History of Omena

Omena—from the start, an unusual place

Reverend Peter Dougherty

Reverend Peter Dougherty

They paddled across the bay, loaded down with everything needed to start a New Mission. Old Mission, where Reverend Peter Dougherty and his band of loyal Indians had established a school, church and manse, and as many as 40 dwellings, had come to an end over the Indian’s rights to purchase land in 1852. The Indians were uneasy about their future, and some had already departed for Canada. Chief Aghosa and his band of forty families, one of the largest in the area, was willing to move across the Bay to a spot which had been an Indian summer garden, just a clearing in the woods, but a lovely area where they could purchase land. It would become a permanent place for them and a good place for Rev Dougherty to establish his “New Mission”.

Chief Aghosa and his band settled a short distance north of present day Omena. Reverend Dougherty choose a rise above the good harbor of present day Omena for his New Mission. At that time the location was called “A Point Beyond”, not a very catchy name. But because many times when the Indians came to Rev Dougherty with a question or to tell him something they thought was interesting, he would reply in the Indian language “O-ma-nah” which means “Is that so?” and in time the Mission and the town became known as “O-ma-nah” or Omena.

Maria Dougherty

Maria Dougherty

Rev. Dougherty rejected the idea of log buildings for New Mission like had been used on Old Mission because the buildings were drafty, could not be made tight against the weather, and they required constant maintenance. Perhaps most importantly, the Indians “Would get a bad impression from a rough log building” he wrote.” This would infer that it was temporary and they might suppose that “we did not ourselves expect any permanency to our operations.” So the buildings would be framed of the finest lumber shipped in from Wisconsin. Built to last.

The winter of 1852 was especially harsh, which slowed construction. The ice on the bay reached nearly three feet thick, and the snow was just about as deep. A 70’ well had to be dug as water was needed for construction as well as for drinking. Work did not begin on the framing of the mission building until the spring of 1853. The building was still not complete by June of 1853. As summer came, carpenters worked on completing the school and the other buildings that were essential such as the washhouse where the kitchen, laundry, bathrooms and wood storage area were located. Finally in September of 1853 the school and the Manse were completed so that Mrs. Dougherty and their five children could move in. The New Mission manual labor boarding school opened with 29 students, most of whom had attended school at Old Mission. Eventually 50 Indian students, half boys half girls, lived at the mission school.

Grove Hill New Mission Church now called Omena Presbyterian Church

The New Mission was to Dougherty the solution to the treaties and policies which aimed to vacate Indian lands and encourage white settlement in northern Michigan. He didn’t want to see Indian families in our area uprooted and sent out west. The Mission School was located in the vicinity of the Indian families they served who had purchased property nearby. Family members were welcome to visit the children at the school at any time. It was hoped that the teachings of the school would influence the families and youth of the area as well. Rev Dougherty thought it best to keep all the children together as one large family of 50 children. The children were taught reading, writing, geography and arithmetic. The boys learned modern farming methods, and the girls domestic skills, such as sewing , cooking, and laundry work. All were taught about Christianity. This, Rev Dougherty hoped, would be a way to ensure they would adjust to the encroachment of white settlers. They would be prepared for and welcome white civilization when it arrived. However, it was inevitable that if the Mission was to succeed, it would distance the children from their native backgrounds.

Anderson's Gas Station

Anderson’s Gas Station

While other Boarding Schools in the area were supported by the U.S. government, The New Mission Boarding School was entirely supported by the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions. Thus, a year later, in 1854, with the boarding school and outbuildings finished, Dougherty’s plan still needed one more thing…a church. He wrote to the head of the Board of Missions with his plan for a church “near the head of the harbor” for the nearby Indians as well as nearby villagers many of whom already attended church services at the school. He had already secured a donation of the land, as well as lumber and freight for the project. He expected the Indians would contribute the labor in the construction. Work began in June of 1857, and with much help from the Indians by September, the Grove Hill New Mission Church was dedicated by the Rev. George Smith of Northport. Now called Omena Presbyterian Church, the little white church on the hill is still having services with visiting ministers Sunday mornings from Memorial Day to Labor Day.

John Putnam’s Texaco Gas Station (ca. 1935)

Up until now, the only way to get around was by boat or canoe. When the road from Traverse City to Omena was cut through the forest in 1862, it ushered in a whole new era. By 1872 there was a stagecoach between Traverse City and Omena, and by the 1920’s cars began to appear on the dusty roads of Omena. The cars needed gas and repairs. By 1936, Omena had competing gas stations. Anderson’s already had two gas pumps, and within a year in 1936, Putnams and Bidleman’s gas stations opened up.

Bidleman’s only lasted a few years, and after many transformations is now OVPA’s Lavender Lane vacation rental across from the swimming beach. Putnam’s added a restaurant, eventually gave up the gas pumps and is now Leelanau Wine Cellars Wine Tasting room and Knot Just A Bar Restaurant.

Trains stopped in OmenaBy 1892 steamboats were docking in Omena with goods and people, taking away lumber and produce such as potatoes and apples. And ten years later Maude, the beloved train with a name, had a stop in Omena and made regular runs. Omena had opened up to the outside world. And the civilized white world did arrive as Rev. Dougherty had expected. And they expected conveniences such has they had in the city.

