Northern Michigan Ghost Stories, Myths and Tall Tales

Have you heard the howl of the Dogman? The whispers of talking trees in a haunted orchard? Would you sleep alone in a lighthouse waiting for the ghost? Some stories are fact, some fiction. But these Northern Michigan ghost stories and myths will raise every hair on your neck.

Ghost Orchard

By Anne-Marie Oomen
Featured in the July 2004 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine

We call our land Ghost Orchard because it was once the site of a magnificent cherry orchard. We bought our land when the orchard went under. Then we took out the trees because the orchard was diseased and there were too many healthy orchards nearby. A big machine came and grabbed the trees by the trunks and carried them away in a semi to be burned. Then we built our house on the edge of the orchard.

For a while, everything is fine. But one summer, I am walking on the open field left by that orchard, and I hear the trees. Yes, I swear to God, I hear the cherry trees that used to be there. I realize they have their own talk, their own conversations with each other, and they tell each other the secrets that not even the best (or worst) of us know. They know our lies—good or bad. Except there were no trees anymore. Just an open field riddled with fescue and knapweed. I leave quick. I tell my husband; he does not believe me.

Still, I come back again and again. Sometimes I hear the sound of Spanish, a boy and a girl, laughing, and then crying. Sometimes I hear the gruff sound of the shaker moving down the rows. Sometimes I hear the water jug gurgling and the old truck that hauled the lugs. But mostly the trees. One day, they tell me something bad will happen. The next day, the truck that picks up the garbage runs off the bluff into the lake. Those trees, or rather, the ghosts of those trees, they know things.

This one night, about harvest time, I am walking and listening real close, the trees that are not there are loud, full of warning but I can’t tell about what. Then, out of the corner of my eye, a little girl runs. She waves her hand. I follow. Then there is a little boy who calls my name. When I follow, he disappears, then reappears. I walk and walk through the open field of our ghost orchard and finally sit down in the middle of two hundred empty acres. I am tired and I want them to stop bothering me. They won’t stop bothering me. They keep pulling me. I see a tree loaded with cherries. I touch the branches. I find a picking harness around my shoulders. I feel the straps cut into my shoulders. I begin to pull the cherries off the branches. The bucket under my hands grows heavy. I feel the weight of the bucket filled until I need to empty it. I pour it into a lug. I hear the trucks. I know there is a long day ahead of me. I go back to the tree. The children come and sit near me, smiling. I tell them I should go now. They keep smiling. I try to take the harness off but my hands keep picking. I try to pour out the bucket but it is not full, and when it is full, I may only pour the bucket into the lug and return to a tree. After a while, my husband comes out of the house at the edge of the orchard. He walks over the empty field. He calls and calls. I answer him. He looks straight through me, but he also looks as though somewhere on the edge of imagination, he might hear me. My hands keep working, pulling off the cherries. The trees whisper as they have always done, all the secrets. I feel the trees reaching for me. I feel my body enter the tree. I feel myself as bark and fruit. My husband goes away. When he returns he is carrying an ax.

The trees know all the secrets.

Anne-Mario Oomen is an award-winning author and instructor at Interlochen Arts Academy. View her work at anne-marieoomen.com.

The Bear

By Terry Wooten
Featured in the July 2004 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine

Charlie Fisher saw the Bear run across the gravel road in front of his car lights. The beast woke up the Baughns in the middle of the night banging around in their trashcans. I had a big imagination and got to thinking this Bear was the size of a Tyrannosaurus rex.

Charlie and Lula Fisher lived on a small farm on the south edge of Park Lake. They didn’t have any kids, just a little lamb tombstone in the cemetery. Their house was a boring place to visit if you were a kid. You couldn’t do this and you couldn’t do that. One dark blue summer night while Mom and Dad were visiting with Charlie and Lula, and my sisters were sitting quiet … I snuck outside to watch for this Tyrannosaurus rex-sized Bear.

Sitting on the sidewalk in front of the Fishers’ house surrounded by the new woods and prehistoric stars, I could hear the wind in the trees. The closer I listened, the more that wind sounded like a Bear breathing. I started feeling kind of scared standing in the dark alone with that giant Bear close by in the woods maybe watching me. I needed to find a safer place to hide.

