HISTORY OF THE LAKE: DANISH LANDING STORY
Written by Richard K. Nelson, May 1, 2004
Mr. Nelson wrote this thoughtful and interesting history of Danish Landing and the Nelson family just prior to his untimely death. It has been only slightly edited from the original draft, with no changes to its basic content. Mr. Nelson’s intent was to record and share the “Danish Landing Story” with generations of people who care for and enjoy Lake Margrethe as he did all during his life.
Background: Among the earliest summer resorts developed on Lake Margrethe (Portage Lake at the time) was Danish Landing. It was an exclusive association created by a number of Danish immigrants living in the Grayling area around the turn of the century (circa 1900). The Danes were originally attracted to Northern Michigan because of the lumbering industry and the subsequent farming that it was hoped would follow.
Much of the area surrounding the lake, as elsewhere in the north, was purchased in sections (one square mile) for the timber rights. There were a number of families that contributed significantly to the early development of the land around the lake, including Danish Landing. They include: Hanson, Michelson, Olson, Sorenson, Bruun, Collen, and Nelson. The most significant and longest lasting was the Hanson grant (initially 2,000 acres of land bordering the southwest third of the lake) to the State of Michigan. This grant created Camp Grayling and a game preserve. At about the same time the name of the lake was changed from Portage Lake to Lake Margrethe. Margrethe was the given name of Mrs. Rasmus Hanson.
Much of the land that had been originally purchased for its timber became a tax burden after the timber had been removed. As a result, large sections of land reverted back to the state and were often placed on the market for tax sale. It is important to remember that the land around Portage Lake was mostly semi-wetlands and of little commercial or recreational use. Aside from South Bay and East Shore just north to Collen’s Landing, much of the land along the lakeshore was wet Cedar swamp, making it difficult to build roads or homes
One of the early and rare commercial uses of the lake was to harvest ice during the winter months and store it for summer sale to the residents of the village of Grayling.
Danish Landing and the Nelson Family
To get to the beginning we must go back to Langeland, Denmark and to the fall of 1858. It was in this year that Peter Nelson was born to his farming parents. At the age of 18, in 1876 he married Laurine Larson. One year later Laurine Nelson gave birth to a son, Hans Robert. The young Nelson family of three migrated to America shortly thereafter to join the Larson family in Wisconsin. Their objective was to learn the dairy trade. However, Peter soon became interested in the great timber activity going on around Grayling and Northern Michigan. In addition, he was very interested in the chance to obtain timbered land for farming. So in 1883 the young Nelson family moved to the area near Portage Lake and began to make a living by timbering and farming.
In 1883, the now growing Nelson family moved to the Village of Grayling primarily to gain access to school for their children. In 1893, Hans graduated from the eighth grade and promptly moved to his uncle’s creamery business in Wisconsin. Hans, the eldest son, will be a key figure later in this story.
On April 11, 1893 the first murmurings of Danish Landing may have been heard. Peter and Laurine Nelson purchased from the State of Michigan slightly over 88 acres on the east side of Portage Lake for payment of taxes in the amount of $5.76. Peter immediately built a small log cabin and a barn. In addition he cleared about 39 acres for farming. His greatest success was in growing strawberries. His greatest enemy in the strawberry business was the many hungry deer in the area. Peter would stay in his log cabin much of the growing season, commuting six miles to town by horse and buggy as often as needed.
A most significant year for the development of Danish Landing was 1904. Several Danish families formed an association legally registered as the PORTAGE LAKE PARK COMPANY. They also purchased the southwest corner of Peter and Laurine Nelson’s farm. The land included 642 feet of lakefront and was 300 feet deep. The total price of the purchase was $325. (The Portage Lake Park Association continues today as a cooperative with each member paying his or her assessed property taxes to the association secretary, who then pays Grayling Township.)
While in Wisconsin, Hans Nelson was married in 1902 to Matilda Helke. A son, Earl William, and a daughter, Grace Laurine was born to the Hans Nelsons. Sensing a better hope for the immediate family, Hans moved his family to Grayling in 1907. He started a creamery near the south side bridge, but soon realized that there was more opportunity in the growing automotive service business. He then converted his creamery into a gasoline station and tire vulcanizing shop, the first in Grayling. Enjoying a rapidly growing trade, in1917 he built the first “modern” service station in northern Michigan. It was located at the corner now occupied by Blockbuster.
Upon his graduation form Grayling High School, Earl Nelson moved to Wisconsin to find work. Like his father, he found both work and a bride for life. Alice Duerstein and Earl were married in October 1923 and a year thereafter moved to Grayling. It was a year that marked the first tragedy for this pioneer family. Peter Nelson died of an apparent heart attack while trying to purchase a cow for his farm. None of his five children wanted to continue the farm, so Hans bought the property for another kind of development, a summer resort on Lake Margrethe. To achieve his objective required imagination, ambition, and tremendous energy. First he sold his gasoline station and bought another property, the Russell Hotel, a sprawling building with many additions, located on the SE corner of Cedar and Ottawa Streets. He soon tore the hotel down and built another modern service station that was managed by his son Earl. Then he concentrated on his Lake Margethe enterprise. Using the large amount of salvage lumber, doors and windows from the hotel, he built three two-bedroom cottages among some pines on the lakeshore just north of Danish Landing. He also built a cottage on the edge of the farm field. This cottage would provide quarters for the family during the summer and allow them to tend the rental cottages. Finally, he built several boats during the long winter months for use by his guests on the lake.
It is important to note that these cottages were among the earliest on the lake. These summer cottages would certainly be classified as primitive, lacking electricity; water only was available from a hand pump, and a private outhouse was provided for each cottage. Nonetheless, Lake Margrethe and Danish Landing was being discovered. Better roads, faster cars and a growing interest in outdoor recreation have stimulated continued growth and prosperity far beyond the dreams of early Nelson family of Grayling and Lake Margrethe.
Regretfully, Hans Nelson died in 1929 at the age of 52. He was a very ambitious Dane, and the son of an immigrant. He and his father, Peter Nelson, in their quiet way, had a pronounced impact on the development of a beautiful northern lake and the area known as Danish Landing. Earl Nelson assisted his widowed mother, along with several grandchildren in the cottage and boat rental business for several years. The last Nelson development was to subdivide the north 620 feet of lake frontage for residential purposes. Today, this area is known as Nelson Acres.
Editors Note: The reader should be reminded that in 1890 the village of Graying had a total of 400 men, women and children. And while there has been much written about the lumber barons and booming business in the forests that covered northern Michigan, the fact is that most people of this era were farmers and laborers attempting to feed and educate their families. During this time a visit to Portage Lake from Grayling was an all day affair that usually involved a horse drawn cart or buggy.
It also is interesting to note that while the Nelson family had a vision of a resort in the Danish Landing area there were others (e.g. the Collen family) with a somewhat similar vision for another lakefront area only a few miles south. This area is known today as Collen’s Landing.