Kayaking the Archipelago of the Gods

I went to Garden again two summers ago, this time with Dan Higdon, a plainspoken man with a solid knowledge of island history who works construction on Beaver Island in the winter and captains a water taxi to the outer islands in the summer. As Higdon’s boat bounced across a choppy lake, over the roar of the engine he told me how he’d hauled (his word) Kee’s body to Garden for burial in the old cemetery in 1999. He’d motored out of Paradise Bay before dawn and reached the funeral party in Charlevoix by full sun. Since Kee had wanted to be buried sitting up, her body had been placed in a wheelchair for the ride over, draped in a bearskin with beads around her neck. The people with her chatted and laughed. "It was sort of festive. I wouldn’t mind being buried like that," Higdon said.

On Garden, Higdon led me to the Indian cemetery. Thirteen years of Lake Michigan elements have taken their toll on the spirit houses. Many had tumbled down, but Kee’s, built when she was buried five years ago, still looked new. Hers and several others built for recently deceased Miniss Kitigan members were decorated with fresh offerings of feathers and pouches of tobacco. But there were no snakes anywhere.

"Where did they all go?" I asked Higdon. He shrugged and said he wasn’t sure, a couple of years ago, they were just gone.

The next day, Higdon took me to High Island. We moored on the northeast side, hiked over the beach, up a ridge through a skirting of cedar and larch pines to a series of clearings. Here, at the beginning of the last century, a hundred or so earnest folk busied themselves while they waited for the Millenium. They were members of the Israelite House of David, a religious commune founded by Benjamin and Mary Purnell in 1903 and based in Benton Harbor. Married members abstained from conjugal relations, and no one drank alcohol or ate meat. Instead they poured their energy into business endeavors, among them, building and operating a then cutting-edge amusement park in Benton Harbor and putting together a championship traveling baseball team.

In 1912 the group purchased 2,500 acres of the 3,000-acre High Island, property that came with a lumber mill. For the next 15 years, the Purnells assigned commune members to the island to lumber and farm. They froze in the winter and toiled in the summer.

Although the Israelites, as they were known, referred to their leaders as Brother Benjamin and Sister Mary, the press took to calling the couple King and Queen. And the very fact that the sect abstained from sex made rumors swirl through the Great Lakes about secret sex scandals at High. The most notorious: that a seven-sided cabin on the island was where King Benjamin kept seven virgins so he could sleep with one every night of the week. The truth is most unmarried women lived above the communal dining hall. And there is no record of Benjamin Purnell ever visiting High Island — he stayed in Benton Harbor. One winter, however, the seven-sided building was used to house a group of young Israelite women visiting from Benton Harbor.

In 1927, with the commune ensnared in infighting and a lawsuit with the State of Michigan, the Israelites of High left the island — much as the Mormons had left Beaver 70 years before, penniless and discouraged. Today, all that is left of their attempt at Utopia are some rusted implements and old timbers.

On our way back to Beaver that day, Higdon anchored off Squaw Island to show me its lovely but decaying 1892 lighthouse. After he pointed to where he said a small chapel stood somewhere in the tangle of growth, I pushed through a prickly swath of branches and vines until I found the tiny, weathered building. Just big enough, I thought, poking my head in, for one person to find refuge from the immensity of lake and sky.

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Article Comments

  • Anonymous

    I met Kee in the summer of 1988 or 89. I was leading a canoe trip with about a dozen teenagers. We decided to hike across the island one rainy day. Kee’s grand-daughter met us on the trail as we accidentally stumbled into thier camp. She took us to meet Kee who noticed the severe case of poison ivy on my legs. She gave me a bottle of medicine made from jewel weed and other stuff. That bottle fixed me up in about 4 days….. Better than anything I ever got at a pharmacy.

    Bob M.