The Omena settlement had its beginnings when Aghosa Indians started arriving in 1850. In 1852, the Reverend Peter Dougherty and a band of Ottawas and Chippewas led by Chief Ahgosa moved from the present-day Old Mission Peninsula to a beautiful little bay on the Leelanau Peninsula’s eastern side. Chief Shabwasung and his Ottawa band were already encamped on the point to the north of the bay, on land Chief Ahgosa and his families from Old Mission had purchased. Ahgosa settled a little to the north, and his village became Ahgosatown. Both bands became part of the New Mission, soon to be called Omena. Young George A. Craker came with Dougherty and taught farming to students in the mission school, and he and his descendants became active workers in Dougherty’s Grove Hill New Mission Church. Now called the Omena Presbyterian Church, it was dedicated in 1858 and has stood as the oldest Protestant Church in Leelanau County and one of the oldest historical landmarks in Northern Michigan. The Ahgosa family was also very active and some are now buried in the mission cemetery.

In 1868 the mission farm was sold to Valentine Miller, who put out a dock. Miller’s dock made it possible for summer tourists to disembark, when passenger ships arrived in the area. In 1884 a group of Cincinnati businessmen purchased the mission school, and it was remodeled to become the Leelanau Hotel. Within 35 years Omena blossomed into a tourist haven, with the Omena Inn, the Shabwasung, the Clovers, and Sunset Lodge, together with many resort cottages on Omena Point. When the railroad came through in 1903, Omena had two stops, one being at the Clovers resort. The A. F. Anderson Store benefited by all of this activity and operated in Omena for 47 years, beginning 1883. Since 1976 this landmark has been the location of Tamarack Craftsmen Gallery. Nearby, Paul Barth’s general store, established 1889, remains as the Omena Bay Country Store. The early discovery of Leelanau County as a resort haven helped to sustain pioneer families by providing commerce and income, just as it does today.

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Omena Historic Marker

This marker was placed by the Omena Historical Society in June, 2018

The “New Mission,” founded by Rev. Peter Dougherty and Ottawa Chief Ahgosa in 1852, fostered development of the village of Omena.  Residents, visitors, and trade goods arrived and departed through the safe deep harbor of Omena Bay.

Agriculture, commerce, and summer resort growth defined the 1880’s. The lands around  Omena were lumbered, used for grazing, then for field crops and orchards. The Anderson and Barth stores were built, each with a commercial dock. Visitors to Omena’s cottages and hotels came by steamers which wove in and out of the Grand Traverse Bay ports regularly even after the 1903 arrival of the railroad.

Homes and outbuildings grew up near the stores.  One of the earliest homes, the Putnam-Cloud Tower House Museum, was moved a mile north into Omena in 2004. Omena’s commerce, resort, and agricultural heritage continue into the 21st century. Listed in the National Register of Historic Places by the United States Department of the Interior 2017

This marker was placed by the Omena Historical Society in June, 2018

On Leelanau, Omena celebrates historic designation

By Eric Freedman, Capital News Service Feb 5, 2017

The 1858 Omena Presbyterian Church, formerly New Grove Mission Church. The newly-designated Omena Historic District is the 23rd Leelanau County site on the National Register.

LANSING — The Leelanau Peninsula hamlet of Omena — with its remnants of a once-popular summer resort, an 1853 church and the pilings of long-gone docks that once welcomed boatloads of tourists — has earned a spot on the National Register of Historic Places.

Designation of the Omena Historic District reflects its legacy as a resort area, a mission to convert Native Americans to Christianity, a productive agricultural area and a Lake Michigan harbor.

“Most of Omena’s buildings are still in use as originally intended, some still in the same family ownership since the 1800s,” according to the nomination documents. “Omena’s changes have been adaptations built upon its existing structure, and the village has not suffered the eradication, wasteful misuse of resources and reconstruction that is so common in this country.”

Marsha Buehler, an Omena Historical Society board member who spearheaded the nomination, said, “We’ve got this little gem, a cluster of buildings on a bend in the road. It looks very much like it did at the turn of the 20th century.”

The National Register is “the official list of the nation’s historic places worthy of preservation,” says the National Park Service, which administers the program. The federal program helps “coordinate and support public and private efforts to identify, evaluate and protect America’s historic and archeological resources.”

The Omena Historic District is the 23rd Leelanau County site on the National Register. Among the others are four more historic districts — South Manitou Island Lighthouse Complex and Life-Saving Station, Leland, Port Oneida and Glen Haven — as well as the Grand Traverse Light Station, North Manitou Island Life-Saving Station and several farms, schools and churches.

Thirteen sites in neighboring Grand Traverse County are on the National Register. There are 1,919 places on the register across the state, according to the National Park Service.

The new historic district faces Omena Bay, a “deep water indentation” on Grand Traverse Bay.

The settlement dates to 1851 when a Presbyterian minister, Peter Dougherty, arrived from Mission Peninsula across the West Arm of Grand Traverse Bay. He taught English, manual training, farming and academic subjects to Native American children.

Landmarks in the historic district include five remaining buildings from Sunset Lodge, which started as a retirement home, expanded to add cottages and a social hall, and was a popular vacation resort until World War II.

As decades passed, the lodge’s owners appealed to the “changing tastes of resorters, who first arrived solely by steamer, then by train and steamer, and then motored in for shorter and shorter periods by automobile,” the nomination documents say. It currently operates as a bed-&-breakfast.

Mary Ziegeler, who bought Sunset Lodge in 2014 with her husband, said B&B guests “always have questions about how it got started, its history.” It’s the only survivor among what once had been eight resorts in Omena.

Now with the National Register listing, Ziegeler said the lodge wants to place a historic marker there.

What is now Omena Presbyterian Church opened in 1858 as the Grove Hill New Mission Church and conducted worship services in the Ottawa and English languages. Its bell was made from English copper pennies donated by Chippewa, according to church history.

A cemetery behind the church holds the graves of 290 Native Americans and American settlers, according to a stone monument there. One of them is Chief Aghosa, a Chippewa chief who converted to Christianity.

Adjacent to the township beach and park are what’s left of wooden pilings from the Anderson Dock. They symbolize “what was once a safe landing for steamships, the predominant way of travel and commerce trade in the late 19th century and early 20th century,” the nomination documents say.

Also in the historic district stands a Victorian farmhouse on land formerly owned by Col. George Armstrong Custer, who died at the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876, the same year the house was built.

Jesuits later used part of the farmhouse as a worship area. The building was later moved and now serves as the Omena Historical Society’s Putnam-Cloud Tower House Museum.

Historic preservation students at Eastern Michigan University helped with research and the designation process. The State Historic Preservation Review Board recommended the designation to the National Park Service.

Listing on the National Register provides opportunities for preservation incentives including federal grants for planning and rehabilitation and federal investment tax credits.

“For a community like Omena, the historic district designation will allow people to apply for incentives” such as tax credits, said Laura Ashlee, a historian at the State Historic Preservation Office.

via Traverse City Record-Eagle – February 2017

Photographs courtesy of Keith Burnham of The Leland Report unless otherwise noted.

Click to visit the Leland Report.


photo by Jim Putnam