2013-01-02 / Life in Leelanau

Crakers, Aghosas and early Omena Presbyterian Church days

By Deby Disch for the Enterprise

JACOB AGHOSA, left, ca. 1920, and W. A. Craker, right, early 1930s, were involved in the Omena Presbyterian Church, above, which was built in 1858. JACOB AGHOSA, left, ca. 1920, and W. A. Craker, right, early 1930s, were involved in the Omena Presbyterian Church, above, which was built in 1858. George A. Craker came to what is now Omena with the Rev. Peter Dougherty in 1852 from what is now known as Old Mission. At that time, the settlement that would become Omena was referred to as “New Mission.”

Chief Aghosa (or “Agosa”, as it was originally spelled) and the band of about 40 Chippewa families that he led had preceded Dougherty and Craker in arriving in the Omena area in 1850, when land became available there for them to purchase. They had settled in a location that was near the current day intersection of Craker Road and M-22. That area was called Aghosatown. Chief Aghosa’s band had been the largest part of Dougherty’s original mission, with 350 acres under their cultivation, but that land was not available to them to purchase.

Dougherty built his new mission a couple of miles south of Aghosatown on the heights above Omena Point. The Mission Church was founded as part of the Mission Boarding School in 1852. Six years later, in 1858, a separate structure was erected for the church down closer to the Bay. That same building is still the site of the Omena Presbyterian Church.

About 1860, George A. Craker married Mary McConnell, a widow who was a teacher at the mission. They had three children, Alonzo, who died when he was ten, William Adelbert, and Frank. Craker continued to work for the mission, where he had been appointed the mission’s farmer. He also began purchasing land for his own farm in the early 1860’s. In 1866, he built a farmhouse and moved in the fall of that year.

During this same time, Chief Aghosa intended Aghosatown to grow as an agricultural community, and they turned to Dougherty for assistance in continuing their agricultural education. However, by the mid- 1860’s, New Mission was slowly winding down. In 1867, due to financial pressure from the Civil War years, the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions could no longer fund the boarding school. Dougherty sold the mission buildings and farms the next year. He continued to minister to the Chippewa band, as well as the growing number of white settlers. Membership in his church in 1868 was about 50.

When Dougherty retired from mission work in Omena in 1871, George A. Craker continued to work with the Chippewa’s on farming practices. He also assumed responsibility for the fate of the Omena Church. At the time Dougherty retired, the congregation was primarily the Chippewa Indians, and a few of the early white settlers. Craker wrote, “Peter Dougherty has left us. I don’t know what to do. It seems a pity that all he brought to us here should die. But this church building is old. It is badly in need of paint and repair. The congregation is poor.”

Craker resolved to do what he could. He was not ordained, so he could not preach. However, he knew that the Chippewa’s had done much Bible study with Dougherty, and because he knew the Indians’ language, he was able to keep alive a Sunday school. When white people began to attend, he started a class for them, and Chief Aghosa’s son, David Aghosa, took over the Indian class. “These men went on for over forty years,” Betty Craker Armstrong, George Craker’s great-granddaughter, was quoted as saying in Omena — A Place in Time. “They grew old and died. And then their sons took over, and they went on for another forty years.”

George A. Craker’s son, William Adelbert “W. A.” — also called Delly by many in the area – grew up with the Chippewa’s. Born in 1863, when his parents were still living at the Mission, he played their games with them, hunted with them, and ran their traps with them. Like his father, W. A. spoke the Indian language fluently. He became Elder and Clerk of Sessions for the church and served for 40 years, until his death in 1957. When he died, he was the last white man in the area to speak the Chippewa language fluently. The Traverse City Record Eagle interviewed W. A. Craker in October, 1955, for a series of articles about the local history of the Chippewa Indians. At that time, he was 92 years old and was working on a dictionary of the Chippewa language. His motivation for the undertaking was that a Chippewa-English dictionary, written under the supervision of Peter Dougherty, had been lost.

The Great Depression that began in 1929 took its toll on Omena. Times were hard for farmers and townspeople. The Omena Church also suffered, as a result. Nevertheless, through all those years, with the continuing efforts of the Craker and Aghosa families, the Sunday school kept going year-round. In the years during and after World War II, the Indian membership in the church dwindled. At one point, total membership in the church was 15.

Over the ensuing years, year-round use of the church stopped, but the seasonal congregational in the summer continued to grow and thrive. The early dedication of the Crakers and the Aghosas kept the church going, both physically and spiritually, so that it continues to enrich the Omena community today.

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