Introduction to Indian Lake History
History records indicate that some early activities occurred on the lake in the late 1800’s. These records and additional photographs indicate that actual lake development, with cottages and resorts, probably started in the early 1900’s. However, a book written by Everett Claspy, which was published in 1970, contains information about individuals and activities dating back as early as the mid-1800’s. This information provides documentation about activities that proceeded and influenced actual lake development. Both the book’s writings and information gathered, from a collection of pictorial post cards, constitute the best historical facts that have been found which are relative to the Indian Lake History. The information contained herein is also co-mingled with “factoids” highlighting and summarizing noteworthy activities and events that contribute this history. Bits of this history were also gained from speaking with some of the lake’s “old timers.”
The Early Years
“Did You Know”
The lands presently contained in Pokagon and Silver Creek Township were inhabited by Native American Indians. Traditionally, they “lived off the land” as the men hunted for various types of wildlife and fished in local lakes and rivers. The women planted, maintained, and harvested crops of corn, beans and squash while also collecting a wide variety of wild plants; including berries, nuts, roots, wild rice and berries. They also gathered sap from Maple Trees.
These Native People are now a federally recognized Potawatomi-speaking tribe known as the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians (Potawatomi: Pokegnek Bodewadmik). Tribal government functions are located in the Dowagiac, Michigan area. They occupy reservation lands near Rogers Lake, which is just east of Indian Lake Road near Smith Lake.
The Pokagon are descendants of the residents of allied Potawatomi villages that were historically located along the St. Joseph, Paw Paw and Kalamazoo rivers. They were the only Potawatomi band to gain permission from the US Government to remain in Michigan after the Indian removal in the 1830’s.
William Bragall Gilbert was an original pioneer of Silver Creek Township, Cass County, Mi. He migrated to Indian Lake in 1839 and had an impact on the development of northwest Cass County. William, also known as “Uncle Tommy” was a farmer; became a land speculator and influenced the development of the Resort Community. As his descendants intermarried with other original pioneer families, his eventual extended family became very influential in the development of Indian Lake and Silver Creek Township. TO READ HIS BIOGRAPHY PLEASE CLICK HERE. Brief excerpts of his life are summarized as follow:
“Did You Know“
- William served in the War of 1812 and rose to an Officer ranking. After America won the war they rewarded many of its heroic officers with land gifts and pensions. William was given 68 acres of land in the wilderness of Michigan along with other officer benefits.
- Upon leaving the military, William married Cynthia Sammons in 1815 and began a job of “teaming” in the area between Albany and Buffalo New York. “Teaming” refers to driving teams of horses pulling wagons or stagecoaches. It was somewhere in these “teaming” days that William was given the nickname of “Uncle Tommy” which stuck with him throughout the remainder of his life.
- By 1838, William had not yet visited the Michigan property. Leaving his wife and children in the care of friends he traveled to Pokagon Township to inspect his government gifted land. He decided the soli, natural resources and the expansive wooded acreage was his “promised land”.
- He returned home to collect his family and their belongings and convinced some New York neighbors to join him on his relocation to Michigan. They all traveled west to Pokagon Township. He built a log cabin there upon arrival, while his friends pursued their own plans for settlement. However, the more William learned about the surrounding area, the more intensely his interests shifted to Silver Creek Township.
- Within a year after their arrival, William, his wife, and their children settled on the banks of a lake and built a cabin. This lake property was a portion of the 400 acres of land he had purchased from John Wollman. The lake was named Wollman’s Lake but was later changed to Indian Lake because the Potawatomi people maintained numerous sugar camps there every spring when the sap ran from the Maple trees.
- Upon completion of their cabin, William got their farm in working order and started growing enough crops to feed his family. He also began exploring the potential of the undeveloped land around him. His plan was to become a land speculator, buying tracts of land by paying the low prices the government used to lure settlers. His strategic plan was to hold the land until eager settlers arrived and were ready to purchase their own property at his now inflated prices.