In 1903 telephone service began, although it was basic at best. And in 1906 electricity came to Omena from the Leland dam, finally reaching the cottages on the Point in 1920. People were allowed one electric outlet and one 40 watt-bulb per room, and if too many lights went on, the power went off on Omena Point. The current was so weak that a breeze on the electric wires would make the bulb flicker “like a candle in the wind.”

Downtown Omena

Downtown Omena

The flag with 48 stars is the only indication of how old this photo of the Barth store is. 48-star flags were flown from 1912 to 1959.

P.B. Barth General Merchandise Store

Omena's Ice Cream Parlor

Omena’s Ice Cream Parlor

Businesses popped up along the shore along with a few homes during the next 30 years. John Anderson built Anderson’s Store store in Omena sometime during the 1860s. It is still there, now Tamarack Gallery. Soon after that more grocery stores opened: Samual Doe’s Grocery store near the Dougherty manse in 1874, and then Paul Barth’s General Merchandise Store in 1889, now Omena Bay Country Store located at the bend in the road. Around 1890 the Andersons extended their enterprise to include a home for their ever growing family. It is now the yellow house in town owned by OVPA and rented to a Buddhist Monk (you might see him out front in his saffron robes). And they added an Ice Cream Store/ gift shop/ Post Office building which is now Omena’s Post Office also owned and maintained by OVPA.

The remaining building in Omena’s downtown is the Omena Historical Society’s Museum, originally built as a farmhouse by Rinaldo Putnam in 1881 on land that is now part of Villa Marquette. It was moved into town and carefully restored. It is maintained with exhibits changing yearly and open weekends in the summer.

Although the very first rooming house, Page’s Rooming and Boarding House, was opened in 1859 mainly for lumbermen who flocked to the area for it’s virgin timber, and the Chicago Club ( originally known as the “Shabwasung Resort”) opened in 1868 as a well known bachelor boarding house patronizing officers and captains of the ships that docked in Omena, the true resort era started in 1885.

And it started with the Mission Buildings. By the mid-1860’s the New Mission was slowly winding down. In 1867 the Pension Board was in financial difficulty after the Civil War, and could no longer fund the boarding school. Dougherty sold the Mission buildings and the farm. He remained in Omena for the next three years ministering to the Indians and a growing number of white settlers. His vision of a settled life for the Indians had “come to pass, even if only partially.” “With few exceptions they are living on their lands, clearing and cultivating them.” However, already white settlers were purchasing land from the Indians and he feared “most of the Indians would sell their land and remove to other places.” He retired to Wisconsin, 60 years old and “worn from a life of hardship.” The Indians of Aghosatown have moved on, but Peshawbestown, south of town, is doing well with its large Casino and fishing industry. An old Catholic Church ministers to the Native Americans there now.

The Old Mission house becomes the new Hotel Leelanau

The Old Mission house becomes the new Hotel Leelanau

The mission buildings changed hands after closing at least 5 times in the next 15 years and fell into disrepair. By 1863 the large boarding school got the attention of some Cincinnati businessmen as a potential summer resort. They bought it and began work on the new Hotel Leelanau. “The old mission house will be thoroughly rebuilt,” announced the Grand Traverse Herald. With an expanded third floor, the hotel now had “35 sleeping rooms on the second and third floors, as well as two parlors, spacious halls, verandas, dining room, etc.” Part of the restoration of the hotel grounds include a new wharf and docks which are now the docks used by the Omena Traverse Yacht Club. The grand old hotel closed its doors in 1917 after the death of its owner. In 1929 it was torn down rather than possibly being destroyed by fire as so many of the old hotels had been. One of the four cottages built as part of the hotel is still there, beautifully preserved and owned by Debby and Les Disch, owners of the orchards on the hilltop.

The Clovers Resort

The Clovers Resort

Children swimming in Omena Bay

Swimming in Omena Bay

The restored Mission buildings success as Hotel Leelanau created a big interest in resorts in Omena. In 1893 Omena One opened it’s doors, followed by the Clovers under Sydney Keyes in 1898, and Sunset Lodge under Leonard Wheeler the same year. Sunset Lodge has been beautifully restored by Dan and Mary Ziegler and is still in operation as a B&B, the only remaining resort in Omena. In 1905 The Oaks opened in the renovated Bradley Cottage, and in 1909 Freeland Resort opened. Finally in 1920 Omena Two owned by John Santo opened in the renovated Manse of the old Mission. In all seven (eight counting the Chicago Club) hotels or resorts had opened in Omena within thirty-five years. The resort era lasted until more cottages began to pop up in the 1940’s.

Downtown Omena in fall

Downtown Omena in fall

As time passes and Omena ages, it takes a lot of loving care by a lot of people to keep the old buildings in shape, and to keep Omena’s personality and ambiance alive now as it has been for over 150 years. OVPA is proud to be a part of that.

Courtesy Omena Historical Society and Mark Smith.

Skip to content