Mirror of History
Northern Lower Michigan's oldest home still stands — and is a reflection of the region itself.
By Patrick Sullivan | Jan. 4, 2020
If you drive by the old white house on Mission Road in the village of Old Mission, on the Old Mission Peninsula, there isn’t anything about it that jumps out at you to reveal what a significant building it is. There is a historical marker, but other than that, it looks like another old farmhouse on a peninsula filled with old farmhouses.
Looks can be deceiving.
The modest two-story structure is in fact the first home built by a white settler in northern Lower Michigan. When it was constructed, with the help of Native American labor, the nearest places like it were on Mackinac Island or in Grand Rapids. There was no Traverse City then. There was only virgin forest and Native American settlements for miles and miles and miles.
That’s why a group of industrious retirees set out in 2004 to save the Dougherty House, named after the Presbyterian minister who came to the region to save souls and “civilize” the people who already lived here in 1838.
That minister’s quest, said Bill Cole, one of the volunteers who spent a decade restoring the structure, makes the Dougherty House more significant than just the first home of a white settler in the region. It was also the first permanent religious center in northwest Michigan. But it would become far more.
A COMPLICATED EARLY HISTORY
Since its construction in 1842, the house has been a mirror of the eras that have unfolded on Old Mission Peninsula.
After its service as a parsonage for an apparently well-intentioned evangelist, it became the birthplace of the region’s orchard economy — the home of Old Mission’s first apple exporter. Next, it served as a tourist resort for a couple of decades, taking care of travelers who arrived by steamship in the summer. Finally, and for longer than anything else, it became what so many houses are today in Peninsula Township: a family’s second home and summer getaway.
“It is the perfect model of what happened up here. It was the mission, and then it became agriculture, and then it became a resort, and then it became a summer home,” said Connie Sargent, who runs the docent program for the home. “It’s an example of the progression of what’s happened on this peninsula.”
The home’s reflection of history through its existence includes its early years, when the European foray into what was then a frontier was fraught with difficulties for the native people.
While Rev. Peter Dougherty was by all accounts a decent man, he arrived in northern Michigan amid a wave of history that spelled nothing but trouble and heartbreak for the Ojibway and other Native American people throughout Michigan.
Dougherty settled first in Elk Rapids in 1839. That place made sense because it was a regional center, where the people of the region’s tribes would converge. But Dougherty lasted just over a month there. An enigmatic tribal chief named Chief Agosa, leader of the area’s largest tribe, convinced Dougherty to settle near the tip of the nearby peninsula across what is now East Grand Traverse Bay. Agosa enticed Dougherty by promising to help build his home, one more akin to the kind of residence a person at the time would live in on the East Coast, where Dougherty went to college.
Dougherty would get that house, and he would begin to raise the first five of his nine children there. He would also attempt to help the native people in the way that he thought was best.
The minister’s work began not long after President Andrew Jackson launched the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which led to the Trail of Tears, the forcible removal of Native Americans to the west that amounted to a genocide of tens of thousands.
The tribes of northern Michigan were not swept up in the Trail of Tears, saved perhaps by their out-of-the-way location, but those events must have hung in the air like a fog as Dougherty arrived and set up his mission.
THE TRAIL OF TEARS
It was under that backdrop of history that the Old Mission settlement was abandoned by the Ojibway little more than a decade after it came to be.
The local tribes, which had sent scouts west to see where the Native Americans were being moved, returned to report that it would not be a suitable place to live.
Around that time, the state offered a deal: Native Americans could remain in Michigan if they moved off of tribal land and renounced their traditional ways.
Fearing forcible removal to the West, around half of the tribe decamped to Canada. The other half accepted the bargain and moved across West Grand Traverse Bay to Omena, where they began a new settlement constructed in the model of Europeans. Dougherty was happy to help to help them rebuild in Omena.
But that disruption — and Dougherty’s eagerness to aid in what would ultimately be a government-sanctioned con — is thought to pain even modern members of the tribe, who might justifiably carry ill feelings about the Dougherty House.
“They tend to ignore the whole situation,” Cole said of Native American interest in the Dougherty House. “I can cite two examples. We’ve had Native American speakers come. Both times, questions about Dougherty were raised from the audience, and both times they were ignored. I mean they were skirted around.”
Native American members have been invited to be on the board of the society, and while some people came in the early days for a meeting or two, no one stuck around.
“They would come for a meeting, maybe two, and then we would never see them again,” Cole said.
There is evidence in the historical record that Dougherty was a decent man. Chief Agosa changed his name to Peter Greensky after he moved to Omena, and he spoke well of Dougherty. Dougherty was also dedicated: He spent 33 years of his life working with Native Americans.
But while Dougherty might have thought himself well-intentioned and be thought well of by some of the Indians whom he worked with, he was also considered an incredibly strict, unyielding man who unquestionably would have rubbed some people the wrong way. Also, as a Presbyterian minister, he would have expected a more wholehearted commitment to Christianity than the Catholic priests who worked some of the same territory.
