One hundred years ago, our two Charlevoix newspapers seemed be reporting all too many passings of longtime Charlevoix citizens who had helped give the town the worldwide reputation it enjoys today. One of them was an anomaly in her times, and would even today stand out for her razor sharp business acumen, ability to handle people from all walks of life with total ease, and philanthropic generosity throughout Charlevoix and the area. Her name was Martha Elston Baker, and she became a Charlevoix legend.
Martha Elston, an only child, was born in Exeter, Ontario on Nov. 24, 1865. Her father Robert moved the family to Muskegon about 10 years later, then two years on to Grand Rapids. Always independent, after her schooling she drifted into acting as a member of the Laura Dainty Company, until marriage to John Baker in late 1888, in Grand Rapids, intervened. How they met, and where, is not known. They quickly moved to Charlevoix for reasons again not known. In 1889, John went into the farm implement business, at first on Clinton Street near the present location of the Circle of Arts. Martha acted as bookkeeper and clerk, later becoming a partner as her unsuspected business skills improved.
Ten years later, Martha expressed an interest in opening a hotel. One year prior to that, her father, who had moved to Charlevoix in 1892 to be with his daughter and John, had built the 50-room Elston Hotel at the corner of Antrim and Bridge streets, now the site of Oleson’s. It was a hostelry long needed here since the arrival of the railroad the same year the Elstons moved northward. Tourists and resorters were now flooding the town as its reputation grew.
Martha worked that year helping her father run the place, and got bit by the hotel bug. So John, acceding to her whim, agreed to build her one, to be run in partnership with a Mrs. A. E. Clayden, called “The Pavilion.” It opened on July 2. Two stories tall, 15 rooms, one bath, no office except a desk in a dining room corner, it was never filled, and rather a flop. A disillusioned Martha bowed out, left it in the hands of Ms. Clayden, and went back to managing the Elston for the next two years.
In 1901 the Pavilion was sold. The new owners had no better luck after one year, so Martha agreed to buy the losing proposition back. Now with so much more experience under her belt, she felt confident that her newfound expertise could make the Pavilion work.
In 1904, she doubled the number of rooms, added more baths and began more advertising. The gamble paid off royally. Under the new name Charlevoix Beach Hotel, which gave it a specific location with a hint of Lake Michigan, the former Pavilion was filled to capacity.
As the Jan. 19, 1922 Charlevoix Sentinel said, “In fact, what has since proven to be one of the finest summer resort hotel propositions in Northern Michigan under Mrs. Baker’s management, was always a losing one, until taken over by her.”
Martha Elston Baker was now on her way to national recognition.
The Beach received its largest, and final expansion over the winter of 1914-1915, seven stories in all, the tallest structure ever erected in Charlevoix, holding 216 rooms and 86 baths, plus 14 neighboring cottages. After World War I, it was estimated that Martha Baker’s hotel complex could sleep 1,000 people per night. She proceeded on to further dreams of expansion — 135 more rooms, a dining room that could seat 700, a roof garden, a seaplane ordered in 1921 that could airlift high roller guests to and from any port on the Great Lakes, and other amenities.
But fate intervened in the form of a throat malignancy. After three years of brave resistance, Martha Elston Baker died in Miami on Jan. 13, 1922.
Of this remarkable woman, a shining, inspirational beacon in her time, the Sentinel said, “In business transactions Mrs. Baker was venturesome to the point of fearlessness, with what to many, would be considered a lavish expenditure of funds to accomplish her desired purpose. Nor was she timid or backward in assuming heavy obligations of indebtedness in her business operations, always having faith in her ability to meet every obligation on or before maturity, taking chances which many men of extraordinary business sagacity would consider extra hazardous, and jeopardizing her entire estate.
“She was ambitious to a high degree, with an inordinate desire to accomplish big things, eager to construct plans for future years, anxious to see the plans carried out, her hopes realized. Hers was a broad perspective, and as a result, her business career at times, … partook of the spectacular.”