Tag Archives: Manistee County

Portage Lake, a Hotbed for Land Use Controversy, 1866-2016

by Stewart A. McFerran

Before high water and before low water, the bank was stable for many years. It was shady with huge hemlocks, white pine and cedars overhanging the water. Before fire and development, impenetrable thickets lined the shores and teemed with fish and fur. Breezes cooled by patches of snow rippled Portage Lake until June. A winding creek emerged as the forest gave way to dunes. All the spring water from the Lake and uplands were contained in that fast flowing creek. The shifting sand of the dunes, currents and waves mixed with the flow of Portage Creek always.

On Sunday, May 7th, 1871, the neighbors of Portage Lake gathered in the morning. The night before they had a big party and dance on Portage Point. The farmers had completed a narrow ditch that ran from Portage Lake to Lake Michigan. They did not know what would happen when the water started to flow. An ox moved a log that held the water of Portage Lake back.  They were shocked at what they had done on that Sunday morning.

New channel of Portage Lake to Lake Michigan. Image courtesy of the author, August 2016.
New channel of Portage Lake to Lake Michigan. Image courtesy of the author, August 2016.

The flow grew and grew. Soon the power and weight of the water became apparent. An entire forest was swept out into the big lake. Some worried that Portage Lake would drain away completely. It did not, but hundreds of fish were left on the wide new shore flopping about. Many witnessed a forest of trees floating miles out in Lake Michigan. Just what this event would mean for the farmers around Portage Lake and the mill on Portage Creek would soon become apparent and is still talked about.

The controversy over land use on Portage Lake continues today. At a recent Onekama Township town hall meeting, plans for the historic Portage Point Inn were presented by the Inn’s new owners. The Inn has stood on dunes of sand between Portage Lake and Lake Michigan since 1903.  The survival of the historic hotel is certainly a major concern, as well as the results of unchecked development.

The development of Portage Point began with a survey of the dunes between Portage Lake and Lake Michigan in 1837. At that time, the level of Portage Lake was much higher. Joseph Stronach started building the dam and mill at Portage Creek in 1845. Thick cedar groves covered the main street of Onekama before there was a main street. As the population grew, land use changed from logging to farming, causing strife among neighbors. Things came to a head in 1871.

A Mr. James Francis Hannah (cousin of Perry Hannah) purchased the Mill at Portage Park in 1857. He would pay farmers for the flooding of their lands when the gates of the dam closed to build a “head” of water to power the sawing of logs. The water in Portage Lake would rise as much as six feet and logs could be floated up to the mill.  Farmers all around Portage Lake objected to the high water levels that flooded their “improved land.”

The mill was sold to Porter Bates in 1866.

General Grant, Speed, Sea Gem and Dall were schooners that stopped at the Portage Pier. Porter and Company controlled the pier which was at the mouth of “Portage Creek.” Access to the vessels that sailed along the coast of Lake Michigan was key to trade. Porter charged a heavy toll to anyone wanting to ship lumber, tanbark (bark from trees used to tan leather, usually oak or hemlock), or farm produce to the wider market.

Amos Pierce, who owned sixty acres on the South end of Portage Lake, would not take payment for the flooding of his land. In March of 1867 Pierce told Bates: “a lot of us would come down and tear his dam down and he said if we did he would shoot us.” (Chaney, Story of Portage).

Map from "Story of Portage," showing the location of the old and new channels to Lake Michigan.
Map from “Story of Portage,” showing the location of the old and new channels to Lake Michigan.

Pierce and other rogue farmers were jailed for digging a new channel from Portage Lake to Lake Michigan. While Pierce was in jail others took over. When they were put in jail and Pierce was released, he carried on digging the channel. What they dug was narrow and was held back by one log… the log that was pulled away by one ox on Sunday, May 7, 1871. This controversy over land use was solved by collective action after the dance that Sunday.

The rogue farmers opened a channel from Portage Lake to Lake Michigan about a mile south of Porter Mill. The water of Portage Lake rushed into Lake Michigan creating a channel 300 feet wide and 18 feet deep. Fish from the inland lake mixed with their big lake cousins that they had not seen for centuries. Some were left stranded and were scooped up in buckets.

