The Cash Family of Ogden Dunes

  Part II:  Excerpts from the Autobiography of Mitchell Cash (for his children and grandchildren)

Introduction: Laura Cash Mitchell, the daughter of Mitchell Cash, provided the Historical Society of Ogden Dunes with two chapters of her father’s autobiography, as well as a number of family photos.  In his autobiography, Mitchell relates his life around a set of key decisions.  These chapters/decisions deal with two periods of his life that were spent in Ogden Dunes, the decision of his parents to buy a cottage in Ogden Dunes around 1925 and he and his wife’s decision to return to Ogden Dunes after World War II.

Mitchell was born in Gary, Indiana on August 19, 1918; he died on April 10, 2011 in Bothell, Washington.  Mitchell not only spent part of his teenage years in the dunes but also moved his family after World War II to a home on Beach Lane.   He became active in the community as a home builder, a partner in A. L. Cash & Son, the first vice-commander of Ogden Dunes’ American Legion Post and the first fire chief of the volunteer fire department.  Following his discharge from the Navy he remained active in the reserves.  Because of that, he was recalled to service with the outbreak of the Korean War.   At that point, he made the Navy his career, serving on active duty until 1961 and then on active reserves until 1978.

An overview from Hillcrest Road looking at two homes built by Mitchell Cash around 1948

After 1961 he joined NASA at the Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama.  There he worked on the lunar landing module and the design for the space station.   He also completed as master’s degree at the University of Alabama.

According to his obituary, Mitchell had three loves in his life.  Muriel Grace Smith, whom he married in 1941, was his companion for fifty-one years, until she died in 1992.  They had three children, Laura, Mitchell, and Sarah.  After his retirement, they moved to Pensacola.  His second love was his 26-foot sloop, which he and his family sailed regularly in the waters around Florida and the Caribbean.

In 1999 he married his third love, Helen Marie Gebhardt, whom he met on the Orient Express while touring Europe.  They would travel the world on as many trains as they could take.  They spent their last years together in Bothell, Washington, where he died at ninety-two on April 10, 2011.   He was buried with full military honors at Barancas National Cemetery in Pensacola. Mitch was survived by his two daughters, Laura and Sarah, six grandchildren, and eight great- grandchildren.  His only son, Mitchell, Jr., died at fifty-four in Norfolk, Virginia in 2000.    On her dad’s death in 2011, Laura wrote, “Dad felt the most important things in his life, overall, were that he sired a great family, he contributed something to the world, and that he enjoyed life.” [ U.S. Cemetery and Funeral Home Collection] The same praise would describe her grandparents, A.L. and Dess Cash.

Excerpts from Mitchell Cash’s Autobiography                                                    

Decision Number Two (c. 1924) – Ogden Dunes

Here again a decision by my parents had a great effect on my future.  The early twenties were boom times and dad was making good money building homes.  They bought an old shack on the shores of Lake Michigan, in a real estate development called Ogden Dunes, east of Gary.  I suspect mother was the influential one in this decision, as she always seemed more interested in outdoor activities than dad.   Ogden Dunes was several square miles of pristine natural sand dunes on the southern shores of Lake Michigan, between the lake and the railroads and highway about one mile to the south.  It was sand and sand hills, called dunes, and covered with trees, bushes, clumps of wild grass and a variety of wild flowers, birds and small animals as rabbits, squirrels, and field mice.  There was a wide sandy beach and walking the sand caused a “squeaky sound”, so it was known as singing sands.  The locals claimed it was the only place like it in the world, but I have since been on other similar sounding sand beaches.  From the beach you could see the Gary steel mills to the west and on a clear day you could see the tall buildings of Chicago about thirty-five miles northwest of us.  At night you could see the beam of the rotating Lindberg beacon on top of the tallest building sweep across the sky.

Some of the dunes were 100 feet or more in height.  One very high dune behind our cottages had some vegetation on top with a gentle slope down to a point where the grass ended at a steep drop off.  It was great fun to climb to the top of the hill, run down full speed to the drop off and leap into space, landing in the sand about fifteen or twenty feet down the steep slope.  Some dunes were known as shifting or moving dunes as they had insufficient vegetation to protect the sand and the prevailing winds kept moving the sand, covering trees and anything not moving. My first trip to Ogden Dunes with dad was in the Model T Ford.  He had to back it up a big hill to get to the cottage as the hill was so steep the car couldn’t make it in forward gear.  The Model T had a lower gear in reverse which provided more power going backwards.  This hill was later lowered twenty feet to make the beach and homes more accessible.  Ogden Dunes at that time had very few homes, probably no more than a dozen, and only two roads, one leading in from the highway and one parallel to the lake front just behind the first sand dune.

