Hiking Through the Port Oneida Historical District

Stacie Longwell Sadowski

Act 1. Bayview Trail Overlook

Bayview Trail overlook

The wilderness is within walking distance…
…and beyond that the calm of the lake, where the Spirit of the Lord is hovering over the face of the waters, as in Genesis 1, then more wilderness – in the form of an island. Aren’t all wildernesses islands? Ever shrinking spaces in our haste to control the world? Often we’d like to think so, but then the wilderness escapes.
“What Would Nature Do?” as I saw on a t-shirt yesterday in a local gift shop. Interesting theology, meant to somehow evoke trust in nature and raise it to the form of deity. Bad news is that Nature would very likely kick your ass and not think twice. “Nature” isn’t interested in our best interest as humans, and while we have certain evolutionary advantages, like thumbs and larger brains, we are on our own in the natural world. Self preservation, in and of itself, is completely natural.
Wilderness is always within walking distance, but the truth is that it is walking up on us – ever stalking and sneaking in- seeking its own end. If you’ve ever attempted to garden, you’ll recognize this fact – especially if you have a fondness for controlled, tidy beds. Nature is certainly not tidy, and wields its own beauty in its very unpredictability and awe evoking power. It is a system set into play with its own rules and its own sense of truth, much unknowable. While we can “know” the biology, botany, meteorology and other parameters of nature, we can’t know them in the sense of accepting and letting go of the control and predictability we want. This space, this park, is about conceding the desire to rule, stepping back, setting a truce, watching and waiting. And, as the spirit of the Lord hovers over the waters, if we are still, we may connect to it.

High on this hill, overlooking Lake Michigan and the surrounding farmlands and the Manitou Islands, what did people think of this view one hundred years ago? Would it be more or less awe inspiring?

Act 2. Miller Barn

Miller Barn foundation

Birds, leaves rustling in the breeze, sounds of distant traffic. Stillness of the barn. It rests easily and comfortably on its property. The house is gone, first from fire, then from neglect, but the barn remains – still and strong. It is on a firm foundation of stones – the huge corner posts resting flatly on boulders. This is an easy place to be, the site is at rest.
Earlier I wondered what the people who lived here thought of life on the edge of Lake Michigan, with its dramatic views and fierce weather. Were they afraid, awestruck when they looked out on the larger than life landscape? I often feel that way, overwhelmed by the otherworldly sights here. But 125 years ago, when their lives depended on the elements, how much more amazing it would’ve been to see the Lake, on it’s beautiful days as well as it’s stormy ones. With all of the modern control I have over my world, looking out onto the dunes and Lake still makes me feel small.
Yes, they were terrified – unable to control the elements, like the cold and snow of winter and storms, they had to always be prepared – to accept whatever came on a daily basis. Their coping mechanisms were not developed like ours are – air conditioning, furnace, radar to track storms, snow plows, and good cars. Every change had the potential to be a huge upset; every storm could destroy, like a roof blown off a barn.
In the Olsen house nearby, there is an interpretive display about life on an early farm, which talks about the daily drudgery of the “wood chores”. If they didn’t do wood chores daily in the winter, there would be no cooked food, no warm house, no warm water. They are wrong about the wood chores. Wood chores, no matter how laborious, create the end result of incredible warmth. It is a miracle in the dead of winter to enjoy the warmth of a fire. Having lived a winter season in an old drafty farm house can create the appreciation of heat on a bitterly cold night. It is the kind of heat that warms to the bones. It is an enormous blessing, universally enjoyed and appreciated by every living thing in the house.
Old barns really know how to be empty, when they are solidly cared for and sturdily made. Old homes do not know how to be empty – a sadness resonates in them and reverberates outward onto their sites, and can be felt in a passing car – even at full speed. Old homes, without the flow of story, are unable to stand, and start to become invaded by weather and animals. What Would Nature Do? It would erase all traces of human past.
Why? Why are we so much a part of the natural world, yet so far from it? Why are we at war with it?
This site, at the Miller Barn, is a site at rest. Nature and humans have struck a balance here, allowing for serenity to pervade the very rocks of the foundation.

Miller Barn among the trees

Act 3: Werner Family Cemetery

It was Holy. That’s what the early settlers thought of the views of Lake Michigan. The Lake, with its sparkling blue and crashing waves, was ultimately a Holy place. It was customary to bury family on a hill overlooking the property. Maybe a nod to a life well lived; forever smiling down on what was accomplished and watching over family? But here, here they are also within earshot of the waves, overlooking, now through trees, the vast expanse of blue – all the way to the horizon. Where the Lake meets the sky; a symbol of eternity. This is easily a place of rest.

What Would Nature Do? Nature, which can be of such danger and unpredictability, can also comfort and soothe.
This is a holy place. Not made holy by the presence of human remains on a blessed and hallowed piece of ground, but rather recognized as holy by fellow humans over 100 years ago. Recognized as a place that they chose to create monuments to their dead and put them back into the hands of God.

Werner Cemetary

This is where I want to be, at peace in this natural place, hearing the conversation of God as He “hovers over the face of the waters” and splashes on the rocks of the shore below.
These are the things that refuel me, and give me the strength to do the things I need to do. Perfect quiet, perfect peace. So rare yet so vital.
So about here is where God caught up with us on the trail – or at least me. Feeling Him fully here, I can guess that the settlers felt Him too. Comfort and resignation at the burying of their dead. Whether it meant an increase in hardship at the loss or a blessed rest of a suffering family member, God came alongside them here, as He does me even now. This is a place of reflection. I wish I could capture the feeling here with a picture. I’m sure I won’t.
It is warm with a slight breeze. Cicadas are humming; waves are crashing. The ground is cool and dry. Branches crunch under step. Sunlight plays through the moving leaves. Time to go…

Trail in Port Oneida

Act 4. Port Oneida Schoolhouse

Port Oneida Schoolhouse

Once, not that long ago, these doors were open every day, letting in the neighboring children summoned by a bell to class. It was the hub of the community. Did the children like to be here? That would’ve depended on the comparative differences for each child between home life and school. What was the teacher like? They would’ve had him or her for several years until the teacher either moved on to a different district or married and abandoned the career altogether.
I remember the competitiveness of elementary and junior high, the value of proving myself outside of home and excelling among my peers. It was a place where girls really could compete, and even had the advantage. An advantage that evaporated quickly after college. These girls in Port Oneida would’ve lost that advantage earlier. While allowed to attend school up until maybe 8th grade, they would’ve had somewhat equal footing with the boys here. Vocational training at home would be very different based on gender expectations.
As a child, I dreamed of a limitless world, the stuff of Disney fables, where women are valued for substance. Their ideas appreciated and given equal footing.
What I understand now is that it was an illusion. Without the security of gender roles and stability of the family as a unit, more is expected of women with less reward. As child bearers and rearers, women are still a vulnerable population that needs special considerations and protections. In our haste to control our lives as women, we have lost our natural biological selves. What Would Nature Do? It would extinct us for our errors.

Tree line