“He was very rigorous and very intense and the Native Americans to some degree resented that,” Cole said. “And they were much more satisfied with the Catholic priests, because they would let them do what they wanted to six days a week, and then the seventh day they would come to church.”
A NEW ERA
Following Dougherty’s and half of the tribe’s move to Omena, ownership of Old Mission Peninsula reverted to the state. When the northern part of the peninsula ceased to be a reservation, land was sold off, and the era of agriculture began for the region, though the Ojibway were the first to plant crops there, primarily potatoes and corn.
Solon Rushmore bought the Dougherty property, and it stayed in his family for a century.
Rushmore brought commercial orchards to Old Mission, planting apples and drying them for export. That led to a new economy for the region. Later the house was turned into a resort, which operated in the last decade or so of the nineteenth century. After, the family used the house as a summer home.
In 1960, Virginia Larson purchased the house. She never lived there but, rather, used it to store antiques.
When Larson died in 2004, the property was passed down to her two sons, who didn’t live in Michigan.
“They lived out of state, didn’t want it, so a group of us got together and had the house appraised, and they agreed to the appraisal,” Cole said.
When that sale closed in July 2006, the property was assigned to Peninsula Township, and the up-until-then small group of people interested in the house formed the Peter Dougherty Society. Two years later, they started the nonprofit dedicated to its restoration.
When the group set out to restore the house, the first thing they had to do was clean out all of the stuff stored inside.
“Virginia Larson dealt in antiques, and she stuffed the place, so we had to get everything out of here, inventory it and put it in storage,” Cole said.
The upside of coming into possession of all of those items was that the Society would later have a stock of old furnishings to outfit the house in appropriate periods.
Cole said that given the age of the house, it is remarkable how much of the original structure remained intact when the volunteers set out to restore the place.
“We were lucky that it was only owned by a few families, and it was never really remodeled,” Cole said.
The single greatest factor that the home owes its existence to today is some maintenance that was taken care of a half-century ago, Cole said ± Larson put on a new roof in the mid-1960s, which saved the house because it kept it dry.
They remodeled the icehouse first, in 2008, because it was visible from the road and they wanted to let people see that the money they had donated had led to some work
“That took all summer and the greatest number of people who worked on the restoration worked on the icehouse,” Cole said. Twenty or 25 people took part in that project.
The site is the place where the property’ icehouse once stood; they used an actual icehouse structure from nearby where one still existed and its owner had planned to have it removed to make way for an addition.
“It was perfect. Her builder cut it up into sections and we put it onto a flatbed because we couldn’t bring it out whole, because of the trees and the branches,” Cole said.
The icehouse probably dates to the 1880s and though the one that is now on display at the Dougherty House is not the actual original from the site, the volunteers believe it is an identical match.
“We kind of figured a crew came through in the 1880s and were building icehouses,” Cole said. “Everything is original except the inside wall; the inside wall we had to replace because it had rotted away.”
The icehouse is a significant historical structure if for no other reason than how it can demonstrate to school groups the lengths people went to keep food cool in the days before refrigeration.
The two most common questions that the kids have are, why did people need icehouses? and why does the ice saw have only one handle?
That second summer, the group reconstructed the outhouse, which was in really bad shape, and might have been just demolished so that a replica could be built but the group was determined to adhere to preservation principles and to keep as much of the authentic, original material as possible.
Also, the Dougherty Society had entered into a conservation contract with the Michigan Historical Preservation Network.
A big reason for that was to ensure some future township board doesn’t do something drastic with the property. Before the group purchased the property, 22 building sites had been approved for the 16 acres that make up the Dougherty property. The last thing anyone in the group wanted to see was for those to be developed.
“We didn’t want them to say, ‘Well, let’s sell those lots. Let a developer come in here and do what he wants,” Cole said.
Having preserved the 16 acres has enabled the group to include outdoor attractions. They cut through thick brush to construct a half-mile hiking trail through the property and they’ve constructed a quarter-mile handicap accessible trail.
The real, pain-staking, meticulous work, however, has occurred at the main building, where 60 percent of the windows had to be replaced with antique glass, old wood floors were uncovered and refinished, the structure was shored up to that floors and walls were at 90 degrees, and modern utilities were installed in a crawl space under the structure.
Sargent, the docent leader, said the amount of work that went into remaking the house was astonishing.
“Six guys met there every Tuesday and Thursday for 10 years,” she said.
END OF THE DOUGHERTY LINE
This past year was the first that the Dougherty was open to the public for tours. The group plans to reopen again this spring, probably around Memorial Day, but the number of hours they can open each week depends on getting volunteer to be docents. Sargent said anyone interested in becoming a docent can get more information at the society’s website, www.oldmissionhouse.com.
When a replica of Old Mission’s original Presbyterian church was constructed in 1939, the last surviving Dougherty child, Anne Dougherty Howard, attended the ceremony.
Oddly, there is one family that cannot celebrate the rebirth of the Dougherty House. That’s the Dougherty family itself.
Despite having nine children (four of them born on Old Mission, four of them born in Omena, and the very first born before the family arrived in northern Michigan) none of those children produced offspring.