324 S Hancock St, Pentwater, MI 49449

Pentwater History

We hope this brief history of Pentwater will wet your curiosity about our quaint town.

More information can be found in the archives at the Pentwater Historical Society, located just below the Village offices. A History Book with more details is available for $10.

If you would like current information about Pentwater, be sure to take a look at the Michigan Blue Magazine.

Where were the first buildings in Pentwater?
The founders of Pentwater were E. R. Cobb and Andrew Rector. In 1853 they built two buildings – a boarding house near the current water tower and a lumber mill, both on the south end of Hancock St.

Who was Charles Mears?
Lumber baron, Charles Mears, built the channel to Lake Michigan and placed his saw mill on its north bank in 1855. A store and boarding house were built next nearby, Mears called this site Middlesex and included all of the land east to Hancock street. Middlesex was absorbed into Pentwater when the village was formed in 1867. In 1858 Mears established a ferry service across the channel. He also built a 660 foot long pier out into Lake Michigan from the north bank of the channel so that the largest boats on the lake could haul lumber to his yards in Chicago and drop off cargo for the village. In 1920, Mears’ daughter, Carrie, deeded 600 feet of beach north of the channel to the state of Michigan as the beginning of the present Charles Mears State Park.

Did Native Americans play a part in Pentwater’s history?
In 1857 there were approximately 800 Ottawa, Chippewa, and Pottawatamie Native Americans in Pentwater. Carl Schrumpf discovered Indian Mounds near Pentwater, and the valuable collection that resulted from his find is now housed in the Kent County Museum in Grand Rapids.

What is the history of the Pentwater harbor?
In 1868, the Federal Government began a 20-year project to provide a wider, deeper channel than Charles Mears had been able to achieve since he built his “river” in 1855. A lighthouse was built on the south pier with a catwalk leading to it so that the keeper could tend the oil lamp. A life saving station was built on the north pier in 1887. Visitors could watch the crew’s weekly drills. Many rescues are credited to the station. In 1915 the Coast Guard took over. Operations continued at various levels until 1958 when the station site was cleared. Only the flag tower, on which flags and lights warned vessels on the lake of dangerous weather, remains. The historic piers are now public promenades. The station site is a park. The piers are listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

How many shipwrecks lie off Pentwater?
Over forty shipwrecks have occurred along Pentwater beaches. None were more tragic than the 1940 Armistice Day sinking, which drowned 59 Great Lakes sailors. On that black night in November, a storm with sustained winds of 80 mph, and gusts exceeding 110 mph, caught three massive steel lake freighters just off Pentwater. The two largest, the Anna C. Minch and Wm. B. Davoc, sank with all hands. Nearby, a third freighter, the Novadoc, with 17 of its crew still aboard, was being slowly pounded to pieces by waves estimated to have reached 30 feet in height. Local fisherman carried out the rescue of the Novadoc crew and became national heroes. The Pentwater Historical Society museum has a collection of artifacts commemorating the storm and rescue.

What is the history of the Brickyard?
The Middlesex Brick and Tile Company was incorporated in July of 1883. They made many of the bricks that built Pentwater, including the Village Hall, the Methodist Church, Gustafson’s, Sally Dicks, and many homes. The brick factory was located on Lake Road near the present dead end sign.

What happened in the fire of 1889?
The destructive fire of 1889 started in a cigar store on the West side of Hancock Street. Nearly all the stores were made of wood, and were only one storey tall, and they all burned. The volunteer fire department had been formed on March 1, 1872.

What is the history of the Pentwater Furniture Factory?
The Pentwater Furniture Factory was built when the lumber boom ended. Furniture was shipped to all parts of the United States. The company employed 50 to 100 men. Later it was sold to the Sands and Maxwel Lumber Company and was renamed the Pentwater Bedstead Company. In 1898 the boiler exploded in the middle of the day, killing three men and injuring several others. The roof of the factory was said to have lifted right into midair. Bricks flew as far away as three blocks.

What is the history of the Pentwater Ferry?
The ferry was a wooden scow on which one could ride across the channel to catch the train or visit friends in Frenchtown. It cost five cents for a person, ten cents for a man with a horse, 25 cents for a team and wagon, two cents each for cattle, sheep, and pigs. The ferry operated from 1858 until 1926. It ran on a heavy wire cable stretched across the channel from shore to shore. The ferry man would pull the scow across the channel with a large wooden mallet slotted to fit the cable. Occasionally, passengers would help.

What is the history of the Pentwater Bridge?
In 1926 a bridge replaced the ferry. It was a former railroad bridge moved from Elk Rapids, and given to the village by the Pere Marquette Railway Company. Its installation across the channel was celebrated as the village’s greatest civic improvement of the century. It was a swing bridge, requiring a day and a night attendant to let water traffic in and out of the harbor. A favorite pastime for people was to dive off the center supports of the bridge when it was in the closed position. A diving board was installed for the purpose. It was the village’s most expensive public utility, needing constant repair to keep it in service. In the early 1950’s the bridge was swung open for the last time and it was removed from the channel.