Earlier I referred to our Ogden Dunes cottage as an “old shack” and I meant just that.  It was a dilapidated wood cottage with a covered and screened front porch, a slightly larger main room that also served as the bedroom, and a small screened back porch with a kitchen and “bath room”. The latter term is misnomer as it only had a chemical toilet in it.  As the oldest and biggest of the three brothers, it was my job to lug the five-gallon “honey bucket” away from the cottage and dig a hole and bury its contents.  In hindsight this was not a very sanitary activity as our drinking water came from a shallow well and a hand pump in the kitchen that was not very far from my bucket dumpsites.  However, these sites did not appear to have every caused any sickness in the family.  Baths were in the lake and there was no electricity.  Kerosene lanterns provided a little light and cooking was done on a kerosene stove.  The shack was torn down a few years later as not fitting for a growing town.

One of my favorite activities was a long walk in the early morning before the rest of the family awoke.  I early heard about Diana of the Dunes who was reputed to live west of town and run around naked.  Of course one of my first explorations was to the west but all I found was the burned out remains of a small cabin.  What a disappointment!  Once I found a turtle on top of a sand dune a long distance from water.  When I picked it up I found it was a snapping turtle as it tried hard to bite my fingers.  Fortunately, I had hold of it too far back for it to get me. Another time I flushed a covey of quail from the bushes and their noise startled me.  There was no outdoor activity after dark as there were no street lights, and evenings were spent in the shack with talk and games.  With our parents, Web and I learned to play bridge.  Even though it was the old fashioned auction version, it led me later to the enjoyment of the more advanced contract bridge.  Youngest brother Art was too young to play and I don’t know if he ever took up the game.  When an electrical storm came up over the lake we could see a fantastic lightning display, and it was really spectacular after dark!

The second year we were there an artificial ski jump was constructed on top of very steep dune near the entrance.  [Note: Ogden Dunes Ski Club (primarily Norwegians from Chicago) purchased or leased the land from Ogden Dunes Realty in 1927 with the first international competition taking place in 1928]  The ramp the skiers came down was supported by steel towers built above the dune.  After a snowfall the ramp was packed with snow, and the skiers came down the ramp and jumped off, landing on the side of the steep snow covered dune.  However, it wasn’t a commercial success and was abandoned after the 1932 competition.  On some of my summer walks I would climb the stairs to the top of the ramp which provided a great view of the surrounding country.  I gave that climb up when I saw the wood steps were beginning to rot.  The entire structure was later removed and the area turned into lots for housing.

Then there was swimming, and we did spend a lot of time in the water.  When we first moved there the water was clear with a beautiful blue color except when storms stirred up the sandy bottom.  About this time some government agency began digging a large ditch through the dunes east of Ogden Dunes to drain the lowlands to the south.  It was named Burns Ditch and I occasionally climbed the high sand hill that was being formed along the ditch from the dredged and watch the dredges at work.  When the ditch was completed the effects were quite visible.  The water coming out of the ditch was a muddy brown color from the soil in the low areas.  At times we would have beautiful clear water in front of Ogden Dunes, but when the wind blew from the east it set up a westward current in the water and you could see the muddy water from the ditch approaching our shores, spoiling the beautiful clear water.  However it didn’t inhibit the swimming.

When we first moved to Ogden Dunes the only children my age living there were Leonard Whelpley and his older sister. [Note: Leonard’s family lived near the entrance in a home that served as a real estate office for Ogden Dunes Realty and the telephone switchboard.  Leonard’s father, Harold, was the sales representative for the realty company and his mother, Louise, the telephone operator.] Leonard and I became and remained friends until his recent death [in 2004].  We found a certain kind of dried root in the sand that could be smoked.  It was pretty raw and distasteful smoke but made us feel grown up.  However my smoking did not progress to cigarettes until college days.  A cottage next to our shack was owned by two related families, the Vernons in Chicago and the Thompsons in St. Louis.  Bill Thompson, who was my age, had two sisters and we became good friends and I dated Joan occasionally.  Bill later joined the same fraternity as I at Purdue and we continued to see each other over the years.  Unfortunately he died two years ago, but I still exchange Christmas cards with his wife.  One year Agnes Vernon, who was about two years older than I, stayed in the cabin. She began to accompany me on those early morning walks and at one point when I was about ten she informed me that when we grew up she was going to marry me.  Fortunately she did not return the next year.

As the years passed more homes were built and there were other young people my age.  One year we got together and built a raft.  It was the typical boards on oil drums but provided a lot of enjoyment.   The raft was kept on the beach until wanted and then towed out to deep water by two or three swimmers and anchored with a concrete block.  We referred to ourselves as the “rafters”.  I became a good swimmer and think back to the times I body surfed in five and six foot waves, something I would not recommend now.  But we were well aware of the dangers of a knock down and capable of coping with any undertow.  In the winter the lake froze over and ice piled high along the shore and out for some distance.  We delighted in climbing over the piles of ice, but were careful to never go out on the ice when the wind was out of the south.  When that happened there was always a possibility that the wind would push the ice out in the lake with no way to get back to shore.  Chicago had polar bear club and in the winter members would break a hole in the ice and take a dip in the ice cold water.   I never tried that but one year I decided to see how cold it was just after the ice melted.  It was fast in and out swim as the ice cold water too my breath away.

