The Man Behind the Lens: The Life of Erhardt Peters

Discover history through the photographic life work of Erhardt Peters (1904-1989). The Leelanau Historical Society, located in Leland, MI is home to a vast portion of Peters body of work.

Erhardt was born to John and Anna Peters of Good Harbor.  Erhardt became interested in photography at a young age.  His first dark room was in the basement of his family home in Leland.  First using an Eastman box camera and later a 2×3 Zeiss Icon.  Erhardt’s deep love of Leland is apparent in his prolific images of the village and harbor depicting small town life from about 1920-1940.  Later in life Erhardt moved to Ludington, MI but frequently returned to Leland to visit friends and acquaintances.  Over the years he often brought copies of his photographs with him to show and sell.  Erhardt also captured photographs of old photographs owned by the pioneers of Leelanau County.  Thanks to Erhardt’s forethought many early images of Leelanau County still exist as copies.

The Leelanau Historical Society’s Collection houses over 4,000 Erhardt Peters photographs, the majority of which were purchased or donated in 2004 when Keith Burnham founder of the Leland Report asked his subscribers for donations.  Over $16,000 was raised and donated to the museum in order to purchase Erhardt’s photos and negatives from a private collector.  Erhardt himself had intended to donate his images to the museum but before he could do so, he died suddenly in a home fire in 1989 at the age of 85.  Some of the prints bear burn marks from that unfortunate day, but the majority survived.

Browse the Erhardt Peters Collection online.

In 2016 we became concerned that some of Erhardt’s early photos may have been captured using cellulose nitrate film first manufactured by Eastman Kodak in the 1880’s and discontinued in 1951.  Cellulose nitrate materials have two undesirable properties: they are highly flammable (and have been reported to have ignited spontaneously), and they are inherently unstable. Thanks to the dedication of a local volunteer, David Higley, these negatives have been identified, documented and safely stored using preservation best practices.

A Snapshot of Erhardt Peters Life

Written by John Arnold Wilfred Peters on June 1, 2016.

“Erhardt Nicholas Peters was born into this world the son of John and Anna (Fritschen) Peters of Leland, the 4th child of a family which would grow to six.  John was a man of knowledge and wisdom and was very able in many pursuits, including timber cutting and milling, and had one or more sawmills, and probably as a result, he was capable in steam engineering.  This brought him into a long-time job in the lightship service (possibly aboard the Huron) from which he retired in his later years with a pension allowing him to live comfortably in his home in Leland until his death at the age of 92.  Mrs. Schlueter came to do laundry and dishes, and possibly cook, allowing him to attend to the important things, such as gardening, coffee time, and being about town.

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Erhardt Peters (back row 2nd from left) circa 1923 while attending Leland High School.

The early years were not as kind financially for the family, partially due to a fire in John’s sawmill, and for several years Erhardt lived with John’s brother, Dietrich (Uncle Dick) and his wife Katharine (Aunt Katy) out of financial necessity; there were too many mouths to feed at the home table.  There he helped them work their farm in Good Harbor (now a vineyard) and grew to love them as he loved his parents.  

He loved the water, and life in that area provided plenty of opportunities to enjoy it.  He also loved photography, and arrived on the scene just as practical cameras were making their debut.  He maintained a photo studio and darkroom in the basement of the family home for years, and to his last day identified his work with an address stamp “Peters Photo’s, Leland, Michigan”, and usually stamped a small map of the Great Lakes in the upper left-hand corner. 

His pursuits ranged wide in search of a source of income: he caddied at the Leland Country Club, and for a time he stayed with his sister Stella in Chicago and worked at a bakery.  At another time, he worked for the undertaker, in Leland, I believe.  He also operated a boat service to Beaver Island or the Manitous. and spent a great deal of time (and what meagre resources were available) caring for his brother Wilfred (nicknamed Wolf, at least among the brothers), who worked himself into tuberculosis by trying to study law, run the Leelanau Enterprise, and cover all the sports events.  He took Wilfred to doctors and sanitariums at least throughout Michigan, doing all he could to find a cure.  He had a special place in his heart for Wilfred, whom he considered the best and brightest of the family, and he was wounded deeply in his spirit when Wilfred passed away.

Leland Independent basketball team, the “Zebras”

Somewhere in the flurry of life, he built one or more iceboats, and sailed them with such ability that his old friend Gerald Selby (whose father was the Leland High School principal or superintendent in their school years) once told me that Father’s iceboat was the fastest on the lake.  I have seen photos of him sailing, and usually only two of the three runners are on the ice.

He started attending Central Michigan College, but his father, John, discouraged him from becoming a geologist, as there was no money in it.  His lifelong friend, Nick Lederlie, may have shared his interest in geology, as he went on to work for ARAMCO and was based in Saudi Arabia.  

He also built his own automobile, with wooden frame and hand-formed sheet metal.  I believe the engine and drivetrain were standard manufactured items, however.

There are photos he took of the Carferries 1927, so he was sailing on them quite early.  It is not clear when he was on what type of ship, or what his job was in the first time on the Carferries.  Since he was quite young yet, he may have been a deckhand, at least for a time.

