Saturday, July 9, 2011

the coops of port oneida, part one

There is no place on earth I love more than the Port Oneida Rural Historic District. There is a small handful of places I love about as much (including the one from which I write this, overlooking Green Lake) and another handful of beloved places that exist only in memory (e.g., the attic playroom of 4405 Drury Lane circa 1971, my grandparents’ patio circa 1972, Room 424A at the Eastman dorm circa 1985). But for reasons I’m still working to articulate, Port Oneida holds a unique place in my heart.

Port Oneida is a nubbin of land that curves out into Lake Michigan, one of the fingertips of the Michigan mitten, with Sleeping Bear Bay on one side and Good Harbor Bay on the other. Directly off its western shore lie the two bear cubs of the Sleeping Bear legend, North and South Manitou Islands. Although I invited recommendations from friends for summer reading before I left on this vacation, what I have ended up actually reading has been an incredible 240-page report (407 if you count the appendices and bibliography) by the Midwest Regional Office of the National Park Service from 1995. Called “Farming at the Water’s Edge,” it is an extensive history of Port Oneida and (as the glazed looks of those with whom I have conversed this week attest) I have completely immersed myself in it and a number of other resource materials about this extraordinary place.

I have never considered myself a historian and only took history courses in high school because they were required to graduate. As a result, my knowledge of history is (severely) limited to “The Civil War” and “The Gilded Age” (thank you Interlochen Arts Academy) and even then I have only the vaguest notion of important battles and laissez-faire economics. I hate dates with a passion but I do love good stories and, in my opinion, the story of Port Oneida is a good one, albeit not the stuff of high drama writ large on the world stage. The story of Port Oneida is one of ordinary folk who traveled an ocean in search of something more, who settled in an unlikely corner of the world and applied the skills they brought with them together with some they picked up along the way, who wrested a decent life from the land and waters for themselves and their burgeoning families, and who did so in large part by working cooperatively. It’s a quintessential pioneer story and for a girl whose first chapter book at the age of 6 was Little House in the Big Woods, it’s my kind of story.

Port Oneida was settled by Europeans in the 1850s, although aboriginal peoples occupied the area as far back as 9000 BC in temporary seasonal villages, growing corn and other crops and fishing the sheltered waters between the mainland and the islands. The topography of the land was shaped by glaciers, which receded 11,000 years ago leaving moraines and bluffs along with low-lying areas that were largely covered with water for several hundred additional years. The Port Oneida historic district is bounded by Lake Michigan on the north and west sides and by high wooded ridges to the south and east. There is one real lake and some ponds and marshy areas, which have been expanded by beavers over the years. Most of the terrain is meadows and rolling hills, a mix of woodlands and open spaces.

The engine that drove the early development of what became Port Oneida was lumbering and, to a lesser extent, fishing. Carsten Burfiend, the first to purchase land on what was then called Pyramid Point when Michigan was opened for settlement in 1852, arrived from Hanover by way of Buffalo (where he dropped off his wife Elizabeth and young daughter Magdalena) and South Manitou (where he lumbered and fished for at least a couple years before sending for Elizabeth and Magdalena). In Pyramid Point, Carsten continued to fish but in order to put food on the table for his growing family (11 children in all), he and Eliza (along with every family that subsequently settled there) also farmed the land.

In 1861, savvy South Manitou businessman Thomas Kelderhouse convinced Carsten Burfiend to cede him 177 acres on the west shore of Pyramid Point, in exchange for which Kelderhouse would build a dock. Kelderhouse was true to his word and the dock was finished in 1862. I had always assumed the name Port Oneida had some native connection but in seemingly random fashion, the settlement was named for one of the first ships to dock there, the SS Oneida. I’m sure it must have been a big day. 

The dock further facilitated and encouraged the deforestation of the mainland, largely to provide cordwood to power the shipping industry. The dock was at the economic heart of the community, with a sawmill, blacksmith shop, boarding house and general store/post office all springing up nearby. But the heyday of Port Oneida lumbering was short-lived. By the 1890s the timber resources were depleted and steamships were switching to coal. By 1908, the town-site buildings were abandoned. A school and church remained and the community members continued to farm and fish, working in other industries to supplement their subsistence farming, until about the middle of the 20th century.

