The History of the Pleasant Lake Inn
By Ray Berg
On Sunday, February 8, 2015, the Pleasant Lake Inn in Freedom Township was severely damaged by a fire of unknown cause. The fire totally consumed the bar/restaurant area of the structure on the east side, which was a converted dancehall built in 1920 downhill on the site, and then relocated, modified and attached to the original roadhouse inn in 1927 to be closer to the road. Several apartments in the original 1880 structure on the west side of the inn suffered significant smoke and water damage, and their fate is unclear at this point.
The Pleasant Lake Inn, located in the hamlet of Fredonia on the north shore of Pleasant Lake along the main thoroughfare of the township, has been a social gathering point, recreational center and entertainment venue in Freedom Township for 135 years. This story provides an overview of the history and evolution of the site, as we wait to see what may redevelop there.
The author thanks Patricia (Paczkowski) Swaney, author of the 1980 book The Pleasant Lake House 1880-1980, for permitting the use of materials from her work. The Freedom Township Historical Archives contain information also used in this article. The author also thanks Reno Feldkamp for loaning his copy of Patricia Swaney’s book for scanning and digital preservation.
Figure 1 – The Pleasant Lake Inn
Jacob Lutz – Builder and First Owner
The land on which the Pleasant Lake Inn sits was originally purchased by Henry Griffin, one of the earliest Freedom Township settlers, and elected its first supervisor in April 1834. Griffin owned and farmed the land through the early 1860s, when it was sold to William Hanky, who constructed a steam-powered saw mill on the north shore of the lake and harvested lumber for making logs. This land and business were located on what was originally named “Lodi Road”, first surveyed and built in 1834 along an existing Native American trail to connect Lodi Township and Ann Arbor-Saline Road with several township “centers” heading west. It thus became a major route for travelers and freight moving between Ann Arbor and points west.
By 1874, the land is owned by Jacob Lutz, as the immigration of Germans peaked, making Freedom Township almost 90% German-owned. Jacob was born in Kirchentellinsfurt, Germany in 1822, and emigrated in 1848. He initially began as a fur trader and tin ware dealer, then moved into the railroad business, before ending up in Freedom Township by 1858. Jacob and his second wife Regina Hegge had five children.
The first “Pleasant Lake House” was constructed by Lutz in 1880, up from the lake and near the road, to attract travelers coming down the road. The two-story home had a saloon and grocery store in the front sections, with the family rooms in the back portion. The building came under the general term of “roadhouse”, a rural stopping place along a road for refreshments or for overnight stays. A barn was also constructed across the street where the parking lot for the Inn now sits. Lutz descendants told stories of travelers staying overnight, including a travelling circus with wagons and elephants during the summer months. The Pleasant Lake House became known as the place to socialize and relax in Freedom Township. Jacob’s son, Henry, continued to farm the land and provide food for the grocery store.
Jacob Lutz died in 1903 and is buried in the Bethel Church cemetery. Shortly before his death, he sold the Pleasant Lake House to David Schneider.
Figure 2 shows a photocopy of the inn from an original picture. Jacob Lutz is standing to the right of the dog. The original picture was reproduced for display in the inn, and is now lost, as were several other early photographs of the Pleasant Lake Inn.
Figure 2 – Jacob Lutz, sixth from left, Pleasant Lake House, circa 1880s
David Schneider – Second Owner
David Schneider came from Lodi Township in 1903 with his wife and two children, and purchased the entire land parcel, building and business from Jacob Lutz. He added on to the second floor of the house to create more room where dances could be held. Florence (Davenport) Dettling, the daughter of a piano salesman and long-time resident of the Pleasant Lake area, recalled that around 1910, when she was eighteen, she began playing music for the dancers. An organ was also brought up to the dance hall which she would play, accompanied by her father, Charles Davenport on coronet, and Charles Dettling, her future husband, on violin. Tired dancers could take a stairways down to the restaurant for a cup of coffee and hot dog for 5 cents.
“Shadow-box socials” were also held where women would bring homemade box lunches, then stand hidden behind a screen while the men would bid on the lunches. The highest bidder would get to picnic with the woman making that lunch down in the park area that David Schneider had built behind the dancehall and house. If the women had a favorite beau, she would tip him off as to which box was hers.
Horse and buggy would carry visitors from all around to the Pleasant Lake House for fishing, picnicking and meals, and the barn received heavy use for horse storage. Quite often the dancehall was partitioned off with folding screens, and cots would be provided for overnight guests. But by the 1920s, with more automobile traffic, David Schneider decided a new dancehall was needed more than the barn, and thus the upper level of the house could be converted into rooms for overnight guests. A new dancehall was constructed around 1920 from the barn beams, and located southwest of the house. It was built on stilts on the side of the hill, with a high-beamed roof and band loft. The hall had no electricity but many windows to let in light. A large windmill was located east of the house by the sawmill to pump water from the lake up to the Pleasant Lake House buildings.
