by Andrew L. McFarlane
Two women: Johanna de Kok and Rita Hadra Rusco. Not the only two women to live on the Manitou Islands, not by a long shot. Almost everything about them is different, but between the two of them, with their love of history and love and hearing of the people who lived it, they have provided a focus, a window through which we can catch glimpses of the history of South and North Manitou Islands. To capture the entire history of a place, even one as geographically small as North and South Manitou Islands, in one article, or one book, or a hundred volumes, is an impossible task. That history is woven of cloth that is for the most part unknowable.
The long and slow actions of the land: movements of waters, scouring sheets of ice, shifts of the very foundations of the earth, seeds blown on winds that never touched a human face, animals struggling against storms and water and starvation.
The history of peoples unrecorded: the first person to gaze upon a place, a birth or death before such things were written down, a summer's stay that left no trace.
The stories and lives of these people: their understanding and vision of Creation, their music on a winter's night, what they did on that unseasonably warm April day.
The task of the historian need not be encyclopedic, for the truest understanding comes not from knowing the names and dates, but rather from reflection upon the threads of lives past.
The side of history most commonly told: Hard facts, bold deeds, namings and family lines is often "His story". There is another story, however. A story that, while not ignored altogether, receives less coverage and perhaps less thought. Nonetheless, it is a story that without which none of these dates and deeds would have been possible. It is the story of women and their families, the story of what people did not on one special date, but every day of their lives.
Johanna de Kok was born in the Netherlands and now lives in Leland. She lived and worked on South Manitou in the summers from 1975-1988 with her 14 year old twins. Her background is in anthropology, and she served as a volunteer for the National Park Service in charge of cataloging the collected historical artifacts, running the museum, and giving talks to campers and school children. Through her work she began to collect stories and memories from residents who returned to visit their old homes.
Rita Hadra Rusco is a native Texan who moved with her husband Jack Hadra to North Manitou Island in July of 1942. She managed the Post Office and general store and raised her son Nick and daughter Rita until 1953 when they moved to Muskegon so that Rita could begin school. She returned to North Manitou in the summer of 1966 to build a cottage. Ken Rusco, a good friend of both Rita and her daughter, supervised a crew in the construction of the cottage. One year later, they were married. Rita now lives alone in her cottage, when family or friends aren't visiting.
The first written record by a woman comes from the English writer Harriet Martineau, who was apparently more concerned with seeing the Manitou Islands than making it to Mackinaw for the Independence Day celebrations. Of all the entries that were available, it is this one which seems to most capture the sense of first seeing the Manitou Islands. Think back to a time when saws bit rarely, if ever at trees. When lakeshores were not rung with homes. "We were up before five on the morning of the 4th of July (1836) to see the Manitou Isles, which were just then coming in sight. They are the Sacred Isles of the Indians to whom they belong. Manitou is the name of their Great Spirt and everything sacred.. They are two: sandy and precipitous at the south and clothed with wood, from the crest of the cliffs to the north extremity. . . "It was a cool, sunny morning, and these dark islands lay still and apparently deserted, on the bright green waters."
At this time, the Great Lakes were the highways of the region, with trade from Chicago to Buffalo and many other cities along the way passing back and forth on schooners and steamships. The steamships required large amounts of wood to feed their boilers, passengers and crew always appreciated fresh fish and produce, and all vessels were in need of safe harbors in the event of the fierce storms of the Lakes.
South Manitou had such a natural harbor and North Manitou at least provided shelter from storms. Both islands were covered with virtually pristine forests, and both were open to homesteading. It is perhaps natural then that many families, most of them immigrants to this country, riding perhaps the same vessel that had carried them from their native countries, chose to make their homes on the Islands. They were the first settlements in the area south of the Straits of Mackinaw on the Lake Michigan side. Of the men we know that they were first fishermen and woodsmen, later farmers. Their families appear to have been large, and though in later years the Islands took different courses of development, in those times life was probably very similar on each island.
Johanna recounts a story of two elderly ladies, born in the late 1800s, whom she met in 1975 on South Manitou and whose father was a lumberman and whose mother was a cook in one of the lumbering camps.
"They said that life was so harsh then because they were there in the wintertime, of course (because of the greater ease of moving the felled timber). The lumbermen were in the camp and they drank a lot and they gambled . . .It was such a harsh life and the family felt that this was not the life for a family with young children.
