Editor's note: This article was published in Grand Traverse Scene magazine's Summer II 2019 issue. Pick up a free copy at area hotels, visitor's centers, chambers of commerce or at the Record-Eagle building on Front Street. Click here to read GT Scene in its entirety online.
Glen Arbor is one of the most popular tourist destinations in northern Michigan, as the town sits between Lake Michigan and Glen Lake, near Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore attractions and the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail. Not surprisingly, the 850-person Leelanau County community swells during the summer months.
A favorite visitor stop is Port Oneida Rural Historic District about a 5-mile — or 10-minute — drive northeast of Glen Arbor. The 3,400-acre National Park Service property is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and includes 18 historic farms plus a handful of privately-owned structures. Walking, biking or driving in the scenic district is like taking a step back in time.
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore Park Ranger Merrith Baughman said the Manitou islands in the region were settled first, then farmers developed the rural community of Port Oneida in the late 1800s. Logging opened the land to agricultural development like farming.
“People were able to survive through collaboration, through community,” Baughman said.
The annual Port Oneida Fair is an opportunity for people to learn about the district’s farming past. This year’s fair takes place from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Aug. 9-10. Visitors are invited to return to Thoreson Farm at 8 p.m. Aug. 10 for a star party, hosted by the Grand Traverse Astronomical Society.
All activities are free, but a National Park Service pass is required for entry.
“It’s a wonderful way for people to connect with their heritage and see what agricultural lands looked like before World War II,” Baughman said. “What we’re trying to do is get people excited about Port Oneida.”
More than 100 volunteers provide and host old-time demonstrations and activities at several different sites in the area: Dechow Farm, Kelderhouse Farm, the Port Oneida Schoolhouse, Burfiend Barn, Olsen Farm and Thoreson Farm. A free shuttle transports visitors between venues.
Visitors can find quilting and arts activities at Thoreson Farm and maritime ones at Burfiend. Baughman said kids love to see and pet the cows and other farm animals at Olsen Farm.
“It really takes a lot of volunteers,” she said. “People love it. It’s a great chance to be out in the park.”
Baughman said 3,000-4,000 people come from everywhere to attend the fair. Many even plan their vacations around the annual event.
“People enjoy coming,” she said, “many with an agricultural background in Michigan. It’s a really nice mix of people. We have people who come back every year.”
Hikers and bikers can find a variety of trails nearby. Baughman said many, like the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail, provide beautiful views of Lake Michigan. The Port Oneida Schoolhouse and the Olsen Farm are located off the Bay View Trail.
Susan Pocklington said spending her childhood on her grandfather’s farm in Plymouth, Michigan sparked her interest in the past.
“I was enamored with history and farming life,” she said.
The experience led her to become executive director for the nonprofit Historic Sleeping Bear and co-founder of the Port Oneida Fair in the early 2000s. Pocklington said the fair is one of the largest events in Leelanau County. It highlights daily life from 1852 to about 1918.
Cooking and lumberjack displays — including axe throwing — are two of the most popular activities, but Pocklington said she is excited about everything — from gardening to soap making.
“I appreciate all of them because it really rounds out the experience,” she said. “The variety provides an insight into life. I also enjoy the hands-on preservation station.”
The events are open to all ages. All activities are free, but a National Park Service pass is required for entry.
“It’s a wonderful intergenerational activity that brings out the whole family,” Pocklington said. “We’re excited to see children here because we want to educate.”
Visit the Philip A. Hart Visitor Center in Empire or phsb.org to learn more.