Every island has a story.
The story of Lake Erie's South Bass Island, better known by the name of its only village, Put-in-Bay, begins when it served as a raccoon hunting ground for natives who used the island as a stepping stone across the lake between what are now the United States and Canada.
Today, the island's 400 or so year-round residents serve a constant influx of visitors - as many as 15,000 on a summer Saturday -who travel by private boat, ferry or plane to fish, golf, camp, shop, eat, take in nature, explore caves, tour wineries, drink wine, enjoy the nightlife and climb the world's tallest Greek revival column - The Perry's Victory and International Peace Memorial.
A golden retriever and his owners cruise past the Put-in-Bay Boardwalk on a sunny summer day.
In between, Put-in-Bay has been the site of such historically significant happenings as Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry's victory over the British navy during the War of 1812, the burning of the colossal 625-room Hotel Victory in 1919, rum running during Prohibition and the Island Car Races run by the Cleveland Sports Club in the 1950s.
Once Upon a Time ...
In the late 18th century, French trappers were the first whites to explore Put-in-Bay, which they called Pudding Bay because its harbor was shaped like a pudding bag. Pierpont Edwards of Connecticut then purchased the island and began developing it for agriculture, including livestock and wheat. The first permanent settlers were laborers Philip and Amelia Vroman, who owned several homes that are still standing and are operated as bed-and-breakfasts.
If You Go...
The story of Put-in-Bay can't be told completely in a newspaper article. Readers are encouraged to hop a ride on the Miller Boat Line - a family-owned ferry business for 105 years - to explore the island. Stay in a historic bed-and-breakfast, such as the English Pines B&B, one of the original settlers' homes which is run by the family of the current village manager. Take a historic home tour. Visit the wineries, caves and monuments. Take a boat ride on the Restless, a one-of-kind, circa-1938 small tug owned by Miller Boat Line's Scott Market, which offers intimate sunset cruises. Take home a treasure from Heritage Antiques, a resale shop located behind the museum.
Write your own stories of Put-in-Bay.
Two ferry services serve Put-in-Bay. Miller Boat Line offers the most frequent trips and the only vehicle service. It leaves every hour from the town of Catawba and docks at Lime Kiln Dock at the southern tip of South Bass. Jet Express provides passenger ferry service from downtown Port Clinton, downtown Sandusky and Lorain to downtown Put-in-Bay.
For more information, visit www.visitputinbay.com.
But British invaders during the War of 1812 scattered most of the settlers, who fled the island.
During the war, several American forces were defeated by the British and their Indian allies in Ohio and Michigan before the turning point came on Sept. 10, 1813, in the Battle of Lake Erie. According to the Lake Erie Islands Historical Society, Commodore Perry set sail from Put-in-Bay harbor with nine vessels that were outgunned by the British fleet. Perry's battle flag was crudely inscribed: "Don't give up the ship," the dying words of a fellow captain and friend. After a three-and-one-half hour battle on the open lake, the British were soundly defeated. "We have met the enemy and they are ours," Perry told General William Henry Harrison. The victory secured for America the entire Lake Erie basin stretching from Michigan to western New York.
To mark the battle's centennial, Perry's Victory Monument, a 352-foot column, was erected between 1912-15. In 1972, it was renamed to commemorate the lasting peace between Canada and the United States. The fourth tallest monument in the United States is under renovation in preparation for the Battle-of-Lake-Erie Bicentennial, which will take place in September 2013 and will include a battle reenactment complete with fleets of Tall Ships from the United States and Great Britain.
After the war, Edwards sent laborers back to the island. In one of the most significant transactions in island history, in 1854 Edwards sold South Bass and several surrounding islands to a Puerto Rican immigrant from New York City named Jose de Rivera, who had fallen in love with the islands at first sight.
"Forty-eight hours after I first set foot (here), I owned five islands at a cost of $44,000," Rivera said, according to a short island documentary shown at the Lake Erie Islands Historical Society Museum in downtown Put-in-Bay.
"He was an unusual developer because he wanted to develop the community to actually live in it. He created this community," said Susie Cooper, museum curator. "The islanders loved him." De Rivera offered 5- to 10-acre plots to settlers and didn't ask for a penny until their crops - mostly grapes by that time - produced. He owned an import business between Puerto Rico and New York and "would send fruit to the schoolchildren in the dead of winter," Cooper said.
De Rivera also donated a 5-acre waterfront swath to the village for a park in 1861 under the condition it always remain a park. De Rivera Park runs nearly the length of the business district but separates most of the bars, restaurants and shops from the harbor, giving visitors a backdrop of the island's natural beauty juxtaposed with its commercial strip of bars, restaurants, night clubs and souvenir shops.
"This whole island would be different without that park," Cooper said.
De Rivera spent the last 20 summers of his life living on the island and is buried in the village cemetery near South Bass Island State Park. His descendants "come see us" every year, Cooper said.
De Rivera had heard that folks on nearby Kelley's Island had established a successful winery, so he introduced the idea to islanders. At one time, Cooper said, 75 percent of the island was covered by grapes.
