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The Ca-Choo Club.

In the early 20th century, the Soo Locks weren't the only thing drawing visitors to Sault Ste. Marie. Starting in 1928, allergy sufferers also flocked to the city to breathe the clean, pollen-free air that swept in off Lake Superior.

These medical tourists were part of the "Ca-Choo Club." Headquartered at the Park and Ojibway hotels, the group would descend upon the Sault in late summer, seeking relief from their hay fever symptoms. The chamber of commerce welcomed them with open arms, arranging entertainment, events, and tours to amuse them.

In the early 1920s, it became apparent to Lou Harris, an employee of the Soo Locks, that some of the out-of-state visitors who came to watch the big ships pass through the canal were also in Sault Ste. Marie to escape the sniffling and sneezing of their airborne allergies. This prompted Harris, himself a hay fever sufferer, to think: Why not start a club of the similarly afflicted and give them something more to do while they're in town?

And so, in August 1928, the Ca-Choo Club was formed with 45 charter members. Harris volunteered the meeting room of the local Knights of Pythias chapter for club activities such as card parties, but they soon branched out from there. The Ca-Chooers also took advantage of the city's dance venues--including The Wilds and the Log Cabin Lodge--the movies, field trips to places like Tahquamenon Falls and Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, and excursions on the St. Marys River.

The Park and Ojibway hotels served as the accommodations of choice, with some members staying a month or more.

At the end of their first organized season, the Ca-Chooers were energized and eager to tell everyone at home about the wonders of this haven "up north." Raymond McDonald of Minneapolis shared with the Sault Evening News that he found relief from his allergy in the Sault: "Anything I can do to broadcast the Sault climate, I am going to do it."

Other members made similar pledges, and when August tolled around the next year, there were representatives in attendance from five states: Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, and Michigan.

A Special Climate

Why was the Sault such a draw for those afflicted with allergies? The local Civic and Commercial Association claimed that there was not a single ragweed plant within 100 miles of the city. Though this was an exaggeration, attention was given to recognizing and eradicating the enemy wherever it surfaced. The plant was even displayed in stores to help residents identify it. (It was said that bags of chicken feed were often a source of the undesirable weed.)

While the pollen-free air was a big draw for club members, the entertainment--arranged by the civic association--clinched the deal. Pianist Florence Reed often performed. So did Mischa Mischakoff, concertmaster of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Ca-Choo Club meetings were also the perfect showcase for the Sault's best talent. Among those who entertained club members were vocalists Nadiema Vigeant and Otto Kabke, pianists Andy Baker and Mabel McPike, and even the harmonica-and-whistling duo of Charles Kibble and Edward McMorris.

Humorous readings and poems were often a part of sessions, and members performed skits, such as the one in 1939 which had "DeMon Ragweed" tried and sentenced for his crimes against humanity.

Ca-Chooers found that laughing at themselves was an important way of dealing with their affliction. Harris told the story of a massive sneeze he expelled while at work in the administration building at the locks. He sneezed so hard that his glasses flew off and landed 20 feet away. Impressed with this tale of Paul Bunyan proportions, the other members dubbed Harris the "Supreme Sneezer." The title stuck and, for years, the leader of the organization was given this esteemed and official name. A later longtime president, Edward Gusweiler, sneezed on command so prodigiously that for decades after, the truly great sneezes were deemed "Gusweilerian."

Activities of Every Sort

During their stay in the Sault, Ca-Choo Club members also took part in activities that were educational in nature. Speakers included Reverend Arthur Lord (who discussed the historical significance of the Sault), Professor Ernest Kemp (lecturing on the area's rock formations), and meteorologist Art Myers (explaining how the weather could affect one's health). Experts described what caused hay fever and brought news of cutting-edge research into cutes.

Games and competitions were also held, including spelling bees and true-or-false contests with the sexes pitted against each other. (For the record, the women often won.)

The club also involved itself in the community, contributing play equipment to Osborn Park and making donations to orphaned children at the Emma Nason Home.