What is the history of Gustafson’s building?
Gustafson’s was originally built by Charles Mears to serve as a large general store on the main floor, with offices and a large combined meeting and dining room on the second floor. During construction, Mears, a dedicated Mason, became concerned that the newly-formed Masonic Lodge lacked a permanent hall. With the support of others, he decided to add the third floor, designing and furnishing it as an elaborate Masonic Temple. The Masons occupied the third floor until the early 1960’s when the estate of Charles Mears’ daughter was being settled. The Masons decided to accept the offer of a smaller, street-level building in trade for the third-floor temple.

Anything special about the Village Hall?
The Village Hall, or Community Hall, as many still call it, has changed little since it was built. There have been alterations along the eaves, the windows, and the door on the first floor. Next door to the Village hall was the G. T. Sands General Store. It burned in 1920 and was never rebuilt. The space that the store once occupied is now the Library lawn.

What was the “White Elephant”?
In 1891, G.A. Williams arrived from Chicago and started promoting the idea of Pentwater as a summer resort second to none on the Great Lakes. The centerpiece was to be a huge hotel, complete with its own steamer service, direct from the hotel doorstep to Chicago. Williams was to build the hotel, named after his wife, Valeria. At Williams’ request the township chipped in with money and land. In 1892 a huge white block structure, complete with castellated tower, was started. In 1893 building stopped. Accusations flew. Williams left town and the town was left with a hollow shell. Someone called it the “White Elephant” and the name stuck The White Elephant was destroyed in 1927, Williams was forgotten. However, his vision of Pentwater as a world class resort was not. Most beach homes and resort development date from this time and from the vision of the promoter of the White Elephant.
Indeed, you can come under the spell of Williams’ vision by visiting the former site of the “White Elephant”, now our village green, and watching summer children dance to the sprightly rhythms of our village band — just like G.A. Williams always knew they would.

What is the history of Pentwater’s fine churches?
The Centenary United Methodist Church is the oldest in Pentwater, built in 1867. It burned down in 1875, and was rebuilt with bricks from the Pentwater Brick Yard. The Catholic Church was built in 1868. There is no record of its completion or dedication. The Baptist Church was built in 1884, but it burned the night before Thanksgiving in 1893. The present church was built in 1895, with Pentwater bricks. St. James Episcopal Church held its first service in September, 1883, and is located near the Baptist Church, and a few blocks away from the Methodist Church.

Pentwater “Tid-bits”
First Newspaper April 20, 1861. By this time there were three stores, two steam saw mills, one printing press, several fisheries, two lawyers, one pastor, and 300 residents. Pentwater was still the only village in Oceana County.

March 16, 1867 Pentwater became incorporated, but the area west of Hancock Street was still called Middlesex for a long time.

Eldred’s Shingle Mill was the Largest mill in the State of Michigan, and some say in the whole Country. It was located on the South side of Pentwater Lake. It burned on May 6, 1872, and was never rebuilt.

In December, 1871, the first telegraph message was transmitted to and received from Manistee, Michigan.

Pentwater Trivia

Did You Know…

…that the name “Pentwater” was probably given by the Indians? It presumably means penned-up waters, or in another interpretation “pent” is Latin for “five”… plus water… meaning five bodies of water… the river (1), the flats (2), Pentwater Lake (3), the channel (4), and The Big Lake (5).Access to Pentwater from the South to North, or North to South, runs entirely along these bodies of water.

…that land in Pentwater was first purchased for $1.00 or $1.25 per acre?
…that the smoke from the Chicago fire could be seen in Pentwater?
…that Weare Township, to the east of Pentwater, is named for Dr. D. G. Weare, the first doctor in Pentwater?
…that ice was harvested from Pentwater Lake to keep everyone’s ice-box cool?
…that Pentwater Lake is two miles long and one-half to three-quarters of a mile wide?

www.oceanahistory.org | info@oceanahistory.org

The community of Pentwater Michigan, founded in 1867 by Charles Mears, is located between the Little Sable Lighthouse and the Big Sable Lighthouse on the West Michigan sunset shoreline. Pentwater Michigan lies at the outlet of the Pentwater River nestled between Pentwater Lake and the Lake Michigan shoreline. For over one hundred years the Village of Pentwater supplied a variety of natural commodities to other communities around the Great Lakes. Products fashioned from these commodities helped to sustain and enrich the lives of settlers in the area. Today that rich heritage continues.

Pentwater Historical Society
Oceana Historical Society
Hart Historic District