Since the 1970s, the University of Michigan Biological Station has stewarded land on Sugar Island, the Chase S. Osborn Preserve, named after the former governor from 1911 to 1913 and former regent of the University of Michigan. Sugar Island, which is located in the St. Mary’s River between the Upper Peninsula and Ontario, and the neighboring Duck Island were beloved by Osborn, who remains the only governor from the Upper Peninsula. In August of 2017, two of his descendants returned to the property to reminisce and see how the land has changed over the years.
George “Nick” Osborn Pratt of Portage is Chase Osborn’s great-grandson (his great-grandmother is Osborn’s first wife, Lillian), and he recalls spending time on Duck Island as a child in the 1940s. Nick and his wife, Carol, visited with his cousin Tom Dunston Patton of Traverse City, whose great-grandfather was Thomas Dunstan, who was lieutenant governor of Michigan in the 1880s. Dunstan’s daughter was Emma Osborn, Chase Osborn’s daughter-in-law, Tom explained. They were treated to a tour of Sugar Island and Duck Island by retired Biological Station associate director Mark Paddock and Sugar Island caretaker Vicki Miller.
After decades of spending time on the islands off the coast of Sault Ste. Marie, Gov. Osborn gave the approximately 3,000-acre property to the University of Michigan in 1929. In the agreement with the University, Paddock explained, Osborn was allowed to live on the property until his death in 1949. His second wife, Stellanova, also lived on the property until she passed away in 1989. The two are buried on Duck Island.
In addition to property, the Chase S. Osborn preserve includes a few buildings and ruins of the former governor’s life on Sugar and Duck Islands. The Gander log cabin is a favorite spot for many who visit the preserve, overlooking the water across to Canada. Many students from the Biological Station have spent nights sleeping in the screened-in porch with their classmates, making for good memories of a summer at UMBS. Inside, there’s a kitchen, large bedroom area with several bunk beds, and a bathroom. The slap of screen doors closing echoes down the hillside to the water. Near the water’s edge, looking over to Ontario through a clearing, the governor’s descendants burst into an impromptu rendition of “Oh, Canada.”
Down a path through the woods lies the summer house, another log home equipped with a kitchen, sleeping area, and bathroom. Occasionally, the home is used by researchers from the Biological Station, although repairs and improvements are needed to make the space habitable again, said Miller.
To the north of the Gander, another trail through the woods leads to Duck Island. The path along the shore of Sugar Island is rocky, covered in uneven stones, but eventually gives way to a boardwalk that connects the two islands. Gesturing out to the water, Paddock recalled that the governor used a boat called the “Water Bug” to come ashore.
Up the hill from the Water Bug landing area, the governor and his second wife Stellanova are buried, their gravesite marked by a large boulder, plaques, and a moss-covered bench. Gathered around the site, the family took photos and shared a moment of silence and reflection.
Some of the buildings in the Chase S. Osborn preserve have fallen into disrepair. The two homes on Duck Island, Big Duck where the governor and his family lived during the summers and Little Duck was his workshop, have since collapsed, leaving only chimneys, bits of wall, and other artifacts like stoves standing in the forest.
When the tour group reached the Big Duck, Nick Pratt said, “This is where he pushed me.” He continued, sharing his most vivid memory of meeting the governor there as a small child of seven or eight years old. The governor would give children in the family “fresh $1 bills,” Nick remembered. But in his old age, the governor had lost most of his ability to see. One day, Nick accidentally startled him by leaning in to give him a kiss, prompting the governor to push away what hit him in the head, which happened to be his young great grandson.
“That is my biggest memory of being here,” Nick said, looking around the site. “I’m sad to see it gone.”
Nick was nine-years-old when the governor passed away. And although a few years younger, Tom also has vivid memories of spending time on Duck Island as a child.
Beyond the ruins of the second dwelling, the Little Duck, is the fortress-like library. The thick cement walls were built in about the 1920s to protect the governor’s some 7,000 volumes from fire. Metal shutters and chains still protect the windows. The books that were once housed there were distributed to the University of Michigan, Lake Superior State University, the family, and elsewhere. Now, only a few artifacts from the governor’s life in the St. Mary’s River are still there, like books, posters, dishes, and pieces of furniture.
Down the path past the library is a circular formation of rocks in the woods. That is where Jib Andrews, a local Native American who worked for the governor as a caretaker, would build a balsam fir bed where Osborn would sleep at night, Paddock said. There are also some more colorful folklores of how the governor believed mosquito bites cleansed the body of toxins, added local historian Bernie Arbic of Sault Ste. Marie, who also joined the tour.
Back across the boardwalk to Sugar Island, the sun shone down on the group as they looked across the still waters of Sweet Gale and Duck Lakes between the two islands. Thursday, August 24, was the first time Nick had visited his great-grandfather’s old property since the 1980s. He and his cousin, Tom, planned to continue making the rounds of sites in the Sault Ste. Marie area that were important to their ancestor Chase Salmon Osborn.