You just never know what you might find in the Montague Museum.
I was going through some files there recently and came across a small publication, “The Indian Legend of White Lake the Beautiful,” authored and published by John O. Reed of Whitehall in 1925. It is a short five pages, but an interesting read, especially for someone like me who has long been intrigued by the “White Lake the Beautiful” motto.
The author writes that his father had a trading post on the upper White River and recalls as a young boy when Chief Owasippe and his grandson, Deerfoot, came for a visit. The old chief, besieged for a story, told the youngsters of a wise and good “Sachem” who lived a long time ago. In the twilight of his life, the Sachem was asked to help negotiate a peace settlement between two warring tribes, which he did. Shortly after, according to Chief Owasippe, the Sachem was called home to the “Happy Hunting Grounds.” His body was prepared according to custom, placed in his canoe and set adrift down a river, with the members of the tribe hoping it would be guided to his wigwam. The canoe drifted down the river for many hours until it finally “floated out upon the bosom of a beautiful lake.” The mourners had followed the canoe and were startled by the sight of many birds in the sky with white and silver wings. They were also astonished to see that the color of the lake had changed from blue to a silvery white. According to Chief Owasippe’s story, the tribe members all exclaimed at once: “Wab-a-gun-a-gee, Ne-bis, Bis-e-gain-dang.” “White Lake--The Beautiful.” The story ends with: “From that day to this the lake has always been called: ‘White Lake—The Beautiful.’”
Curious to find out more, I did a little research. On the Muskegon ancestry.com web page, I found a John O. Reed who lived in Whitehall. Born in Oceana County in 1868, he was a school teacher in Muskegon County, at one time served as the county school commissioner, and owned and operated a flourmill in Montague. No information is provided on the date of his death. Although certainly a well-known name in the White Lake area, I found little definitive information on Chief Owasippe. He is mentioned in Bernice Norman’s paper, “The Early History of White Lake and White Lake Indians,” which she presented to the White Lake Central School in 1950. According to her account, Chief Owasippe would have been alive in the mid-1800s, which is consistent with John Reed’s legend. Bernice was the daughter of Frederick Norman (1847-1928), our community’s famous “documentary painter” of the lumbering era. Some of his paintings can be seen in the White Lake Community Library and PNC Bank. Mr. Norman and his daughter were very interested in local Indian history; Mr. Norman reportedly found many artifacts in the area which are in museum collections.
According to local historian and author Dan Yakes, the term “White Lake the Beautiful” came into use in the late 1800s and was used regularly by such White Lake area boosters as druggist Clarence E. Pitkin (1893-1961), especially during the 1920s, the height of the resort era. The early 1900s was also a time when it was popular to romanticize Indians -- think Zane Gray novels and the famous paintings of Edward S. Curtis. How much of John Reed’s legend is fact and how much is fantasy, I don’t know.
I first heard the term “On White Lake the Beautiful” from former city of Whitehall mayor, Norm Ullman, who often remarks about how in the 1950s, “Home of White Lake the Beautiful” emblazoned the stationery used by the cities of Whitehall and Montague. I am hoping to see this grand title restored to use someday soon.
Another visit to the museum is planned soon and I will be in search of more treasures!
The Montague Museum is located at 8717 Meade Street in Montague. It is open Memorial Day through Labor Day on Saturdays from 1 to 5 p.m.
Tanya Cabala is a lifelong resident of the White Lake area. A former educator and professional environmental advocate, she is currently the owner of Great Lakes Consulting, which provides project support and grant writing services to environmental and community nonprofit organizations. More information is available at www.tanyacabala.com. Tanya loves her hometown, loves writing, and loves to hear from her readers. Contact her at email@example.com or (231) 981-0016.