Porter Mill was left high and dry as Portage Lake fell to the level of Lake Michigan. The dam was no longer able to control the waters of Portage Lake. With no falling water the mechanism of the mill could not operate. The farmers had won by guaranteeing low water levels in Portage Lake. In addition, trade was no longer restricted to the small Portage Creek and the pier on the Lake Michigan shore. In fact, “Portage Creek” ceased to exist.

The tug Williams made the first entrance into Portage Lake. She was hailed by the waving of hats and handkerchiefs, and loud hurrahs and firing of guns. The original settlement at Portage Park was largely abandoned.  The new Post Office was moved to the Northeast section of the lake because many points along the shore of Portage Lake were open to trade. The flow of development was redirected to the East end of the Lake when the flow of Portage Creek was redirected to the South end of the Lake.

More Change Coming to Portage Point Inn, 1902-Present

Portgage Point Inn. Image courtesy of the author, August 2016.
Portgage Point Inn. Image courtesy of the author, August 2016.

It was standing room only July 7th, 2016, at the Onekama fire house as plans for the historic Portage Point Inn were presented by the Inn’s new owners. The Inn has stood on dunes of sand between Portage Lake and Lake Michigan since 1903.  Many Portage Point cottagers worried about the preservation of the historic hotel, others that they would all be swept away by a rush of development. Opinions were expressed to Onekama Township officials regarding developments on the sleepy Portage Point.

The Onekama Township Planning Commission considered amendments to a special use permit this summer.  The amendments would accommodate changes to the Portage Point Inn and surroundings, as the new owner would like to reopen the historic Inn, which has fallen into disrepair. The Inn was last open in 2012.

The Portage Point Assembly was originally incorporated in 1902 under State Legislation that encouraged the building of hotels and clubhouses. The Assembly was also charged with “preventing and probation of vice and immorality”.

The Casino at Portage Point Inn sits behind the Inn proper, and has fallen into disrepair. Image courtesy of the author, August 2016.
The Casino at Portage Point Inn sits behind the Inn proper, and has fallen into disrepair. Image courtesy of the author, August 2016.

Construction on the Portage Point Inn began in 1902. The Inn and the “casino” were the centers of activity for cottagers for many years. Vacationers traveled on the Puritan which passed through the channel once a week and stopped at the dock in front of the Inn. Fond memories abound.

In addition to obvious renovations, there needs to be an upgrade to the sewer capacity. Other requested changes include plans for forty additional boat slips and a gas dock. There would be capacity to haul large boats and store them nearby.  Changes would be made to public access to Portage Lake, and a public fishing dock would be built.

From the Author: I cannot exaggerate what a big deal THE "Sunset House" is to the cottagers at Portage Point. ANYONE with a history ON THE POINT knows where the Sunset house is. Even though as you can see it is a simple cheap building it is maintained be the PP Association. They also maintain the signs with family names posted on the roads. They publish a book of members. They have a meeting. It IS a big deal!
The Sunset House marks the place where the pier once stood. Image courtesy of the author, August 2016.

The historic stream bed of Portage Creek winds through the lively ghost town of Old Portage. The Sunset house at the end of Lake Isle marks the place the pier once bustled with activity. The “boat house” is on the bank that overlooks a tiny pond that was once Portage Creek. Cottagers have a long history with each other as well as the place.

Boat House at Portage Point. Image courtesy of the author, August 2016.
The “Boat House” is on Lake Isle Street and rests on the bank of what once was Portage Creek which was the original outlet of Portage Lake to Lake Michigan. Image courtesy of the author, August 2016.

Amos Pierce and his rogue bands of militant farmers are long gone, but the channel they created from Lake Michigan to Portage Lake remains. The concrete walls stabilize the shifting sand but currents and high energy waves deposit sand during the long winter. The water of the “freshet” called Portage Creek now flows through the navigation channel and still mixes with the waves of Lake Michigan.