On nice warm evenings several of us boys and girls would meet on the beach after supper and build a bonfire to sit around and roast marshmallows.  There were always stories and song until the town marshal came along about 10:00 p.m. and told us we have to leave.  Then we usually drove into Miller, about five miles, to get some ice cream at Jack Spratt’s.  One of the boys, George Semerau, had a Buick roadster and always drove it about 100 miles per hour. [George’s father, a successful Chicago printer, had a family cottage in Ogden Dunes.  After World War II, George, like Mitchell, settled in Ogden Dunes.]  One night he was complaining about his tires getting bald and I decided it would be better if I drove dad’s car or Napoleon to town, even though it made me fifteen minutes late for the party.  Once, Grace Kratz, who lived in the big house on the beach [50 Shore Drive] that dad had built had an out-of-town girl visiting her.  She called me and asked if I would entertain her guest.  I picked her up at her door after dark and took them to the beach for a typical party, dropping them afterward at her door.  This happened twice more before I saw my date in any light.  She turned out to be good looking but didn’t stay in the dunes very long.  I still remember the gorgeous full moons that rose of the lake in the east.

One year [late summer, 1938] we decided to have a hayride.  One of the local farmers brought his wagon covered with hay to the entrance of Ogden Dunes and about fifteen of us hopped on.  To get from our community to the back roads through the farms we had to go along the highway for a short distance.  I was sitting on the back end of the wagon on the left side with my date next to me and another couple next to her.  When we got on the highway I watched the lights of a big truck come over a hill a half mile away and head toward us at high speed.  There was a battery operated light on the wagon but evidently the driver wasn’t paying attention. When I finally realized that it was not going to pass around us, I got one foot under me and launched off for the ditch and the truck hit right where I had been sitting!  The other three people on the back later insisted they never moved and I took them into the ditch with me.  We four, the only ones who jumped, were not hurt but others were thrown in all directions.  One girl was killed and several others seriously injured.  After that I never let my children go on hayrides, and I have been thankful ever since that I took the seating place I did.  Sixty years later I visited Ogden Dunes, now a village filled with hundreds of homes.  Lake Michigan had risen three or four feet and was encroaching on the first dune.  The beach had disappeared and homeowners on the waterfront were driving steel pilings in front of their homes to keep them from being washed away.  All the natural dunes had disappeared and the entire area was covered with houses, most with grass lawns.  It was quite a disappointment to me.

Why was the move to Ogden Dunes an important decision and milestone in my life?  Because I spent many glorious summers there and came to love the outdoors.  I learned to swim in Lake Michigan and enjoy the water.  The long walks on the beach and in the early mornings through the sand dunes and woods of the area gave me an appreciation and love for the outdoors.  It developed a lifelong interest in the outdoors and at some point in those days I gave thought to studying forestry to become a ranger.  When I had a family of my own, I continued outdoor activities, introducing my wife and children to these activities.  We had an umbrella tent for twenty-five years and camped out in it around the United States and Canada, enjoying the outdoors.  Later the tent was traded for a motor home, which took us on sightseeing trips around the United States, Canada and Mexico.  I also did a lot of fishing, both in the fresh water lakes and rivers, and later in the oceans.  For years I hunted deer in Alabama when I lived there, not so much to kill deer (only one but it sure tasted good), but to enjoy being out walking in the woods or sitting by a bonfire in the evening enjoying the sounds of the woods.  Unfortunately, age has slowed these activities.  I gave up hunting years ago and don’t swim much now but still love the outdoors and enjoy traveling and seeing the scenery of the country.

In his autobiography, Mitchell discusses his and Muriel’s decision to return to Ogden Dunes, following the end of World War II and to enter the home construction business with his father.  After his military service ended in California, Mitchell, Muriel and their three-year old daughter Lolly[Laura] took the train to Chicago and then on to Ogden Dunes. 

Mother and Dad invited us to stay with them until we could find a place to live as rentals were impossible to find due to the pent up demand for houses.  Theirs was a two bedroom place on the side of a rather high hill and you see the lake from the front windows [Note: on the top of the dune between Shore Drive and Ogden Road, most likely 48 Ogden Road]  It had a garage and a third bedroom and bath in the basement which we occupied.  There was a long drive up from the road in front and a number of steps up the hill to the kitchen level from a road behind it.  Mitchell Jr. (called Mike) was born a cold December 16th in 1945.

