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Across the Great Divide

“Is Peche Island Cursed?”

Last month I brought to light some interesting legends surrounding Detroit’s famous Belle Isle, but just off shore, a little more than a mile east, lies the small untapped wilderness known as Peche Island.

According to descendants of the French family, who once settled the island for nearly 100 years, Peche Island remains untouched even while existing in the middle of urban sprawl for one very good reason: it’s cursed.

The Native inhabitants tell a legend of how Peche Island was formed.

The spirit of the Sand Mountains, along the eastern coastline of Lake Michigan, had a beautiful daughter whom he feared would be abducted. To protect her, he kept her floating in the lake inside a wooden box that was tethered to the shore.

The South, North and West Winds fought over this maiden, eventually creating a huge storm, in which she drifted away to wash up at the shore of the Prophet, the Keeper of the Gates of the Lakes, at the outlet of Lake Huron. Needless to say he was pretty happy to find the beautiful castaway.

The Winds soon found her and conspired to destroy the Prophet’s lodge. The lodge, along with the maiden and the Prophet were pulled into the water eventually drifting through Lake Saint Clair to the Detroit River. The remnants of the lodge formed Belle Isle and the old Prophet became what is now Peche Island.

In 1789, Ontario was comprised of five regulatory districts. The Board of the Land Office for the Windsor region needed title to the island, which happened to be in the hands of the First People. A treaty was reached in 1790 for lands in the western Ontario peninsula, but it excluded Peche- possibly because the Ottawas, Chipewas, and Hurons who signed the treaty wished to retain the island as a fishing ground.

Local businessmen “failed to notice” that the island was not among the lands transferred to the Crown, and began petitioning for grants for ownership. Among them was Alexis Maisonville. He eventually obtained a defacto title to the island and it became known as Maisonville’s Island.

The first permanent residents of the island were a French Canadian family named Laforet dit Teno. Historical documents- primarily the notebook of surveyor John Wilkinson- placed their arrival somewhere between 1800 and 1812.

Direct descendant Irvin Hansen Dit Laforet believes they settled the island even earlier. In his article, “Peche Island: Occupancy and Change of Ownership 1780-1882” he describes how Jean Baptiste Laforest was granted the island in 1780 for his service in the British military as a guide and interpreter. No documents have ever been discovered to confirm the theory, however.

They began raising a family on the eastern shore, while sharing the island with a group of natives inhabiting the western side. According to Laforest family legend, Jean gained ownership of the island along with the exchange of livestock.

By 1834, Charles and Oliver Laforet (the use of an ‘s’ was dropped by later generations) continued the family presence on the island. In 1857, Peche Island was officially transferred to the Crown by the Chippewas, but there no grant applications because most locals believed that the island legally belonged to the Laforet family as evidenced in the official minutes for the Essex County Council in June 1868.

The last Laforets on the island were Leon (Leo) Laforet and his wife Rosalie Drouillard.

Leo, the grandson of Jean Baptiste, was born on the island in 1819. He and Rosalie raised livestock, grew crops, and engaged in commercial fishing. Rosalie also made straw hats that they sold in Detroit. The couple had 12 children, the last being born in 1880.

In 1867, when a deed for the land could not be found, Leon claimed four acres when the island became part of Canada.

In 1870, Benjamin and Damase Laforet, cousins of Leon, contracted with William G. Hall, a Windsor businessman, for commercial fishing. Benjamin filed a quit claim deed giving him squatter’s rights.

Hall applied for a land patent of 106 acres in 1870, basically seizing ownership of the entire island, except for Leo’s four acres, for $2900.

After Hall’s death in 1882, his executor advertised that Hall’s estate would sell the island, with fishing privileges. It was this sale that raised the question of title.

Benjamin Laforet (pictured) became involved in a lawsuit with Hiram Walker over the island.

Walker’s sons purchased the property from the Hall estate on July 30, 1883, as a summer home for their father. Benjamin Laforet filed a claim on August 1st stating that he and his brother Damase had a one-third interest in a certain parcel of land that was described in the patent from the Crown to Hall.

The case was settled and the Hall Estate was authorized by the Supreme Court of Canada to give the Laforets a one-third share of the $7000 that Walker’s sons paid the estate.

Leo Laforet died on September 26 of that same year. According to the Laforet descendants, a group of Walker’s men forced their way into Rosalie’s home and made her and the oldest boys sign the deed over to the Walkers. In Laforet’s article, he states that Walker’s men threw $300 on the table and told Rosalie to be out by spring.

That winter, while Rosalie was in Detroit on business, someone came onto their property and ruined the winter stores. When it was time to leave, Rosalie got down on her knees and cursed the Walkers and the island. “No one will ever do anything with the island!” were her exact words words, according to family lore.

