The South Manitou Island Lighthouse

By MIKE NORTON

In their breathtaking sweep of water, sky and sand, Michigan’s Sleeping Bear Dunes can sometimes be overwhelming. Walking a high trail in the dunelands or a lonely beach on North Manitou Island, you can sometimes feel like the first person on Earth. Or perhaps the last.

But trust me -- that desolation is illusory. A century ago, the coves, islands and clearings of this haunted coast were filled with bustling activity – prosperous farms, noisy sawmills, rollicking towns, harbors filled with fishing boats, schooners and steamships. Even though the area is mostly uninhabited now (thanks to its status as a national park) it still carries plentiful reminders of the people who once called it home.

Many of the hundreds of historic structures in the park are decaying into picturesque ruins amid the returning forest, but a surprising number have been rescued and preserved, and a few have found “second careers” as museums, social centers and other public buildings.

"There was a time when a large number of these historic resources were in jeopardy,” says Susan Pocklington, director of Preserve Historic Sleeping Bear, an organization devoted to the human history of the park. “This vast collection of farms and maritime structures… went largely unnoticed when the Park was established.”

Thanks to a determined public awareness campaign and lots of volunteer labor, Pocklington’s group and the National Park Service have been busy preserving and repairing more than 360 structures left by 19th century farmers, loggers, sailors and resort operators – structures that “speak of the struggles, resourcefulness and heroism of the day.”

Unsurprisingly, the earliest settlements in the Sleeping Bear region were near the water. For most of the 19th century, the narrow Manitou Passage between the mainland and the Manitou Islands was one of the busiest waterways in North America – a “short cut” used by most of the ships traveling between Chicago, Milwaukee and the outside world.

But the Passage was not without its dangers (today its shifting sandy floor conceals more than 130 shipwrecks) so the first substantial buildings in the Sleeping Bear region were lighthouses and lifesaving stations, many of which can be visited today. One of the most scenic lighthouses in the country, the 104-foot light station on South Manitou Island was established in 1839. Its elegant white tower dates from 1871. Decommissioned in 1958, the lighthouse is open for regular guided tours during the summer, and it’s a real thrill to climb the spiral staircase to its top.

A ranger leads young visitors in a lifesaving drill at the Sleeping Bear Point Maritime Museum.

The former lifeboat stations on North and South Manitou are now administrative buildings for the National Park Service, but the station at Glen Haven is now the Sleeping Bear Point Maritime Museum, where visitors can learn how the men of the U.S. Life Saving Service risked their lives to rescue shipwreck victims on the stormy Leelanau coast.

Nearby, the tiny “ghost port” of Glen Haven is a story in itself. From 1865-1884, it was a fueling stop for steamships, complete with a blacksmith shop, a general store, a boat house and a hotel, the Sleeping Bear Inn. After a brief stint as a lumber port, it became a shipping depot for the region’s burgeoning fruit industry, with its own cannery, then a tourist resort.

Today, most of those buildings have been restored and put to new uses – the general store is a park concession, the blacksmith shop is an interpretive center, and the former cannery is now a museum of historic small boats. The Inn is also being cared for, and park authorities have high hopes that the hotel may one day be put to use. Meanwhile, the pilings of the massive village dock still stand offshore, a convenient meeting place for gulls and terns.

A 19th century German farm in the Port Oneida Rural Historic District.

By the middle of the 19th century farming was the major occupation in the Sleeping Bear Dunes area. The backcountry of both Manitou Islands is rich with historic farmsteads, but the park’s most impressive settlement is the historic Port Oneida Rural Historic District, recognized by historians as one of the country’s best-preserved agricultural landscapes. First settled in 1852, Port Oneida has more than 350 historic farmsteads, barns, and outbuildings connected by a network of hiking trails with beautiful Lake Michigan overlooks.

Visitors can get a good introduction to the district by visiting the Olsen House, a restored 19th century farmhouse that’s now the headquarters of Preserve Historic Sleeping Bear. But an even better way to experience the feel of this place is at the Port Oneida Fair, held each year on the second Friday and Saturday in August.

The fair is held at six of the historic farmsteads in Port Oneida, each with a variety of artists, crafts, food, and activities for visitors. It’s an opportunity to step back in time and imagine the life of the pioneers by helping to bale hay or watching a broom-maker at work. Teams of oxen and horses will be cutting, loading, and hauling hay, while artists and craftsmen demonstrate their skills.