Baw Beese Lake

Long before white settlers came to Hillsdale County, the Huron-Potawotamies called it home.  Led in the early 1800's by Chief Baw Beese, a band of about 150 hunted and fished in the numerous lakes.  They had a small base camp at the large lake now named Baw Beese.  There, a few permanent dwellings stood and some maize grew but, like most Native Americans before the coming of the white man, they operated on the principle that a territory was inhabited by the tribe and no one owned a specific piece of land.

In 1821 the Treaty of Chicago was signed, ceding to the American government all lands in Michigan Territory south of the Grand River.  Chief Baw Beese wasn't a signatory and perhaps didn't even know about the expectation that he would move his tribe out of the way of the white settlers. But he also wasn't territorial, accepting Moses Allen when he brought his family to Hillsdale County on the Chicago Pike (US 12).  In fact, Baw Beese and his band of Potawotamies proved helpful to the Allen family and the white settlers that followed them, in many cases saving them from starvation or being lost in the dense wilderness.

Numerous accounts of white settlers describe the mutual friendship and respect between them and the Potawotami tribe of Baw Beese.  Supposedly, at least in the early days, the settlers learned the language of the natives and all conversations with the Potawotamies were in that language.  The children played together and competed in sports while the Potawotami braves watched.

In 1834 Richard and Anna Hill Fowler brought their large family to Hillsdale County and settled on a desirable farming location about six miles southwest of Jonesville.  According to an account from a Fowler daughter, one winter day the sons of the family, out skating on their frozen pond, were approached by Baw Beese.  He scoffed at the size of their pond and took them to his camp on the shores of a truly large lake.  The boys were suitably impressed and declared that it would be named "Baw Beese Lake."  And so it was.

In his later years Chief Baw Beese became a bit fat and lazy.  He remained at his lake on the northwest shore, where the water supply plant is now located (on Waterworks Avenue).  The younger members of the tribe wanted a bit of freedom from the control exerted by the chief and chose another camp to call their own, where the Hillsdale Golf and Country Club is now located.  

In 1840 the federal government got serious about relocating the Native Americans who remained in the Michigan Territory.  The government certainly received no support from the white settlers of Hillsdale County.  When a contingent of government troops arrived to escort the Potawotamies to a reservation in Iowa, there was widespread dismay.  Tears were shed on both sides.  The white residents of the county lined the roads, bidding a sad farewell to their Potawotami friends as they walked to their exile.

A Second View

As time progressed, many changes occurred.  During  the late 1800's and early 1900's the Baw Beese Lake Resort, owned by the Lake Shore and Michigan Southern Railroad, offered many attractions

Before the era of motorized boats, Baw Beese Lake was an enjoyable spot for all kinds of water craft.  For many years Hillsdale College sailing clubs used the lake for practice.  The famous "Four Oarsmen," who made a name for themselves with their skill in their racing shell, trained on the lake.  Anyone could rent two kinds of canoes: the first had a flat bottom, where you had a reasonable chance of returning still dry; the second had a round bottom and presented a greater challenge.  Hardy souls could rent a canoe and transport themselves through the entire chain of six lakes.

People with a more sedentary view of water sports could pay ten cents to Irving Dean, the owner of the Edna D.  This steamboat was named for his daughter and cruised around the lake, making stops at the ice houses and Cedar Island, there to talk with Bud Sellers who lived on the island for over 60 years.  Passengers rode in physical comfort on the Edna D., but their hearts were tested for soundness by her unpredictable temperament.  Some days she just didn't want to work, and at least once she pitched the queen of all fits when her boiler exploded... with no injuries, fortunately.

In 1915 the railroad abandoned and dismantled the resort that had given so much pleasure to people during the warm summer days. As the years rolled by, the city of Hillsdale assumed more and more responsibility for the area stretching north of the water supply plant. A 1936 issue of the Hillsdale Daily News reported that four and a half of the eight acres in the area of the water plant had been developed into Waterworks Park.  Lawns, which had been seeded the year before, now had charcoal burners, picnic tables and benches for relaxing.  There was a cinder road leading to it, with parking available.  Gardens had been created around the water works buildings and in the spring thousands of tulips bloomed (proving that the deer population was under control in the 1930's). 

No swimming was allowed at Waterworks Park because of a state law that prohibited swimming if the intake pipes for a water system supplying drinking water were located within 250' of the shore.  This would have been a real disappointment to the populous except for the generosity of a nearby landowner.  The area where Sandy Beach now stands belonged to Melvin Leypoldt of Cleveland.  He allowed city residents to use the area and regular swimming lessons were organized each summer.  There was even a waterfront director, Sol Wolfe.  One wonders what precipitated a rather stern warning that appeared in the August 14, 1944 edition of the Hillsdale Daily News.  It reminded people that there was no swimming after dark and trespassing charges would be brought against anyone violating that ban.  

With the addition of Owen Park, given to the city by Ralph L. Owen, and the acquisition by the city of Sandy Beach, the entire east and north sides of Baw Beese Lake were transformed into a large recreation area.  Chief Baw Beese's home ground had become, and still is, a special spot for people seeking summer fun and a little relief from the heat.

Carol A. Lackey and JoAnne P. Miller