Current residents of Old Portage have been isolated. With hundreds of square miles of open water to the west and thousands of acres of National Forest to the east, Portage Point is on the way to nowhere. Not like it used to be. It was a destination and origin of raspberries and pickles that made the overnight trip to Chicago market on the Puritan.

Like the controversy of 1871, changes facing the community on the dune between Lake Michigan and Portage Lake came to a head… but this time, there were no threats of violence and all firearms were concealed.

Thanks to Portage Point resident Tom Gerhardt for sharing his knowledge with us, and providing details and dates.

Stewart. A. McFerran teaches a class on the Natural History of Michigan Rivers at NMC and is a frequent contributor to the Grand Traverse Journal.

The Saunas of Kaleva: Revisiting the Land of the Heroes

by Stewart A. McFerran

Arthur (right) and Alan Hulkonen, of Kaleva, Michigan.
Arthur (left) and Allen A. Hulkonen, of Kaleva, Michigan.

Arthur Hulkonen grew up in Kaleva, Michigan, at a time when saunas stood in most backyards of town and on surrounding farms. At that time, neighborhood and family saunas were entrenched in community life and stoked with wood on a weekly basis. Routinely, sauna baths were taken and enjoyed by all. Not surprisingly, Arthur’s parents and many of their neighbors hailed from Finland, a country known for its saunas.

Shrouded in the mists of long-forgotten times, the Kaleva were a race of giants called Titans occupying a land called Kalevala. Songs of their deeds are still sung on the heaths of Finland. Many of them tell of a Finnish hero, Vainamoinen, who reveled in sauna heat after performing such deeds as riding an eagle or catching a pike as big as a school bus. When wounded from conflicts, he and his brothers would go to the sauna to heal.

The Finnish national saga known as the Kalevala was compiled by Elias Lonnrot in 1849. Containing 22795 lines of poetry, it became the Finnish national epic and a source of pride as Finland became a nation. Considered a world classic, the Kalevala has been translated into many languages. The great Finnish composer Sibelius was inspired by its power and beauty.  

I have a good mind
Take into my head
To start off singing
Begin reciting
Reeling off a tale of kin
And singing a tale of kind.
The words unfreeze in my mouth
And the phrases are tumbling
Upon my tongue they scramble
Along my teeth they scatter.

Sauna Aika, or "Sauna Time" in Finnish. Portrait of Arthur Image courtesy of the author, Fall 2016.
Sauna Aika, or “Sauna Time” in Finnish. Portrait of Arthur Hulkonen. Image courtesy of the author, Fall 2016.

Wednesday and Saturday were the days they fired the saunas of Kaleva, Michigan. Wood-burning stoves were lit, the heat from the large stoves filling the small cedar-lined rooms. Rocks on the top of the stoves sputtered and popped when splashed with water.  Steam enveloped the Hulkonen family and their friends, sitting on high benches and thrashing their skin with birch whisks to improve blood flow.

Many strange beliefs and superstitions are connected with the sauna and with bathing customs. The ancient Finns believed that fire came from heaven, and was sacred. The fireplace and the pile of stone in the sauna were altars, therefore. All diseases and evils of the body were driven out by means of various rites and magic spells. The Finnish word loyly–meaning the steam that rises from the stones–originally signified spirit or even life. In the sauna, one must conduct oneself as one would in church– according to a Finnish saying.

Art Hulkonen met his wife, Mildred, at her family sauna in Kaleva after returning home from World War II, this meeting proving that the family sauna was, indeed, a jolly meeting place. Keeping alive the tradition, Art’s son Allen A. has a sauna in his backyard, now one of the few in Kaleva still in operation. Hulkonen family reunions take place every couple years at the Bear Club.  

The Bear Club of Kaleva. Image courtesy of the author.
The Bear Club of Kaleva. Image courtesy of the author.

The Bear Club is north of Kaleva on Bear Creek, its light blue sauna, just feet from the creek where sauna bathers can take a cool dip. The Club has a long history: Vernor Sarenius bought  the property in 1912, farming the land until returning to his native Finland. In 1930 it was bought by a group of Standard Oil agents and served as a retreat until 1966, when the Hulkonens bought it.