Despite his sons’ hopes that he would retire on the island, Hiram Walker spent years in failed attempts to commercially develop it. He took five years to have canals dug that would allow boats to bring in supplies, and to ensure the inflow of fresh water from Lake Saint Clair. Two yachts were purchased for travelling to the island from Walker’s office and for cruises and parties on the river and lakes.

Walker built what was once a mansion containing some 40-54 rooms by various accounts. He planted hundreds of trees, put in an orchard, and built a greenhouse to cultivate flowers. He also created a golf course, stables, a carriage house, and installed a generator for electric lights.

It was widely thought that this “summer home” in the eyes of his sons was actually Walker’s attempt at opening a resort. His intended market, the high society of Detroit, all spent their time on nearby Belle Isle.

Willis Walker, a lawyer who had handled the purchase of the island, died soon afterwards at the very young age of 28.

In June of 1895, Hiram Walker transferred the land to his daughter, Elizabeth Walker Buhl, due to his declining health. Elizabeth was no philanthropist by any means. Lore tells of an incident where she denied locals from picking the island’s abundant peach crop, a time-honored tradition. She had them dumped into the river, leaving people to collect them by boats.

Hiram suffered a minor stroke before dying in 1899.

Edward Chandler Walker died relatively young in 1915. Prohibition had caused embarrassment for sons and grandsons who were American, but operating a Canadian-based distillery. Not wanting to be seen as bootleggers, they sold their father’s empire in 1926.

Hiram Walker & Sons distillery was purchased by Toronto’s Cliff Hatch in 1926, thus ending the Walker dynasty. The Walker family leaves Walkerville and abandons the town their father founded in 1858. Some remain to this day in the Grosse Pointe area.

The ruins of Hiram Walker’s mansion

Elizabeth Buhl sold the island to the Detroit & Windsor Ferry Company in 1907. The president of the company, Walter E. Campbell, stated that the island would be made into “one of the finest island summer resorts in America,” and that “the big house at the upper end of the island has 40 rooms and will be easily converted into a temporary pavilion at least” according to the Detroit News in the Nov. 11, 1907 edition.

Mr. Campbell apparently died in the home that that same year and the property fell into ruin. In 1929, the house burned to the ground. Some Detroit residents claim that it was directly struck by lightning.

The island legally remained the property to the Belle Isle & Windsor Ferry Company but after 1939 it transferred to the company’s successor, the Bob-Lo Excursion Company. The island remained deserted except for a few picnickers, young lovers, and rumrunners during Prohibition.

It is believed that the Bob-Lo Company bought the island to deter development of competition to the Bob-Lo Island amusement park, which closed down in .

Peche Island was so neglected that in 1955 the employee who guarded the island for the Bob-Lo Company spent his spare time fishing for sturgeon, trapping muskrats, and hunting ducks without care or consequence.

Despite efforts by various local groups to have the island purchased by the government for use as a park, the Bob-Lo Company retained ownership until 1956 when it was sold to Peche Island Ltd. with plans of creating a posh residential area. With this goal in mind, the remains of the Walker house were removed in 1957. The scheme was abandoned that same year, reportedly because of a lack of suitable landfill.

Other proposals for the island followed; and, in 1962, Detroit lawyer and investor E. J. Harris purchased it. His plan included dredging the canals and creating a ski hill and protective islands. A few years later, Sirrah Ltd. purchased the island and its water lot, despite strong resistance by many Windsor groups who wished to see the island turned into a public park. Under the direction of E. J. Harris, Sirrah began work on an elaborate park area for the island. Several buildings, sewage, and water facilities were constructed, and phone lines were installed. The project operated for one season with ferry boats. Due to mismanagement, Sirrah declared bankruptcy in 1969, also losing the 50-acre Greyhaven estate in Detroit.

Riverside Construction purchased the island with the similar idea of developing it into a residential area or commercial recreation park that would have included a marina, but due to financial restrictions, they were forced to sell the island.

In 1971, due to lobbying by local conservationist groups, the island was purchased by Government Services with the department of Lands and Forest as the managing agency to be used by natural science students. The agency planned to spend several million dollars on the installation of nature trails, picnic shelters, and related features, but without funds, in 1974, the property was designated a Provincial park for administrative and budget purposes.

Currently the island is owned by the Canadian city of Windsor as a municipal park; the city has no immediate plans to develop it, apart from bathroom facilities. Other than part of the foundation of Hiram Walker’s mansion, a picturesque bridge, some canals, and random piles of bricks, it looks much the way it was before the Laforets were forced off the island and Rosalie proclaimed her curse.

So, fellow explorers, did Rosalie’s curse come true? Or not?

Sources: The Walkerville Times, The Detroit News

© 2012 R. Wolf Baldassarro/Deep Forest Productions