- In 1840, William joined John Wollman to bid for a State of Michigan contract to build a four mile stretch of road between Pokagon Township and the undeveloped area, know as Silver Creek Township. The road became known as the “Town Line Road”. This is when he actually started his land speculation by buying property, holding it, and selling at a higher price.
- Soon, William or “Uncle Tommy” was beginning to amass a significant financial reserve with his speculating plan. Still living in their meager cabin and practicing frugality at home he put much of his financial resources into the purchase of more Silver Creek land.
- Cynthia made it know to William that the family needed more space and better accommodations……or in other words, we need to put William’s success to our own benefit. With that message, “Uncle Tommy” began working on plans for a new family home.
- The interesting thing about “Uncle Tommy” was that he never did things in a small way. William Bragall Gilbert decided to build his wife the “biggest, fanciest house” in the country. They then sketched the first mansion plans themselves and then hired an architect.
- There was a high bluff on the northeast side of Indian Lake with a dirt road below, skirting the lake. The bluff was near their log cabin and in 1850, when most people were living in pioneer log cabins or simple farmhouses, William built what a newspaper reporter later called “GILBERTS CASTLE”. It had the whole country abuzz, because (for that era) it was the grandest house in the country.
Early Trading Activities
“Did You Know”
- “Uncle Tommy” was extremely sympathetic to the plight of the Potawatomi people. They had difficulty adjusting to the “white man’s” concept of private property or boundary lines. He allowed them to enter onto his property without argument to access the large maple trees which existed on that property for generations.
- Each year, in the spring, when the sap rose from the trees they would enter onto his land without resistance and breach the trunk of the trees to let the sweet sugary sap to drain into containers. Then, over roaring fires, they would boil the liquid down and then stir constantly to cool it until it slowly crystallized, thus “graining it”.
- The Potawatomi then stored the sugared maple sap into their “Mococks”, which were made of Birch bark, sewed together with thongs made from slippery elm bark. The “Mococks were paired together like saddle bags and loaded onto the backs of ponies, while ”Uncle Tommy” and his family watched the proceedings.
- The Potawatomi would then go the “She-mo-k-man’s cabins to swap (barter) for “quas-gun” (bread): “sam-mock” (tobacco)” and other articles they wanted. “Uncle Tommy” could never find it in their heart to deny these people access to those trees or their heritage sugar making traditions. The Gilberts looked upon the experience as an enriching experience – “watching ancient practices become trading experiences with the white man”.
- A marsh, containing large crops of wild huckleberries, was located on the west side of Indian Lake. ( the marsh area presently existing between Indian and Brush Lakes). The wild huckleberries were picked, traded, or sold to dealers each year. In Potawatomi language “KEE-BOON-MEIN-KAA” refers to the end of the huckleberry harvest….and to this day in September a Pow Wow is held locally (within the Tribal properties at Rodgers Lake) to honor that season.
Settlers Influence Development
“Did You Know”
- William Bragall Gilbert served as Justice of the Peace; concerned himself with community development; engaged his family in social activities; and “embraced political issues. He became a man of influence and was highly respected within the developing area.
- His six children married into four other pioneer families (Bedfords, Conklins, Hawks and Garretts) and the affiliate families exerted a lot of political clout. William was one of the five Silver Creek Township pioneer patriarchs, whose intermarried supported one another and shaped the structure of economy and development of the area.
- The extended families of William Bragall Gilbert (real estate); George Bedfords (farming); John Weston Hawks (logging); Abram Conklins (farming); and their affiliate families formed a political, social, and financial base.
- Family meetings and planning sessions always preceded decisions and they often acted as a unit…..functioning in solidarity.
- The planning and development of “Lake Resort and Tourist Economy” started, in part, with investors like “Uncle Tommy”.
- His advice, to the rest of the extended family, was to retain ownership of lake frontage and sell ”time” limited use contracts to eager Chicago vacationers and grant them the right to build their cottages on locally owned land.
