Sleeping Bear Dunes Celebrates 50 Years
We're celebrating the people who made it happen.
By Lynda Wheatley | June 6, 2020
You might say credit for the Sleeping Bear Dunes goes not to man but to Wisconsin — the Wisconsin ice sheet, that is.
The most recent in a 2.6 million-year span of glaciation cycles surging forth then shrinking back, the Wisconsin began nearly 80,000 years ago, then slowly — glacially so, you might say — melted away. Left in its wake: a sublime landscape of towering dunes and cobalt waters, and a fertile earth that would spring forth 8,000 years of ecological wonders.
In light of such an epic span, 50 years as the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore might not seem such a big deal. But think of how much the world around those 71,000 acres has changed since 1970. And how, under the protection and guidance of the National Park Service and all who hold the Lakeshore dear, this one-of-a-kind place has endured.
With the understanding that no environment can withstand all change, we take a moment this summer to stand in awe of a small corner of the world where man and nature seem to have struck a fairer balance — and to credit those people who recognized its true worth first, allowing all of us to have a place like The Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore to protect.
Here, select excerpts and images from the book Friends of Sleeping Bear Dunes produced to honor the 50th Anniversary of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, “The Life of the Sleeping Bear: Views and Stories from Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive”:
The First People Are Still Here
The roots of the Anishinaabek run deep into the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. For these Native American people, the land and waters are populated with the spirits of their ancestors. The Anishinaabek continue to cherish, respect, and use the natural resources here.
Anishinaabek is the name of the culturally related peoples, including the Odawa and Ojibwa, who lived in much of the Great Lakes region before the arrival of Europeans. Three federally recognized Anishinaabek tribes — the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, the Little River Band of Odawa, and the Little Traverse Bands of Odawa Indians — serve their members in the counties near the National Lakeshore. Two more – the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians and the Bay Mills Indian Community — are headquartered in the Upper Peninsula but also have treaty rights here.
Ancestors of modern American Indians arrived in northwestern Michigan at least 8,000 years ago, following plants and animals into the region as glaciers receded from the most recent ice age. A few artifacts found on National Lakeshore land have been dated by archeologists to about 5,000 years ago. More numerous here are Middle and Late Woodland Indian sites that date from 1,500-600 years before present. Time has erased most physical evidence of these first peoples, since only objects such as stone tools, pottery sherds, and copper can endure in this cold, moist environment. Objects made from organic materials—birch bark containers, fiber fishnets, furs, woven storage bags, spear handles, and the like—decompose and return to the earth more quickly.
Over the millennia, Anishinaabek moved through this land in small groups. They hunted, gathered, and fished, often using the Lake Michigan as their highway as they canoed along the shores. Their movements were seasonal, with warm-weather communities in northern Michigan and smaller winter camps farther south in the Lower Peninsula where the climate was more temperate and game more abundant. The Anishinaabek established extensive social and trade networks on the Great Lakes, their tributaries, and beyond.
Reliance on Natural Resources
To this day, the Anishinaabek rely on the land, lakes, and wetlands to provide resources for food, shelter, and clothing in every season. In late winter and early spring, the sap of sugar maple trees is gathered and boiled for maple sugar—historically a welcome source of energy after a long winter of dwindling food sources. There follows a seasonal menu of wild leeks and other edible greens and berries, along with a pharmacy of medicinal herbs that grow in the forests, dunes, and wetlands. In season, nuts mature on the beech trees, and bark from birch and basswood is harvested for shelter and rope.
Wetlands offer a wealth of food and materials. The native cattail, alone, was a rich resource, providing leaves for mats, pollen for food and medicine, and roots for food. The region’s lake-tempered climate extends the growing season for plantings such as the traditional corn, squash, and beans. Plat maps from an 1851 survey show several garden locations close to Anishinaabek settlements near what are now Leland and Omena on the Leelanau Peninsula.
Fishing is still a mainstay, and was absolutely critical for survival historically. Fish were a vital protein source that could be smoke-dried and stored for future use. Camps were set up near river mouths and off-shore shoals in the spring and during the fall spawning of whitefish and lake trout. Streams and inland lakes teemed with a variety of cold, freshwater species. The people harvested fish by using spears, hook and line, gaffing, and netting; practices that still continue for tribal members.
The More Recent Past
In the last half of the nineteenth and the early twentieth century, Odawa and Ojibwa families in the Sleeping Bear Dunes area worked for wages while continuing to harvest natural resources to provide for their families. White fishermen joined them in commercial fishing off-shore. Fresh fish were packed and sent off on the steamships calling at Glen Haven. Many Odawa men took jobs in the woods and lumber mills. Local census records from the early 1900s include numerous local names with ethnic identity listed as “Indian.”
