remote and unpopulated then and still appears to be now. If you want to go somewhere where you the tourists don’t, this would be it. One benefit to Michigan having so much coastline is its impossible to VRBO it all…

Last edited 15 days ago by Highland Green Miata
Cayde-6
Cayde-6
15 days ago

Damn… I go to that area a few times a year for work. I’ll have to look into it…

Aardvark775
Aardvark775
15 days ago

Awesome place for their secret meetings with organized crime families and politicians!

Space
Space
14 days ago
Reply to  Aardvark775

No self respecting powerful person wants to hold secret meetings in a basement. That’s peasant stuff.

Michael Beranek
Michael Beranek
13 days ago
Reply to  Space

Actually, if they ask to meet you in a basement, remember the Spilotro brothers.
RUN!

James Carson
James Carson
15 days ago

What a beautiful facility. Thank you for the history.

Matthew Richardson
Matthew Richardson
15 days ago

How about you add a section in on how there used to be a summer camp there that was affordable for UAW members kids Then that was done away with in the late 90s to make room for a golf course. Some BS pet project of one of the executives. Completely ruined a long tradition for kids and families.

getstoneyII (probably)
getstoneyII (probably)
14 days ago

You, Sir, are a wet paper bag.

SNL-LOL Jr
SNL-LOL Jr
15 days ago

[Ed: Let’s not go down this particular path…]

Last edited 15 days ago by Matt Hardigree
EmotionalSupportBMW
EmotionalSupportBMW
15 days ago
Reply to  SNL-LOL Jr

[Ed: now that the post above is removed this no longer makes sense, but thank you – MH]

Last edited 15 days ago by Matt Hardigree
Cayde-6
Cayde-6
15 days ago
Reply to  SNL-LOL Jr

[Ed: now that the post above is removed this no longer makes sense, but thank you – MH]

Last edited 15 days ago by Matt Hardigree
AlterId
AlterId
14 days ago
Reply to  SNL-LOL Jr

[Ed: Let’s not go down this particular path…]

As usual, looks like I missed all the fun.

getstoneyII (probably)
getstoneyII (probably)
14 days ago
Reply to  AlterId

[Ed: Let’s not go down this particular path…, it was griping for the sake of venting]

(not Ed. I’ve never met Ed)

AlterId
AlterId
14 days ago

(not Ed. I’ve never met Ed)

We’ve all met Ed:, even if we didn’t know Ed: as such at the time. Ed: is the universal and eternal constant.

Last edited 14 days ago by AlterId
Eggsalad
Eggsalad
15 days ago

Michigan is/was a heavily organized state, and the UAW doesn’t just represent Auto Workers. My friend just returned from a week-long seminar on Union Communications that was held at Black Lake. She is a CSR at Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Michigan, which just so happens to be where Auto Workers get their health insurance. Yes, BCBS of Michigan is under a UAW Collective Bargaining Agreement!

Jonathan Hendry
Jonathan Hendry
15 days ago

I notice there seems to be zero car- or industry- or mechanical- themed art or knick-knacks or decor.

They really did mean to get away from it all when they were there.

Cayde-6
Cayde-6
15 days ago

There was a sculpture next to the bridge that reminds me of engine pistons

Jonathan Hendry
Jonathan Hendry
14 days ago
Reply to  Cayde-6

Ah, yeah, I can see how it could be read that way.

KC Murphy
KC Murphy
13 days ago
Reply to  Cayde-6

I thought that very same thing and wondered if that was the intent.

Drive By Commenter
Drive By Commenter
15 days ago

Hmm, a spot in Michigan I may want to visit. Discounts for union members of any union are a nice touch.

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