Figure 3 – David Schneider (left) at the Pleasant Lake House
Figure 4 – Freedom Defeats Bridgewater, September 15, 1912
Emannual (Manny) Sodt – Third Owner
Manny Sodt became the third owner in 1925 with the purchase from David Schneider, and installed electricity into the inn. Manny was born in 1890 just west of the Fredonia hamlet. Manny had a career as a motorcycle policeman in Ann Arbor, and accompanied important visitors such as the governor when they visited the area. He was also the equipment manager for the University of Michigan football team. Manny was married to Clara Koch of the hamlet of Jerusalem, daughter of a saloon owner on Fletcher Road, which brought experience into the business. Clara also designed and installed rock and flower gardens to beautify the Pleasant Lake House area.
Manny decided in 1927 the dancehall was too far from the road, and also wanted to expand the lakefront area for more camping facilities. With logs carefully placed under the dancehall, the structure was rolled a few feet at a time, up the hill and onto the road, and then positioned east of the house on a new foundation. He also purchased several used wooden waiting stations from the inter-urban railroad, and placed them as cabins near the lake. Olympic star Jesse Owens is recalled by family members as one summer guest who came to relax. Bear cubs, foxes, porcupines and other unusual animals were housed in stone dens built along the hillside for the benefit of camping guests.
Manny Sodt also enlarged the saloon and restaurant by enclosing the front porch. In the summer, dances would move outdoors, often accompanied by Phil Diamond and the Four Aces. Manny himself played horn with local German bands, and the Ann Arbor Greek community was well known for boisterous parties and good food in the park.
Figure 5 – Mannie’s Inn, with relocated dance hall and new gas pumps
The Sunday afternoon baseball games continued on the baseball field west of the tavern. The Pleasant Lake Tavern team was considered one of the best in the area. Rules included a free beer for every base hit. Even the losers were never disappointed. Fourth of July fireworks displays, which started with David Schneider, continued with Manny Sodt, who had to go to Ohio to buy them, but it brought huge crowds and plenty of business. It was during this period that the Pleasant Lake Fourth of July Boat Parade also started, with boats blaring loud music and plenty of reveling. The prizes for best-decorated boats began soon after. Business increased with the paving of Pleasant Lake Road around 1930. Manny added a gas pump and oil reservoir, and the road construction workers ensured a full house for the inn.
During planning for the Freedom Township 175th anniversary celebration in 2009, the planners investigated what had been done, if anything, to celebrate the township’s 100th anniversary in April 1934. Township minutes were found for the April 7, 1934 meeting, held in the old brick Freedom Township hall. It was noted that Board members Schaible, Buss, Kothe and Reno moved and approved a permit to allow “E. J. Sodt” to sell beer off the premises, and to provide $5.00 towards soft drinks and use of the dance hall. The minutes did not state what for, but we presume that a party of some sort was held to honor 100 years of Freedom Township.
Manny’s health began declining in the 1940s. He sold the property in September 1943 and passed away a few months later.
Figure 6 – Crowds Arrive for a Good Time
Figure 7 – Manny Sodt
Ray Hoener – Fourth Owner
Ray Hoener was a tool and die maker from Detroit, and owned a cottage with his wife Lydia across the lake from the inn. When he heard that Manny Sodt was planning on selling the property, Ray considered it a good investment, and moved his family in late 1943. Lydia took over running the restaurant, and Ray added an enclosure on the back porch to further expand the restaurant and bar capacity. Ray determined to relocate the bar further away from the restaurant, grocery store and his family. He built the 40-foot long bar and walk-in cooler into the west side of the hall, received a beer and wine license in 1944, and opened the new bar for business. Improvements to the lakeside picnic area and indoor toilets for the patrons were also added.
The Hoeners also made several major improvements to the house in terms of heating, new windows, and new plumbing, all of which were becoming costly. Combined with their growing fatigue with running the bar, they leased the bar part of the operation to Floyd Schneider in 1948. The Hoeners did act to increase their property’s value by constructing the subdivision and mobile home park on the land where the former dance hall had stood. This mobile home park initially served the workers building the oil and gas pipelines and pumping station in Freedom Township.
In 1959, the Hoeners sold their property, except for the mobile park subdivision, to Louis Brow.
Figure 8 – Ray and Lydia Hoener with family
Figure 9 – Fun at the Pleasant Lake Inn Park
Louis Brow – Fifth Owner
In 1959, Louis Brow renamed the inn as Louie’s Bar. The restaurant was converted to a grocery store and soda fountain. Cement blocks were used to build the new storefront with large plate glass windows to display their merchandise. In 1965, the Brows then sold to John and Vicky Weber of Dexter.
