The scenic village of Onekama, which sits upon the shores of both Portage Lake and Lake Michigan, has a unique history to thank for its double-lake frontage. This year, the two-lake town celebrates the 150th anniversary of the iconic channel that created one of the best harbors on Lake Michigan, and inadvertently, Onekama itself.
Like many Michigan tales, whether they be tall or true, the story of Onekama (often referred to as “the Cut” by seasoned locals) is a story that involves both Michigan’s natural landscape and Mother Nature. It began in 1870 when local farmers realized that their access to Lake Michigan was being limited by a lumber mill in the area. The lumber mill controlled the only creek that fed from Portage Lake into Lake Michigan with a dam; a dam that would also frequently flood the farmers’ crops.
In the spring of 1871, after finding little satisfaction in voicing their complaints about the lumber mill flooding their crops to the legal system, local farmers took matters into their own hands. Using oxen, homemade shovels and tools, the farmers dug for two weeks to create a small trench from Portage Lake into Lake Michigan, creating their own access to the Great Lake.
Crew after crew of farmers digging the channel were arrested, but another crew always took their place, until they, too, were arrested. As soon as a crew was released, they got right back to work.
Just after midnight on May 14, 1871, the “The Cut” was completed and an amazing spectacle occurred. The water from Portage Lake rushed out into Lake Michigan, taking with it an entire forest, and creating a channel over 400 feet wide and 12 feet deep. The farmers were shocked; it seemed as if all the water of Portage Lake would rush out. They had failed to consider that
Portage Lake was 12 feet higher than Lake Michigan. The creation of this channel brought great opportunities to both the farmers and the lumber mill by creating one of the best harbors on Lake Michigan, and the Onekama of today.
‘The Cut’ by John Wemlinger
Nearly two years ago, author John Wemlinger was contacted by members of Onekama’s community to write a historical fiction book that told the creation story of Onekama’s iconic channel to commemorate the upcoming 150th milestone anniversary. Having vacationed in the tiny town of Onekama, Michigan for ten years before purchasing a home and retiring there, Wemlinger knew the two-lake town would be an inspiring place to continue his passion for writing novels.
The historical fiction novel aptly titled The Cut, tells the story of two lovers caught between the conflicting interests of big lumber and local farmers. The dam that powers the lumber mill continues to flood out hundreds of acres of farmland, and the lumbermen refuse to obey a court order to stop the damming.
While most of the characters in the book are fictional, “There are a few … who really existed, Judge J.G. Ramsdell, for example,” said Wemlinger. “I used the Manistee County Historical Museum as my primary resource for my research. They had many great pictures of that era in the county’s history. Looking through those pictures and the newspaper clippings of the time helped me shape each character.”
John Wemlinger’s novel will debut on June 11 at the Onekama Lions’ Community Dinner at Onekama Villiage Park. For more details, see the listed events below.
The Cut is published by Mission Point Press of Traverse City, Michigan, and is available in stores and online. The paperback’s retail price is $17.95. For more information, go to www.johnwemlinger.com.
Upcoming Summer Events in Onekama
To celebrate the 150th anniversary of “The Cut”, Onekama will host activities focused on the area’s history and waterways. Running from June through October, the area will offer sailing regattas and kayak parades, a formal dedication of the Portage Lake Channel, historical tours and programs, a lumberjack show, Welmlinger’s historical novel, and a gala to commemorate the anniversary. Visit the official Onekama website for more information.
Friday, June 11 from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. at Onekama Village Park – Onekama Lions’ Community Dinner with John Wemlinger’s debut of The Cut, Historical Stories, and Games. Donations Appreciated. No reservations needed.
Friday, June 18 from 2 p.m. to 3 p.m. at North Point Park – The Plan’s that Didn’t Happen: North Point Park & The Changing Ecosystem walk. Free. Reservations: Parks@OnekamaTwp.org
Thursday, July 8: Onekama Block Party “Then & Now”
Wednesday, July 14: Resorts & Camps We Have Known and Loved Presentation
Saturday, July 17: Harbor Commission Portage Lake Channel Dedication
Saturday, July 17: ONEKAMA OneFifty Sailboat Regatta
Wednesday, July 21: Walking Tour of Historic Homes on the Point
Friday, July 30: Portage Lake Yacht Club Open House & History Presentation
Saturday, July 31: Portage Lake Yacht Club ONEKAMA OneFifty Sunfish Invitational
Saturday, July 31: Walking Tour of Portage Point Resort
Wednesday, Aug. 4: Settlers and Shorelines; History Presentation
Thursday, Aug 5: Kids Story, Craft, and Playtime at Onekama Branch Library – Manistee Library
Friday & Saturday, Aug. 6 & 7: Onekama Parks & Rec Scavenger Hunt at Village Park
Tuesday through Saturday, Aug. 17 – 21: Manistee County Fair – 150 years!
Wednesday, Aug 18: Lumberjack Show at Manistee County Fair
Sunday, Sept. 12: 150 Portage Lake Paddle Parade
Thursday, Oct. 7: Onekama Gala at Portage Point Resort