Bay Cliff began as a dream… a dream of two women who saw the needs of children during the desperate times of America’s Great Depression. One of those women was Dr. Goldie Corneliuson, a field physician for The Children’s Fund of Michigan (forerunner to the Public Health Department). The other was Elba Morse, a nurse supervisor of the Northern Michigan Children’s Clinic in Marquette (present day site of Marquette General Hospital). The two health professionals traveled throughout Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, caring for children who were malnourished and underweight due to the impoverished conditions of the times. They taught the ways of good nutrition to families and brought much needed health care to the children. Their efforts were well received, but they continued to see the effects of poor nutrition on children’s health. The two ladies often talked about how ideal it would be to bring the children to a central location where they would be given three square meals a day, enjoy fresh air and sunshine, and be involved in camping experiences. What a difference it could make! As the dream began to take shape, they knew it would require a special place.
That special place came in the form of an abandoned dairy farm located 27 miles northwest of Marquette, Michigan in the village of Big Bay. What began as a home in 1913 for Jay Brunswick Deutsch – a mill manager for the Brunswick-Balke Collender Lumber Company – became a full-fledged dairy farm by 1917 known as Baycliffs. Deutsch built a large three-story home which was quickly dubbed as the “Big House” by the folks in Big Bay. Deutsch eventually moved on, giving his sister and her husband, Edna and Charles Corsant, the care of the farm. They used a combination of their first names to create Chedna Farms. The farm prospered for a decade and then went broke in 1930 as the economy of the nation slipped into the Great Depression. The farm was placed on the market for sale, and it wasn’t long before Elba Morse found out about it.
As Miss Elba and Dr. Goldie began forming their dream, Elba remembered the farm for sale. On a warm summer day in 1933, she and Dr. Goldie packed a picnic basket and headed to Big Bay to see the grounds. Sitting on a blanket beneath a tree in the apple orchard, they looked beyond the emptiness of the farm buildings and envisioned them filled again – but this time with children. Situated on a cliff high above the shining blue waters of Lake Superior and surrounded by pine and maple forests, it was a dream of a place for a children’s camp. They left that day determined to make their dream a reality. A question lingered: how do you start a program or buy a farm in the midst of a depression? They set out to share their dream with those who could help. Through contributions principally from the James Couzens Fund and the Horace and Mary Rackham Foundation, money was raised to purchase the 170 acre farm at the steep price of $8500. The Baycliffs/Chedna Farms became officially incorporated as Bay Cliff Health Camp, a non-profit, non-denominational camp for children of the Upper Peninsula. Dr. Goldie outlined the camp program and drafted the schedule. Miss Elba solicited supplies, organized the staff, and selected the children. In 1934, the first program began with 107 underweight children in attendance. In a summer filled with good food and camping fun, each camper gained an average of five pounds. They went home healthier, and the program was deemed a success!
The next few years continued that same pattern of success. As the Depression eased a bit, so did the nutritional concerns of children. But other challenges were facing the area at the time, the most severe of which was polio. An outbreak in the summer of 1940 rampaged through the Upper Peninsula, leaving hundreds of children paralyzed in its wake. Hospitals were filled beyond capacity. Miss Elba, who was still in charge of the Children’s Clinic, helped with the overflow of patients by housing twenty-seven children in the Big House after camp had ended that summer. They recuperated at Bay Cliff through the winter of 1940-41, and received physical therapy to regain their strength and learn to walk again. Many of them stayed for the camp program in the summer of 1941 to continue their therapy – a step in a new direction for Bay Cliff. Health and wellness in the form of good nutrition would always remain a strong concept of Bay Cliff, but now it would include an emphasis on therapy and rehabilitation. The polio epidemic changed the focus from a camp for malnourished children to one for children with physical disabilities. It has been a therapy camp ever since.
Polio was eventually conquered in 1956, but children everywhere have always faced physical challenges either at birth or through their development. Bay Cliff opened its gate to children with diabetes in 1938, to children with cardiac difficulties in 1943, to children with speech and language impairments in 1944. Occupational therapy was added to the list in 1948. Funding for the program has always been through the contributions from the general public; including service clubs, fraternal organizations, businesses, foundations, industry, and public spirited individuals.
Today, Bay Cliff reaches both children and adults from beyond the Upper Peninsula with physical disabilities such as cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, spina bifida, vision impairment, hearing loss, arthritis, joint deformities, limb loss, and disability due to accidents or trauma, to name a few. While the Children’s Summer Therapy Camp is the flagship program, Bay Cliff has expanded to become a year-round facility offering and/or hosting over 30 unique programs throughout the year.
The passion of Bay Cliff will always be children, and the emphasis continues to be on helping those with special needs do the things all children like to do, such as riding a bike, playing games, or taking care of their own personal hygiene. Some of our children leave camp having learned how to walk. For others, it’s tying a shoe. All depart at the end of the seven week session having conquered individual goals and gained genuine confidence and increased self-reliance and advocacy. For over 85 years, children at Bay Cliff Health Camp have realized that dreams really do come true!
Reference: A Place Apart – The Bay Cliff Story, by Dixie Franklin, © 1983 by Bay Cliff Health Camp