By 1935, the club's numbers had swollen to 181 paying members from 14 states. There were also 125 associate members--owners of local businesses, such as the American Cafe--who contributed a small fee and posted signs in their windows, indicating their support of the Ca-Choo Club.

National Exposure

On August 22, 1939, the whole country heard about Sault Ste. Mane as the "hay fever haven" of the United States over the radio network of the National Broadcasting Company. The presentation opened at a railway station with several "sneezers" buying tickets for the Sault, where they were going for relief. The appropriate sound effects transitioned to their arrival and a meeting of the Ca-Choo Club, at which aerobiologist Oren C. Durham described hay fever and its treatments to members. He noted that there were 2.5 million sufferers, with additional people being affected each year. He also claimed that pollen was carried through the air at altitudes as high as 6,000 feet and could drift from Indiana to New York. One of the treatments at the time, he said, was a serum to make people immune to the effects of pollen exposure.

The following year, on August 15, the Columbia Broadcasting System developed its own radio program on the Ca-Choo Club, titling it "Strange As It May Seem." The presentation featured Supreme Sneezer Edward Gusweiler, as well as a dramatization of a young couple unable to go out and socialize because of the husband's hay fever.

It was at this time that the club appealed to the city for $50 to help them further promote themselves. A representative noted that between 400 and 500 hay fever sufferers were coming to the Sault each year, and that the Ca-Chooers were keeping them busy--helping them to spend their tourist dollars--while they were there. Based on that logic, the city expenditure was approved and continued annually throughout the remainder of the organization's history.

The War years

In 1941, the club elected its first female president, Mrs. Fordyce Belford of Toledo. Activities during this period included attending a summer ice skating festival, enjoying musical entertainment by Fort Brady soldiers, and learning about civil defense preparations.

World War II would continue to impact the club over the next few years. In 1943, a resolution was presented to the Office of Price Administration to permit hay fever sufferers to stockpile enough gasoline to travel north for their health during the worst of the ragweed season.

In the late '40s, Ca-Chooers were treated to a presentation by Mayor Maurice Hunt about plans for the region. These included an idea to make the two Saults the peacetime headquarters of the United Nations.

During this period, the new Sault branch of the Michigan College of Mining and Technology became a major resource for club programs and speakers. By 1951, there were still more than 100 members and an estimated 300 nonaffiliated visitors traveling to the area for relief. That year, Ca-Chooers were invited to meet Fred Huber, an executive with the Detroit Red Wings hockey team, then in summer training at the local Pullar Stadium. The Kincheloe Air Force Base south of town gave the club another site to tour and learn about.

Winding Down

By the 1960s, those who were running the Ca-Choo Club were not themselves sufferers of hay fever, but were married to women who were. Still, they were firm believers in the promotion of the Sault as a source of relief for people who would otherwise have a miserable late summer.

In 1966, long-time Ca-Chooer J.P. Chandler was the guest of honor at a dinner at the Ojibway Hotel. A native of Kokomo, Indiana, Chandler had first come to the Sault in 1917, hiring on as a reporter at the Evening News. Later, he became city editor and managing editor, and served as circulation and business manager at the time of his retirement. Seeing the benefit of the Sault as a source of relief for his symptoms was partly why he remained in the area and was such an enthusiastic and longtime supporter of the Ca-Choo Club, he said.

But in August of the next year, when only nine people attended the annual meeting, the writing was on the wall. Blaming antihistamines and air conditioning for a decline in membership, the remaining Ca-Chooers decided to fold the club. Myrtle Behm, a former president and treasurer, lamented the loss. "We hate to give up, but we [have] to," she said to the local newspaper. "It's like losing a member of the family."

She continued: "[We'll always have] a tender spot in out heart for the Sault and for the many people, sufferers like ourselves, that we got to know from many parts of the country."

Deidre Stevens is a narrator for Soo Locks Boat Tours in the summer months and spends her winters doing historical research on Sault Ste. Marie and its environs.
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Author:Stevens, Deidre
Publication:Michigan History Magazine
Geographic Code:1U3MI
Date:Nov 1, 2013
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