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History of Manistee, Michigan

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Manistee, situated on the east shore of Lake Michigan, is the County seat of Manistee County.  Its name is derived from the river which passes through it, and according to legend it is an Indian word meaning "The Spirit of the Woods".  The Chippewa and portions of the Tawas and Ottawa tribes are said to have inhabited this region when in its primitive state.  It is more than likely that Father Marquette in his explorations over 200 years ago, visited this locality, and was doubtless the first white man who ever trod this soil.  A mission house is said to have been built here as early as the year 1826 and continuous European settlement commenced about that time.       

The first retail store in what was to become downtown Manistee was the American Fur Company Post, was established here in the 1820's.  Around this time Manistee was considered one of the busiest commercial fishing ports on Lake Michigan.

1841,   The first permanent settlement of Manistee County.  The first mill within the Manistee city limits was situated a little north of the present Dempsey property and was built by James and Adam Stronach in 1841.  At this period there were about 1000 Indians here. The government instructed the surveyors to allow them all the land the chief desired and the territory selected extended six miles north and south and twenty-two miles east and west embracing the valley of the Manistee River. In 1849, the Indian Reservation was taken up by treaty, the land placed on sale and the tribal relations of the Indians practically broken up.

1852: The population of Manistee County numbered but 200 persons, the only settlements being at the mouth of the river, a little hamlet about each of the mills and the settlement at Old Stronach.  The chief industry was the manufacture of lumber. The sand-bar at the mouth of the river retarded business greatly as it prevented vessels from entering the harbor and necessitated their being loaded by means of rafts. 

For this reason, in 1854, it was deemed necessary to change the outlet of the river.  In 1854 Sam Potter excavated a ditch across the bar at Lake Michigan and then dammed the old meandering channel forcing the water into his ditch.  Piers were then built into Lake Michigan to maintain the deep water harbor entrance, and Manistee quickly became one of the busiest ports on Lake Michigan.

1861: the first physician, Dr. L. S. Ellis and the first lawyer, T. J. Ramsdell arrived.   Arrangements were made to bring the mail overland from Grand Haven once a week.   The Catholics also organized for regular worship and two years later built their first church, which was on the north side of the river.

Oct. 8, 1871  The Great Fire:  Sunday morning  the fire alarm sounded.     Monday found the busy little city of a few hours before a scene of desolation and ruin.  Over 1,000 men, women and children were homeless and without food or clothing.  Every house spared by the flames threw open its doors, and not only were the sufferers taken into the homes but into the hearts of their more fortunate townsmen.  After rallying from the shock of the great fire everyone seemed to work with redoubled energy to retrieve that which they had lost, and to their strong arms and stronger wills, are we greatly indebted for the Manistee of today.  The buildings constructed were of better material and finer architecture than those before and Manistee took on a more metropolitan air.   An iron bridge across the river took the place of the one burned and every enterprise seemed to start on a more thrifty and solid foundation. 

1872:  Telegraph communication established.

1873:  Population of 5,000.

1878:  Court House built.

1879: First Salt Well drilled by Chas. Reitz and Bros. and in 1881 after drilling into the earth to a depth of 2,000 feet, a strata of rock-salt was found which gave assurance that salt would be produced.

Our early history was a series of eventful struggles but with the spirit of courage and determination with which the people labored to overcome the many obstacles then in their path of progress, seems to have followed us through all succeeding years, and with no fear, we leave the future destiny of Manistee in the hands of the descendants of her pioneers.

In 1885 there were forty sawmills cutting millions of feet of lumber annually and the city of Manistee a roaring, thriving community of 16,000.  At one time, Manistee may have been the largest shingle manufacturing center in the world.   

Historic Fire Hall built in 1888

The 1900's

"In the early days Manistee was a primitive frontier community whose residents went to Milwaukee to purchase the finer things in life.  However, as the 20th century approached, the community enjoyed an excellent and well stocked business district as befitted the 11th largest city in Michigan. " (Steve Harold, Manistee County Museum)

On December 19, 1900, a reporter for the Manistee Daily News walked down River Street and described the extensive assortment of holiday goods he found in shop windows as follows:   "Strolling up and down River Street of today an old settler must experience a variety of sensations.  In place of wooden shanties are imposing brick buildings but perhaps the most striking change is noticed in the stores.  The small many-paned dingy windows have been superseded by speckless sheets of plate glass and the wares exposed to the public gaze are quite in keeping with the exterior improvements."

1934: The Manistee National Forest: Over twenty-five million tree seeds were sown by Federal government establishing the Manistee purchase unit, a vast area to be used for reforestation.   Civilian Conservation Corps camps were established.  In 1935 better than 30,000 acres of forest had been planted to replace the forests cut during the lumbering era of the 1800's.    The Manistee National Forest now comprises 1,287,000 acres and is one of the largest national forests in the central United States.  The first Manistee National Forest Festival was celebrated in July, 1936.