At some point he signed on to the Lower Lakers, the long ships that carried iron ore, coal, stone, whatever needed to be carried in vast quantities around the Great Lakes.  He was a wheelsman and First Officer aboard several of these ships, but his heart never left Leland.  I believe I still have unopened Leelanau Enterprises addressed to him aboard various ships.  A camera never left his hand, either.  There are (or were in some cases) photos of horrendous weather on Superior, a bar in Duluth, meeting and passing other ships, and the Soo locks, to mention a tiny fraction of what he photographed.  Curiously, one photo from a bar in Duluth has a joke “wanted” poster: the standard “Wanted Dead or Alive”, with the caricature we know as “Alfred E. Neumann” from Mad Magazine!  It is not just close, it could have come from a cover of Mad.

After some time on the Lower Lakers, he signed on to the Chesapeake and Ohio Carferries at Ludington.  Over the years he was assigned to various ones, but I think he sailed the 18, the 21 and the 32, and possibly the City of Midland, which was the 41.  He was, again, wheelsman and First Officer.  And the camera stayed with him.  He now had a Zeiss Ikon (quite compact, but with bellows to get the focal length) and an Argus C-3 35 mm joined the complement soon.  The days of color film had arrived, and 35 mm slides were the most practical form for a long time.

Just because he had a day job on the boats didn’t prevent him from being further involved.  While operating a boat with an engine (auxiliary to sail or primary power source, I don’t know), he severly injured a foot in the flywheel, and spent months in recovery.  At one time the doctors intended to amputate his foot, but he would have none of that, and one wonderful doctor (Lintner, I believe) said “We can save it.”  He was confined to bed for many weeks, but some faithful friends including the Bishops (Bish was his nickname and Hazel hers) kept him supplied and kept his spirits up enough to keep going.  He eventually graduated to crutches, and as he was working toward walking again, he would travel up and down Court Street, from his room at Mrs. (?? darn ??) toward, probably eventually to, the lakeshore, and as he travelled, from time to time he encountered a young woman, Alice Lucille Nelson, who was the circulation manager at the Ludington Daily News.  She walked to work daily from her parents’ home in the Fourth Ward.  They married in 1941.

He soon decided that he could not live a life away from home all the time as sailors must, so he quit the lakes and found work on land.  It wan’t hard, as World War II was just beginning, and Continental in Muskegon needed all the men it could find to build aircraft engines and tanks, etc. for the war effort.  Because of rationing, men carpooled of necessity, and drove Old Old Old 31 (freeways weren’t even dreamed of, yet).  (Today, one can reach Old 31 at a few places along the US 31 freeway between Ludington and Muskegon.  At fewer places still, one can turn onto a stretch of road that looks more like a sidewalk (flat, no Macadam to it and looking only one generous lane wide);  that is Old Old 31.  In late 40s/early 50s it was New 31.  The men and women who drove to Muskegon daily to work in the defense industry were every bit heros!)  He gave up the Lakes but not his cameras!

During the war, he also served in the Coast Guard Reserve, with at least part of his duties revolving around typing all the communications from that station.  He would come home from Continental, and turn around and head for his watch at the Coast Guard Station.  This continues for several years until one evening, entertaining guests at home, he stood up from his chair and went right on over unconscious.   

I came along in 1945, and it was all too apparent in later years that Father liked photography!  Photographing of his sons became his delight then.  Most of the photos were black and white, developed and printed in his darkroom in the basement.  We would often awaken to find them drying on aluminum sheets by the cast iron heat register in the living room.  

Though his attention was now primarily to his family, he still photographed ships on the Lakes and interesting things at work.  After the war, he tried his hand at a number of things, but nothing panned out until he heard of a job opening for an iron worker at the Dow plant in the Fourth Ward.  When asked if he had any experience, he replied, “Considerable”, and got the job.  When he walked on the job the first day, he picked out a fellow iron worker, confided in him that he had no clue as to what he was doing, and asked if the man would help him.  Johnny Rider of Charlevoix was a wonderful friend to him, and guided him successfully through that day and quite a few others, to the point that he became a very good journeyman in his own right.  Johnny stayed with us when he worked in Ludington, and he became a welcome member of the family, ready and willing to play with us boys.

The camera was always there, though.  The Shelf Dryer at Dow was a subject, so was the truck that had been hoisting a girder into place and somehow tipped over.

As time passed, Uncle Dick and Aunt Katy, then his father, John, passed away and the trips to Leland changed.  He dearly loved to visit with his brother Edmund, and sister Stella (Mrs. George Fritz), though, so we got there several times a year.  And the cameras did too.

Though he had left sailing the Lakes for a living, he stayed in touch with the friends from those days, Coast Guard, Carferry (Capt. Hank Gates) and he finished a 12-foot sailboat he had wanted to build that had been framed up by the Sea Explorers in the basement of the old Community Church.  Often he would go to the beach in the evening and see what Lower Laker might be going by.  And of course take a picture if it was close enough to show!

Unfortunately, most of these no longer exist, as Erhardt left us as a result of a fire that started in his office area in the basement, and resulted in water damage to a huge portion of his work, and his collections of books.  I am so thankful that David Peterson and the Leelanau Historical Society have acquired and preserved examples that can be shared.”

-Written by John Arnold Wilfred Peters on June 1, 2016.