My parents’ car was parked in the driveway in front of the barn way on the other side of the yard. Now, the rule in my family was: NEVER GET IN THE CAR. NEVER PLAY IN THE CAR IF YOUR MOM AND DAD AREN’T WITH YOU!

But I kept forgetting rules.

I decided to take a chance and hurry across the darkness to our car. There I would be safe inside. To start off quick I counted to myself, “One, two, three, GO!”

I RAN ACROSS THE GRASS FAST AS I COULD, JUMPED IN THE CAR, LOCKED THE DOORS, AND ROLLED THE WINDOWS UP TIGHT!

After a few minutes of lying still on the front seat, I sat up and peeked cautiously over the dashboard out though the windshield. In the moonlight I could see past the shadowy barn into the woods on the far side of Charlie’s bean field. Watching for a while I noticed something like the shape of a giant Bear walking though the woods.

He was standing on his hind legs. He was darker than the night. He was so big he could hardly squeeze though the trees. As he walked he spread the trunks with his front legs he used like arms. I could see the treetops swaying in the starlight above him.

KNOCK! KNOCK! KNOCK!

I was in trouble for being in the car by myself with the doors locked. I wanted to interrupt mom and dad’s lecture And yell, “NEVER MIND! THE BEAR IS COMING!” but I kept quiet with my hands over my mouth. The Tyrannosaurus rex-sized Bear shadow was coming closer across the field. Dad started the car and backed around. He steered down the driveway and turned right on the gravel road headed home. I was watching out the back window. I saw the bear’s giant shadow shape like a storm cloud looming around the corner of the barn. Then we were safe over the hill.

Next morning I found out Mom had made plans with Lula Fisher to return and pick strawberries. I didn’t want to go. I imagined the Fishers’ house would be smashed into a big bear track. I figured the Bear had slept in the garden. The strawberry patch would look like my messed-up bed.

As mom drove in the driveway everything was normal. The sun was shining. The birds were singing. Lula Fisher was outside watering her flowers. Charlie was already in the garden out behind the barn picking strawberries.

Late that morning while I was getting yelled at for eating more berries than I was putting in my basket …

The real Bear came out of the woods. It wasn’t a Tyrannosaurus rex-sized beast like the Bear in my imagination. The animal stood about as tall as a car tire. He ran along the fence line on all four legs like a normal forest citizen. On the far side of the field where the neat rows of beans ended and the wild limb shapes began … The Bear faded like a piece of night back into the shade under the treetops.

He’s been living in there ever since, growing bigger … And bigger … And bigger.

Terry Wooten is a bard-poet living in Kewadin. Hear him on summer nights at Stone Circle’s communal campfire, terry-wooten.com.

Fresh Washed Cherries

By Steven Hall
Featured in the July 2004 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine

A man from the city got a flat tire while driving along a remote county road. His cell phone picked up no signal since he was out of his area. All he could see as he looked around was orchards, woods, open fields, and one small fruit stand painted white. He locked his car and headed for the stand. Big red letters on the side spelled out: Fresh Washed Cherries.

As he neared the stand he heard a child singing. He saw red and yellow cherries spilled over the road where a two-track cut back across the field and into the woods. A round-faced girl with braids the color of straw sat on a stool in the fruit stand. She smiled at the man while she sang softly to herself.

And another one came,
his troubles were the same,
now he’s not around,
and no one says his name.

“I have a flat tire,” the man said, “Is there anyone who can help me?”

“My poppa can,” said the round-faced girl. “Follow me,” she said as she hopped off the stool and led the way down the two-track toward the woods, adding under her breath, “My poppa can take any man.” As she walked she returned to singing.

And another one came,
his troubles were the same,
now he’s not around,
and no one says his name.

They walked back through the sunlit orchard and into the woods. The man noticed a scar down the center of the two-track, as if something heavy had torn up the ground. He saw a hub cap in the tall grass; a rear view mirror wedged into a clump of small oaks that crowded the two-track; a shiny car antenna lay in the dirt along with shards of red plastic.

