After leaving Northport, M-22 runs south, making it one of the few state highways to run in all directions. For four miles, the road runs a few hundred feet off of the shore through forest, orchards, vineyards, and farm land. It then runs into Omena Bay, beginning a twenty-two mile stretch of road running directly along Grand Traverse Bay and providing outstanding views across to Old Mission Peninsula.
The Omena School
The name “Grand Traverse” comes from the French term meaning “long crossing.” The bay was long a fishing ground for Ottawa Indians until the Reverend John Flemming and Reverend Peter Dougherty arrived on Old Mission Peninsula in 1839. Within a few days of first meeting the Native American inhabitants along the bay, it was agreed that Reverend Fleming and Reverend Dougherty would build a missionary school at the location of the Ottawa’s main settlement across the bay at the mouth of the Elk River. The missionary school opened shortly thereafter.
The revised Michigan Constitution of 1850 gave limited rights of citizenship to “every civilized male inhabitant of Indian descent, a native of the United States and not a member of any tribe.” Native Americans quickly began buying property of their own around Grand Traverse Bay. It became obvious to Reverend Dougherty and the other leaders of the missionary school that, as the Native American population spread, the Elk River settlement would perish. Reverend Dougherty moved the missionary school across the bay to present day Omena in 1852.
The school drew teachers from New York and Connecticut. It educated children of settlers and Native Americans. In his 1903 “History of Grand Traverse,” author E.L. Sprague wrote, “The boys were employed on the farm; the girls in housework and sewing. At five o’clock in the morning the bell rang for all to rise, At six it called all together for worship. Soon after worship breakfast was served, the boys sitting at one table, the girls at another. After breakfast all repaired to their daily labor and worked till half past eight, when the school bell gave warning to assemble at the school room.”
From Mission to Tourist Destination
The school got into financial trouble in the late 1800s, however. It was purchased by a Cincinnati, Ohio company in 1884 and converted to a resort hotel called “The Leelanaw.” The hotel quickly had success, leading to construction of another resort hotel known as “The Inn” on Omena Point. Sprague wrote, “Omena has in fact become an ideal summer resort. . . . The Inn is filled every summer with visitors from the south. A large number of very handsome cottages have already been built about Omena Bay, and many more are likely to be added in the near future.” By the turn of the century, Omena was filled with thriving resort hotels, including The Leelanaw, Omena Inn, The Shabwasung, The Clovers, and Sunset Lodge. The extension of the Manistee & Northeastern Railroad in 1903 further raised the area’s profile as a tourist destination.
Like the rest of Michigan, Omena was hard hit by the Great Depression and the decline of the lumber industry. However, the tourism industry had become entrenched, giving Omena a diversified local economy lacking in other areas along M-22. Omena’s inns and beaches remained popular destinations in the summer, when its population doubled with visitors from around the Midwest. Today, many of the buildings that made Omena such a popular early twentieth century destination are still standing.
Omena has one of the strongest local historical societies along M-22, which has dedicated itself to preserving and restoring many of the town’s historical buildings. Omena is one of the smaller destinations along M-22, but also one of the most historically rich. Leelanau Cellars Sitting alongside Omena’s historical downtown is the Leelanau Cellars Wine Tasting Room. Leelanau Cellars began in 1973 and was one of northern Michigan’s first wineries. Today, Leelanau Cellars has more than ninety acres of vineyards around Omena producing thirty different varieties of award winning wine. It is now one of Michigan’s best known and most prominent wineries. The tasting room sits on the shore of Grand Traverse Bay and provides outstanding views across to Omena Point and the Old Mission Peninsula. Leelanau Cellars’ owners also opened an adjacent pub and grill known as “Knot Just a Bar,” which serves some of the best pub food in Northern Michigan and is one of the most popular eateries along M-22.