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

The rolling countryside of the aptly-named Hillsdale County has more than its fair share of water: streams and rivers that were harnessed to power the early mills, ponds and lakes that provided fishing opportunities and recreation for the people who have lived here over the centuries. The approximately 350 ponds and 42 lakes in the county also serve as headwaters for five major watersheds. Baw Beese Lake is the largest of the lakes.

It was one of the camping sites of the Potawatomi people led by Chief Baw Beese when whites first settled in the county in the late 1820s. Stories handed down from the early years of the white migration tell of a comfortable interaction between the Potawatomi and the whites. Most first-hand accounts of the Potawatomi demonstrate a paternalistic attitude toward the county natives that fails to honor them as equals. But the memories also gratefully acknowledge how the Potawatomi were helpful to the whites who arrived on their hunting grounds. When the Potawatomi were forcibly removed from the county, many of their white friends stood tearfully on the edge of the Chicago Military Road (now US-12) to bid them farewell. 

Until his removal Baw Beese remained at the lake named for him, 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. 

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Bud Sellers came to Hillsdale around 1880 as a tubercular young man seeking a cure to what had been diagnosed as an incurable illness.  Christopher Dickerson, a Civil War veteran, had purchased Cedar Island around 1870. At his death in 1872, his son, Walter P., inherited the island.  It was Walter who gave Bud Sellars permission to stay there rent-free in order to let the fresh air do its best to help his “consumption.”  Bud spent the first year in a tent before building a three-room cottage, and eventually he added an ice house. Needing only a rowboat for his own use, he built a long wharf so that the steamboat Edna D. could dock and discharge its passengers, presumably for conversation and possibly a "justly famous fish dinner" prepared by Bud. Bud lived on Cedar Island for about sixty years in which the fresh air wiped away any vestige of the disease.

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Baw Beese Lake, like many others in the county, called to entrepreneurs who saw profit in providing entertainment. Some of it was legitimate … and some was a bit more shady. The Tally-Ho Inn, located on the west side of the lake, was on the shady side. During one Fair Week in the early 1900s, it was apparent that a lot more than genteel conversation over tea had been going on at the Tally-Ho Inn, owned by May Wheeler. Complaints of "drunken revelry" poured into the Sheriff's Office. Sheriff Keas, as reported in the Camden Advance, stated that “he had been for a long time trying to get evidence that would lead to a conviction" (for unlawfully selling liquor) against the inn. City police reported that they had observed a load of beer being taken from the fairgrounds, but they couldn't verify where it went. An elaborate sting operation launched by the deputies was planned. They were so convincing at being drunk that one of the girls, dressed provocatively, who was urging them on to have more to drink, was tipped to the floor by the deputy on whose lap she sat. Not only was the illegal sale of liquor confirmed, but the promise of "a h___ of a time" if they returned the next night (with a nod toward the girls) led to a conviction  and nine-month jail sentence of May Wheeler.

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A more socially acceptable business at Baw Beese Lake was that of providing the ice used to keep perishable items fresh in ice boxes. Many companies, including those from out-of-state, harvested ice from the lake. Some built ice houses at Wolf’s Point, which was just beyond Sandy Beach, and Owen Park was once the site of a huge operation of the City Ice and Fuel Company. There were initially eight large ice houses belonging to the Cleveland Ice Company. The houses had the capacity of 35,000 tons and shipped ice out by the train load of 100 cars per day, utilizing the tracks that ran next to the lake. Farmers worked for the operation during the winter months for extra income and stayed in a large hotel built to accommodate them. Big teams of horses brought from Cleveland pulled the “plows,” which were grooving devices used to cut ice. After some years electric motors replaced the horses. In 1929, with the advent of modern refrigeration, the ice operation ended. 

F.W. Stock owned a flour mill that relied on water from Baw Beese Lake to power it. He initiated several law suits claiming that the ice companies that took ice from the lake in the winter lowered the level of the lake, diminishing the flow to the waterwheel at Stock's mill. iIn his suit against Hillsdale the Michigan State Supreme Court agreed with Stock that the city of Hillsdale did, indeed, lower the water enough to affect the efficiency of the mill waterwheel, and F.W. Stock received a settlement of $7,500 from the city. 

