By MIKE NORTON
Every place has its myths and legends — and the more remote and evocative a place, the more of these stories it seems to acquire. They’re told around the campfire, repeated among friends, and passed down from one generation to the next. Some are beautiful, some are grisly, and a few are complete nonsense.
The Traverse City area is certainly no exception. So, as a nod to this spooky time of year, here are a few of the region’s better known myths and tall tales.
THE SLEEPING BEAR
Is there a single Michigan youngster who doesn’t know this lovely story? Purportedly a legend told by the native Chippewa people, who used the big dune at Sleeping Bear Point as a landmark during their canoe journeys along the Lake Michigan shore, it bears the romantic hallmarks of a summer resort story.
Long ago, the story goes, a mother bear – Mishe-Mokwa – was driven into the water with her two cubs when a huge forest fire ravaged the western shore of the lake in the place now known as Wisconsin. Fleeing the heat of the fire, the mother and her cubs began swimming east toward the distant coast of Michigan. They swam for many hours, and finally the land came into view – but the cubs were too exhausted to reach the land. Instead, they sank beneath the water.
The mother bear reached the shore and sat down to wait for her children. She waited many days but they never appeared, and finally the grief-stricken mother lay down to sleep and wait forever. Filled with compassion, the Great Spirit created two islands – the North and South Manitou Islands – to mark the place where the cubs had drowned, and a high shaggy dune to represent the faithful mother.
In early 20th century photographs, the dune really does look like a large bear lying on its side. Today, after decades of erosion by wind and water, there isn’t much left. But the Manitou Islands still look much as they must have when the legend was being told, retold and written down.
Everyone knows that truth can be stranger than fiction. Sometimes, though, what starts out as fiction can sometimes get entangled with something else.
That seems to be what happened in 1987 when a pair of Traverse City radio personalities – Jack O’Malley and Steve Cook of WTCM – decided to concoct a scary story for April Fools’ Day. They made up a “legend,” complete with a bogus pedigree and a folksy song, about a frightening creature that roamed the North Woods – a large beast with the body and features of a dog that walked on its hind legs like a man. The Dogman.
The song (called “The Legend”) became a local hit, and that’s when the truly weird stuff began. Local listeners started calling the station to report their own encounters with something that sounded very much like the Dogman. Without really intending to, it seems that Cook and O’Malley had tapped into some deep vein of cryptozoological Up North lore, a storyline that goes back at least 200 years.
Even then, the whole thing might have faded away – but later that year police reported that an isolated cabin near the village of Luther had been attacked and damaged, apparently by an extremely large dog. That was enough to make the Dogman storya national sensation. More stories appeared, including one from a man who claimed to have seen the thing back in the 1930s while on a fishing trip.
In 2012, a movie version of “The Dogman” was made. Every year around Halloween, WTCM dusts off “The Legend” and plays it for old times’ sake. But Cook, who started the whole story, remains a skeptic about the creature’s actual existence – though he doesn’t question the motives of those who claim to have seen it.
THE GHOST OF BOWERS HARBOR
For years, the former Bowers Harbor Inn on the west-facing shore of the Old Mission Peninsula has been touted as Traverse City’s most famous haunted spot. Guests, employees and visitors to the inn (now the Mission Table restaurant) insist that they have experienced strange rapping noises, doors slamming, lights suddenly turning on, and mirrors and paintings falling from walls.
The spirit responsible for all these goings-on is supposed to have been the ghost of “Genevive Stickney,” whose husband built the rambling waterfront home in the 1880s and who is said to have died in the house under tragic circumstances. In fact, over the years a soap-opera story has been built up around “Genevive” and her family, aided and abetted by credulous journalists. The tale — that she was a jealous, overweight wife who hanged herself in the elevator shaft — has been featured in several books and television programs.
Except that none of it was true. Thanks to the painstaking research of historian Julie Schopieray, it’s been established that the Stickneys were a normal couple who spent many happy years together in the gorgeous, quirky home at Bowers Harbor. Mrs. Stickney’s name was Jennie, not Genevive, and she died in Grand Rapids in the Pantlind Hotel, now the Amway Grand Plaza. Her husband died two years later at Munson Hospital. They were in their eighties, and the lurid stories told about them are pure fabrication.
Is there a “haunting” at Mission Table? Who can say? Old buildings make noises, and strange things happen for any number of reasons. There certainly are plenty of spirits at Bowers Harbor, though, since the restaurant is home to a fine microdistillery.
THE TORCH LAKE MONSTER
Every lake should have a monster of its own — especially if that lake also happens to be the home of a summer camp. And the famous Torch Lake Monster doubtless owes its longevity to the existence of Camp Hayo-Went-Ha on its northern edge, where generations of youngsters have shrieked around the campfires to tales of a giant creature — “one eye brown, one eye blue, his body covered all in icky green goo” – that lives at the bottom of the lake and rises at night to terrorize boaters, swimmers and unwary campers who venture where they’re not supposed to venture.
The current legend of the monster doesn’t go back very far; credit goes to Dave Foley, an avid fisherman, former teacher and athletic coach, who served as a counselor at Hayo-Went-Ha from 1967 to 1977. As monster stories go, it’s pretty mainstream, but there are some odd things about Torch Lake itself that make such stories plausible.
First of all, it’s unusually deep – 285 feet at its deepest point and with an average depth of 111 feet, it’s the deepest inland lake in Michigan. Early visitors used to speculate that it was literally a “bottomless” lake, connected to nearby Grand Traverse Bay by underwater tunnels. (There were persistent, if unsubstantiated, stories of people who drowned in the lake whose bodies washed up in the Bay. Or vice versa.)
It’s also unusually clear – one of the clearest lakes in the world, in fact — and in those crystal-clear depths lurk some extremely large fish. You might almost call them, well, monsters. Last fall, in fact, a 50-pound muskellunge, almost five feet long, was caught in Torch Lake, the largest ever caught in the state. And if you know what rapacious, hungry fish muskies are, you could easily spin a horror story out of that one.
A LENGENDARY COW
Traverse City is short on famous people, but it once had a famous cow. Her name was Traverse Colantha Walker, and her gravestone can be found on the grounds of the Grand Traverse Commons, which used to be the Northern Michigan Asylum. In fact, she may well be the only asylum resident who’s actually buried there, for she was no run-of-the-mill bovine.
Today, the old institution with its creamy brick buildings and barns is being transformed into an entire village of shops, restaurants, galleries, apartments and condominiums. But at its peak it was a small, self-sufficient city with 3,500 residents (more than Traverse City’s population at the time) and its own farms, gardens, fire department and power plant. Colantha was part of that massive operation, a “supercow” who belonged to the facility’s extensive herd of 96 Holstein-Friesian cows.
In the course of her long and impressive career – from 1916 to 1932 – she produced 200,114 lbs. of milk and 7,525 lbs. of butterfat. In her best year (1926) her annual production was 22,918 lbs. – a world record. (Compare that with an official state average of 3,918 lbs. per cow per year and you can see why she was such an impressive milker!) When she died in 1932, the staff and patients of the asylum held a banquet in her honor and erected a large granite tombstone over her grave.
They still haven’t forgotten her. Each year, the fun-loving folks at the Commons hold a Traverse Colantha Walker Dairy Festival in June. The free, family-friendly festival includes a pancake breakfast, live “moosic,” a farmers market, arts & craft market, kids’ activities, food & drinks, a memorial parade to Colantha’s headstone, and the Great Grilled Cheese Grill-off.
For information about other stories, for fall events and activities in the Traverse City area, and for help with lodging and dining selections, click www.traversecity.com.