- The rents collected were major boosts to the local economy and fueled the eventual rapidly tourism trade.
- In conclusion, “Uncle Tommy” William Bragall Gilbert was the original pioneer of Cass and Berrien Counties, Michigan (owning and developing property in both areas). He was an entrepreneur, land speculator, farmer, and family man who helped form the local power base that influenced the development of western lower Michigan. His colorful life was filled with challenges and success, that still today add flavor to local history and genealogy. What “Uncle Tommy” is remembered for most is that he built the historic landmark – Gilbert’s Castle.
- William Bragall Gilbert died on February 18,1864 at the age of 73. He is buried in the Gilbert Private Cemetery behind Gilbert’s Castle.
Early Activities on the Lake
“Did You Know”
- Indian Lake development is thought to have started in the late 1800’s. These photos show what are believed to be the earliest cottages built on the lake.
- The Indian Lake Club is believed to have begun somewhere in the 1887’s. One report indicates that the Indian Lake Club celebrated it 50th anniversary in 1947. It consisted of 21 cottages and Charles Conklin, J.A. Lindsey, Dr. F.H. Ensign were a part of the organizers. The first telephone was installed in 1899 and electricity arrived in 1922. Reportedly families from Berwyn Illinois owned 10 of the 21 houses.
- One distinguished resident of the Indian Lake Club was Dr. John H. Warvel Sr. who was one of the nation’s leading physicians in the treatment of diabetes. He treated Paul Conklin for several decades and was able to give him insulin soon after it was discovered in 1922 by the Eli Lilly Company, to which he was a consultant.
- Carp were introduced into the lake by Eugene Gilbert in 1890, who acquired them from a private hatchery. They turned out to be nuisance and it is told that in 1923 the largest net ever used in this part of the state was brought in to try to clean them out from the lake. It was 2000 feet long and 35 feet in depth. As we all know now, they didn’t get then all.
- There were also tales of a “monster” in the lake. This is thought to stem from two gentlemen who had caught three, 40 pound, sturgeon in the St. Joseph River near Niles, Michigan. They brought them back to the lake in a wagon and put them into the lake to keep them fresh. They were immediately revived and quickly “shot through the water and out of site”. One of them was speared, by an ice fisherman, sometime later and that was thought to have given rise to the “monster” in the lake tale, which is still being heard from stories passed on by “old timers” to their families.
Resort Development Begins
“ Did You Know”
- There is no solid information relative as to the actual date of when construction of each resort actually began. However, it appears that several resorts were developed between 1901 – 1910.
- The first gathering spot, built to attract visitors to the lake, was probably Tuttle’s Landing which began operations around 1901-1902. Information also shows that Ridenour Farm and Resort was developed shortly after Tuttle’s Landing.
- This early resort development spurred additional development of resort and hotel activities. These facilities include the Manhattan Hotel; Edgewater; Birds Nest Hotel; Never Mind Hotel; Shauls’ Villa; Wiest’s Resort and Tice landing. These early resorts often had additions built and had name changes.
- The famous steam-powered craft named the “Fenetta L” was built for W.E. Tuttle in 1901 and was operated by Mr. Tuttle after that time. It was named after his wife and operated out of “Tuttle’s Landing”.
- The “Fenetta L” as it ventured around the lake eventually became the mode of travel, carrying passengers and stopping at various resorts around the lake.
- Historian, Edward Claspy relates that his father purchased four cottages and rented them out for $25.00 per week. A 1916 clipping referred to this location as Potawatomi Bluff, which is believed to be on the bluff above Tuttle’s Landing. He reported that the decent down the bluff to the lake was a lot of steps. The rental fee also included the use of a boat.
