Beaver Archipelago, Pt. 2: "A Cult Classic"

May, 2013.

RETURN to part 1

Jon pulled in the tow line and we climbed down onto the heaving swim deck of the Liberty before carefully jumping into the smaller launch boat with our gear. Click HERE for map.

The last incarnation of human habitation of any kind on High Island was in the form of two state DNR research cabins near the harbor curiously nicknamed "Alpha" and "Omega." This was where Jon was going to land me, since it was also the head of the one single remaining trail that still existed on the entire island. All three of us motored toward the beach and jumped off onto the gravelly sand.


Jon quickly pointed out to me the fallen smokestack, the last remaining ruin of the old sawmill that had once been here--the existence of which I had not been aware of at all until this very moment. Bonus.

A few errant foundation bricks could be seen in the overgrowth too. This was one of the structures built by the House of David religious commune I mentioned in Part 1. It was the ruins of their village that I had come to this island to find.

Jon also pointed out another derelict boiler nearby that he said belonged to the same mill:

Other minor iron wreckage along the shore could be found as well.

Another flattened section of smokestack, with a length of its guy-wire still affixed:

We walked up a very faint path to the two DNR cabins, where we checked on their condition. I had expected to find them sealed and in usable shape, but this was not the case.

They were now part of the collection of ruins of this island, albeit the most modern ones.

It was a little ghostly to step inside and inspect the remains of the research station with its many effects left behind.

Jon informed me that he and Fred would be staying at anchor nearby off the north shore of the island for the evening in order to both give me some "privacy," and also to expedite my pickup early in the morning. With that they "let me have my island" as he put it, and motored back to the Liberty where they weighed anchor and sped away around the spit and out of sight.

I was alone on this five and a half square mile island.

I went back to the creepy cabins for a closer inspection. I had a bit of an uneasy feeling, brought on by the suddenness of the solitude I found myself in.

I was the first person on this island for a very long time. The cabins still had a very strong feeling of being occupied, despite the general disarray of their contents. It was clear that some used this place as a party spot.

There's your classic can of Dinty Moore beef stew sitting on the counter.

Wow, this steel bunk frame was still in very serviceable shape...

I almost immediately decided that I would sleep on it tonight. I figured I could just roll my sleeping bag right out on it and have a roof over my head. There was a chance of rain tonight, according to Captain Bonadeo. The bunk in the back room however was looking a little cluttered:

A third bedroom:

According to the names scrawled on the front of this Servel refrigerator, a whole gang of snowmobilers had been here on March 9th, 2008, which is when the lake ice is usually at its thickest. Two other sets of initials were dated 3/4/09.

Wood stove heater:

A little more comfortable with my surroundings now that I had investigated the cabin on the right, aka "Alpha," I began to poke through the woods in the immediate area.

It was about 4pm and I had the entire evening, and most of the morning tomorrow to kill before I had to leave. I found the wreckage of the "Model T" that Jon mentioned, though I'm not 100% sure that's what it was.

Something about the look of the cabins still growled "JOOOIIIINNNNNN USSSSSSSS," but I tried not to let their coyly sinister aspect bother me. I opened the storm shutters to allow light in so they didn't feel so eerie.

I now snooped through the "Omega" cabin on the left… The screen door already hung loosely opened.

Clearly the DNR had not done any studies on this island for years, having left both cabins to the ravages of mice and men…all the provisions that had been kept here were either rotten or destroyed, and the roofs had begun to leak severely.

As you can see all the light fixtures are propane gas ones, with the copper lines run haphazardly out in the open.

Jumbo bottle of Calamine lotion…an omen?

Captain Bonadeo had warned me of the epic levels of poison ivy that infested High Island, but luckily it had not come to life yet this year.

I had decided that due to the better smell in the one on the right, that's where I would camp tonight, as opposed to the fertilizer-smelling one on the left even though it was in better shape and didn't have a hole in the roof. Strange…Ruchhoft had reported smelling this same nasty fertilizer stench back in 1988, and it was still hanging around…curious.