If you walk down Sampo Avenue in Kaleva, you can see where the saunas once stood. Sauna sites can be found in many backyards there.  Once I stopped at a garage sale on Waotski Street and noticed a dilapidated stone shed at the back of the yard.  It had been painted pink and had a green roof. Sure enough—the sales attendant told me that it had once been a sauna.

After a few inquiries, I found a sauna behind the barbershop and another behind the hardware store. There is a sauna in the yard of the old parsonage of the Lutheran church and a foundation of a sauna behind the Kaleva Bar. A garden blooms on the site of the Hodimakie family sauna.

Tovo Johnson’s old homestead is just down the road. I could still see the large sign on the sauna outbuilding that reads: “Tovo’s Sauna.” Tovo and all Finnish enthusiasts of the sauna will relate to this verse from the Kalevala:

I have stoked up the sauna
Heated the misty bath-hut
Softened the bath-whisks ready
Steeped the pleasant whisks.
Brother, bath your fill
Pour all the water you want
Wash your head till it is flax
Your eyes till they are snowflakes!

Hillari Johannes Viherjuuri describes the whisk–as well as botanical details–that was used in saunas in his book, The Finnish Bath:

Options for making a whisk, from The Finnish Bath by Viherjuuri.

The Birch whisk is an essential part of the Finnish sauna. The best whisk is made from leafy branches freshly gathered in summer. But whisks are used in Winter as well as Summer. In the old days a special week was set aside for making whisks. Curly birch (betula verrucosa) a subspecies of silver birch is the best.

The traditions of Finland live on in Kaleva Michigan and stories from its recent past merge with the mythology of the Kalevala.  To tell a final myth, I will speak of Ilmarinen (Vainimonen’s brother) who forged a magic sampo.  Clues to the magic of the Sampo are found in the text of the Kalevala. Some claim it is a pillar that connects Heaven and Earth, while others say it is a mill that can make gold out of thin air.  When the Sampo was lost, enormous changes rocked the land of heroes before it was returned.The Kalevala reads:

Then the smith Ilmarinen said:
Put this into words: ‘I’ll be
Able to forge the Sampo
Beat out the bright-lid
From a swan’s quill tip
a barren cow’s milk
a small barley grain
a summer ewe’s down
because I have forged the sky
beaten out the lid of heaven
with nothing to start off from
with not a shred ready made.

The shiny lid of the Sampo was broken and scattered after it was made in Kalevala.

Then she reached for the Sampo
With her ring finger: she dropped
The Sampo in the water
felled all the bright-lid
Down over the red craft’s side
In the midst of the blue sea;
There the Sampo came to bits
And the bright-lid to pieces.

The saunas of Kaleva have fallen down, but the sites where they once stood litter the village. A few persons still practice the tradition of sauna there and elsewhere in Northern Michigan–you might see a sauna if you walk down Sampo Avenue.

Who knows? Maybe you will even see the shiny lid of the long-lost Sampo.

Three final notes:

February 28, is Kalevala day in Finland.

The village of Kaleva Michigan will hold Kaleva days July 15 – 17   2016

Kalevala is available for checkout at the Traverse Area District Library.

S. A. McFerran is a regular contributor to the Grand Traverse Journal, and has built his own sauna where he experiences a loyly each week.

Sailing Portage Lake: 108 Years of Pabst Cup History

By Stewart A. McFerran, Benzie resident and regular contributor to Grand Traverse Journal

City of Manistee resident Frederic Ramsdell (son of Thomas Jefferson Ramsdell of Ramsdell Theatre fame) and others founded the Onekama Sailing Club in 1896. It had a club house, served meals and had sleepovers. The Club’s small sailboats became known as the Mosquito Fleet.

Onekama Sailing Club in August 2014, right. High school juniors Sarah and Katie race to the finish last year, but lost to Bob Beal by one-half of a second.
Portage Lake Yacht Club in August 2014, right. In this photograph from last year’s race, teens Annie of the United Kingdom and Maggie of Onekama made a valiant run, but lost to Bob Beall by one-half of a second. Image courtesy of the author.