John and Vicky Weber – Sixth Owner
The Webers continued the business with an emphasis on fishing and related contests. The Webers directly ran the grocery store and specialized in good butchered meats. Two of their children formed a band called the Clichés, and played in the tavern on Friday and Saturday nights. During the Webers’ ownership, the building also housed an antiques shop. The business was considered successful, building upon the inn’s heritage as a community socializing center until 1978. In that year, they sold the business to four young enterprising men, who renamed the business and started it on a new era.
A sample quote from the time of the sale came from a former worker: “I learned my diplomacy cracking heads and pouring drinks,” he joked. The Webers were deeply rooted in the community, and they attracted a crowd of locals with lunch specials and weekly euchre and pool tournaments. They also sponsored a Pleasant Lake Inn baseball team—most of the players drove beer trucks for a living—that won several championships in the Manchester league.”
Richard Dimond, Daniel Arrington, Philip Jones and Donald Yates – Seventh Owner
By 1978, the inn was characterized as old, rambling, somewhat unattractive, but with “potential”. Four young men bought the inn in 1978, and renamed it “Aura Inn” – An Unusual Roadside Attraction”. These new owners, high school friends from Cass Tech, had been engaged in old home renovations in Ann Arbor. They began by trying a new menu, including chapatis and herb teas in addition to the usual burgers, chips and beer. This was quickly readjusted back to the menus loved by the regulars. Soup was made by Uncle Ole, who crocheted as he drank. The most exotic sandwich was the Pope Burger, a Polish sausage with sauerkraut on Italian bread. The Lewis and Clark Expedition, a country-western band, was popular for an extended period, as well as various rock bands. In the early 1980s, a former worker recalled, the inn was very popular—”There’d be people five deep at the bar”—and too noisy for him to hear customers’ orders. “We had to read lips,” he said.
The owners also began revamping the waterfront into “Aura’s Pleasant Lake Park” offering boat launch and rentals, camping, picnicking, swimming, fishing and sailing. The park was open daily from Memorial Day to Labor Day, with admission 50 cents to a dollar. The idea of a small-scale “family resort” with a concession stand and boat rentals would hopefully resurrect a disappearing institution.
As the Manchester Chronicle noted, “There is still that place which captures the spirit and ambiance of an Irish pub, a “Cheers”-kind of camaraderie, a place to go with family and friends”. Besides comfortable and cozy upholstered booths, or next to a window with views of the lake and park-like setting around old weeping willows, the Aura Inn featured theme nights like Hawaiian Night and Toga Night. Karaoke, Friday night Fish Dinners and Sunday rotisserie dinners were also highlights.
The Aura Inn welcomed patrons for 20 years, and on Sunday, August 30, 1998 hosted “The End of an Era at the Aura – 20 Years of GOOD times” with a noon to midnight Pig/Beef Roast. Richard Dimond asked patrons to come to the “Pucker Up and Kiss Me Goodbye Party”. Richard retired to a different career, and initially the facility was to be sold to Alex DeParry, a contractor from Ann Arbor, who was going to completely renovate the bar/restaurant for use as a banquet facility. However, by May 25, 2000, the new building owner was identified as Paul Parkinson.
Figure 10 – Richard Dimond and Dan Arrington, the Aura Inn
Figure 11 – The Aura Inn
Paul Parkinson – Eighth and Current Owner
Paul Parkinson and wife Barbara McCoy acquired the Aura Inn from Richard Dimond in May 2000, and renamed it The Pleasant Lake Inn. It is currently listed as owned by “Secure Properties and Investment” of Ypsilanti, Michigan. When Parkinson purchased the property, he noted that the Pleasant Lake Inn was a bar/restaurant with eight acres of lakefront setting, a unique situation in Washtenaw County. He completed a series of internal brightening moves, such as new white ceiling tile and white tablecloths, opening up more windows and cleaning overgrown brush. He also set about rebuilding the deck and stairways, and a boat dock to welcome boaters coming in for a meal. The Pleasant Lake Inn continued to host local patrons, visitors passing down Pleasant Lake Road, and featured bands on weekend nights, focusing lately on local bands such as Risky Brenda from Manchester and Trembling Earth. The property was listed for sale and possible redevelopment as of the date of the fire on February 8, 2015.
Figure 12 – Paul Parkinson, Eighth Owner of the Pleasant Lake Inn
Figure 13 – View inside Pleasant Lake Inn, 2014
(Photo by Chuck Marshall, supplied by Brenda Sodt Foster)
What Will Become of the Inn?
As of the date of this article, what is left of the Inn, part of Jacob Lutz’s original 1880s home, remains boarded up. Prior to the fire, there had been talk, concurrent with the commercial real estate listing of the inn, that a major new upgrade or building was needed for the site. The real estate listing spoke of bed and breakfast potential, with excellent lake views. After 135 years, we hope that the ninth owner will bring new ideas and vision to this hillside site on the north side of Pleasant Lake.
Figure 14 – The End of the Inn, February 8, 2015