Port Oneida Rural Historic District Cultural Landscape

Farm buildings surrounded by open fields
Thoreson Farm



Port Oneida Rural Historic District, encompassing 3,400 acres, is one of the largest and most complete historic agricultural landscapes in public ownership. The district is located within the northern mainland area of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in Michigan. It contains 121 buildings, five sites, and 20 structures that contribute to its historical significance, dating from 1870 to 1945.

After Port Oneida’s founding in the early 1860s, the site supported a lucrative lumber industry. Immigrants, primarily of German decent, sold cordwood to passing ships and also operated small farms. By the 1890s, the decline in demand for lumber and deforestation motivated a transition to an agricultural-based economy. Farming provided the means for families to support themselves and occasionally a second income. The agrarian community existed into the mid-19th century until residents increasingly assumed jobs in nearby towns and cities out of economic necessity and relinquished their farms.

In 1970, Congress designated Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, which included the entirety of Port Oneida. Port Oneida was also added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1997. It is characterized as a historic vernacular landscape because of its connection to the lives of ordinary people over generations.


The pattern of wooded ridges and open fields define the district’s landscape character. In the 19th and 20th centuries, the lower, level fields were preferred for crops or grazing, but today they are maintained as meadows. Although not historically accurate, the meadow character of the fields requires less maintenance and allows for the reintroduction of beneficial native species. The open fields are often surrounded by forested hillsides, conifer windbreak rows, pine plantations, or orchards.
Wooden barn at the edge of a field of tall grass, in front of a woodlot
Miller Barn


Orchards, most often apple or cherry, also contributed to the district’s agrarian identity during the period of significance. Farm families started small orchards, usually around twenty trees, to meet their needs and perhaps produce a small surplus. Remnant orchards exist at the William Kelderhouse and Thoreson farms, Miller barn, Schnor farm/Camp Innisfree, Laura Basch, Lawr/Chapman, and Dechow/Klett farms. The Dechow/Klett farm contains an important sugar maple row and sugar shack as well.

Sugar maple rows along Port Oneida roads create a sense of cohesion among fragmented sites. In addition, they mark the east and west entrances to the district. Residents utilized both the roadside trees and those on their farms in maple syrup production.
A row of sugar maples in early fall along a straight road, with agricultural fields beyond.
Sugar maples (Acer sacchrum) near the Dechow farm. The tree sap was used by residents in maple syrup production.


In addition to the intact vegetation, Port Oneida also contains several original structures and other features that contribute to its significance. These include the Port Oneida and North Unity schools, surviving historic roads, Port Oneida and Werner Family cemeteries, and several barns. The structures were often composed of local materials, such as pine, hardwood, and field stone for foundations. Later materials included cement and steel.

Historic Use

A cluster of farm buildings, including a house in a group of trees, stands in the middle of an open field.
Klett Farm at Port Oneida is at the base of a wooded ridge, in the former glacial meltwater channel. The farm was a successful operation compared to many of its neighbors in the area, as evidenced by its incorporation of post WWII technological advancements.

Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS MI-352), Library of Congress

Many of the topographic features of the district site, including moraines, bluffs, drainage channels, and bays, formed during the Port Huron substage of the Wisconsin glacial stage. Prehistoric lakes covered the area for approximately 700 years after the retreat. The events defined the topography and soil type. The majority of soils contained coarse and permeable subsoil, which is largely unsuitable for agriculture. However, some productive soils existed in irregular patterns, which supported permanent settlement.

The federal government opened mainland Michigan to settlement in 1852. The Preemption Act of 1841 and Homestead Act of 1862 encouraged land acquisition and improvements to be undertaken by individuals. New residents built houses, barns, stables, corn cribs, and chicken houses on their land.

Frederick and Magretha Werner started the Franklin Basch Centennial Farm around 1855, which today contains some of the oldest buildings in the district and retains a high level of integrity. Located to the southwest of the district, the farm includes the following structures clustered around the entry road: a large stone barn, granary, two-story house, and garage. Conifer windbreaks and ornamental planting beds define the edges of the site.
Two story farmhouse in fall in an open rural landscape at Port Oneida
Kelderhouse Farmhouse


The inception of the district’s lumber industry in the 1860s coincides with the construction of a dock on the shoreline and sawmill funded by Thomas Kelderhouse, a New York businessman and early immigrant to Port Oneida. Passing Great Lakes steamships bought cordwood for fuel and the community was named after one of the first to stop—the SS Oneida. Less than thirty years later, resulting deforestation and the preference for coal as steamship fuel greatly reduced the profitability of the lumber industry. Agricultural production became imperative for many families and some of the cleared landscape was used for farms.
Remnant orchard trees beside a wooden barn, surrounded by grassy field
Miller Farm

Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS MI-358-A), Library of Congress

Farmers cultivated a variety of crops including pears, apples, peaches, hay, straw, oats, wheat, and rye. Potatoes were the district’s only consistent cash crop. The labor intensive nature of farming promoted cooperation among residents and accounts depict the community as closely-knit and supportive. Livestock served as an important source of sustenance for residents. The available acres for pasture and abundant forage made the district site compatible with dairy farming.

In the 1940s, the viability of subsistence farming decreased. Residents have several explanations for this decline of the agrarian community including the impact of the 1930’s Depression, poor soil fertility, distant markets, and the relocation of young people to cities for higher-paying work.

With the designation of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in 1970, many remaining residents sold their properties to the National Park Service.

The Port Oneida Rural Historic District retains a high level of historic integrity as spatial conditions and structures remain relatively unaffected by modern development. The landscape provides evidence of the impact of European settlement and the agricultural legacy of the Port Oneida community.

The Farms of Port Onieda

Discover more about each of the farms in the Port Oneida Rural Historic District and plan your own visit.

Learn More
A row of tall trees is full of colorful fall leaves, beside a schoolhouse with a row of windows and a belltower.
Port Oneida School


Quick Facts

  • Cultural Landscape Type: Historic vernacular landscape
  • National Register Significance Level: State
  • National Register Significance Criteria: A
  • Period of Significance: 1870-1945

Part of a series of articles titled Cultural Landscapes of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

Last updated: December 17, 2019