The man from the city began to worry about where his young guide was leading him. “Are we almost there?” he asked. The girl smiled shyly at him and nodded her head.

The growl of a diesel under load pulled his eyes to a group of buildings through the trees, and the screech of metal against metal lashed at his ears. He followed the girl into the clearing in the woods. There stood a modest house, a large barn with doors standing wide open among various other sheds and small outbuildings. Crates for hauling cherries were stacked along the barn.

The girl called out, “Poppa, there’s a man from the city who needs your help.” Then she walked into the barn. The diesel engine died, and the man from the city waited. He heard the soft rustle of the wind through the cottonwoods. Still he waited.

Then he began to look around. He walked into the dark shadows of the barn. Coils of heavy dark rope hung from a peg. License plates were nailed to the wall. He read them: Michigan ’94, New York ’96, Illinois ’00, Ohio ’91, Indiana ’02, Ohio ’04. Out the back door he saw painted metal and fresh dirt. Crushed cars were stacked up on top of one another, covered with dirt. A yellow tractor with a backhoe was parked there, the engine pinging and popping as it cooled. The little girl was nowhere in sight.

The man from the city walked back through the barn and still he saw no one. He peered into a large wood crate. On the bottom he saw red and yellow cherries. He breathed in and smelled their sweet goodness. He heard the little girl singing as he gazed at the cherries, so he never really felt the blow that took him down.

And another one came,
his troubles were the same,
now he’s not around,
and no one says his name.

Steven Holl is a storyteller and writer living in Traverse City who creates stories from materials found in his own backyard.


Northern Michigan Myths and Tall Tales

Every place has its myths and legends—and the more remote and evocative a place, the more of these stories it seems to acquire. They’re told around the campfire, repeated among friends, and passed down from one generation to the next. Some are beautiful, some are grisly, and a few are complete nonsense. The Traverse City area is certainly no exception. So, as a nod to this spooky time of year, here are a few of the region’s better known myths and tall tales as told by Mike Norton, former newspaper writer and a local authority on all things TC.

The Dogman

As told by Mike Norton

Everyone knows that truth can be stranger than fiction. Sometimes, though, what starts out as fiction can sometimes get entangled with something else.

That seems to be what happened in 1987 when a pair of Traverse City radio personalities—Jack O’Malley and Steve Cook of WTCM—decided to concoct a scary story for April Fools’ Day. They made up a “legend,” complete with a bogus pedigree and a folksy song, about a frightening creature that roamed the North Woods. A large beast with the body and features of a dog that walked on its hind legs like a man. The Dogman.

The song (called “The Legend”) became a local hit, and that’s when the truly weird stuff began. Local listeners started calling the station to report their own encounters with something that sounded very much like the Dogman. Without really intending to, it seems that Cook and O’Malley had tapped into some deep vein of cryptozoological Up North lore, a storyline that goes back at least 200 years.

Even then, the whole thing might have faded away, but later that year police reported that an isolated cabin near the village of Luther had been attacked and damaged, apparently by an extremely large dog. That was enough to make the Dogman story a national sensation. More stories appeared, including one from a man who claimed to have seen the thing back in the 1930s while on a fishing trip.

In 2012, a movie version of “The Dogman” was made. Every year around Halloween, WTCM dusts off “The Legend” and plays it for old times’ sake. But Cook, who started the whole story, remains a skeptic about the creature’s actual existence—though he doesn’t question the motives of those who claim to have seen it.

The Ghost of Bowers Harbor

As told by Mike Norton

For years, the former Bowers Harbor Inn on the west-facing shore of the Old Mission Peninsula has been touted as Traverse City’s most famous haunted spot. Guests, employees and visitors to the inn (now the Mission Table restaurant) insist that they have experienced strange rapping noises, doors slamming, lights suddenly turning on, and mirrors and paintings falling from walls.

The spirit responsible for all these goings-on is supposed to have been the ghost of “Genevive Stickney,” whose husband built the rambling waterfront home in the 1880s and who is said to have died in the house under tragic circumstances. In fact, over the years a soap-opera story has been built up around “Genevive” and her family, aided and abetted by credulous journalists. The tale—that she was a jealous, overweight wife who hanged herself in the elevator shaft—has been featured in several books and television programs.

