Home Nurse course Post-war Cheboygan and the Opera through the eyes of Faye Johnston

Post-war Cheboygan and the Opera through the eyes of Faye Johnston

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The last column on the Johnston family during WWII needs correction. I said that three Johnston brothers returned safely from World War II, but in reality only two brothers, Howard and Bob, went to war.

The third sibling was Faye’s sister, Lorraine Johnston Hamilton. Lorraine was an army nurse and a lieutenant, while Howard and Bob were sergeants. Because she was an officer, Lorraine was not allowed to fraternize with her brothers while they were stationed in Europe.

Through a series of correspondences with their mother at home, the three somehow arranged to meet in England before returning home for good. Now living in Traverse City, Lorraine, 101, reads these articles and deserves a big thank you for her service.

By 1944, most eligible men were in the military, forcing many women into the workforce. Even children were asked to help. Faye and thousands of other students across America were doing their part to help the war effort by collecting milkweed pods. Milk grass silk has been extracted and used as flotation material for life jackets. As a class assignment, children were asked to fill mesh onion bags with milkweed pods. Two bags provided enough filler for a life jacket.

According to The Monarch Joint Venture, “More than 12 MILLION pounds of milkweed pods have been collected and sent by truckloads to Petosky, Michigan, for processing.”

“Nobody thought of the monarch butterfly,” Johnston said.

Cheboygan volunteers also stood guard at the Opera House, one of the city’s tallest buildings. Armed with binoculars, they stood at third-floor windows and watched for enemy planes. If a suspicious aircraft was seen, they were to alert a liaison at the airport.

Cheboygan’s first public hospital was built in 1942. When the war ended and the soldiers returned home in 1945, the baby boom began across America. As a junior in high school, Faye left her job as a housekeeper to Mrs. Duncan. She accepted a job as a “candy stripper” at the hospital. Most of her work was done in the maternity ward. “We may not have known much about delivering babies, but we learned quickly,” Johnston said. “It was really busy.” That same year, Faye had a hand in the junior class play. She saw the Opera for the first time.

“It wasn’t like today, not as well maintained, no nice carpets or fancy seats. But I was just a girl and didn’t pay much attention to architecture or detail It was a very special place and it really was a great opportunity for the classes to be there and so began Faye’s love of the Cheboygan Opera House.

In 1946, Faye, a senior, met Sophia Fultz, “Grandma Shy”. Fultz’s letters to her grandson spoke of her passion for the Cheboygan Opera House, where she had first visited in 1900. Faye was 17 or 18 and Fultz was 53.

Sophia Elliot Fultz in 1910, about 17 years old.  Fultz and Johnston shared a lifelong passion for Opera.

Fultz decided that upper-class girls, many of whom were farm workers, needed more culture. She invited the senior girls to a tea party at her house. The girls had to dress up and had to wear white gloves.

No one in the Johnston family had white gloves and it took some time to find a pair Faye could borrow. She arrived at the tea party in her best dress and white gloves with Delores Peach Petersen and Anne Tromble. Fultz served tea in his finest china and fine linen. She entertained the girls, playing the piano for them. The Fultz house where Sophia gave piano recitals, hosted a bridge club and hosted fancy tea parties still stands on the corner of Locust and Bailey.

In senior year, Faye had a bigger role in the class play at the Opera, “Grandpa Hangs the Holly” about a petty old grandpa who wasn’t happy at Christmas. Vic Leonall played the grandfather. “He was always class president,” Faye said. Faye played the spirit of his dead wife who came back to change her mind. She wore a long white dress and was able to kiss Vic Leonall, “but only on the forehead, because of her makeup”.

Coverage of the show

Faye made another appearance on the Opera stage when she graduated in June 1946. In 1944 most of the 12th graders joined the service and the class was very small. But in 1946, the promotion was again very numerous. It was a hot and humid day, made worse by the onset of the rains. The Opera had no air conditioning.

Seated at the top of the balcony, 83 seniors were cooking, wearing toques and woolen caps. For refreshment, high school students often went to Lakeland Ice Cream on Main Street, with its soda fountain and dairy bar, where “The Hive” now stands.

During the winter months, one of the greatest forms of youth entertainment was the skating rink. The city closed the entire block where West Side Elementary currently stands and turned it into a skating rink. There she met her husband Jim. Faye “busy herself having babies and running a business”, which later became Johnston’s Marina.

Kathy King Johnson is Executive Director of the Cheboygan Region Arts Council and Opera House.  Originally from Cheboygan, she is a Hopwood Prize-winning writer from the University of Michigan.

She always attended events at the Opera and the one that stuck in her mind was a cooking class given by the IGA grocery store in the summer of 1949. They learned to plan meals and share recipes, but this event was made memorable when one lucky participant won an electric stove.

Over the years, Faye has attended countless events at the Opera. She has seen her children and grandchildren perform on stage. Some of his favorite shows are when American military bands come to town. For Faye, the Cheboygan Opera House will always be a very special place.

— Kathy King Johnson is the former Executive Director of the Cheboygan Opera House.