Lakes in Oakland County are ripe with local lore
Humans can last for weeks without food, but without water, we last only days. As a consequence, humans have always gravitated towards water, because as W.H. Auden once said, “Thousands have lived without love, not one without water.”
With its 400 some lakes, Oakland County was an ideal place to settle, first for the Native Americans and then the pioneers, who were soon followed by vacationers. With the advent of the automobile, next came the suburbanites who wanted to make lake vacations an everyday reality.
Through this evolution from Native American living to the current urban sprawl, the lakes of Oakland County have borne witness to an interesting history full of legend, fun, and fame before becoming the sites of many lakefront homes.
Lakeville Lake: From Mill Pond to Large Lake
Although water is necessary for hydration, it can also be harnessed for energy to be used for sawmills and gristmills, which were typically the first industries in a pioneer settlement. Sawmills were used to cut timber into lumber to build homes and businesses, while gristmills were used to grind grain into flour.
To build such a mill, the correct site needed to be found featuring one crucial element — a proximity to running water. A stream would be dammed up to create a mill pond and a mill race to carry the water to the mill, where it turned a water wheel.
One such mill pond was created in Addison Township in 1830 by Sherman Hopkins of New York. According to the “Oakland County Book of History,” by Arthur A. Hagman, Hopkins built a 6-foot dam to create a mill pond at the south end of what is now Lakeville Lake. This flooded several smaller lakes to the north, creating the current large lake — resulting in a lake that is partly natural and partly man-made.
Addison Chamberlain — the township’s namesake — moved to the area in 1832 and built the first house in the village of Lakeville. He proceeded to build a tavern that he eventually expanded to include a store and a post office. Chamberlain then proceeded to build a gristmill south of his tavern.
As can be expected, a community grew around the gristmill, with the village of Lakeville becoming the commercial hub of the area. Stores, taverns, a foundry, churches, and schools were built to accommodate the growing population.
The Chamberlain Mill burned down in 1846 and was then purchased by a Charles Chapel, who built another mill that was purchased by James Dunn of Scotland in 1923.
Dunn converted the mill into a general machine shop, sawmill, and boat works. His son, Cecil, ran the boat manufacturing end, producing both inboard motor boats and row boats. The Dunns also built surf boards that bear a resemblance to today’s water skis as they were towed behind boats. These surf boards varied in size — some were equipped for one person while others could accommodate several people.
Over time with more people building cottages and moving onto Lakeville Lake, conflicts arose over the use of water to generate power for the Dunn’s shop. Lakefront property owners believed their property values were being negatively affected by the lowering of the water level. However, the Dunns maintained that they needed the power from the water wheel. In a court battle that ended up at the Michigan Supreme Court, it was found that the Dunns were within their legal right to use the water as stipulated by their original deed, which granted them the use of the water “as it flows” to power their machines.
However, this was not the end of the battle. In 1958, the Lakeville Lake Property Owners Association worked with the Oakland County Drain Commission and Board of Supervisors to establish a water level for the lake. Yet, since the Dunns still had legal rights to the water flow, nothing was resolved until 1963, when the water rights of the Lakeville Mill property were sold to the State of Michigan for the exact cost to convert the mill to operating on electricity.
Orchard Lake: Full of Myths and Legends
Orchard Lake has a history full of legends, apples, Scots, and warriors. Some of the legends revolve around the famous Ottawan Chief Pontiac.
Local lore has it that Pontiac planned his 1763 siege of Detroit from Apple Island — the 35-acre island in the middle of Orchard Lake. However, according to scholars, there is no evidence that validates this claim.
Another product of local legend is that the Ottawan chief’s final resting spot is on the island. The story evolved to the point where his grave was marked as “Pontiac’s Mound.” However, this too is unlikely, since most historians agree that Pontiac’s body was buried in St. Louis.
Yet, one legend that may have some truth to it is that Pontiac’s nephew, Okemos, may have been born on Apple Island. Before his death, Okemos gave the following testimony in a Saginaw court, which has led some to believe that he could only be talking about Orchard Lake: “I was born in Michigan near Pontiac on an island in a lake.”