When R.H. Ruchhoft penned his tantalizingly romantic descriptions of these time-locked islands in the late 1980s for his book (which I had brought with me), he described eerily almost to a "T" what I found a quarter century later. Since he described all the ruins he found to be already in advanced decay, fleeting, and soon to disappear, I had expected to be let down and to find little or nothing left. Surely no way could these crude wooden structures still exist the way they did 20-some years ago, exposed to northern Michigan storms.

Most of his descriptions of structures are carefully prefaced by the phrase, "…which I found to be in good condition in 1988," with the tacit expectation that probably little or no maintenance would be performed in the future. He seems to have assumed that due to their remoteness these islands would continue to see diminishing interest and diminishing traffic, and that they would continue to slip into decline. I was pleasantly surprised to the contrary however, as you will see in the balance of this tale. And it was almost as if these DNR cabins had not changed one iota since Ruchhoft had set foot here in his stylish 1980s jogging shorts and sweat socks.

Though I'm sure you aren't *supposed* to camp in these cabins unless you are basically shipwrecked and in dire need of shelter, you can anyways, just so long some DNR people don't show up while you're there, and you respect the place. The unwritten code of the lakes dictates that island cabins are never locked so as to be accessible for emergency shelter when needed. You don't use the supplies unless you need to, you add to them what you can spare, and leave it in better condition than you found it. But judging by the decay, I didn't think anyone was going to show up to do any science projects any time soon.

I thought it would be convenient to leave my pack here while I did my hiking, since it was only like a mile or so to the opposite shore of the island. That's where the only-remaining trail went; directly due west to the top of the tallest dune, which allows one to observe the spectacular 360-degree view out over the archipelago, which is why most people come here, and which is where the trail's name, "Top of the World Trail" comes from.

High Island's high point is the best lookout point of all the surrounding islands. Only Mt. Pisgah on Beaver Island is taller, but it is clad in trees and offers little view. To give you a nutshell geological history of these islands, I offer this little ditty: "Some winds blew, some sands flew, some trees grew." In this case, the wind-driven sand formed quite a tall little mountain, 199 feet above lake level. There used to be trails going around most of the island, but they dissolved into nothingness decades ago. This "Top of the World" Trail is becoming choked with trees and hard to follow too.

I began circling around the Alpha & Omega cabins, noticing all the random debris that had been discarded, the beautiful trillium that were in bloom, and the decrepit outhouse where the scientists used to poop. One type of item that I would end up finding over and over again on this island were old wrought iron bedsteads like this one, apparently deformed by fire:

Getting anxious to move about the island I hung my food from the old gaslight fixture in the "Alpha" cabin so as to be safer from mouse attack, and started to wander further from my base camp in the direction of the House of David Village, which was just a few hundred yards south of my cabins, between Lake Maria and Lake Michigan. I wasn't sure I'd find anything there, but it was the main thing I had come to this island to investigate.

The Anishinaabeg (Ottawa/Ojibwe) people had never really inhabited this island but sparsely, nor did they do any burials here, preferring Garden Island instead. It was only the House of David sect, also known as the "Israelites," who ever lived here in numbers. What it is about these islands in Lake Michigan that attracts religious kooks and sexual perverts, I am not sure. But I intended to snoop around their village tonight, if any ruins remained.

The House of David, like the Strangite Mormons was another religious commune completely unique to Michigan. They were a millenarian sect founded by a Kentuckian named Benjamin Purnell and his wife Mary, who believed that together they in fact were the incarnation of the Seventh Messenger, foretold of in Revelations 10:7. The followers of "King Ben" (as he came to be known in the papers) held that they were true descendants of the lost ancient tribe of Israel, and thus guaranteed one of the 144,000 spots supposedly "reserved" in heaven if they remained pure.