The Odawa Westman, Jackson, and Sam families all worked for Glen Haven entrepreneur D.H. Day. Elizabeth Westman was born in Glen Haven around 1905. In a 1975 interview, she recalled that about 30 Odawa families lived in the vicinity. The men and boys worked at the Glen Haven dock and the lumber mill on Little Glen Lake. Families made maple syrup and candy in the spring and worked as sharecroppers on Day’s land. Women created and sold baskets; children picked berries to sell at the Glen Haven dock and the Glen Lakes resort community. As early as 1880, the Westman family purchased property near what is now Westman Road, and founded a small community where they and several other Odawa families continued to reside after the local lumber mills closed.
First People Today
The Anishinaabek maintain a strong presence in Northern Michigan. The region’s tribes have fought in court to retain their treaty rights. They are active political, economic, and cultural participants in their local communities, and at the state and federal level. Tribal governments provide social services and economic development and sustain their cultural heritage. The Inland Consent Decree of 2007 re-affirmed that tribal members may engage in hunting, fishing, and gathering activities on tribal lands and lands that are open to the public for those activities. Tribal natural resource professionals work closely with state, the National Lakeshore, and other federal agencies to manage these resources.
The tribal communities actively preserve Anishinaabe traditional knowledge—the vast reservoir of practices and beliefs passed down through the generations. They remember the ways of animals and plants, the contours of the land, and the ways of the water and winds. This legacy also carries the understanding that they share a responsibility to preserve and protect the natural resources that sustained their people through the ages.
Visitors of all races and ethnicities look with awe upon the towering, wind-scoured dunes and forests of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. For the Anishinaabek, the Lakeshore endures as a sacred place.
It is no wonder that visitors continue to appreciate and adapt the original legend the Anishinaabek bestowed on these lofty dunes animating them with the powerful spirit of mokwa, a mother bear, and her devotion to her cubs.
PIERCE STOCKING AND THE ORIGINAL DRIVE
The Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive has been in place for so long that it seems almost part of the landscape, snaking uphill and down, through forest and dune. But it wasn’t always this way. As recently as the early 20th century, humans could only reach the Sleeping Bear Plateau on foot or horseback.
Then, in the 1950s, a local lumberman and land speculator named Pierce Stocking began picking up hints that the federal government was looking at the area for a possible National Park. Stocking, who already owned substantial property, began quietly buying up parcels of the “worthless” sand with an eye toward eventually selling it to the government. In time, he came to own about 10,000 acres, making him one of the largest private land owners in what would become Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.
But there was no quick profit in this enterprise. Legislation to create the National Lakeshore was extensively debated by Congress. The first bill was introduced in 1959, but by the middle of the 1960s a succession of similar legislation had gone nowhere. Stocking decided to put his land to use.
Building the First Scenic Drive
By all accounts, Stocking had a deep affection for the forests and dunes of the area. Through many years of cutting and hauling timber, he had acquired the experience and equipment to build roads through remote lands. Now, he set his crews to work creating a tourist attraction.
In 1967, Stocking opened the first version of the scenic drive: an unpaved 14-mile road winding through the dunes and providing spectacular views, steep hills, twisting turns, and pleasant picnic areas. Its route was similar to that of the present drive but extended farther north into some of the open dune fields.
As an entrance to his park, Stocking created a landscaped area called the “Great Lakes Gardens” along the road just south of the Dune Climb. It featured ponds in the shape of the five Great Lakes with field stone borders and lush plantings of roses and other flowers. Stocking named the whole attraction the Sleeping Bear Dunes Park and charged an entrance fee of $2.75 per car.
Creation of the National Lakeshore
In 1970, three years after Stocking opened his park, President Richard Nixon signed the law creating Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. It would be another six years before the National Park Service acquired enough land to formally dedicate the National Lakeshore and open it to the public.
Through all that time, up until his death in 1976, Pierce Stocking continued to operate his private park and visitors experienced the Sleeping Bear Dunes through his vision of the Scenic Drive. Ironically, the long process of setting a fair price for the government purchase of Stocking’s land also was resolved in 1976. The payment came within days of his death.
When ownership passed to the National Lakeshore, officials considered removing the roadway and letting the dunes return to their original, wilderness condition. They eventually decided, as Stocking had, that the public needed an easy way to access and enjoy the unique and beautiful dunescape.
Building the Present Scenic Drive
So, the main portions of the drive remained open under National Lakeshore management, with only the loops through the most vulnerable dune areas closed to traffic. In 1984, the drive was closed temporarily to be widened, rerouted and repaved. In honor of Pierce Stocking’s pioneering vision, the scenic drive was renamed for him.
Today, the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive extends for just over 7 miles—about half its original length—and features a dozen stops that provide awe-inspiring views along with a sense of the region’s geology, history, and ecology. The unique picnic areas remain, as does much of the original alignment through the forest. Stocking’s covered bridge, a feature of the original drive, was badly damaged by porcupines. It was rebuilt and enlarged by the National Park Service.
Pierce Stocking, Visionary
Pierce Stocking had been born in 1908, just as Michigan’s first timber-cutting era was coming to an end. By the time he entered the industry, many forests were well into their second growth. Stocking managed his forests in a sustainable and sensitive manner. He also came to love the beauty of the landscape and to see its potential for recreation and tourism.