Although it cannot be determined whether Okemos was actually born on Apple Island, there is no doubt about the truth that Native Americans once inhabited the island. In fact, the island received its name from the apple orchards planted by natives, who may have been there as early as 9000 B.C., according to archaeological evidence from digs conducted by the Cranbrook Institute of Science.
Orchard Lake’s name is derived from the native word Me-Nah-Sa-Gor-Ning, which translates to “apple place,” which most likely referred to the apple orchards on Apple Island.
Dr. Samuel Leggett, a Pontiac and Commerce Township resident, wrote an epic poem entitled “Me-Nah-Sa-Gor-Ning” back in the early 1900s that chronicles the tragic story of an Indian maiden whose betrothed — a young chief — died suddenly. Overcome by grief, she regularly disinters his corpse at night and transports it by canoe to the site of his former lodge on the island.
Her tribe, frustrated by her insanity, follows the advice of their medicine man and kills her. This act incurs the ire of the Great Spirit, who places the tribe under the control of her spirit. Thus, they are compelled to perform the task for which she was killed. Or so the poem goes.
The Native Americans would be pushed further westward as white settlers began to migrate to Michigan in the early 1800s. In November of 1807, the Chippewa, Ottawa, Potawatomi, and Wyandot nations ceded their claim to southeast Michigan to the U.S. government in the Treaty of Detroit.
Throughout the years following the treaty, the natives were pushed out and by 1817 there were no accounts of tribes on Orchard Lake, leaving the island open for purchase.
James Galloway was the first white owner of Apple Island, which he purchased in 1827 and proceeded to pass onto his daughter in 1938.
The next owner was William Dow. He had immigrated to the area from Scotland with his parents and siblings. According to William McIsaac of the Greater West Bloomfield Historical Society, land throughout the West Bloomfield area was especially advertised to the Scottish, as the land was supposedly similar to that of Scotland.
The Dows were the first members of what would become the “Scotch settlement” in the area.
A little known fact is that curling — the sport played on ice with large rocks and brooms — was introduced to the United States from Scotland on Orchard Lake by this Scotch settlement.
A romantic tale also surrounds William Dow. He was reportedly a very shy man and had fallen in love with a young lady who lived nearby but was too shy to make his affections known. Instead, he thought he would surprise her with a grand gesture — purchasing the island to build a honeymoon house.
It was while building the home that one of his workers inquired whether he was going to the wedding that night. When Dow asked whose wedding, he found out it was the girl he was building the house for. Broken-hearted William stopped building the house, sold the property, and sought solace in sunny California. Or so the story goes.
Happily, Dow did return (or perhaps never left) to the area and married a West Bloomfield girl with whom he had a daughter.
After Dow, there was a succession of Scottish owners of Apple Island.
The island was sold in 1851 to John Coats of Paisley, Scotland, whose brothers had formed the world-renowned J&P Coats Thread Co. Coats completed the home on the island first started by Dow and lived there a few years before eventually returning to Scotland with his family.
Coats sold the island to yet another man from Scotland — Colin Campbell. A successful dry-goods merchant, Campbell viewed Apple Island as the perfect summer retreat, and for over 60 years Campbell’s family and friends enjoyed the island. Extensive gardens and orchards were planted, and new structures built. Nevertheless, Apple Island remained electricity-free.
Electricity came to the island with Willis Ward, a close friend of the Campbells who purchased the island in 1915. In the 1920s, he built a large home with electricity coming from a generating system. He lived there only a few summers. In 1946, the vacant home burned after being struck by lightning.
The island was conveyed to Ward’s daughter in 1943 after Colin’s death. Upon her death in 1970 and in accordance with her wish, the island was deeded to the West Bloomfield School District, making West Bloomfield one of only two school districts in the nation to own an island, according to McIsaac.
Before that happened, however, Apple Island was a spot frequented by another group of school children — the “brass button boys” of the Michigan Military Academy (MMA).
