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Homesteading Comes Alive in Port Oneida

Ross Boissoneau - August 4th, 2014  

Among the many fairs dotting the north this summer, one in particular stands out for what it doesn’t have.

No Gibby Fries. No Ferris wheel. And definitely no beer tent.

The Port Oneida Fair celebrates a kinder, gentler era. Held in Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore, the fair showcases oxen tilling fields and people making rugs, grinding corn, churning butter, and even playing music of yesteryear.

The 13th annual fair is scheduled for August 8 and 9, from 10am-4pm. The free event allows visitors to step back in time to the years between 1850 and 1945.

History enthusiast Dave Taghon of Empire takes part in the festivities, along with his wife Diane and others who are regulars at the Empire Area Museum.

“We take a variety of things from the museum,” said Taghon.

A large portion of the items relates to music, such as old Victrolas and wax cylinders.

They also take flatirons, corn-grinding equipment, and other objects that date back to earlier eras, particularly when farmsteaders had to be entirely self-sufficient.

SIX TIMES THE FUN

The Port Oneida Rural Historic District is a community of 18 farmsteads listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It’s located between Glen Arbor and Leland in southwestern Leelanau County.

The activities take place at six locations, with many offering snacks, and/or ice cream.

The Burfiend Barn focuses on maritime activities and live music, hands-on children’s activities, and square dancing.

At the Dechow Farm, visitors can see oxen mowing in the fields, horses and other livestock, beekeeping, and broom- and rope-making.

At the Kelderhouse Farm, there will be a re-enactment of Civil War camp life. Attendees can also visit with members of the Kelderhouse family.

At the Olsen Farm, activities include a focus on historic food preservation and cooking demonstrations, dulcimer music, old-time photography, quilting, soap-making, children’s games, and oral history recording.

School is in session most of the day at the Port Oneida Schoolhouse. And at Thoreson Farm, the focus is on traditional crafts: spinning, blacksmithing, local artists, and musicians.

The farms of the Port Oneida area are typical of the turn of the century farms throughout the Midwest. It is rare, however, to find such a large collection of older farms free from modern development.

HISTORY LESSON

Carsten Burfiend, a native of Hanover, Germany, was its first European resident, purchasing 275 acres in 1852. By the 1860 census, the population of the area was 87 people, most of them immigrants from Germany and Prussia.

Albany businessman Thomas Kelderhouse, who owned numerous Lake Michigan cargo ships, was responsible for much of the logging in the area. In 1862 he built a dock on land provided by Burfiend. The growing community was named after the SS Oneida, one of the first steamships to stop at the dock.

Kelderhouse died in 1884, and by the 1890s most of the land had been logged off. By 1908, all the buildings at the original Port Oneida town site except the Kelderhouse residence had been abandoned. The Kelderhouse family lived in this house until 1934.

Thus the area is quiet today, except for the second weekend in August, when it comes alive again.

FAMILY FRIENDLY FUN

More than 100 artists and craftspeople will demonstrate specialties during the fair. Activities for children can be found at each site. Many of the buildings at these sites are open to walk through and explore.

For the exhibitors, the opportunity to take visitors back in time is priceless, though there is an opportunity cost.

“Being a participant, we don’t get to see much of the fair,” said Tom Cyr.

Cyr has been part of the fair since its inception, taking people on wagon rides and plowing fields with his black Percheron horses. The opportunities for children – and adults – to experience things up close extend in many directions. The oxen that are used to plow the fields, part of Tillers International from the Kalamazoo area, are tame enough for kids to touch.

With all the exhibitors and activities taking place simultaneously, along with the additional buildings being open for the curious, even a full day may not be enough to take it all in.

“I would love to take two days and go through all the farms,” said Cyr. To find out more about the area and fair, with a complete schedule, visit friendsofsleepingbear.org/ projects/port-oneida-fair.

 
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