Catawba Island Museum celebrates the area's rich history

To those who look closely at the shoreline as they cruise Lake Erie near Catawba Island, the outline of a face becomes visible in the time-and-water-weathered stone of one of the Catawba Cliffs. 

Locals say this face is that of Ottawa warrior Nabagon, whose tribe lived and thrived on Catawba Island. 

“He’s the watcher,” says Jane Spriestersbach, curator of the Catawba Island Museum, run by the Catawba Island Historical Society. “He watches over us.”

Nabagon was a warrior renowned for his bravery and fierce protection of his people. When a panther attacked one of the tribe’s children, he intervened and sunk his tomahawk into the animal. 

The child was saved, but the severe scratches Nabagon suffered from the large cat’s sharp claws became infected, and he succumbed to his wounds. The Great Spirit, who legend says manifested itself as the panther to take Nabagon for a higher purpose, etched Nabagon’s face into the cliff so that he could continue to watch over his tribe. 

Jane Spriestersbach points out one of the displays at the Catawba Island Museum. (Photo/Kristina Smith)Although Nabagon’s face has faded through time and erosion, his legend continues and is well-known on Catawba Island. That’s one of the reasons the Catawba Island Museum incorporated Nabagon into its logo, and the legend is one of many local history gems that visitors learn about in the museum.  

The idea for a Catawba historical museum began decades ago when Catawba resident Don Rhodes began collecting local artifacts and displaying them in his store, the Ottawa City General Store that was located near Catawba Point and the Miller Ferry dock. 

When Rhodes, who loved Catawba and was a well-known source of historical information, reached his mid ‘80s, he closed the store in 2016 and began looking for a place that would preserve his collection. Community members gathered and founded the museum in the former Union Chapel on Porter Street, which opened in 2018. 

“He was an amazing man,” Spriestersbach says. “He was a walking encyclopedia.”

Steeped in local history, the chapel, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, was an ideal location. It operated as a church for about a century and served as a meeting place for locals, says David Wonnell, president of the Catawba Island Historical Society. 

The chapel no longer housed a congregation, and Catawba Island Township had taken over ownership of the building. The township leases the chapel to the historical society for a nominal fee. 

The museum is funded through donations, memberships and grants. Admission is free.

Inside the quaint, white building, visitors find displays that cover the island’s history, including things many locals and vacationers remember from their childhoods and some facts that are not widely known.
Last year, about 1,000 people toured the museum, Spriestersbach says. 

“We get visitors from across the U.S. because Catawba is becoming so well-known and such a destination,” she says. “They say it’s one of the best small museums they’ve seen. We’re really proud of that.”

In addition to having seasonal public hours, the museum also gives private tours and tours to school groups all year.

Using original artifacts and interpretive panels, the museum covers the island’s history, including its geological formation, Native Americans, early settlers, farming, industry, hunting and decoy carving, fishing, and recreation.

A Gem Beach display features a unisex swimsuit that visitors could rent. (Photo/Kristina Smith)In the geology section, visitors learn why Catawba Island is called an island when it’s really a peninsula. It is a tide island connected to the mainland by a spit of sand on the aptly named Sand Road before the Portage River’s flow was redirected from what is today Perry Street in Port Clinton to its current location. 

“The sand would come and go like a sandpit,” Wonnell says.

When the water was high, Catawba residents would take rowboats into town, he says.
In the section about Native Americans, who called Catawba home long before European settlers arrived, visitors hear the story of Betsy Mo-John, the last Native American woman to live on the peninsula. Her cabin still stands on the island and has been incorporated into a larger structure not far from the causeway on Northeast Catawba Road. 

There are also Native American artifacts, such as a rare spear and bowls and harvesting tools found in local fields.

Catawba has been home to agriculture and industry, and some of those businesses continue today. 

Rhodes’ shop, the Ottawa City General Store, was named for Ottawa City, which was a three-block square in the area of the store that had five hotels. Ottawa City was founded by the owners of a lime kiln that stood in what is today the Catawba Cliffs housing development. 

The lime kiln lasted five years, and it failed because the magnesium in the cement it produced caused the cement to crumble. 

The wine industry on Catawba fared much better. It resulted from settlers who planted vineyards around the peninsula, which is named in honor of Catawba grapes.

Two of them, John Adlum and Nicholas Longworth, developed pink Catawba sparkling wine when they double fermented their grapes. The wine became widely popular, and poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote the poem “Ode to Catawba Wine,” which hangs on the museum wall in an exhibit of wine-making equipment and bottles. 

“The pioneers that were out here were very industrious,” Spriestersbach says.

The exhibits also tell the stories of the local families who were a force in these farms and industries and give a personal connection to Catawba’s history. (Photo/Kristina Smith)After grapes did so well on the island, the residents decided to plant peach orchards, an important piece of agriculture outlined in one of the exhibits. 

“Everyone had a stand of peaches in front of their house because everyone had a peach orchard,” says Wonnell, who remembers getting peaches from those stands when he was growing up in the area in the 1950s. “Catawba peaches are the best. They get to ripen on the vine.”

Today, Catawba is still known for its peaches, although much of the land that was once orchards is now covered with housing developments and businesses. The wine industry also is continuing through Gideon Owen Wine Co. (formerly Mon Ami) and The Orchard.  

The exhibits also tell the stories of the local families who were a force in these farms and industries and give a personal connection to Catawba’s history.

For many visitors, that personal connection continues in the exhibits of Catawba recreation, including bygone attractions, boating, and fishing. 

A display featuring Gem Beach, once a popular skating rink and dance hall, includes a unisex swimsuit that its patrons could rent to enjoy the pristine sandy beach and cooling water. 

“(Visitors) say they used to come roller skating here,” Spriestersbach says. “They say: ‘My parents used to have a cottage here, and they brought me here in the summer.’”

Thanks to Rhodes, whose voice can be heard sharing stories on the museum’s podcast, the museum has some unusual and unique artifacts, such as an ice box, original Bergman Orchards peach sign and a working Lorophone, which is similar to a record player, found in a Catawba bed and breakfast. 

Rhodes passed away in 2021. He was 90. 

Spriestersbach and the museum staff and volunteers feel the museum has captured Rhodes’ enthusiasm and spirit. 

“He’s here,” Spriestersbach says. “We love our museum. It’s still a child, and we’re still growing.”

The Catawba Island Museum is located at 5258 E. Porter St., Port Clinton (Catawba Island). It is open from mid-May through mid-October. It will close for the season on Saturday, Oct. 14. However, private tours and school groups are given by appointment all year.

Hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. every second and fourth Saturday. Admission is free. 

For information, visit, or call 419-967-5363.

The museum’s podcast is “Now, Listen To Me…Catawba Island Fun Facts, Anecdotes and Sometimes Even a Little History.”