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Once Upon a Time in Old Mission

by Walter Johnson

Released with the permission of Old Mission Publications

The earliest picture we have of Old Mission comes from the diaries and letters of Rev. Peter Dougherty, a missionary sent here by the Presbyterian Board of Missions in 1838. The Indians here and at settlements along the Lake Michigan shore were Ottawas. There were gardens on the Peninsula, maple trees scarred from sugaring, indicating centuries of human occupancy, and a village at Old Mission. They lived in permanent dwellings built of cedar poles and bark and also wigwams made of evergreen boughs. None of the dwellings had windows, and all of them allowed smoke to escape through a hole in the roof. Chief Ahgosa's shanty was a little south of Prescott Lake.

According to the terms of the Treaty of 1836, the government was to provide the Indians with missions and schools and Indian reservations. The site of Mission Harbor was personally selected by Henry Schoolcraft between the present School Road and Swaney Road.

Having spent the winter on Mackinac Island, Mr. Dougherty arrived at Mission Harbor near the present Haserot Beach in May, 1839 in a Mackinaw boat. Arrangements were made for opening a school, and Mr. Dougherty's house was finished before fall, built with logs cut near the border of the harbor and covered with shingles and boards brought from Mackinac. The house was on the shore directly east of the present larger Dougherty house. The second house was the first frame house built in Grand Traverse County, later owned by the Rushmores and used as an inn. In the fall of 1841 there was a schoolhouse and four dwellings. The schoolhouse was used for religious services until the mission house could be built.

Many changes occurred in the personnel assigned to the Indian school. In 1841, Joseph Dame succeeded John Johnston as Indian farmer. He and his wife and family were accompanied by Lewis Miller, who was an orphan and only 17 when he joined the Dames at The Aspen House Bed & BreakfastMackinac. At first he rented a wigwam for the first store house -- this was later replaced by a cabin near the schoolhouse by the bay. The present store can be traced to this cabin. A large dock was built here for easier unloading of supplies. The piles can still be seen on the bottom of the bay.

By 1850, the village consisted of 40 log dwellings, a good church, a school house and mechanic shops. The forests had been replaced with hundreds of acres of corn and potatoes. Some of the employees of the Indian agency and a few white settlers were beginning to occupy and farm the land. A post office was established by 1851, known as Grand Traverse Post Office, the only one north of Muskegon and south of Mackinac. William Stone, a former employee of the Indian Agency, kept the mail in a box nailed to the kitchen wall. When the post office was established in Traverse City in 1853, Peter Greensky packed the first mail on a trail through the woods from Manistee. The mail bag contained seven letters and several newspapers. It was then carried on to the Old Mission post office by Indian trail. Traverse City took the name "Traverse City Post Office."

The Ottawas and Chippewas faced displacement under the Removal Act of 1830 - the government anticipated that the Indians at Old Mission would voluntarily move to reservations purchased for them west of the Mississippi River. Government payments of annuities and dry goods to the Indians according to the terms of the 1836 treaty were being questioned. These circumstances and the influx of white settlers caused Peter Dougherty and the Indians to be suspicious of the government's intentions. As a consequence, Dougherty and many of the Indians moved to New Mission at Omena. Others fled to Canada. By 1852 the village was nearly deserted with only a few white families remaining.

In October, 1853, Robert B. Campbell, an Indian Agent, went into the mercantile business and launched a schooner named the Robert B. Campbell at Old Mission. It was built entirely of timbers from the local area and was the first attempt at shipbuilding in the Grand Traverse area. For many years, she sailed between Old Mission and Chicago.

In 1849 there were three stores at Old Mission: Lewis Miller, A. Paul, and Cowles and Campbell. Mr. Cowles also owned the schooner, Arrow, that brought supplies and passengers to Old Mission. Mr. Stone purchased the store of Lewis Miller in 1852 and moved it from the bay to its present location on Mission Road. Settling in Old Mission in 1852, Henry Brinkman opened the first boot and shoe store in the region in 1853.

After centuries of Indian habitation, it is assumed that any area in the vicinity of the harbor could be a burial site. Marty Hyslop, who lives adjacent to Haserot Beach, relates that her Suttons Bay Bookstore--616-271-3923parents, who lived there sometime prior to the automobile, discovered bones and artifacts in their front yard where they were setting a flag pole. A University of Michigan archeology professor determined that the bones were those of an Indian Chief and his dog. Mrs. Hyslop has one of the artifacts - a copper breast plate believed to have been traded to the Indians by a French Canadian.

