History of Fife Lake

For old photographs and information about the preservation and exhibits of the history of Fife Lake, visit the Fife Lake Historical Society Facebook Page.

Fife Lake was brought into being by the building of the Grand Rapids & Indiana Railroad. In the spring and summer of 1872 two villages were platted, called respectively "North Fife Lake" and "Fyfe Lane." The latter was made in June 1872, by J. L. Shaw and others of Grand Rapids, and the north town was platted about the same time by Thomas T. Bates, the present proprietor of the Grand Traverse Herald, who purchased the land of Hon. Morgan Bates.

Why the same name should be spelled differently by the proprietors of the two sites caused innumerable inquiries, and was at last explained by Mr. Bates, in the Herald, as follows:

"In the year 1867 the G. R. & I. R. R. was yet far south of Grand Traverse County and the territory now known as Fife Lake Township was a wilderness, without roads or inhabitants. In that year the Midland, Houghton Lake & Traverse Bay State Road was ordered built. Hon. g. e. Steele, now member of the real estate firm of Steele & Titus, surveyed the line of the new road. Knowing he was familiar with the circumstances attending the naming of the lake now known as Fife Lake, we requested him to furnish us the facts, and he has kindly done so, as follows:

Traverse City, Oct. 18, 1881.

"Editor Grand Traverse Herald: "Sir: In reply to your inquiries in regard to the name of Fyfe or Fife Lake, I would say that I surveyed the western division of the Midland, Houghton Lake & Traverse Bay State Road from Traverse City to Houghton Lake, in the fall of 1867, in company with Hon. D. C. Leach, of Traverse City, who went to approve of the route as commissioner, and with William H. Fife, Esq., of Yuba, Grand Traverse County, who went as commissioner of the Traverse Bay & Houghton Lake State Road. The latter was to be built by Act 471, Law: 1867, with non-resident highway money, from some point in East Bay, to Houghton Lake; but it was proposed to unite the two roads from some point northwest of the Manistee crossing and to make the survey of the latter from that point to Acme on our return trip. This was never done, as the snow came before we left Houghton Lake; besides we could not get provisions. The road also was never built for in a test case the supreme court declared the act unconstitutional, and no money could be collected. The line of our survey on Monday, the 21st of October 1867, was extended only with much difficulty and perseverance through thick brush and in almost constant rain, till dark obliged us to leave our instruments and follow with quick steps the two of our party who had been sent on to select a camping place. By their shouts and the firelight we found them, and almost the first question was: 'Boys, have you got water for the camp? Did you find the lake?' 'Yes, we did. Don't you see it, not two rods from us?' The shore was lined with an almost impenetrable thicket and the campfire made darkness only darker, but sure enough, the pine torch revealed one edge of the clear, placid waters of a lake the government surveyors had omitted to name. By nine o'clock the 'tea' is over, the tents are up, the dripping boughs are spread, and a wet, merly party of surveyors are standing around a roaring fire, some thinking of the folks at home, some caring more for glee.

"The foremost one proposes that the surveyor be requested to name on his plats every lake and stream of importance on the route. Objected to. Proposed again that this party name this lake 'Leach Lake.' To which all are agreeable but Mr. Leach, who will not be thus sacrificed and decides there is not a quorum present. He being an old legislator of course we yielded. Proposed again that this lake be called and known as 'Fife Lake,' which Mr. Fife tries modestly to decline, on the ground that such a Fife, as he ought not to play a part. The plea does not avail, the rights of the American citizen and the majority are at stake; the surveyor thinks so too, and Bowering he says hes; shepherd takes a fresh chew; Emerson tallies one for that: Father Denniston throws up his hat and Woodbury don't dare to vote no. I find in my diary, written on that night, Oct. 21, 1867: 'Rained nearly all day. Reached Fife Lake and camped. This lake, in Town 25, Range 9, we name after Commissioner Fife.'

"Hoping that this, lie all momentous questions which affect the American people, may be settled rightly, and that every one on their first visit to the growing village of Fife Lake may do as we did call for water, I am truly yours," Geo. E. Steele.