Located on the shores of Orchard Lake where St. Mary’s Preparatory currently stands, the Michigan Military Academy was established in 1877 by Captain Joseph Sumner Rogers, a veteran of the Civil War.
Rogers had bought and turned the former Orchard Lake Hotel into a military academy emulating that of the United States Military Academy at West Point.
Throughout its 30 year history, the MMA had gained prestige as an academy; it played a prominent role in the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, won several National Drill Competitions, tied the University of Michigan football team 12-12 in 1894, and had General William Tecumseh Sherman address the second graduating class in 1879, where 10,000 people gathered to hear his speech.
Although the MMA had been referred to by some journalists as the Second West Point, the school began to decline with the health of its founder Rogers in 1900. With death of Rogers and the accumulating debt of the school, it eventually closed its doors in 1908.
Walled Lake: Local to International Fame
Walled Lake has a history similar to most other village communities. The area was settled first by Native Americans and then later on by pioneers looking to inexpensively purchase land from the government.
The village had a blacksmith, a wagon maker, a cobbler, a carpenter, a mason, and a doctor. There was a general store that also served as a post office, a lumber mill, and a schoolhouse. With its community “Town Pump,” Walled Lake was similar to many other small communities.
However, this small town would gain not only fame locally but internationally, as well.
Locally, Walled Lake gained attention because of its unique lake with its unusual wall formation. One popular theory was that Native Americans had once erected the wall across the lake.
However, according to H. O. Severance’s “The Story of a Village Community,” which was published back in 1931 in the Pontiac Press, there were more likely scientific reasons for the appearance of the wall by geologists. Among them was that the wall had been a drift deposit formed during the glacial period; that it was a result of an upheaval similar to small islands in the sea; or that the wall was formed by the action of water and ice. According to the last theory, stones originally in the bottom of the lake were in the winter caught in the ice and floated with the ice to the shore in the spring and deposited there.
Walled Lake’s mysterious wall was investigated by David Ward of the Cass Lake area in the 1870s. The results of his study were included in “A History of Oakland County Michigan,” published in 1912 by Thaddeus D. Seeley.
Ward had found that a large deposit of boulders had been left along the western shoreline of the lake by the final period of glacial drift that first formed many of the area’s inland lakes. This boulder deposit extended quite a distance into the lake itself, and over time a sandbar was created on top of the boulders.
Near the center of the stone ride, located outside the lake, Ward found the ground to be about 10 feet above the water surface at that time. As the ridge extended north and south of this center point, it gradually sloped downward.
When extreme freezing occurred during the height of winter, the lake’s surface would transform into ice at least 3 feet thick. According to Ward, with the right atmospheric conditions, the ice expanded from the center of the lake out toward its edges. Thus, Ward believed the force of the ice moved the boulders near the water surface closer together. The cycle then repeated over centuries, creating the wall.
This theory gained additional weight as Ward had discovered that a similar geological phenomenon occurred at several other Oakland County lakes, including Cass Lake, where a similar stone ridge was present along the southeast shore, and Orchard Lake with the formation of a sand ridge on its eastern shore.
While the mysterious wall in Walled Lake may have given the area a nominal amount of attention, it was during Walled Lake’s “Golden Years” that it achieved not only national, but international fame.
With the Michigan Railroad coming through the village in 1883 and the roads being built to Pontiac and Detroit by World War I, Walled Lake had become easily accessible to the rest of southern Michigan. And as one of the largest and nearest lakes to Detroit, Walled Lake became favorite destination of those wishing to escape the city.
Like many other area lakes, summer cottages began to dot the shorelines of Walled Lake in the early 1900s.
As the lake grew in popularity, two citizens — Jake and Ernie Taylor — built a small dance hall on the south end of the lake in 1919, which became the Casino Shores Pavilion. It was reputed to attract about 1,000 visitors nightly.
In 1921, Herman Czankusch developed Cenaqua Shores, a waterfront cottage community that included another dance hall, water slides, and bath houses. This further attracted visitors to the Walled Lake area.