Except that none of it was true. Thanks to the painstaking research of historian Julie Schopieray, it’s been established that the Stickneys were a normal couple who spent many happy years together in the gorgeous, quirky home at Bowers Harbor. Mrs. Stickney’s name was Jennie, not Genevive, and she died in Grand Rapids in the Pantlind Hotel, now the Amway Grand Plaza. Her husband died two years later at Munson Hospital. They were in their eighties, and the lurid stories told about them are pure fabrication.

Is there a “haunting” at Mission Table? Who can say? Old buildings make noises, and strange things happen for any number of reasons. There certainly are plenty of spirits at Bowers Harbor, though, since the restaurant is home to a fine microdistillery.

The Torch Lake Monster

As told by Mike Norton

Every lake should have a monster of its own—especially if that lake also happens to be the home of a summer camp. And the famous Torch Lake Monster doubtless owes its longevity to the existence of Camp Hayo-Went-Ha on its northern edge, where generations of youngsters have shrieked around the campfires to tales of a giant creature—one eye brown, one eye blue, his body covered all in icky green goo”—that lives at the bottom of the lake and rises at night to terrorize boaters, swimmers and unwary campers who venture where they’re not supposed to venture.

The current legend of the monster doesn’t go back very far; credit goes to Dave Foley, an avid fisherman, former teacher and athletic coach, who served as a counselor at Hayo-Went-Ha from 1967 to 1977. As monster stories go, it’s pretty mainstream, but there are some odd things about Torch Lake itself that make such stories plausible.

First of all, it’s unusually deep—285 feet at its deepest point and with an average depth of 111 feet, it’s the deepest inland lake in Michigan. Early visitors used to speculate that it was literally a “bottomless” lake, connected to nearby Grand Traverse Bay by underwater tunnels. (There were persistent, if unsubstantiated, stories of people who drowned in the lake whose bodies washed up in the Bay. Or vice versa.)

It’s also unusually clear—one of the clearest lakes in the world, in fact—and in those crystal-clear depths lurk some extremely large fish. You might almost call them, well, monsters. Last fall, in fact, a 50-pound muskellunge, almost five feet long, was caught in Torch Lake, the largest ever caught in the state. And if you know what rapacious, hungry fish muskies are, you could easily spin a horror story out of that one.

A Legendary Cow

Traverse City is short on famous people, but it once had a famous cow. Her name was Traverse Colantha Walker, and her gravestone can be found on the grounds of the Grand Traverse Commons, which used to be the Northern Michigan Asylum. In fact, she may well be the only asylum resident who’s actually buried there, for she was no run-of-the-mill bovine.

Today, the old institution with its creamy brick buildings and barns has been transformed into an entire village of shops, restaurants, galleries, apartments and condominiums. But at its peak, it was a small, self-sufficient city with 3,500 residents (more than Traverse City’s population at the time) and its own farms, gardens, fire department and power plant. Colantha was part of that massive operation, a “supercow” who belonged to the facility’s extensive herd of 96 Holstein-Friesian cows.

In the course of her long and impressive career—from 1916 to 1932—she produced 200,114 pounds of milk and 7,525 pounds of butterfat. In her best year (1926) her annual production was 22,918 pounds—a world record. (Compare that with an official state average of 3,918 pounds per cow per year and you can see why she was such an impressive milker!) When she died in 1932, the staff and patients of the asylum held a banquet in her honor and erected a large granite tombstone over her grave.

They still haven’t forgotten her. Each year, the fun-loving folks at the Commons hold a Traverse Colantha Walker Dairy Festival in June. The free, family-friendly festival includes a pancake breakfast, live “moosic,” a farmers market, arts & craft market, kids’ activities, food & drinks, a memorial parade to Colantha’s headstone and the Great Grilled Cheese Grill-off.

The Ghost of Grand Traverse Lighthouse

I’m going to sleep here tonight, alone in the lighthouse, to see if he’ll speak to me.

Find out what happened.

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