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Who knows what inspired four Hillsdale men, who were clerks and firemen in their day jobs, to get involved in the gentlemanly sport of rowing. It was typically a pursuit of men who had a lifelong familiarity with the narrow-hulled "shell," as well as training by experts who understood the intricacies of the sport. Yet the brash confidence of these intrepid scullers led them to the National Regatta in Saratoga, NY after only two months in which they trained themselves on Baw Beese Lake. There, in 1879, they competed in the National American Amateur Rowing Championship, the most prestigious amateur rowing competition in the country. They won the mile and a half race by the fastest time ever recorded—8:32.75.

It’s hard for us today to understand the importance of the many railroads that operated in Hillsdale County. Rather than the long, dusty trip by horse and wagon on unimproved roads, people could board a train and travel relatively quickly and in relative comfort. During  the late 1800's and early 1900's the Baw Beese Lake Resort was established by the Lake Shore and Michigan Southern Railroad to encourage people to use the train to get to their resort. In addition to swimming it was an enjoyable spot for all kinds of water craft. 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 a chain of six lakes. 

At the turn of the century N.H. Widger took over the management of the resort and made it into a desirable destination. Special excursion trains came from Chicago, Toledo, Elkhart and other cities for a day of fun at what had been known as Archer’s Landing. For a dime lake wagons took day trippers on a twenty-minute journey from Hillsdale to the resort … and oh, was it worth the time and money! A 150-foot toboggan run became, in summer, a daredevil’s dream, with a zip line from the top to deep water where boys in knee-length trunks with sleeved shirts could impress girls modestly dressed in swimming costumes of at least nine garments. A bowling alley and dance hall were available to those staying in the hotel and those coming for the day.

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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 Baw Beese Lake, making stops at the ice houses and Cedar Island, there to talk with Bud Sellers. 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 tantrums when her boiler exploded... with no injuries, fortunately.

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Around 1900 Elbridge W. Chapman, better known as Pete, created an intricate oil painting  with more than 100 characters enjoying the activities at Widger’s Landing. It is a window into the glory of the Baw Beese Lake Resort. Shown is the 60-foot diving dock, the toboggan run, a dock with a bath house, the hotel, the dance pavilion, a boat house for the Edna D, and that little lady herself, transporting sight-seers around the lake.

In 1915 the railroad dismantled the resort that had given so much pleasure to so many 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. This site had been donated by the Edwin March family with the provision that it be annexed to the city of Hillsdale. 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 was located within 250 feet 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.   

With the addition of Owen Park, given to the city by Ralph L. Owen, and the acquisition by the city of Hillsdale of Sandy Beach, the entire east and north sides of Baw Beese Lake were transformed into a large recreation area. 

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Cottages proliferated on the lake, some modest affairs and others more elaborate. The J.R. and Gertrude Sutton cottage at Baw Beese supposedly once "housed rowing teams,” perhaps the team that produced the Four Oarsmen. However, the great excitement on the lake in the early 1900s came from an effort led by Gertrude’s brother, George, who wanted to create a golf course and country club. It began in 1910 with fifty hopeful golfers, each willing to pledge $50 for the cause. E.O. Galloway was willing to sell his land on the west shore of Baw Beese Lake to the group, and that seemed like the best place for a golf course. Everyone agreed about that. Then some of the group dug in their heels with the idea that the clubhouse should be at Widger’s Landing where the city park, a dance hall, a small hotel and a boat house stood. The idea was that a launch would be available to ferry people to the Galloway property to play golf. This didn’t fly with a small faction of the group who thought the idea was impractical, and negotiations broke down. Those favoring the Widger’s-Landing-with-launch idea withdrew.

In 1913 an arrangement with Mr. Galloway was struck, where the club could lease his land, with an option to buy. That worked with E.O., and within a couple days A.G. Spaulding & Bros. of Chicago was contacted with a request that a man be sent to Hillsdale to lay out a golf course. This entailed walking around the leased area and driving stakes for the nine-hole course, beginning where a clubhouse would be built (which was at the same spot as the current clubhouse). The golfers had far more desire for a course than they had money to pay for it. A mower was not within their budget so a flock of sheep was utilized to tame the weeds. “Bees” were organized instead of trying to play golf on the sheep-mowed pastures, and the men picked up stones and dug the foundations for a small club house on the shore of the lake. The club purchased the bowling alley at the park and moved it over in sections on the ice during the winter. It was re-erected near the clubhouse for use as lockers.

From Chief Baw Beese and his tribe, to Bud Sellers, to the various resorts that were reached by train, to the Four Oarsmen, to the pleasure of being on the water enjoyed by visitors, cottage owners and permanent residents, Baw Beese Lake has a special place in Hillsdale County.


Carol A. Lackey and JoAnne P. Miller