North Unity, a Bohemian ghost town

By Linda Beaty
Sun contributor

North Unity, on the Good Harbor Bay side of Pyramid Point, was settled in 1855 by a group of Bohemians who had emigrated from their homeland in central Europe to seek a better life in America. They had settled in the few years prior in cities like New York and Chicago, where many were employed at brickyards, as railroad crew, and in local stores. But jobs were hard to find, according to Joseph Krubner, one of the settlers, who wrote an account of the hardships of pioneer life for a Chicago Bohemian newspaper, which was later translated and included in Edmund M. Littell’s 100 Years in Leelanau. “Hope to find Paradise in Chicago, soon vanished in clouds as the approaching winter was very hard, due to very few stores there at present time and jobs were hard to get,” he wrote.

Not finding Paradise in Chicago, a group of Czechs and Germans who had formed a club there called “Verein” hired a sailboat and sailed to Michigan in August of 1855, looking to take advantage of the Homestead Act and build a new city. After travelling about 270 miles, they docked at what was later known as Good Harbor in Leelanau County, then travelled 10 miles further to secure land for their settlement. “Here, at the Lake Michigan near Pyramid Bay, in deep forests never touched by human hands, began a new city, North Unity,” reads Krubner’s account.

The group built a wooden 150 by 20 foot “Varein Barracks,” which was partitioned into sections to provide temporary housing for the families until the spring, when they could select a farm site and build more permanent cabins. Some families built their own temporary shelters near the barracks, each one unique. “Everybody had his own idea,” wrote Krubner. “Some houses were all covered with hemlock branches, leaving small openings for windows. They looked more like bear huts instead of homes for humans. Some places they built the log house so low it was difficult for tall man to stand up in one.”

Although the structures were adequate for summer and fall, they proved cold and damp in the harsh northern Michigan winter, making life difficult. What was worse, as the lake froze and snow began to pile up, the little settlement was cut off from North Manitou Island, where they could get food and supplies. Some had brought provisions with them from Chicago, but others hadn’t, so the food was shared among all until it ran out. Hungry and desperate, a small group of men took a sled and traveled across the lake to the island, in hopes of buying some potatoes. This trip almost ended in tragedy, as the ice was cracking and breaking as the men approached the shore with the potatoes.

The food lasted through the winter, according to Krubner. “For a while hungry wolves were chased away from our doors. But with approaching spring, when the snow melted and the lake still frozen, no boats were able to reach us, potatoes and whatever we had was gone, hunger begins to strike again.”

As luck would have it, the annual spring migration of the now extinct passenger pigeon, which lived in huge flocks and literally darkened the skies as they arrived in northern Michigan, saved the day, providing ample food until summer arrived. “Everyone who had a gun and was able to use it, was shooting them,” wrote Krubner.

Soon the weather warmed up, and the pioneers were able to add fish to their diets. They began to build their houses, and also started gardens, growing potatoes, cabbage, beans and corn, as well as wheat, so they would be better prepared for the winter. Cattle were brought in from Chicago two years later to provide milk. Over the next several years, more people arrived and the village began to thrive, boasting a schoolhouse, a sawmill and a store. In 1859, a post office was established, and one of the early Czech pioneers, John Shalda, built a gristmill at the outlet of Shalda Creek.

Fires were common during the 19th century, especially in the spring. And in 1871, North Unity was destroyed by fire, forcing the little community to move inland to what is known now as “Shalda Corners” (M-22 and County Road 669), where they rebuilt their homes, post office and school. A general merchandise store was built by Shalda, this time two stories high, the upper level being used as a dance hall, with men on guitar, violin and triangle providing the music. It also had an ice house for cooling dairy products and beer, and eventually, a telephone. St. Joseph’s Church, still standing on County Road 669, was built in 1884 and blessed by the first Bishop of the Diocese of Grand Rapids. The church was listed in 1992 on the National Register of Historic Places

At its peak, the Bohemian settlement boasted 32 families of various ethnic origins, all living in unity (which may be the inspiration for the village’s name). “We had a mixture of nations, as there were Irish, German, French, Scandinavians and us Czechs,” wrote Krubner. But over the years, the population dwindled, many families having moved to the Traverse City area. By 1905, the post office closed. Today there are just a few remnants of North Unity, including the restored Shalda log cabin at the corner of M-22 and County Road 669, and the school, a log building located just west of Narada Lake on M-22, as well as the Catholic church.