Grapes do so well because of the soil chemistry and the longer growing season facilitated by the warming of the shallow Lake Erie. By the 1860s, "vineyards were a main source of income for islanders," according a history provided on Putinbay.com.
"Grape production for 1865 totaled 1,117,801 pounds and 33,805 gallons of wine were pressed. The future looked bright for island farmers," the history states.
"In 1900 there were 17 wineries on the island," said Ed Heineman, the fourth generation of his family to operate Heineman's Winery. His great-grandfather, Gustav Heineman, moved to the island from Germany's wine country in 1888 to start a winery. His dad, Louis, is now 85 and still hangs out at the winery - he can be found telling stories to customers over a bottle of wine during happy hour.
The Prohibition Act of 1919 put most of the wineries out of business. But Heineman's survived - partly because the law allowed them to still produce 200 gallons of wine a year but mostly because they were permitted to make as much grape juice as they wanted, which enterprising individuals purchased and made into wine.
Others made money during Prohibition running rum from Canada to the mainland. The Canada border is only 3 miles from South Bass.
"Yes it was illegal," states the Put-in-Bay historical tour book, "but they did close our wineries. ..."
Heineman's also had its Crystal Cave attraction to bring in tourists (which it still does). The island is honeycombed with caves, and Crystal Cave has the distinction of being the world's largest geode. The crystals, made of celestite, are 8 to 18 inches long and were found 40 feet below the winery by workers digging a well in 1897.
Heineman is the only pre-Prohibition island winery still in operation and is known as the oldest family-owned winery in Ohio.
A mile or so away is the Doller Estate, historic home of Valentine Doller, home to the new Put-in-Bay Winery, the only other winery on the island. Doller worked at a dry goods store in Sandusky on the mainland when De Rivera took a liking to him, believing him to be "a very enterprising young man," said winery owner Patrick Myers, whose wife is a "fourth-generationer."
Doller worked in dry goods and controlled the freight and steamer dock which today is The Boardwalk seafood restaurant, shops and harbor. He and his wife, Catherine, had six daughters, only one of whom married - because their parents forbade them to. According to the tour book, Doller "made a fortune, served as mayor, introduced telegraph service, started the ice industry, owned a large hotel (which burned down ... twice), raised grapes and was involved in every other aspect of island business." (Parentheses ours).
The Myers family is "three years into a 10-year plan" to produce wine, Myers said. So far, their bottles are made with grapes purchased from mainland vineyards. Just like the Heinemans during Prohibition, they are making money in the meantime by offering tours of the Doller house - and Italianate style mansion - and estate, which includes outbuildings with historical artifacts. There are old wine presses, an antique car built by "Uncle Sonny," an ice fishing shanty still used by Myers' mother-in-law, an authentic ice house, and an "iron clad," which islanders used to deliver mail in the winter. It is a row boat on metal runners. They pulled the boat over solid ice, but if they fell through, "they jumped in the boat and rowed," Myers said. It was a seven-hour round trip.
Hotels were dangerous places on South Bass Island.
The grand Hotel Victory opened in 1892 and was billed as the largest in America at the time, with 625 rooms and dining rooms that could seat 2,000.
"No expense was spared with nine miles of Belgian carpets, monogrammed silverplate and fine crystal. There were billiard rooms, writing rooms, a pharmacy, a photo studio and ballroom. 'Modern' amenities included three elevators and an automatic dishwasher in the kitchen," according to the historical tour book. It had its own power plant and its own trolley line to the downtown docks. It cost $650,000 to build. The hotel advertised in the South and attracted many Confederate widows. Big city dwellers also flocked to the Lake Erie playground.
But on Aug. 14, 1919, the Hotel Victory burned down to the ground, perhaps the work of three "mystery men" from Detroit, according to the tour book. It started on the third floor at 7:30 p.m. and by 8:30 p.m. was an inferno seen from Detroit and Cleveland.
"By morning there was nothing left but the chimney and the stone foundation." Today, the only ruins are of the swimming pool.
Fires were a scourge on the island's hotels, particularly on the corner of Delaware and Catawba avenues, according to the tour book and documentary. In 1861, Doller built the Put-in Bay House hotel there. It burned down. He rebuilt it in 1889, and that one burned down, apparently the victim of a disgruntled dishwasher. The Colonial replaced it in 1905 and burned down in 1988. The site is now home to The Beer Barrel, which boasts the longest bar in the world - and is made of cement block.
The Park Hotel, the Round House and the Country House also have sustained fires, Cooper said. She said the strong winds off the lake make it difficult to put fires out once they start. Sprinkler systems are now required in all island buildings.
Most visitors to Put-in-Bay are there, obviously, to take advantage of its outdoor recreation - fishing, boating, kayaking, jet-skiing, etc. - or its infamous party atmosphere. Hot spots range from the new outdoor, sand-floored Mojito Bay tiki bar, to Hooligans Irish Pub (where they pour a true pint of Guinness, topped with a tap-drawn clover), to the traditional beer and pizza joint, Frosty Bar.
The strip includes the typical tourist traps selling raunchy-sloganned T-shirts and overpriced souvenirs.
But the moral of this story is don't judge a book by its cover.