In 1853, Grand Traverse County and Peninsula Township were organized. The Township held its first meeting in Old Mission in April of that year, and a school district was formed. Elisha Ladd was hired as the first teacher. The Old Mission School is now a private residence, but remains a historical landmark. The county board of supervisors met for the first time, also in 1853, at the store of Cowles & Campbell. At this point in Old Mission history, the trail between Old Mission and Traverse City had just been cut through the wilderness. Settlers with only pre-emptory rights were not accepted or recognized by the Traverse City Land Office, as the entire Peninsula was still an Indian reservation. Farmers were cultivating their soil and getting exceptional yields of oats, wheat and other crops.

In the early 1850's Peter Leimbuck (under the assumed name of Charles Shepard) sailed into Old Mission on his schooner and built one of the first frame houses in the area on the east side of the harbor. He then sailed away on his schooner and was never heard from again. His wife Esther remarried Henry Stepney who purchased additional land; thus, the Stepneys owned all of the land on the entire area making up the Point. In the following years, the properties were distributed among heirs. Dr. Charles Leffingwell purchased the Point and organized the Leffingwell Forest Preserve Association that restricted the deeds for all of the property owners. The cottages along the shore remain in their natural wood settings today.

Perry Hannah purchased land from Henry Stepney in 1864 and probably built the first dock (known as the Big Dock, located where Haserot Beach is today), in use until 1935 when it burned.

Perry Hannah bought many parcels of land, or the timber on those lands to supply his sawmill in Traverse City. As the Peninsula was held by the government as an Indian reservation, Mr. Hannah, along with the settlers, was becoming concerned if they were ever going to get legal title to the land. Working with Congressman Charles Stuart, Mr. Hannah submitted the matter to the Secretary of the Interior. His 1859 letter to the Land Office reads, "The Treaty of 1855 was ratified on the 15th of April, 1856. And I am of the opinion that on that day these lands became a part of the public domain, and open for settlement."

Old Mission, with its deep water harbor, was readily accessible by schooners and steamers. Farm products could be shipped to any of the Great Lakes ports. Settlers were moving in at a rapid pace and applying for their patent deeds. In 1859, the Old Mission School reported 44 students.

By the 1870's, the quiet natural setting with clean air and water and desirable climate began to attract summer residents and tourists. George Parmelee owned most of the land north of the Point. After he died in 1886, the land making up the Point area was divided and sold to summer residents. One of the heirs, Hattie Parmelee, already married to William Bagley, received the dock and the land west of the pond, now known as Bagley Lake. The big dock was managed for many years by George Parmelee and after his death by William Bagley. In The Story of Old Mission, Dr. Elizabeth V. Potter writes, "The dock was really the heart of the settlement and became a permanent structure." Nearly all travelers and supplies came and left by water and, in 1891, there were at least three regular steamship lines serving the vicinity. Before the Grange Hall was built, the dock warehouse was used for dances Another popular landmark near the dock was a little ice cream store known as "The Wegaus," the Indian name for cherry. This was managed for two years by Axel Ostlund, now in his nineties.

Around the turn of the century, several inns in Old Mission provided accommodations for tourists and vacationers. Duranty Rushmore purchased the Dougherty home and converted it to an inn that was very popular with guests for many years. Heddon Hall (now the Old Mission Inn), built in the 1860's, was also the post office for many years. The Pines, owned by the Hyslops, has remained unchanged since 1910. The furnishings and interior, including the kitchen and dining room, are historical classics. The Stone residence also accommodated guests.

The many vessels plying the waters of the bays and lakes provided the services to keep Old Mission an active community. For example, the Illinois, with luxurious accommodations for 250 passengers, published a schedule in 1904 providing a Friday departure from Chicago at 7 p.m., with arrival in Old Mission at 5 a.m. on Sunday. Round trip fare was $13.00. An overnight in Old Mission was $1.50.

John Ostlund will be remembered by old-timers as the only mail carrier they ever knew prior to the 1930's. Beginning in 1902, he provided mail service for all of the Peninsula north of Mapleton. The "Rural Free Delivery" (RFD) system was adopted in 1896 and provided for mail delivery to a box with a number for every farm home. It was common to receive mail simply addressed to Old Mission, Michigan. Mr. Ostlund lived with his family in the square house across from the Old Mission store. His son, Axel Ostlund, relates, "Dad would meet the carrier from Traverse City at Mapleton and come back on the east side to the post office (Old Mission). He'd sort the mail out at the post office and then take off in the afternoon along the west side and Bowers Harbor delivering the mail. He had a horse and buggy and cutters. He'd change horses for the afternoon. He kept the horse in the big barn at the house."

The Old Mission Beach Resort Association (prior to the Leffingwell Association) was described in 1891 as "a diversified woodland with nearly three quarters of a mile of hard sandy beach with southerly exposure upon a land locked harbor...confessedly the most attractive and healthful locality on Michigan waters." It is little wonder that Dr. Potter was inspired to write, "Perhaps the greatest gift that Old Mission has for those who return each year is a sense of belonging to one familiar spot of earth which does not change, and which one's family has known for generations."

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