More than 50 years have passed since the bulldozers cut that first lane up the hill behind “Great Lakes Gardens.” It is unlikely that today’s much loved scenic drive would exist without Pierce Stocking. Certainly, the drive through the dunes is nowhere to be found in early National Lakeshore proposals, which envisioned other scenic roads in the hills around Glen Lake and on the high country between Crystal and Platte Lakes.
So, give credit to the National Park Service for seeing the public benefit in Stocking’s vision. And save a good bit of that credit for Pierce Stocking himself—the man who built the first “parkway” in the Sleeping Bear Dunes.
D. H. Day
David Henry Day was a visionary, a promoter, and a community leader who played a central role in the development of Northern Michigan. He lived in Glen Haven from 1878 until his death in 1928—a span of years in which the village evolved from a steamship fueling station to a tourist destination.
Day was born in Ogdensburg, New York, on the St. Lawrence River, in 1851. He arrived in Glen Haven as a 27-year-old shipping agent. According to a National Park Service historian, he was responsible for everything from “tedious paperwork to more challenging tasks like securing the ship lines, which were flung onto the dock any time of day or night.”
Over the next five decades, Day would come to own the whole town and much of the surrounding countryside. One obituary lauded him as “The King of Glen Haven.”
He was seen as a pioneer in sustainable forestry, agriculture, and tourism. He headed the local school board, owned a sawmill and general store, built roads, put in the local telegraph line, and was the first chairman of the Michigan State Parks Commission, all while living above the store in Glen Haven with his wife, Eva, and their children.
Three years after his arrival in Glen Haven, Day learned that his employer, the Northern Transit Company, was planning to sell its local assets. He borrowed money to buy the company town of Glen Haven and two steamships.
He soon sold the ships but kept on buying land. By 1910, he owned some 5,000 acres, including the 400-acre “Oswagotchie” Farm and extensive woodlands around Little Glen Lake. He managed these woodlands to be sustainably harvested, among the first in Michigan to do so, and they eventually became known as “Day Forest”.
He farmed some of the cleared timberlands, planting cherry trees and building a canning factory in Glen Haven to get his fruit to urban markets. In the 1920s, he donated land for a state park on Sleeping Bear Bay and lined up investors to convert much of the Day Forest property into a million-dollar resort with a golf course, airstrip, and 125 high-end estate sites.
That last dream never came to full fruition. D.H. Day died in 1928, and the partners in the project lost their investment with the onset of the Great Depression the next year.
His name is memorialized in the National Lakeshore in a historical marker at the D.H. Day Campground, on the property he donated in 1920 for creation of a state park.
While most farms in the Sleeping Bear Dunes area were small homesteads whose owners struggled to make a living, Oswagotchie was an exception. After acquiring the partially developed property in the 1880s, Day cleared additional land and built a farmhouse, the large barn, a pig barn and a bull barn.
In time, the main barn had milking space for 200 prized dairy cows, and the farm also had 400 pigs. By about 1910, he had 5,000 cherry and apple trees. Day’s general store in Glen Haven sold milk, meat, and produce from the farm.
Day himself never lived on the farm, instead staying with his wife and children in quarters above the store he owned in Glen Haven. The farmhouse was rented to a hired manager. Day often walked the three miles round trip from the store to the farm to observe the operation.
In the 1920s, he built a canning factory in Glen Haven using the facility to process cherries, raspberries, and peaches from his farm and from other growers in the area. The canning business helped the community survive the Great Depression. The cannery building is now used by the National Lakeshore as a museum for historic boats.
The D.H. Day barn has been cited as one of the 50 most significant buildings in Michigan. The 1993 reference book “Buildings of Michigan” describes it as follows:
The magnificent 116-foot-long dairy barn, with its poured concrete silo, octagonal cupolas with bell roofs, and a vaulted and ogee roof with slightly flared eaves to permit water drainage, is both picturesque and functional.
D.H. Day died in 1928. His wife, Eva, died eight years later. The farm passed to other owners, and remains in private hands. An agreement with National park Service requires the owner to retain the buildings’ historic exteriors.
About the Book
“The Life of the Sleeping Bear,” edited by Jerry Peterson and Kathy Cole, is a photographic tour of the park that tells the park’s history — geologic, ecologic, maritime, and more. Packed with photos, maps, infographics, and details even Bob Sutherland, president of Cherry Republic in Glen Arbor, was surprised to learn: “I’ve been living in the grasp of the Sleeping Bear Dunes all my life and I didn’t know half the information packed in this guidebook. Did I find this book valuable? Yes Engrossing? Yes. Beautiful? Yes. Full of history and fact? Yes!”
All profits from the books sales will go to support the Friends of Sleeping Bear Dunes’ mission: Protecting resources and heightening visitor experiences in partnership with Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. To learn more about the organization and order the book, visit www.FriendsofSleepingBear.org.