EDITOR’S NOTE: Newsmakers 2017 profiles people, places and events that made news in the Grand Traverse region during the past year.
TRAVERSE CITY — Traverse City and fans of the History channel’s “The Curse of Oak Island” mourned the March 26 death of Drake Tester.
The Traverse City Central High School student, 16, was the son of show producer Craig Tester and had appeared on Season 3 of the show with his dad.
Oak Island, a small wooded island off the coast of Nova Scotia, Canada, is said to be the hiding place of a mysterious buried treasure. It has been the site of several excavation attempts since the early 1800s, particularly around what is known as the "Money Pit," a man-made shaft reinforced with oak platforms, coconut fiber and ship's putty and protected by a sophisticated labyrinth tunnel system.
The show follows Traverse City entrepreneur Marty Lagina and his brother, Rick, as they renew efforts to discover the legendary treasure with advanced machinery.
Season 5 of the show premiered Nov. 7 with a tribute to Drake. The episode attracted more viewers than any premiere in the show’s history, according to Nielsen figures. Craig Tester believes it’s a testament to his son, who was a member of his school’s choir, track and cross-country teams.
“I think it’s that and the attitude of the show,” said Tester, who returned to the series in honor of Drake despite worries about spending time away from his wife and daughter back in Traverse City. “We get a lot of families watching it.”
Tester said Drake had planned to return to the island and likely would have worked side-by-side with his brother, Jack Begley, who spends about 25 weeks a year there.
“Jack is going through the drilling samples,” Tester said. “I think it would have been great having those two working on that.”
The show premiered in 2014 and is the network's top series in key demographics, averaging 5.4 million viewers per episode.
So far the Oak Island team has failed to uncover any treasure. But it unearthed a gold coin, pottery fragments, animal-fiber parchment, bookbinding leather, and even human remains. The island is rumored to be the hiding place of everything from the Holy Grail seized by the Knights Templar, to Shakespeare manuscripts, to Spanish gold captured by privateer Francis Drake.
“We made quite a few very interesting discoveries,” said Marty Lagina, a winemaker and renewable energy developer who lives near Tester on the Old Mission Peninsula. “My brother Rick is not likely to give up.”
An ominous legend says that seven people must die in pursuit of the treasure before Oak Island will reveal her secrets. So far six men lured in by the treasure hunt have died. But a handful of viewers speculated that Drake, who died from a seizure disorder he had since birth, was the seventh.
“I heard nothing directly. There were one or two comments out of thousands,” Tester said, noting the outpouring of sympathy for Drake's family.
Marty Lagina attributes the show’s renewed popularity to the intrigue of the island.
“I think that there’s something extremely intriguing about Oak Island. However it works its magic or its curse, depending on how you look at it, it has captivated people for 225 years now — smart people, wealthy people. And it captures them for life," he said.
“I’ve said to my brother, Rick, ‘Maybe there isn’t anything. Maybe this is all misplaced, confused, misinterpreted.’ And then we find bones near the Money Pit and they’re human bones by DNA analysis. And they’re deeper than anyone has ever been before. Certainly we’ve found nothing you could call treasure and yet the island gives you just enough to keep on going.”
New episodes of the series air Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on the History channel.