O Pioneers: the Dorsey family of Glen Lake

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Dorsey-Springdale School 1933 (1)By Kathleen Stocking
Sun contributor

Jim Dorsey is a humble man. He doesn’t want any special attention for himself or his legendary grandfather, John Dorsey, one of the area’s handful of first white settlers. “I think we were an ordinary family,” he says. Now 88, Jim Dorsey was a teacher at Glen Lake for three years and postmaster in Empire for 28 years. He says he was fortunate to have work in “a nice community, easy to serve.”

Jim Dorsey is the living grandson of 1850s pioneer John Dorsey. He and his wife Velma, and daughter and son-in-law, Christine and Duane Shugart, still live on the old home place on the south shore of Little Glen Lake. Where the farm and its sheep and cows used to be, is now a well-kept summer trailer park with a view of the dunes in the distance. Jim Dorsey says the Indians helped his grandfather locate this place, pervaded even now by an unusual peace and beauty.

John Dorsey, born in Ireland in 1825, sailed into Sleeping Bear Bay on his own sloop in 1851. He was a barrel-maker, a cooper, soon hired by another early pioneer, John LaRue. John Dorsey helped make barrels for the Indian fishermen to ship their salted fish to Chicago and, according to accounts in oral histories, spoke the Ottawa language fluently.

There’s a photo of John Dorsey in which he looks debonair, prepossessing, casual, Hemmingway-handsome in his weathered Panama hat, his legs crossed at a jaunty angle, definitely his own man. “He was short,” Jim Dorsey says of his grandfather, “about five-foot-four.”

Dorsey-Elizabeth House by John Angarola 1917John Dorsey, while still a babe in arms, came with his family to Canada. His father died when he was three, his mother remarried and moved to Michigan City, Ind., where his stepfather died. His mother died when he was 19 and when the priest at the Catholic Church gave the family pew to “someone who could pay,” John left the church, abandoning any previous notions of becoming a priest, and struck out for the Michigan wilderness.

“Ceaseless trees,” was the way DeTocqueville described Michigan in 1834. Even where there were rudimentary roads through the virgin timber, there were places where the forest canopy was so dense the carriages had to have the lights on in the daytime. This didn’t last long.

In Michigan the last treaties were signed with the Indians in 1837 and 1855, respectively. The U.S. government began immediately recruiting immigrants to secure the land and by 1862 was offering 120 acres to anyone who could stay five years and put up a dwelling. In Europe, the custom of conscripting poor boys for war, injustices imbedded in the feudal system and unhealthy living conditions in the cities, brought boatloads of people to America’s shores. The 1847 potato famine in Ireland, alone, sent more than a million fleeing to the new world.

“It would be difficult to describe,” De Tocqueville writes in 1834, “the avidity with which the American rushes forward to secure this immense booty which fortune offers.” In Michigan, on the rich soil surrounding the rudimentary settlements of Detroit and Pontiac, De Tocqueville saw farmsteads where settlers had girdled the giant trees in order to kill them so there would be enough sunlight between them for their crops, making the landscape “in summer,” De Tocqueville wrote, “resemble winter.”

These were heady times along the shores of Lake Michigan. Chicago would go from a collection of huts in 1810 to a city of over a million in 1910, the fastest growing city in history. The U.S. treasury had so much money from the sales of Indians lands there was no need to levy taxes until 1913. Empire, nothing but windswept sand and pines for countless eons, would host the biggest lumber company in Michigan and between 1870 and 1910 would acquire a train stop, a telegraph office, schools, hardware stores, dry goods stores, grocery stores, barbershops, churches, hotels, taverns, wooden sidewalks and a place to buy popcorn.

In 1855, John Dorsey was living in Glen Arbor in “a dugout with a structure above it” when he was enlisted to carry ashore a beautiful 15-year-old girl from Vermont, Elizabeth Coggshall. Family lore recounts that as he carried her above the waves, he said, “I will marry you,” to which she replied, “No, you won’t!” But of course he did, or his grandson wouldn’t be here to tell the story.

