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Stepping Back in Time at Sleeping Bear Dunes

One thing that you can count on is that there is always more to discover at the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. From secret beach spots to amazing overlook points, the adventures are endless in this national treasure.

We spend as much time as we can in Sleeping Bear. Most of our visits are centered around swimming, paddle boarding and Petoskey stone hunting at one of the beautiful Lake Michigan beaches located there. We also enjoy checking out some of the more historical aspects of Sleeping Bear, such as the town of Glen Haven. However, our favorite area to hike, bike, drive through and explore is the Port Oneida Rural Historic District. So when we learned that the Port Oneida Fair was happening this past weekend, we piled in the car for the 30 minute drive from Traverse City to Sleeping Bear.

What We Learned

Port Oneida consists of approximately 3,400 acres of preserved farmland. It is the largest historic agricultural community owned by the United States that is fully protected by the government. The earliest settlers (of European descent) to the area were attracted to the lumber and fishing opportunities. One of the area’s first settlers (in the 1850’s) was a German immigrant who lived on South Manitou Island for a period of time before Port Oneida land became available for purchase. Given how often we lament the difficult winters here in northern Michigan, it’s hard to imagine how hearty these early settlers – not to mention the Native Americans who lived here long before them – had to be!

After many of the region’s trees were cleared by the lumber industry over the next several decades, the area became dependent on agriculture. However, the sandy soil was not ideal for growing many crops. I was surprised to learn that potatoes became the primary cash crop grown by the farmers of Port Oneida. By the mid-twentieth century, after decades of farming, the soil became unsuitable for large scale crop growth, and most of the farms in the region became subsistence farms on which the farmers grew only enough food to feed their own families.

The houses and fields passed down from generation to generation. A number of these houses and other structures have been preserved as part of the Port Oneida historic district.

What We Saw

Once a year, on the second Friday and Saturday in August, the Port Oneida Fair is held. It features the crafts, skills, and talents that marked rural life during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. The fair is organized around the various farm houses in the area, and we were able to walk to and tour several of the farms, as well as the historic, one room Port Oneida schoolhouse.

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We arrived just as a lumberjack demonstration was beginning, and our kids were enthralled while watching big, burly, bearded men exhibiting their chopping, sawing and axe tossing skills (in other words, things they never see from their dad!).

The girls tried their hand at old-fashioned clothes washing, butter churning and quilt making. They even got their “wounds” field-dressed with bandages at the Civil War era field hospital tent – topped off with a piece of candy for the pain. As you might expect, there were a number of animals present at the fair, including two huge oxen, chickens, ducks, turkeys and an adorable baby cow from Moomer’s farm. We also got pulled around the farm in a cart by horses. We stayed at the fair for three hours, although we could have easily spent twice that amount of time exploring.

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Get Lost in Sleeping Bear Dunes

There’s so much more to say about Sleeping Bear. It will almost certainly be the subject of an upcoming Field Guide. I’ll end with this: it’s an amazing place to get lost and lose a bit of yourself in the process. Some of our favorite Sleeping Bear adventures have come as a result of getting lost after we took a wrong turn driving or an errant path on a hiking trail. That’s how we’ve found secluded stretches of beach and beautiful natural areas.

A few weeks ago Heather and I played hooky from work on a Friday and biked and hiked a wide swath of the lakeshore. While hiking near Pyramid Point we got turned around and instead of heading back to our car we ended up on a trail that led us out of dense forest into a sunny meadow full of wild flowers, encircled by towering pines and sand dunes. It’s on hikes like these, where we find something magical, that we lose a bit of ourselves. But it’s always something worth losing, like the day’s stresses and the anxieties that result from a fixation on the future, rather than an embrace of the present.

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Moments like these are good reminders to get lost once in awhile.

And there’s no better place than Sleeping Bear Dunes to spend a day free of worry and full of discovery. We can’t wait to get back to Sleeping Bear this fall to check out the colors and hopefully get in many more beach days. We’ll be sure to head back to Port Oneida, too, to wander the farmsteads and pick ripe fruit from the apple trees that dot the landscape. There are lessons from our history and heritage buried deep in the sandy soil of Port Oneida that we can all learn from.