High Island Mystery

In the Cranbrook Archives Digital Collections, there are images labeled “Cranbrook Institute of Science: House of David Colony. ” I always wondered what they were all about and finally investigated. It all starts with a little island four miles west of Beaver Island in Lake Michigan: High Island.

According to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, “[High] island has an array of Michigan shoreline features and associated ecosystems that support a number of rare, threatened and endangered plant and bird species.” These include the endangered piping plover and the tern.

Robert T. Hatt (Cranbrook Institute of Science Director), Josselyn Van Tyne (University of Michigan / Cranbrook Institute of Science Trustee), and Ralph E. Morrill (University of Michigan) were on High Island on June 23, 1938, conducting bird and animal surveys. While there, they encountered the remnants of a once-thriving settlement. Hatt must have found it curious because he captured these images:

In a nutshell, High Island was home to a timber-cutting and potato farm operation run in 1912-1927 by the House of David, a religious sect based in Benton Harbor, Michigan. High Island was also home to several families of Odawa fishermen. Since 1940, the island has been uninhabited.

I checked Robert T. Hatt’s “Island life: a study of the land vertebrates of the islands of eastern Lake Michigan” (Bulletin No. 27, Cranbrook Institute of Science, 1948) which details the extensive study of the animals and birds of the island, but also remarks on the island’s history:

High Island is said to have been settled by the Mormons at the time Strang’s colony flourished on adjacent Beaver Island. More recently (1912-1928), the House of David . . . established a colony . . . here and developed the agricultural and forest resources. Most of the dwelling date from this period. At the time of our visit there were three Indian families in residence, and the men operated a commercial fishing boat. A Roman Catholic chapel was on the island and was in good condition, with the alter decorated . . .

Another interesting, and unexpected, find in Cranbrook Archives!

Leslie S. Mio, Associate Registrar

Note: The House of David has a storied history, one better written by others:

Michigan ’s Siberia: The House of David on High Island” by Clare E. Adkin Jr.

The Last Days of the House of David” by Adam Langer

The House of David by Christopher Siriano

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