They based their organization in Benton Harbor, Michigan, as well as built the snazzy House of David Hotel there, which is also abandoned today. If you've ever been to Benton Harbor, you might question whether it was best place to put the New Jerusalem. Nevertheless, the sect was quite successful and popular in many ways, and they in fact owned the city's public transit system, and erected one of the biggest and best amusement parks of the early 20th century, called Eden Springs Park. It was literally the Disneyworld of its day believe it or not, drawing over 250,000 visitors per year from near and far. There are currently plans underway to reopen this long-defunct amusement park.

The House of David also purchased land for a farming colony here on High Island in 1912, which at its peak was a village of 150 people. They were perhaps best known for their baseball team, which was actually pretty good and played all across the country, followed by post-game proselytizing. Their appearance was comical though, because all Israelite men were required to let their hair and beards grow freely, resulting in a bunch of Jesus-lookin' hippies running around the field, but most people received the followers well--or at least humored them.

I did begin to see a few old rotting structures, which pleased me greatly. I also was surprised to observe a pair of bald eagles who I startled from their roost in a tall pine…clearly Gitchii Manitou was now aware of my presence on his island. I had in fact brought some tobacco with me on this voyage for the express purpose of using as an offering, but this would wait until I arrived at the sacred Garden Island, or "Minis Gitigaan" in the Ottawa tongue.

I made circles in the area once I started seeing Israelite cabin ruins, slowly finding all kinds of evidence of human habitation, mostly iron stuff like bedsteads, cookware and stoves, and glass stuff like jars.

Predictably, the House of David would not last. Like all weirdo prophet-kings who move out to islands in this archipelago, Purnell got caught up in controversy over the goofy crap they were pulling behind the scenes. In the 1920s, 13 girls came forward saying that "King Ben" had his way with them sexually when they were minors, as part of what he allegedly called a "blood cleansing" ritual. Yep.

He also had this big white octagonal structure built in the village on High Island, which outsiders called "King Ben's Castle," though its true name was supposedly the "House of Virgins." That's where all the unmarried women were kept under guard, because sex was forbidden by the Israelites until the beginning of the new millennium. Other sources may refute these claims however.

Anyway, during the ensuing criminal sexual misconduct trials (which were sensationally well-publicised in 1927 by the Detroit Free Press) Benjamin Purnell managed to croak, leaving his wife and whole band of followers in the lurch. During his illness Purnell's followers expected him to suddenly resurrect and ascend gloriously into heaven, even keeping his corpse warm with hot water bottles in anticipation of this rebirth, according to Ruchhoft.

When he started to rot and stink however, that's when a lot of the believers began to sort of "lose faith." Divisions arose as to who to follow, and the cult splintered off and mostly faded away, though they still remain in Benton Harbor today, in small numbers.

The Ottawa fishermen remained on High Island until the 1930s when the fisheries went into decline, at which time a schoolhouse still operated on the island, but the terrible Armistice Day Blizzard of 1940 convinced the last of them to leave for good, consolidating instead on Beaver Island. A chief named Paul Kenawabiske was the island's last resident.

This structure looked familiar:

Sure enough, it had been pictured in Ruchhoft's book. It's amazing how intact it has remained.

Hand-joined. Some of the grout amazingly still clung to the joints as well.

The roof was gone, but it doesn't look like the victim or fire, rather the pounding of relentless Lake Michigan winters.

The inside of this different plank-built structure was a little treacherous looking...

Nearby, I found evidence that at one time Stroh's had Been Spoken on this island, heheh:

The thickness of the trees immediately surrounding the structure can be used as an indicator of how long the site has been unmaintained:

Keep in mind, though the Israelites left the island in the late 1920s, the cabins may have been used and maintained for some time afterward by other island dwellers.

This bedroom was a little more easily accessible than usual:

This iron bedstead remains mostly intact:

More historic images of the Israelite village from Ruchhoft's book: 1234

CLICK for part 3

Exploring North Manitou, South Manitou, High and Garden Islands of the Lake Michigan Archipelago, by R.H. Ruchhoft

1 comment:

  1. I don't know if you are still blogging...I found this entey via Google, and found it fascinating. My grandparents met on High Island...grandpa was logging there. They married and left the community. Thanks for the pictures.


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