Dad and I had agreed on an equal partnership.  He had always used the name “A.L. Cash,

Builder” for his business.  We changed to “A.L. Cash and Son, Builders” but retained his business slogan, “When we build let us think that we build forever”.  We each put in an equal amount of money but I don’t remember the amount.  At first Dad did all the supervising of the work and handled the finances.  It was not long before I was doing my share of the supervision.  I also took over estimating costs of construction …  and began drawing plans for some of the smaller homes we would build.

After the war there was a pent-up demand for homes as none had been built for four years and I was anxious to get into that market.  We sold some spec homes under the GI bill and when the government restrictions were lifted began to build more.  Our biggest problem was our somewhat limited capital which prevented us from doing mass construction. Also the topography of the dunes where we were doing the home building was such that you almost always had to design a different or modified plan for each location.  Many of the homes in Ogden Dunes were built with light weight cement blocks and painted on the outside and inside walls giving a rustic look to the house.  If the owner wanted a more sophisticated look inside we added strips of wood and then plaster board which could be painted or wall papered.  If they wanted brick exterior it was done on wood framing in the traditional method.  There was a plant in Miller that produced light weight cinder blocks, 8x8x16 inches.  These were made with cement and crushed slag, the latter being a byproduct of steel production.  They weighed about 25 pounds compared to 50 pounds of the standard concrete blocks.  As a result of the lighter weight they were easier and faster to lay up for walls.  Since the slag was somewhat like foam and had a lot of air holes, they also provided better insulation than concrete blocks.


Photo: Example of a Cash spec home built in 1948 – 75 Ogden Road

Living with three generations for an extended time can develop problems.  Mother had a great time with a live-in daughter she had always wanted, but two grandchildren living with them at their age was not too great for them.  I designed a home for us on a lot high on a hill near the waterfront road that had a long steep driveway to it and a view of the lake.   The cost on that construction was higher than I expected so that we put it up for sale and started construction of a smaller one across the street without a lake view.


Photo: Mitchell and Muriel’s home at 6 Beach Lane


Photo: Mitchell Cash home today at 6 Beach Lane

We made a number of friends in the town.  Roger and Blacky Willis lived in the house behind us [19 Hillcrest] which we had built and sold to them.  They were a fun couple with two daughters the same ages as our two.

Our foremost resident, Mr. Kratz [50 Shore Drive] served as town board president for as long as I can remember, and he conducted a monthly meeting in his garage.   Being fire conscious from my Navy days, I attended a meeting shortly after arriving and brought up the lack of a fire department.  The response was the town was serviced by the Miller branch of the Gary Fire Department.  My comment that they were five miles away and it would take time to get her didn’t make any impression, but our friend Willard Dorman changed that rapidly one night.

I was in bed one night when the phone rang.  When I picked it up Lucille Whelpley, the town’s telephone operator, said the Dorman house is on fire, get going.  When the Miller fire truck arrived they only had 100 gallons of water in their tanks and couldn’t do any good.  Soon the house was in full blaze and it was too late to do anything but watch it burn.  The next summer we built a new and fireproof home for Dorman’s under a cost plus agreement (96 Shore Drive).

A salesman for the fire equipment was invited by me to attend the next monthly town meeting and the possibility of getting fire protection was finally discussed.   I volunteered my efforts after explaining my fire training with the Navy and was appointed to head the program.  Soon we purchased a used fire engine with a 500 gallon tank.  In the meantime I had asked for volunteers to be firemen and got eight to ten, keeping in mind that many were working in the city during the day. Since I was the only one with any fire training and also had a red truck I was elected chief.  The town had an empty two car garage.  We had to rebuild the entrance doors for a new fire truck.  We later put an addition on the back of the garage for our and the town meetings.  In the few years I remained there we did put out several small fires, but none that had as good a start as did Dorman’s.

By the late 1940s as the Cold War was turning into the Korean War, Mitchell and Muriel made the difficult decision to make the military his career.  They left the dunes, their close friends, and his parents.  But in their five years here, they also left a number of well-built homes and major contributions to the community through his service to the American Legion and the Ogden Dunes Volunteer Fire Department.     

Editor’s note:  This issue of “The Hour Glass” newsletter, along with the previous issue that focused on the life and contributions of Les and Dess Cash and the memoir of Mitchell Cash’s younger brother, Arthur Cash, provide the reader with what life was like when the community was in its formative stage.  The 1930s was a time when the permanent residents (50 in 1930 and 144 in 1940) were significantly outnumbered three months of the year by those who owned summer cottages.  Yet, both groups of residents laid the foundation for the wonderful community that we share seventy-five years later.  We thank Arthur Cash and Laura Cash Mitchell for providing the memoirs that will continue to enrich our appreciation for our community.