Lake Passage: The Settlement of the Sleeping Bear Area
The same forces of wind, water, and soil, which created the Sleeping Bear Dune also shaped the human history of northeastern Michigan. Of these Lake Michigan was the most persistent and powerful influence. Ottawa fur trappers, Irish fisherfolk, and Scandinavian lumberjacks all used the lake to bring their products to market. Lake Michigan's 1,180 cubic miles of freshwater were a vast blue-water frontier owned by no one, open to anyone hardy enough to paddle a canoe or skilled enough to pilot a schooner. The lakeshore was a threshold, a door open to the markets of Chicago and Detroit, or via the Erie Canal, to New York and the world, as well as a pathway to the wealth of the forested interior.
It was through this threshold that Ottawa and Chippewa hunters came each fall to conduct their winter hunts in the interior. Missionary settlements at Northport, Omena, and Eagletown helped to guarantee a permanent Native American presence in the lakeshore region by helping the Indians to both adapt to the growing market economy and protect their land holdings from white encroachment. Sawmill hamlets were the first wedge of European-American settlement. Glen Arbor, Glen Haven, and Empire began as small lumber towns, as did the now vanished ghost towns of Good Harbor, Port Oneida, and Aral The nearby Manitou Passage, one of the busiest navigation channels on the Great Lakes, ensured a steady demand for cordwood. Passing steamers came to rely on the small ports of the Leelanau Peninsula and the Manitou Islands to keep them supplied with fuel. Lumber schooners bound for the crowded lumber market of Chicago also made frequent stops at the piers built out into the lake at each of the saw mill settlements. While never prime logging country the Sleeping Bear area was the scene of several significant logging ventures during the period between the 1880s and 1920s. Most notable was the Empire Lumber Company, which grew into a formidable forest products operation. Founded by the T. Wilce Company, a leading manufacturer of hardwood flooring. Empire was linked to the forested interior by its own logging branch line, the Empire and Southeastern Railroad. Two docks served Chicago-bound ships and a channel was dug through the beach to South Bar Lake to create an inner harbor for the thriving lumber port. The D.H. Day lumber operation at Glen Haven was of a more modest scale. Most of Day's lumber was harvested in the vicinity of Glen Lake and Little Glen Lake. A tramway, and later a true logging railroad, linked Day's interior operations with the lakeshore. At Leland and Frankfort commercial fishing became the chief economic activity. For both the logging towns and the fishing settlements access to the lake was the principal geographic asset.
The lake also had a determining impact on the agricultural prospects of northwestern Michigan. Its vast expanse acts as a great solar heat collector, moderating inland temperatures and extending the growing season. Unfortunately, the glacial soils of the Sleeping Bear region were generally not conducive to agriculture. Grain farms, which thrived elsewhere in Michigan, were hardscrabble operations at best along the lakeshore. Dairy farming was a more appropriate adaptation to the landscape. The Port Oneida fanning community is an example of a series of backwoods farms which evolved from subsistence homesteads emphasizing potatoes and grain, to dairy farms. Orchards of apples and later, cherries, were an even more successful adaptation. Fruit growing made maximum use of the region's weather and soil conditions. By the 1930s, northwestern Michigan was one of the leading cherry producing regions in North America.
The period from 1900 to 1920 was in many ways a golden era for the communities of the Sleeping Bear area. The agricultural economy thrived with a growing demand for both grain and diary products. Fruit growing was successfully established as a new economic opportunity. The lake fishery remained strong during these years with the annual haul on Lake Michigan averaging between 1-3 million pounds. Most important of all the lumber industry continued strong during these years. Although the cordwood trade with steamers had ended, as the boats switched to coal fired engines, and the prime pine and cedar stands had long since been cut, saw mills kept busy in the Sleeping Bear area harvesting hardwood timber for a variety of special uses. Logging was critical to the viability of many of the small towns and forest farms of the area. Wages from logging and saw mill jobs circulated throughout the area providing businesses with their thin margin of profit and affording families on marginal land with both a local market for their produce and a source of supplementary wage employment. When the supply of hardwood trees began to slow in the early 1920s the Sleeping Bear area began to feel the chill of a cold wind that blew over the barren cut-over lands across the north country of northern Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota.
At the time of World War I it was clear that Michigan's lumber industry in the Lower Peninsula was near collapse. Yet, there was little public concern over this because of confidence that agriculture would take over as the principal economic activity on the cutover lands. But the forest soils of the north country were generally not suited to agriculture, a fact made abundantly clear when the end of the war brought a steep decline in farm prices. By 1920 41% of all of Michigan's cutover lands had been transformed into farms, but in the decade that followed farming collapsed in the north country as the state lost more than 12,000 farms. Hundreds of thousands of acres of private property reverted to government control through tax delinquency. To manage these vast new holdings of devastated lands and to staunch the flow of population from the north country the state of Michigan embraced the banner of conservation. In the 1920s and 1930s, northern Michigan was reconceived, from a raw resource frontier with ninety percent of the land in private hands, to a carefully managed landscape based on a sustainable forest products industry and tourism, with the bulk of the land controlled by public agencies. Across the north woods of the lake states 8.8 million acres of state forests and parks were created between 1920 and 1945. During the 1920s Michigan established twelve state forests and by 1930 the Conservation Department was annually planting 16 million trees. The Fife Lake State Forest rehabilitated lands within the future lakeshore and throughout the Platte and Betsie river valleys. The federal government played its role in stabilizing the region through the creation of seven national forests, totaling 6.9 million acres, and a network offish and wildlife reserves totaling an additional half million acres.