Walled Lake was thrust into national prominence with the Big Band era. The new Casino Pavilion, owned by Louis Tolettene, had replaced the original Taylor dance hall in 1928. It featured a 120-by-140-foot maple dance floor and a hand-painted lattice ceiling.
The new casino would attract some of the most prominent acts in the nation, making it a rival with the Glen Island Casino in New York, the Meadowbrook in New Jersey, and the Trianon and Aragon Ballrooms of Chicago.
The Walled Lake Casino — as it was known — hosted such greats as the Dorsey Brothers, the Benny Goodman Band, Red Nichols and his Five Pennies, Glen Miller, Guy Lombardo, Lawrence Welk, Sammy Kaye, and Louis Armstrong.
The casino would usually draw a crowd of over 2,500 people during these performances.
Even after the Big Band era faded in the 1950s, the Walled Lake Casino remained the place to go, hosting such talents as the Four Freshmen, the Kingston Trio, and Mel Torme.
In the 1960s, the casino would play host to “Little Stevie” Wonder, Chuck Berry, and other Motown acts.
By 1965, the Walled Lake Casino would succumb to a fire on Christmas Day, despite the efforts of firefighters from Walled Lake, Wixom, Commerce, Northville, West Bloomfield, Farmington and Novi.
But it wasn’t just the music and dancing that drew people to Walled Lake.
Czankusch, the developer of Cenaqua Shores, sold his dance hall in 1929 after he could no longer compete with the new casino. His new idea was to build a roller coaster on his land. In February of 1929, Fred Pierce began constructing the “Flying Dragon,” which became the focal point of Walled Lake Park.
The amusement park offered many attractions. Among them were a bath house and beach; a two-story water slide; rides such as the Tilt-A-Whirl, Dodge-Em cars, and Flying Scooters; games and special exhibits.
People would come from all over to enjoy the park, boardwalk, and beaches. At one point, the park was attracting over 25,000 visitors daily.
However, during the 1960s, attendance at the park began to decline and by 1968 the park was closed and dismantled. Yet before the Golden Years of Walled Lake ended, the area had enjoyed a long run of being one of the most popular destinations in Michigan for fun and entertainment.
Lake Orion: The Venice of the Midwest
Postcards are a staple of any vacation resort. That remained true over a hundred years ago when Lake Orion was one of the premier vacation spots in Michigan. It was known as the “Paris of Detroit” and “Lake Orion, the One Best Resort.” And with its 21 islands that “sleep like so many emeralds upon its shining surface,” as one travel writer once wrote, Lake Orion was also described as the “Venice of the Middle West.”
As many vacationers were ferried throughout the lake by various passenger boats to their cottages on the islands, it’s not surprising that Lake Orion would be compared to Venice. It wasn’t just passengers that were shuttled around the islands, but groceries and even the mail. In fact, in 1905, the first inland lake marine postal service in the United States was established at Lake Orion. Instead of delivering mail to certain addresses, the postal boy would take a boat during the summer and deliver mail addressed to cottage names, such as Old Homestead, Venice Cottage, Ten Oaks, and Stumble Inn. The marine postal service remained active through 1952.
While various islands on the lake featured summer cottages, Park Island and Bellevue Island were the main hubs of Lake Orion activity.
Like many communities, it was the railroad that first made the Lake Orion area a favored destination with city dwellers. The Detroit and Bay City Railroad was brought to the area in 1872, which first set the course for Lake Orion becoming a summer resort.
In 1874, E.R. Emmons along with other prominent citizens formed the Orion Park Association, which first developed a park on the shore of the lake where the present-day Green’s Park is located. From there, Emmons launched a passenger boat called the “Little Dick,” which he named for his son, Richard. Eventually a larger double-deck passenger boat called the “City of Orion,” formerly the “Chautauqua,” would be the main transportation on the lake with its dance floor and bands on the upper deck.
