Michigan Roadside Attractions: Onekama Memorial Fountain
Michigan Roadside Attractions on Travel the Mitten highlights our attempts to explore the many interesting things that can be found on the highways, byways and back roads of Michigan, ranging from the interesting to the unusual.
Onekama is a small village in Manistee County that is home to some beautiful parks and water recreation opportunities on Portage Lake and Lake Michigan. Many travelers pass through here while traveling on scenic M-22 and on a recent trip to Northern Michigan we stopped to check out a new Michigan historical marker for the Onekama Memorial Fountain. This historic fountain is located in Portage Lake Park, which is also home to a small beach, a picnic area, and a playground. This cast iron fountain that features a merman riding a dolphin dates back to the 1880s, and most motorist likely drive right by it without knowing anything of its significance.
The Michigan historical marker was added to this site in 2022 and on one side tells of its early life at the Manistee County courthouse: “This is one of two cast-iron fountains installed in front of the Manistee County Courthouse in July 1887. Jonathan Moore and William Wilkinson of Brooklyn, New York, created the design. The fountains cost about $500 each. After a fire destroyed the courthouse in 1950, the Portage Lake Garden Club acquired this fountain and moved it to Onekama. Listed in the National Register of Historic Places, it is one of the few surviving nineteenth-century cast-iron courthouse fountains in Michigan.”
On the other side of the marker we learn how it came to Onekama: “This fountain once stood in front of the Manistee County Courthouse. The Portage Lake Garden Club moved it here to Onekama Village Park in 1950. It was dedicated to the memory of the area’s veterans in 1951. In July 1973 the fountain’s statue of a merman riding on a dolphin disappeared. Seven months later, the county sheriff found the merman on his doorstep, accompanied by a typewritten note that read, “Sorry, this is the only way we [k]new to return it. Thank you.”
Another historical sign near the parking lot has a colorful map and lots of historic information about the Portage Lake Region: “Following the fur traders into this region came a few adventurous lumbermen looking for saw-mill sites. Interested by what he saw in 1840, Joseph Stronach built a dam and water mill on the swift, natural outlet of Portage Lake. Soon homesteaders followed to clear surrounding land for farms. Frustrated by annual flooding on their land by water needed to run the mill and the slowness of court action against the mill owners, the determined settlers dug by hand a four foot wide cut between the two lakes. On May 14, 1871 the water of Portage Lake rushed out cutting a channel five hundred feet wide and carrying large trees far out into Lake Michigan. The leveling of the two lakes created a fine new harbor of refuge accessible through the new channel. Later in 1879, available timber having been depleted, the mill and its holdings were moved to a more desirable location on the East end of the lake, to the site of this marker, thus establishing the village of ONEKAMA. Many meanings have been offered for the Indian word O-NEK-AMA-ENGK: place of great beauty, place of contemplation, to carry on the shoulder, and to portage or carry across.”