|The history of northern Michigan is a rich one, composed of a diverse assortment of communities, many settled by immigrants from a single european nation or small region, that eventually knit together what we think of as our home. Names like Traverse City, Elk Rapids, Frankfort and Cadillac have histories tied to them which their present day residents can look back to. But what of the other communities? Who remembers them? Aral, Fouch, Crescent City are all names that once meant home but are now forgotten by the makers of maps. Still, if one can dig, walk, look and talk to those who remember, something of the heritage of these places endures.
One such forgotten community is that of Port Oneida. Located on the Lake Michigan shore north of Glen Arbor, Port Oneida is a land surely shaped by the actions of the glacial period. The retreating glacier which rendered the bays, bluffs and moraines of the region deposited its accumulated freight of rubble in the form of the hills and the occasional boulder. It is a beautiful land, fringed by wooded hills of beech, maple and oak that taper down to wide valleys which extend to the aspen and birch stands that line the steep bluffs over Lake Michigan's rocky shore. Little is known of pre-European settlement of Port Oneida, but a look over the landscape on a warm summer's day (and even a cold winter's) is more than enough to convince one that some must have chosen to spend time there.
Carsten Burfiend of Hanover, Germany was the area's first European settler, moving from North Manitou Island (the island in the above photograph) to the mainland in 1852. Soon others, most from the same region of Europe, joined the Burfiends and by 1880 census records recorded 74 adults engaged in farming and other trades necessary to survival. Port Oneida purportedly recived its name from the S.S. Oneida, one of the first steamships to dock at Thomas Kelderhouse's dock.
In the middle seventies, Port Oneida joined the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. There has been talk of turning the area into a national Rural Historic District for many years, and though the discussion has produced a couple of good resources for the historian, such as Maria J. McEnaney, William Tishler, and Arnold Alanen's Farming at the Water's Edge, no real work has been done. And so, though some families with enduring names like Basch and Barratt remain in their homes and by living in them, preserve them, many more where Dechows, Kelderhouses and Baurs have moved away crumble from neglect.
My recollections of Port Oneida are dominated by two things, Pyramid Point, the prominatory that demarks the southern boundary of Good Harbor Bay and Camp Innisfree. Innisfree was run by Gus and Paula Leinbach, two great-souled individuals. Gus has moved on, leaving Paula and many memories. Though Innisfree was a summer camp, it was also a community center, a place where families such as ours could go on a winter evening to participate in such arcane (and completely fun) activities as square dancing and sharing a meal as the fire blazed and the laughter of those who realize that though they don't really know what they are doing, they don't much care, rang out.
At the first access road, I spied four white-tailed deer, a buck and three does. They watched me constantly as I slowly walked from the car toward them, always keeping a hundred-yard span between us. When they finally decided to leave, they did so with a characteristic bounding run--a few strides, a leap, a few more strides--all the while flashing their brilliant tails.
A short distance down the road sat one of Port Oneida's many abandoned farmsteads, unused for 15 years yet still in good repair. While most in the area would agree that the coming of the Park was a good thing, preserving something of Leelanau before it was too late, there is still something a little sad about a fine barn that does nothing but grow older.
On an impulse, I then turned down a road that I had never taken--a narrow snow-covered dirt road that took me through a dense stand of cedar and soon to a dead-end at a small bluff. Camera in hand, I negotiated the short but steep and icy descent to the beach. A short warm spell that had taken much of our record winter's snowfall had given way to a bitterly cold wind. Dressed for business instead of hiking, I nonetheless pressed on. The wind whipped fine snow, obscuring my tracks within a minute of passing and I chose to make for a bare hilltop to get out of the wind for a bit and make the most of the clear, late afternoon light.
Some minutes later, huffing more than one of my age should, I re-entered the wind as I surmounted the hill. A solid freeze extended past North and South Manitou Islands, locking them and the tiny but visible North Manitou Shoal Light, "the Crib", in a sea of white. On the horizon as well lay both South and North Fox Islands--a four island day. After a long while, I finally surrendered my position to the wind and climbed down the south face of the hill, rewarded with a treetop level view of the area.
Port Oneida is a place dear to many and preserved as long as the National Park system endures. Yet the right now Park preserves only the land. High priced condominiums will not choke the views, development will not overcome the forests. But what of the history? The structures that can never be built again and the names and the memories which reside therein? That is the true challenge of our time, for a land or a people without history is tree without roots.