John Dorsey was a frontiersman of considerable reputation when he and Elizabeth married and settled down in a new home he built on Lake Street in Glen Arbor in 1857. In the summer of 1864 he left for the Civil War, returning at the war’s close a little over a year later. He’d already bought land on Glen Lake; in 1869 he moved his family there and began to farm.

Dorsey-first home, built in 1869That first home still stands; it’s used as a toolshed. It’s about the size of the Headstart bus and from all accounts, housed John, Elizabeth and five strapping sons. As some of the older boys were moving out, two more sons were born just before a fine new home was built in 1889. Both homes were called Elizabeth House and surrounded by roses, fragrant musk flowers and hollyhocks.

Jim Dorsey says he can’t remember his father or anyone else talking about the amount of work. What is known, however, because it’s in the oral histories, is that Elizabeth was famous throughout the community for her household management skills and, especially, for having taught all her sons how to cook, clean and keep house — in addition to their farm chores. The new home would become a community gathering place, especially on Sundays where they even hosted worship services.

In the first years on the homestead Elizabeth, and perhaps John, would have taught their sons how to read, write and do arithmetic. In 1883 the Wickham School was built and in 1900 the Springdale School was established, both within walking distance.

The first John Dorsey died on a Wednesday afternoon in the early spring, April 8, 1903. Almost 80, he had been ill off and on all winter. It was the largest funeral that had ever occurred in the Glen Lake community, according to the account in the newspaper.

Jim Dorsey’s father, Volney, was the youngest son of that first John Dorsey; Jim was born 22 years after his grandfather’s death. Jim’s brother, John, older by seven years and named for his grandfather, wrote a book in 2003, The Dorsey Family of Glen Lake. John Dorsey’s book and Jim Dorsey’s living memory and continuing presence on the homestead are the reasons we are able to learn first-hand about the life of a pioneer family.

The pioneer homestead gradually became a full-fledged working farm, a laundry service was added sometime after they moved to the big house, and slowly the farm became a resort. Even in the very early days when John and Elizabeth were raising seven boys, they provided eggs and milk and assistance to the summer visitors who came by steamer up Lake Michigan from Chicago and whose numbers were increasing every year. The relationship between the Dorsey family and the summer residents was one of trust and respect. The 1917 painting of the Dorsey home was done by John Angarola, an early relative of the prominent Ambrosius (Baad) family from Chicago. Angarola studied at the Sorbonne and has work in the Museum of the Chicago Institute of Art.

Rural electrification in 1928 was a big event. The family did convert to electricity, according to today’s Jim Dorsey, but kept the old kerosene lanterns around and the wood cook-stove, just in case. They didn’t know if electricity was going to turn out to be a new fad or even if they were always going to be able to afford it, Jim explains, and sometimes of course they knew there would be power outages and they would need the lamps and the woodstove. Electricity didn’t make a huge difference, Jim’s brother John writes in his book, except for the irons in the laundry room. The old-style irons had to be heated on a woodstove and the new electric ones saved a lot of labor.

Things were booming in America until the Depression. “During the Depression,” John Dorsey writes in his book, family members came home to the farm because there were no jobs. “So, like the good family we were, we welcomed them home. As I recall those who came home pitched in to do what was necessary to make a good life.” Boom or bust, the family stuck together and persevered. In the 1950s a family on the Solem side had a tragedy and so their son, Jerry Solem, joined the family on Glen Lake.

Each generation of this family had a son to come home and help the parents. Volney took over from his older brother, Henry, after Henry became too old to maintain the farm. Volney expanded the laundry service and created a milk run. The second John Dorsey, his grandfather’s namesake and oldest son of Volney, came home from his job in Chicago when his parents, Volney and Josephine (Solem) Dorsey got on in years. He discontinued the laundry and egg business and built the trailer home park. Finally, Jim Dorsey’s daughter and her husband, Christine and Duane Shugart, took over the trailer park and run it today.

A more complete account of the family can be found in John Dorsey’s book, The Dorsey Family of Glen Lake. The book is available at the Cottage Bookshop in Glen Arbor and at the Empire Museum.

Kathleen Stocking is author of the acclaimed book, Letters from the Leelanau (University of Michigan Press, 1990). She is currently working on her next book, The Long Arc of the Universe, which you can support via a Kickstarter campaign until Aug. 21.