The open fields and pastures punctuated with boarded up farm buildings at Port Oneida are framed with forested moraines and with ridges and hills that terminate in steep bluffs at Lake Michigan. One of the largest intact agricultural districts in the national park system comprises 18 farms and 113 structures on 3,400 acres.
In the 1850s and 1860s, after the enactment of the Preemptive Act of 1841 and the Homestead Act of 1862, Hanoverian and Prussian Germans, Norwegians, and Canadians settled Port Oneida. The district flourished between the 1870s and 1945 as settlers constructed dwellings, logged off portions of the land, cultivated small areas of crops and orchards, and raised animals for home consumption. The community was named for the SS Oneida, one of the first steamships to stop at the dock for shipping cordwood that German-born Carsten Burfiend and German-descended Thomas Kelderhouse (d. 1884), both New Yorkers, built here in 1862. Located just over three miles northeast of Central Dock in Glen Arbor, a sawmill, dock, and wooding station supported the harvesting of logs cut from the extensive forests. Logs were processed into cordwood and sold to wood-burning steamers sailing the waters of the Manitou Passage. Eventually a blacksmith shop, boarding house/hotel, and general store and post office were built near the dock.
As the timber supply declined in the 1890s Port Oneida transformed itself from a lumbering community to a marginal agricultural district. On scattered little farms, orchards were planted on the hills safe from low-lying cold-air pockets and farmers cultivated grain crops and grazing fields in broad low-lying meltwater channels. They planted rows of sugar maple trees to tap for sap for syrup and pineries were set out as windbreaks to conserve soil cluster throughout the landscape.
After the Great Depression, farming dwindled and Port Oneida's residents found outside employment. Poor soil, the short growing season, and limited transportation contributed to the decline. Vacant buildings and remnants of the landscape features are evidence of the close-knit subsistence farming that once existed here. The cultural landscape tells the story of immigration, settlement, and community.
The park acquired ten properties from owners willing to sell and allows the other ten to be occupied by private owners or lessees as summer residences. The national lakeshore manages Port Oneida. It maintains the traditional field patterns, stabilizes the historic buildings when necessary, and supports the efforts of selected private nonprofit partner organizations to rehabilitate several of them. Thus, the Glen Arbor Art Association reuses the John and Ingebord Thoreson Farm on Thoreson Road with its panoramic view for a seasonal art center; Preserve Historic Sleeping Bear, established to advance the balance of preserving natural and cultural landscapes at the national lakeshore, operates from offices in the rehabilitated Charles and Hattie Olson Farmhouse at 3166 Harbor Highway; and Glen Lake Community Schools conducts occasional educational programs in the historic schoolhouse on Port Oneida Road just west of MI 22 (Harbor Highway).