"Fife Lake was at once adopted, by general consent, and now appears upon all plats and state maps. When the railroad reached the lake, in the fall of 1872, two town plats had been laid out. That now known as 'south town' was platted by the G. R. & I. R. R. Co., John L. Shaw, E. P. Vining and F. J. Fairbrass, and was given the name of Fyfe Lake, the parties supposing that was the correct spelling of the name, as the late Hon. P. R. L. Pierce, of Grand Rapids, then commissioner of the land department of the g. R. & I. r. R. Co., told the writer of this, at that time, when his attention was called to the matter. The town plat had been recorded, however, and it was too late to rectify the error. At the same time the 'south town' was being laid out, the present editor of this paper platted the 'north town' and named it North Fife Lake. On the early time cards of the railroad company the name is given Fyfe Lake, but several years ago we called the attention of the officers of the road to the error, and gave the history of the name, and since that time the correct spelling of the name is given in all the railroad company's time tables. The post office is also correctly named Fife Lake.

"This is, in brief, the history of the name now borne by the lake and township. The lake was named in honor of W. H. Fife, of East Bay."

In July, 1872, Fife Lake and village were described as follows: "Fife Lake, on the west side of which the village is situated, lies mostly in Township 25 north, of Range 9 west, being the southeast corner of Grand Traverse County. The lake runs over the line into Kalkaska, only a small portion of it, however, being situated in the last named county.

"The plats show this like to be about one and a half miles in diameter. It is a beautiful sheet of water, and contains several islands. Pickerel, bass and other fish are found in great numbers and of large size.

"The railroad runs along the lake near the water's edge for about three-fourths of a mile, thus affording passengers a fine view as the train sweeps by.

"The village plat, at present, consists of about sixty acres, and is owned by J. L. Shaw and others of Grand Rapids. Quite a large number of lots have been sold, on several of which improvements have been commenced. Messrs. Tracy and Thurber are building a hotel on an elevated and beautiful site, overlooking the lake, the depot-grounds and the railroad track for a long distance. At the present time they are putting up an L of the hotel, 20x56 feet, and two stories high. By the time this is finished, a saw-mill will be running, lumber can be had at home and they will at once proceed to put up the main part of the hotel, 30x50 feet.

"Thompson Brothers are busily at work on a sawmill which they propose to have running in less than a month. A blacksmith shop is already in working order. Other improvements are planned and soon to be made. The iron will probably be laid to Fife Lake by the first of September, and the embryo village will be out of the woods."

The mill of Thompson Brothers started up the first week in August. The first log made 600 feet of lumber and was sawed in thirty minutes.

In June, 1872, Mr. J. b. Lancaster came from Traverse City and opened a stock of goods in a shanty on the state road, about two hundred feet north of where the school-house now stands.

Mr. W. W. Bailey started a lumber camp on the state road about even miles rom the lake in April 1872, and persuaded his brother, C. C. Bailey, to come to this point. He did so and remained at the camp until into the summer, when he built a store on what was afterward the north plat. A sketch of Mr. Bailey's movements is as follows: [C. C. Bailey]

The first frame dwelling on the north plat was built by Mr. James Monteith, a sketch of whom we give herewith. [James Monteith] [E. H. Foster]

The building now occupied by Mr. Foster was built by James Monteith and H. M. Billings, in the fall of 1872.

The post office was first established at the south plat, and H. B. Thurber was postmaster. Mr. Billings was next appointed but about that time he moved away and James Monteith was appointed. The office was moved to the north town, and Mr. Monteith held the office until May 1882, when he resigned and was succeeded by J. B. Lancaster. In the spring of 1881 Mr. Lancaster was succeeded by C. C. Bailey.

The first hotel on the north side was a log house which stood on the present site of the Fife Lake House. The oldest hotel at the present time is the Lake View House.

The depot was first built at the north town, but there was a strong fight over its location, and soon after it suddenly burned down and as suddenly a new depot was built at the south town, where it now stands at an inconvenient distance from the principal business center.

The first school was taught in a little shanty at the north town by Miss Nettie Blood, in 1874. The first male teacher was J. J. Gage.

The first religious services were held in the old shanty in which the school was taught, and afterward in a hall over Mr. C. C. Bailey's store. Revs. Thurston, Golden, Deitz, wyant, heath and Carr were M. E. preachers who had charge of the class here. In the fall of 1881 Rev. J. F. McKinley was appointed to this charge and has remained to the present time. Since that time an M. E. society has been formed, having at the present time about twenty members. In 1882 a church building was begun which it is expected will be completed in the fall of 1884.