"That was a life that we hardly ever think about. They talk about women working, but women have always worked." Rita recounts a similar way of life in her book, North Manitou Island: Between Sunrise and Sunset. In this case, the story is of Ellen Cunningham and her daughter Mary:
"In addition to caring for her family (husband Melvin and twelve children), Mrs. Cunningham took in boarders, single men who worked in the logging operation. They kept milch cows, pigs, and chickens plus a large productive garden. Martha recalls helping can hundreds of jars of fruits and vegetables and carrying pails of water from Lake Michigan on laundry day. She attended school on a "hit or miss" schedule, as her mother needed help at home "Mrs. Cunningham made all of their clothes, was an experienced midwife, and provided emergency first aid to injured lumberjacks." Although life for the Cunningham's and probably all other families of the day was hard, Rita feels that these early pioneers experienced the best years of life on the island, when it was still a thriving community.
"I would have loved to have been there then. When you think that in 1860 there were 270 people on the Island, who came from all these foreign countries, living in that space and having to deal with each other. It must have been fascinating."
Johanna pointed out an interesting fact that may be counter to most people's expectations of the isolation and living conditions of the time and place. For most of the shipping period, from the 1830s until coal- fired steamers and railroads took over around the turn of the century, the Islanders were actually exposed to more in the way of the latest fashions, farm implements, and printed material from Chicago and other cities. Though she notes that the people were certainly not awash in cash, there was some extra money for the purchase of items that could not be produced on the Islands.
Some of the photographs that remain from those days show men and women in clothing that likely came from one of those cities. One of Rita's favorites from 1905 shows Augusta Swenson Samuelson and six other women standing in a boat and wearing hats that would look more at home on the streets of Detroit than aboard a boat just offshore of a remote island.
Clothing and such items were not the only passengers that found their way to the shores of the Islands. In the earliest days, there was an abundance of single men on the Manitous for the timbering operations, and many of these found wives in Chicago and elsewhere. Later, when most of the forests were cut, farming took over as the dominant way of life. With many young men leaving farming to seek their fortunes elsewhere, there was a shortage of men of an age to provide husbands for the young women of the island.
The U.S. Lifesaving Service's rotation of young men were even more attractive due to the nature of their jobs. They would soon be leaving the island and would of course take a new bride or family with them.
While the farming life continued for the Islanders despite a decrease in the population, a new influence began to be felt. People, generally wealthy, began to build summer homes on the Islands. This is the point of real divergence between the histories of the Islands. Although such homes were built on both islands and eventually became the "normal" way to live there, South Manitou continued to be what we might think of as public while North Manitou was taken over by the Manitou Island Association. For the story of the period from the coming of the Lifesaving Service to the coming of the Park, refer to the books listed. The records of the growth and decline of the Islander families, many who still live in the area today, make fascinating reading.
About the period between 1979 and 1984 when the Park was in the takeover process, and she and her second husband were alone on the island, Rita says:
Rita says that now the community on North Manitou consists of the Park Service personnel and herself. This year, though both Islands seem to be receiving more visitors than ever, there are even fewer NPS rangers and personnel on the islands. This reflects the funding cuts that the Park Service has had and continues to experience. The interpretive center at the main office in Empire is virtually closed due to a lack of staff, and without increased funding, the same is likely to continue here as nationwide.
Although one might expect Rita to be bitter, with good cause, I did not get that sense from her. She is saddened by the steady degradation of the many fine structures on the Islands and hopes that someone will act to restore at least some of them before they are gone altogether. But, like most people, she thinks that it is probably a much better thing that the park is public and that there will likely never be a huge resort upon it. Johanna related a number of stories of how many different people, people who had lived there, people whose parents who had lived there, campers, Park employees, schoolchildren, day visitors, would all have an individual experience of the Islands. They would come to feel that it was theirs.
Consider though, how you might feel inside, feelings that you might never be able to share with anyone who was not feeling them as well. Your Island, your home, succumbing to the ceaseless will of weather and time and growing things. In Rita's words.
"Isn't it as reprehensible turn what was once a community into a wilderness as it is to desecrate a wilderness?"
These our Islands and our children and theirs could have an opportunity to view a place that never had a fast food restaurant, a highway, or a shopping mall. It is not that these things are necessarily "wrong," but rather that if everywhere becomes like everywhere else, where have we come from? Johanna calls it "The Mystery of History", a curious love for that which can only be touched through what remains, the "Ah-ha!" when two pieces of pottery are joined, when a mysterious grave suddenly becomes known through an obscure record.
Some of our history can be found in books and old photos, a legacy that is more or less enduring. Rita advises that it need not be a book on the Manitou Isles. Michigan, like everywhere else, is packed with history. There is another history though. It is a history that one cannot glean from extensive reading. This history requires more effort. It is the silent legacy of an abandoned but still producing apple orchard, the testimony of a weathered but still standing home, the puzzle of an unidentifiable plant or piece of metal or bone, the wavy gaze of an unbroken window before the time when windows were perfect and alike. Most of all, it is that most ephemeral of histories: The history that resides within the people who have lived it.