Sit down for half an hour with Rita Mahler, and you’ll be treated to a first-class education on the history of the Marblehead peninsula.
You’d also be talking to a descendant of one of the first Europeans to settle on the peninsula.
“Most of the people who come here in the summer don’t know the history of the area,” said Mahler, who lives in Marblehead and maintains a profound interest in the village’s storied history.
Mahler has ties to the Connecticut-born Benajah Wolcott, well-known — in the Great Lakes area, perhaps — as the first keeper of the Marblehead lighthouse and the builder of the Keeper’s House.
He was born in 1762.
Like many people who settled in Northern Ohio centuries ago, he was from Connecticut. He and others brought with them their town names in the late 1700s and early 1800s — Danbury, Norwalk and Ridgefield, among others. Many who came later were victims of the Revolutionary War, seeing their Connecticut homes put to flames by the British.
Mahler imagines Wolcott and the Native Americans coexisting, at first.
Wolcott and his people bartered with the Ottawa tribe, whose name meant “trader.” Fur was their biggest commodity.
“They traded furs and had an ‘in’ with the Indians,” she said.
Even so, it was an unsettling time, as the Native Americans allied with the British in the War of 1812. Wolcott and his family were forced to move from the area, but they returned in 1814, and about seven years later the Marblehead Lighthouse was built.
It remains the oldest lighthouse in continuous operation on the Great Lakes, making Mahler’s ties to Wolcott all the more remarkable.
The Keeper’s House is the oldest surviving home in Ottawa County.
Wolcott made his daily commute on a horse, from the southern edge of the peninsula to the northeast section where the lighthouse sits.
“There was no quarry back then,” Mahler said.
In 1830, Andrew Jackson enacted the Indian Removal Act, moving any remaining Native Americans west of the Mississippi River.
From then on, the peninsula became an industrial presence.
The peninsula’s quarry is one of the more important pieces of Marblehead history. In the late 1870s, limestone mined in the quarry was used to build the Stannard Rock Light, one of the country’s Top 10 engineering feats at the time, according to the Michigan Lighthouse Conservancy.
It was a farming community then, and into the early 1900s.
During the Great Depression, the peninsula saw an influx of immigrants, as the quarry needed workers.
Mahler, who also has ties to the people who served as township trustees during those decades, was fascinated when she tracked down some old trustee meeting minutes.
A large part of the duty for trustees was to oversee local farmers.
“They would go to each farm and inspect the fruit for bugs,” Mahler said, reading from the meeting minutes. “They were concerned with the amount of money the fruit would turn out.”
The township trustees also organized for the distribution and sale of the fruit.