A Congregational society was organized in 1879 with seven members, and continued about two years. The members became scattered and the organization was discontinued.

The United Brethren hold service every two weeks at the south town.

"In January, 1880, mention was made of Fife Lake, as follows: On the banks of a beautiful lake studded with majestic pines, encircled with evergreens, the beach of which ascends with a gentle slope pleasing to the eye, and giving beauty to the scenery there are situated two towns, each answering to the same name, each striving to hold the supremacy, and each beholding the other as a generous rival. The lower town, or the town which was founded by the railroad was built in the spring of 1872. First came the inevitable saloon. They increased until they numbered nine, but the have rapidly dwindled and given place to more substantial material good dwelling houses and neat stores. These have increased, inhabitants come in, until now you have a pleasing spectacle, a neat little town.

"The upper town is situated one-half mile above, on the state road, running from Traverse City to Midland City. It is a thriving brisk town, containing some two or three hundred inhabitants, three hotels, three stores, post office, and other places of business. The morals of the place are almost unparalleled in the history of new towns in northern Michigan. Its merchants are sober, steady business going men, dealing on a cash basis, thus avoiding litigation in fact, to such an extent, that in the last six years, but two contested law suits have been entered on the court dockets. The business of the place is simply enormous. A few facts and figures to illustrate: There are in the vicinity between twenty and thirty lumber camps, each requiring from two to five loads per week. Calculating that each load costs $40, and that is a low estimate, you have $3,000 per week from this source alone. Besides this there is the lumber shipped, the railroad traffic, and the regular trade of the citizens and farmers. The Fife Lake Lumber Co. have purchased about six hundred acres of pine land, and are erecting a saw-mill 100x30 feet in size, and expect to put into operation a planning and lath-mill, and a sash, door and blind factory. To operate these will require fully one hundred men, and as all the men are now employed, their help must be brought from abroad"

In November, 1882, the local paper mentioned the business interests of the village as follows: "The business of the place, in part consists of five general stores, two drug stores, four hotels, three millinery stores, three shoe shops, two tobacco and liquor stores, a dry goods and clothing store, furniture store, printing office, jewelry store, restaurant, barber shop, two large saw-mills (one giving employment to over a hundred hands), mill-mill, shingle mill, two wagon and blacksmith shops, paint shops, etc., etc. A logging railroad is in process of construction, for the purpose of bringing a large quantity of pine here for manufacture. Factories for manufacturing the vast quantities of hardwood by which the town is surrounded are contemplated, and doubtless will be in operation ere long. The village has two good school-houses and two churches are now being erected."

The population of the village in 1884 is estimated at 1,000.

The Odd Fellows have a subordinate lodge and an encampment both of which are in a flourishing condition. The officers of the lodge in 1884 are as follows: N. G., Chas. Hess; V. G., J. S. Olson; R. S., I. E. Bennett; P. S., H. C. Biagg; Treas., John Reiland; Rep. Grand Lodge, H. C. Bragg. The encampment officers are as follows: C. P., F. D. Caulkins; H. P., J. H. Hoag; S. W., J. A. Conrad; Scribe, H. C. Bragg; Treas., John Reiland; J. W., John Olson; Rep. Grand Encampment, N. W. Gallagher.

In the summer of 1881 the Fife Lake Eye was started by E. B. Dennis. In January 1882, he sold to Ewing & Munyon. Early in the fall of 1882 the publication of the Eye was suspended, and November 16, 1882, Mr. Dennis issued the first number of the "Comet" which he still continues to publish.

In February, 1884, a Womans' Christian Temperance Union was organized, of which the officers are as follows: President, Mr. H. H. Hoag; vice-presidents, Mrs. J. F. McKinley, Mrs. C. f. Lancaster, Mrs. Oakley; corresponding secretary, Miss Lettie Adams, recording secretary, Miss Ada Nash; superintendent of press work, Mrs. L. C. Lovejoy; superintendent of juvenile work, Mrs. H. M. Moonman.

From The Traverse Region, Historical and Descriptive, with Illustrations of Scenery and Portraits and Biographical Sketches of some of its Prominent Men and Pioneers." Chicago: H. R. Page & Co., 1884