The Onekama Sailing Club, now the Portage Lake Yacht Club,  was one of the first sailing clubs in Michigan. The members hand built wooden sailboats that were rigged for racing. “Sundays and holidays were racing days. Races were started in the forenoon. The course was marked by flagged buoys and competition was keen.”*

When the Mayor of Chicago, William Hale Thompson (who served in that capacity in 1915 to 1923 and again in 1927 to 1931), arrived at Portage Lake, the Onekama Sailing Club was uniquely positioned to receive him. “Mayor Thompson of Chicago always received a three-shot cannon salute. His yacht carried a large assortment of grog, and he was a most liberal dispenser.”* Considering he was running Chicago at the height of Prohibition (1920-1933), perhaps we should not be surprised.

Yep, that Pabst. The beer voted the best at the Columbia World's Exposition in 1893. Frederic Pabst celebrated by tying a blue silk ribbon on each bottle, and ramped up production.
Yep, that Pabst. The beer voted the best at the Columbia World’s Exposition in 1893. Frederich Pabst celebrated by tying a blue silk ribbon on each bottle, and ramped up production.

Traditionally, sailing cups are named after the person who commissioned the cup’s creation, or at least donated the funds to have one made. Gustav Pabst (son of Friedrich Pabst, the man who made Pabst Blue Ribbon beer famous) crossed Lake Michigan from Milwaukee to attend races of the Portage Lake  “Mosquito Fleet”. As a supporter of small boat races, he had a large silver cup made. The Pabst Cup was first awarded to the fastest Onekama sailor in 1907. The Pabst Cup Race is still held on Portage Lake each summer, making it one of Michigan’s oldest sailing competitions.

High school senior Bob Beall won the Pabst cup in July 2014 by one-half second! Bob’s grandmother, Char Jesson, has a sunfish he uses for the races. Sailing just behind him  were juniors Sarah and Katie.  Bob also has stiff completion from former winners of the Cup who enter the race every year. All previous winners are listed on the Cup, back to the first winner in 1907.

Veteran sailors Bill Vaughan, Dick Forwood and Biff Wiper have competed in the Pabst Cup for decades. Bill Vaughans’ first Pabst Cup win came in 1964. Most recently he won the Cup in 2012.  Past winner Vaughan has enjoyed an advantage: his wife, Babs, knows how to operate the Club Cannon. She once blew a hole in the sail of a competitor. She claims it was a mistake.

Sailing for recreation remains a popular activity in Michigan. Competitions are often celebrated with trophies. There are very few sailing trophies in Michigan that are older than the Pabst Cup. A contemporary to the Pabst Cup is held by the Bayview Yacht Club, Detroit, Michigan. John C. Burke, Commodore of the Bayview Yacht Club, traces their cup’s history back only to 1936, although the cup is likely older than that: “The J.L. Hudson Trophy is a perpetual trophy that was deeded to Bayview Yacht Club in 1936 by James B. Webber, who was at the time, the Vice President of the J.L. Hudson Company”. *

Bob Beall (right) receives the Pabst Cup from PLYC Commodore Richard Verplank in August 2014.
Bob Beall (right) receives the Pabst Cup from Portage Lake Yacht Club Commodore Richard Verplank in August 2014. Image courtesy of the author.

The competition during the Pabst Cup Race on Portage Lake is still keen after more than 100 years. Bob Beall will need to practice his sailing skills and tune his rig if he hopes to take the Pabst Cup home once again this summer. The race will be held August 1st and 2nd.   There will be three races on Saturday and two on Sunday; the winner will be the sailor that has the best cumulative score. Good luck, sailors!

*Quoted from Wellspring, a collection of short histories on social customs and life in Manistee County, written by students of Onekama Schools, published in 1982. Copies are available for purchase from Manistee County Historical Society.

S.A. McFerran serves on the Portage Lake Yacht Club committee boat and sometimes rescues sailors in need of help.