- Historical post cards indicate that most of the resort activity was somewhat grouped in the southern basin of the lake, possibly because that portion of the lake had the easiest access for tourists. These resorts consisted of Tuttle’s Landing; Wiest’s Resort; Ridenour Farm and Resort; Manhattan Hotel; Edgewater; Birds Nest Hotel; and the Never Mind Hotel
- In July of 1928, the “Fenetta L” could no longer be called a “steamer” as it acquired a Studerbaker engine. In later years it was scuttled and to this day lays on the bottom of the lake directly in front of Tuttle’s Landing which, in 1914, became Indian Beach and which is now the Indian Lake Yacht Club. There have been reports that ice fisherman have observed the hull of the “Fenetta L”.
Resorts Attract the Tourist Economy
“Did You Know”
- In 1908 a gentleman by the name of George White acquired a motor car capable of transporting 20 passengers. It was used to shuttle passengers from Benton Harbor to Indian Lake. The round-trip fee was 25 cents.
- In 1911, the Interurban, or the officially named Benton Harbor – St. Joe Railway and Light Company finished laying tracks to Dowagiac. The route was located south of and basically parallel to M-62. The interurban was powered by overhead electric lines and provided 14 stops between Benton Harbor/St. Joe to its termination point in Dowagiac.
- Two of these stops were located to access Indian Lake. The first at Brush Lake Road which provided access to the Ridenour Farm and Resort. The second at Indian Lake Road providing close access to the lake and became a popular stop. After disembarking, people either walked or were driven by buggy the resorts located on the lake.
- Business soon sprang up at the Indian Lake Road stop and along the traveled route to the lake. The Indian Lake grocery store was one of the first and was located at the NW corner of M-62 and Indian Lake Road. The owner of that store was Sigmund Patz.
- It is interesting to note that while liquor was served at the resorts when it was legal but Dowagiac, by option, remained a “dry” community. Once the Interurban’s eastern termination was completed it began receiving heavy traffic between Dowagiac and Eau Claire, with patrons going back and forth to the saloons for a drink.
- The Interurban service was eventually discontinued, However, with keen observation the track location is still visible south of the M-62 & Indian Lake Road intersection.
- In June of 1914, the namesake of the “Fenetta L”, Mrs. Tuttle, engaged the Beckwith Theater Orchestra from Dowagiac to play an extended musical program at the formal opening of Indian Beach.
- Back in those days, nobody dreamed of transporting to the lake in their bathing suit. There were bath houses built where you we expected to change and then go directly in the water. It would have been thought immoral to lie around on the beach and display your body.
- The resorts around Indian Lake were long known for their fish dinners, but this practice ended with the passage of a law in 1915 limiting the catch and prohibiting the commercial sale of privately caught fish. The Game Warden’s Department construed the serving of fish on the resort’s tables as selling fish.
Historic Locations Around the Lake
Historical Sites without photos ( locations shown on Indian Lake Map )
28) Donoho’s Grocery Store / Indian Lake Pub
29) Hunt’s Grocery Store
30) Kubert’s Appliance and Sporting Goods
31) Kubert’s Gas Station
32) A & W Root Beer Stans ( “Frank & Toots Dog & Suds )
- Gilbert’s Castle
- Lakeside Drive / Indian Lake Road
- Tuttle’s Landing / Indian Beach
- Indian Lake Club
- Ridenour Resort / Mrs. Ridenour’s Resort
- Ridenour Farm
- Manhattan Hotel
- Edgewater Hotel
- Interurban – Indian Lake Road Stop & 9A- Brush Lake Road Stop
- Indian Lake Grocery Co.
- Never Mind Hotel
- Wiest’s Resort
- Shaul’s Villa / White House Hotel / Kickapoo Lodge
- North Shore
- Highland Beach ( prior to Tice Landing )
- Tice Landing ( prior to Tice Beach)
- Tice Beach
- Cottages on Bluff above Indian Beach
- Cottages along South Shore
- Hillcrest Farms
- Golf Course Clubhouse
- Indian Lake golf course
- Birds Nest Hotel
- Forest Beach
- Eau Claire Club
- Orchard Bluff