It’s no wonder our residents are so excited about the upcoming Oakmont Senior Communities annual picnic on June 27 at Belle Isle. After all, when they think of Belle Isle, it takes them back many years to some great memories.
“I lived a block away from the Franklin Settlement House in Detroit and they would provide a station wagon,” said Clara, an Oakmont Manor resident. “Every Friday night in the summer, my friends and family went in the station wagon to Belle Isle. We would visit the aquarium and the conservatory to go swimming, then my mom would bring out the tuna salad and make us all sandwiches.
“I sometimes went with the girls from work and rented bikes and rode around the island. I went on dates there and one particular date we went ‘parking’ with some other couples.” Clara also recalled her father and uncles taking them on horse and buggy rides on the island, as well as trips to the zoo on the island.
“That is why these trips every year with Oakmont to Belle Isle are so special to me,” Clara said.
Forrest (Oakmont Livonia) also has fond memories from visiting Belle Isle.
“One trip that sticks in my mind is my whole family and I went to Belle Isle for the day,” he said. “We visited the ‘kiddie park,’ where they had farm animals you could feed and pet. My daughter, Heather, was feeding one of the goats and it tried to eat her dress! We still laugh about it to this day.”
Memories, including humorous ones, of Belle Isle
“On graduation night of high school, I drove my car up the stairs and around the fountain, we left before the police came!” said Larry from Oakmont Sterling Assisted.
“I was sitting in the rocks by the pond and a young man across the water threw a rock and it hit me right in my forehead,” joked Marion from Oakmont Northville. Claire, another Northville resident, remembered, “We took our exchange student from Brazil to the races and he jumped the fence!”
Yvonne (Oakmont Sterling) remembers going to Belle Isle as a teenager with her dog, Toughy Tony. Her dog enjoyed being on the ice while everyone was ice skating. She also enjoyed the concession stands, with sweet treats and a chance to warm up.
A married couple from Oakmont Rochester Independent, Jim and Gloria, also shared some great Belle Isle memories.
“We went all the time. We belonged to the Detroit Yacht Club and went ice skating on the lagoons. There used to be ice cream stands all around the island…they had the best ice cream cones.”
“As was our family tradition every summer, we took a day trip to Belle Isle,” said Rita of Oakmont Livonia. “We would visit the aquarium, conservatory and ride on the pony rides.”
Geno (Oakmont Parkway) had some great memories from high school. “In 1950, our senior prom, we went to the Belle Isle fountain,” he said. “We all tuned into CKLW on our car radio and danced the night away.”
It sounded great in letters – and was great in person, too
The first time Christel (Oakmont Manor) heard of Belle Isle, she was several thousand miles away. Her boyfriend (who later became her husband) left Germany for the United States in 1956. She recently came across a letter from 1957, in which her boyfriend described – in great detail – the beauty of the island and how much he enjoyed visiting Belle Isle.
“Christel immigrated to the U.S. in November of 1957 and she married her husband in December,” said Janet Hays, Activity Director for Oakmont Manor. “When she went to Belle Isle for the first time, she felt like she already knew it because of the letters from her beau.”
Al of Oakmont Livonia made visiting Belle Isle a pretty regular practice back in the day. “In 1958, I used to go out to Belle Isle to go swimming and attend live concerts, such as the Detroit Symphony,” he said.
Visiting Belle Isle was also a regular thrill for Diana of Oakmont Livonia.
“We would always pack a beach bag and take it to school with us so we could go to Belle Isle right after school,” she said. “We would swim, canoe and, of course, sunbathe. It was so much fun.”
There were some specific occasions, too, that were good for some to visit Belle Isle.
“I used to like to go to Belle Isle at Christmastime and see all the pretty poinsettias and the displays,” said Barbara from Oakmont Rochester Assisted.
Memories of summer picnics from days gone by
“I enjoyed picnics with my family,” said Helen. A fellow Rochester Assisted resident, Ada, recalled she “used to enjoy going to Belle Isle for church picnics.”
Mary, from Oakmont Northville, remembers: “We would picnic with my three boys. The basket contained ham sandwiches, potato salad, and pickles. We would try to find the shadiest spot.”
Picnics were among the many activities recalled by Jean of Oakmont Rochester Independent.
“We (family and friends) went a lot,” Jean said. “We had picnics and went ice skating. There was a beautiful zoo, conservatory and aquarium. We had pony rides and weenie roasts at night. It was a great place for teen-age parties…we danced around the Scott Fountain.”
“My favorite memories are having picnics with my family,” said Lynn from Oakmont Sterling Assisted. “I also used to be a photographer for weddings and shot some weddings on Belle Isle. Everyone always used to barbecue ribs and it smelled so good.”
Family picnics were also a memorable experience for Pat at Oakmont Parkway.
“I remember how much the kids would love the horse and buggy rides,” she said. “Also, we would go canoeing every summer and Ice skating in the winter. At sunset, we would sit by the shoreline and watch the freighters go by.” Rita, a Northville resident, also remembered how canoeing was “my favorite thing to do.”
Pinching pennies and a real trek to get to Belle Isle
When times were lean for Gloria (Oakmont Parkway) and her husband, Belle Isle was an affordable adventure.
“Frank and I would go canoeing at Belle Isle when we were first married because we couldn’t afford much back then,” she said. “It was quite romantic, too.”
Just getting to the island was worth the effort for a couple of Parkway residents.
“We didn’t have a car,” recalled Marge, “so we would have to walk several miles to get to Belle Isle so we could go ice skating.”
Ann also had to work to get to the island.
“Back in 1940, we used to get up in the morning and take the street car to the boulevard bus to get to Belle Isle,” she said. “My brother had a job taking care of the horses there. We would spend our summers and our winters there when we were kids. I have so many fond memories on Belle Isle.”
Hazel from Parkway looked back on her early visits to the island.
“Before my husband and I were married, we would go to the Belle Isle Zoo for a date,” she said.
Plenty of fun activities from which to choose
There were more good memories. Here are a few from Northville residents:
“I loved to ride the horses,” Ara said. Jerry enjoyed a different activity – “I played tennis and golf.” And Barb recalled, “I’d go to watch the fountain shoot up.”
A pair of Sterling residents also remember a wide range of activities. Teedie recalled when she was 19, she enjoyed going canoeing on the island, which also offered plenty of trails for walking. She also enjoyed visiting the nature center. Betty (who recalled it being a big gathering place for fellow east-siders) remembered Belle Isle being a great place for her large extended family to gather for family reunions each summer. That’s where the family had a competitive baseball game. She also remembers ice skating, hiking and swimming on the island.
It was a family occasion for Syd and John: “We took our kids there, they loved the aquarium and the fireworks.”
Several Rochester Independent residents recalled what brought them to Belle Isle: “I use to picnic with my family and play in the water,” Pat said. From Art: “My family visited the zoo many times.” And Grace remembered, “When I was in high school I went to concerts and ice skating.”
“I used to take my wife and daughter to the island to sightsee and look at all the beautiful flowers,” said John from Sterling Assisted.
At 982 acres in size, the 2.5-mile-long Belle Isle is the largest island park in the United States. It was designed by landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead (who also designed Central Park in New York City). The island, which had been operated by the City of Detroit for many years, now falls under the direction of the State of Michigan and has been designated as a state park since 2014.