The elegant mansions that line the city's streets were built by the lumber barons that once called Manistee home.  The town is an architectural delight.  Builders in the late 1880's outdid themselves in their design of buildings in the Victorian Italianate, French Chateau, Gothic Revival, and Shingle styles.  Victorian homes "Painted Ladies" will be found throughout the city using several colors of paint to highlight the flourishes, in the classic Queen Anne, Gothic, Second Empire, and Greek Revival styles.

 The Historic Ramsdell Theatre  is in the Central Business District and is as much a center of activity today as it was when completed in 1903.    Designed by famed architect Solon S. Beman for local lawyer and philanthropist Thomas Jefferson Ramsdell at a cost of $1000, boasts an act curtain by Walter Burridge, scenic artist who designed the sets for the original stage production of "The Wizard of Oz", one of the finest opera houses still in existence, is home to the Manistee Civic Players. The adjoining Ramsdell Great Hall, once the cultural center of Manistee, is being restored to its former splendor. James Earl Jones began his career in this historic theatre.

Two previously built opera houses were destroyed by fire.  The first Scandinavian Opera House was built by the Scandinavian Society "Nordisk Fremskridts Forening" for the purpose of debates, music, dramatics and to keep alive the fraternal social feeling among those of Scandinavia who have come to these shores in search of a home". in 1876 and burned in 1882.  The Scandinavians built a new Opera House in 1883 and it also burned in 1900. 


History of Manistee County


Arcadia Township is the northernmost township in Manistee County, located along the most scenic stretch of Lake Michigan shoreline in the county, on M-22. Arcadia Township, formerly known as Starkville after Henry Stark, was founded in 1870. Farming, dairy products, and maple syrup were the industries of the day, soon followed by the Lumber industry in 1880. This deep-water channel at one time serviced over 500 vessels in a season, and the waters off this coast are a memorial to many historic shipwrecks of the day.


The Village of Bear Lake was originally developed as a service community in 1873, with logging and the Railroad playing significant roles; the strong commitment to “community” by the residents remains today. Bear Lake itself is approximately 1,800 acres, and offers fishing, boating, swimming and ice fishing. The area contains many other smaller lakes, just waiting to be discovered.


This natural beauty area has changed very little since the days of the early settlers, with the exception of the development of the villages and businesses themselves. Tippy Dam, the Big Manistee River, and the Manistee National Forest provide numerous outdoor recreation opportunities!


Copemish, nicknamed “Beech City”, was the first incorporated village in Manistee County. Although there were no horses (a two day walk to the grocery store) and plenty of agricultural problems, this area began to thrive with the lumber industry. There were hotels, stores, 3 railroads and a population of nearly 1,000 between the years of 1888 and 1891. Today, there are only about 100 people, and a handful of business.


The Dublin community is consists of several businesses and residential areas, and is surrounded by the Manistee National Forest.  The Central Europeans were the first settlers to this region. The Chicago and West Michigan Railroads had a very difficult time with a particular hill in Dublin and had to keep an extra train on hand to conquer this obstacle. This “doubling” of trains is how this area received its name.


Over 100 years ago Finnish immigrants were encouraged by the Michigan Land Society to purchase land and create their own community, which became Kaleva, named for the Finnish National Epic – Kalevala. Infertile land and a lack of money resulted in great struggle for this group of settlers; their determination and a strong Christian belief lead them to success. The Finnish heritage is still strong today, and the names of the streets in this community are powerful reminders of their past struggles and ultimate triumphs.


In 1852, the population of Manistee County was only about 200 people. The major industry was lumber and the only settlements included those at the mouth of the river, around each of the mills and Old Stronach. As more and more mills were built and additional workers were needed, population increased rapidly. Manistee was incorporated January 8, 1869.

In 1871, on the same day as the Great Chicago Fire, Manistee experienced a fire as well. Over half the city burned and left approximately 1,000 people without homes. At that point, many of the Lumber Barons’ had amassed their fortune and hired foremost architects of the day to design ornate Victorian homes and public buildings – many of which remain to this day.


In the early days of Marilla’s development logging and agriculture played key roles. Around 1904 the community enjoyed the luxury of four stores, the railroad, a post office and a church. With the decline of the logging industry in 1920, this once prosperous Wells Fargo stop-over is now a very quiet rural community.


In 1845, Adam Stronach built a lumber mill on the channel between Lake Michigan and Portage Lake. Several years later, in 1871, the town of Onekama (the Native American name for Portage) was established. It became a station on the Manistee and Northwestern Railroad in 1888, and was organized as a village in 1891. By the early 1900’s Onekama was considered a popular tourism destination, drawing visitors by horse, car, and steamship.