The park association later purchased Island Park, which became Park Island, and a bridge was constructed to the island where a 100-foot long reception hall with an 80-foot observation tower had been built. Before it became a popular amusement park, spiritualists would camp on the island each year for religious assemblies.
Bellevue Island also played a large role in the religious assemblies held on Lake Orion. Originally known as Spencer Island, the island was owned by John Meyers and his wife, who had planted a peach orchard on it. In 1898, the Assembly Resort Association led by John Winer and J.T. Haller purchased the island as a permanent location for religious summer schools and assemblies.
A large auditorium holding 2,250 people was built on Bellevue Island, along with two hotels — the Bellevue Hotel and the Lakeview Hotel. Cottages were also built along the lake. A wooden bridge was built connecting the island to the mainland.
With religious assemblies being held on both islands, Lake Orion became known as the “Chautauqua of Lower Michigan.”
The Chautauqua was a popular adult education movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that brought entertainment and culture to rural communities by bringing in lecturers.
One of the most popular speakers who took part in the movement was politician William Jennings Bryan, who came to Lake Orion and gave his “Cross of Gold” speech.
Concerts and theater performances would also take place at the auditorium on Bellevue.
As more visitors came to stay on Lake Orion, it wouldn’t be unusual to see church services taking place on landing docks around the lake to accommodate all the guests. According to James Ingram and Lori Grove’s book “Lake Orion,” a minister would administer the service from the docks, backed by a choir as people would listen from boats.
Lake Orion was more than just a place for spirituality. Like a true resort area, it offered entertainment, as well.
In 1911, John Winter, the head of the Lake Orion Summer Homes Company, revamped Park Island into an amusement center complete with a dance hall, rides, and a roller coaster.
The “Thriller” roller coaster was one of the main attractions on the island, which could be heard around the lake.
As former resident Barbara Wilson-Benettie recalls in Ingram and Grove’s “Lake Orion,” “When the cars hit the long drops, the metallic rattle of the acceleration carried across the water quite plainly like a keg of nails being poured down a brick chute and along with it came the high pitched screams of the girls. These came out as one sound, a long ‘R-r-r-r’ as the car fell and simultaneously a high ‘E-e-e-e’ trailing out behind like a ribbon.”
A carousel also made its home at Park Island in 1915 after Winter purchased it for $12,000. The carousel operator was a man of Italian descent and was reported to only play Italian opera as the carousel was in motion.
No island would be complete without a swimming beach. Park Island had one that featured men’s and ladies’ bathhouses, a two-story observatory, and an L-shaped dock with several diving boards and platforms. The highest stood at a height of 42 feet at the end of the dock, and in the afternoons it wouldn’t be uncommon to see lifeguards put on diving exhibitions for the beach goers.
Park Island also had the bragging rights to the largest beach water slide in Michigan.
At night the lake would become illuminated from the thousands of lights along the lake and islands. As one person noted in Ingram and Grove’s “Lake Orion,” “the myriad of lights transform the islands and shores into a veritable fairyland.”
With the advent of the Great Depression, the activity on the islands began to decline. The rides and buildings were torn down. The wood from the roller coaster was used to make a toboggan slide on the north side of Park Island in the 1930s.
By 1964, Park Island changed from a resort to lakefront living. Bill Davis purchased the island, replaced the wooden bridge with a concrete bridge, and developed the island with lakefront homes.
While the resort days may have passed, Lake Orion is still known as a place “where living is a vacation.”
And there are still a couple of things that have survived the passage of time. Not only can some of the original cottages be seen today, but some traditions have been passed along, as well.
The tradition of a Fourth of July boat parade first began in 1888, when prizes were offered for the most beautifully decorated and illuminated boats on the lake. This became known as Venetian Night, which still continues today.
Perhaps even more enduring is the “dragon” of Lake Orion. Originally seen by two ladies in 1894, according Paul Scott’s “Orion Since 1818,” the animal grew larger as the story was retold and retold until it reached at least 80 feet. Today, the dragon remains the mascot of Lake Orion.