In 1860, the census reported 87 residents of Port Oneida. Population peaked in 1910 with 224 residents, dropping to 170 in 1920. Although farming was always marginal in Port Oneida, the Great Depression took a heavy toll on this community and it really never recovered. Many family members moved to more urban communities in the 1950s and 60s. Fortunately for us, this land was never a good candidate for modern large-scale monoculture so when subsistence farming became no longer viable or attractive, people simply left. In 1970, the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore was established and more families sold their property to the government. Some farmsteads continued to be inhabited and a couple still are today. But—and this is a huge part of what makes Port Oneida so special—the vast majority of the properties within the district are uninhabited, left as they were when the last residents departed, generally between 1940 and 1970. There is currently a study underway to determine a plan for future use of the district, but for many years the Park Service has maintained the shells of these buildings and mowed around them and in the former pastures to preserve the rural agricultural character of the community.

Which brings me to my more personal experience of the place. A few summers ago, on one of Hank’s and Max’s days off, we set off on a family outing, in search of a new adventure. I must have read somewhere about Port Oneida and so we pointed the car in that direction. With the passage of time and so many intervening visits, I’m a little fuzzy on the details of that first visit but I remember vividly the sense of having stumbled upon a place that had been suspended in time and largely forgotten. Which is what it was, for the most part. It’s a slightly disconcerting experience to pull your very 21st century car into the yard of a farm that, aside from your presence, appears to have been completely abandoned sometime in the middle of the last century. Yes, the mowing seemed to have been magically done and yes, the paint had clearly been freshened and the roof maintained in the years since the occupants moved out, but aside from these bare-minimum efforts at preservation, Port Oneida felt (and feels) like what it is—a ghost town. In a way, the invisible presence of the mower and the roofer, like some kind of deus ex machina, only added to the spookiness of the place. Everything was locked up tight, but it was possible to stand on tiptoe and peer through hazy windows or to put an eye up to a crack between rough barn siding boards and make out the contours of the spaces within. On that first visit we explored the Lawr farm, which belonged to one of Carsten and Eliza’s daughters and her husband. 
remnants of the apple orchard at the Lawr Farm
We also, after driving around a bit, discovered a little gravel road that led straight west, ending on a bluff overlooking Lake Michigan. Finding a rough stair of branches and roots and nothing to indicate this was anything other than part of the National Lakeshore (well, finding nothing at all, really), we ambled down on to what has since become “our” beach and one we generally have to share with only one or two other families on the days we visit. Last summer we learned for the first time that “our” beach is only a little south of where the original Port Oneida dock stood.

So what, you are all wondering, does any of this have to do with chickens and why am I writing about it here?

An important part of subsistence farming, as it has been practiced in these parts and most parts of the world, really, has been the raising of chickens for both meat and eggs. As I began to think about visiting Port Oneida again this summer, I also began to wonder how many of the old chicken coops remained standing. A little research revealed that at least a few did. And so I began to think: what better way to spend a vacation day than tramping about one of my favorite places, checking out—and photographing—chicken architecture? And, of course, writing about it all here.

As with so many things I undertake, what I first imagined as a simple day-long excursion has turned into a project with multiple visits and lots of research, including the 407-page park service report. As it turns out, there is evidence of chicken habitation at many of the farms and placing the chickens in context required getting to know the families who cared for and benefitted from them. I suppose there are lots of folks who would feel put out about spending most of a vacation reading about an obscure group of farmers from a hundred years ago and poking around the moldering remains of their farmsteads and gravesites, camera in hand. But I’ve been happy as a clam this week and I can’t wait to share the fruits of my folly, er, labor with all of you! And of course, it hasn’t been all research and field visits. There has been plenty of good eating, socializing and concert-going in the mix.

Standing in the Port Oneida cemetery in front of Thomas Kelderhouse's grave, near the southwest corner of the district, the only visible signs of modernity are the paved highway M-22 and the power lines that stitch across the valley (oh, and the plastic flowers).

In anticipation of the next posts, which will detail the coops at each farm where they can be found, I leave you with this somewhat academic, but right on the mark, description from the park service report (Chapter 7: Port Oneida’s Sense of Place):
Although Port Oneida’s overall landscape character, and the array of individual landscape features that contribute to its character, have been described in detail in the preceding chapters, it is important to recognize the collective sensory impact of this landscape. The wooded ridges provide a “natural” frame for every view within and out of the district, thereby shielding the eye and mind from the contemporary landscape. The open fields interspersed with small deciduous woodlots, coniferous windbreaks, and wooded wetlands, are the manifestation of a century of human activity. The former agricultural landscape provides a sense of intimacy which is created by the close relationship of Port Oneida’s essential built and landscape features, such as its modest fields, aging farm houses, barns, and outbuildings, and the remaining orchards, sugar maple rows, and ornamental plantings. This sense of intimacy is rare in the surrounding area, which sharply contrasts with Port Oneida due to the almost overwhelming presence of seasonal tourists and their automobiles and condominiums, along with gift shops and other commercial ventures.
Next (first) stop: the Burfiend coop!

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