The vision of John I. Bellaire realized in Schoolcraft County

In early May 1959, a small group of Michigan State Police troopers practiced their diving and recovery methods, probing the clear, cold waters of the state’s largest natural spring, located 12 miles northwest of Manistique — the Big Spring called Kitch-iti-kipi.

Outfitted with wool mittens and socks, insulated underwear, and heavy rubber suits, the troopers carried onion sacks with them to the bottom of the 40-foot depth to retrieve beer cans, pop bottles, a toy pistol, and a golf club.

But, to really get to the bottom of the Big Spring, you need to go back in time a few more years to uncover the efforts of John Ira Bellaire, a former schoolteacher and native of St. Joseph County who came to the Upper Peninsula pursuing a newspaper classified ad that sought a store salesman in Seney.

In spring 1893, Bellaire became a salesman for the Morrison and Schneider general store in Seney, purchasing the store three years later. Bellaire then spent a decade during the wildest days of the white pine bonanza in Seney — a then drinking and whoring lumberjack town nicknamed “Hell” by some.

“In 1904, shortly after robbers blew open his safe, Bellaire sold the store building and moved the business to Germfask where he had previously operated a branch store,” the Escanaba Daily Press reported. “Ten years later, he sold the Germfask business and went to Blaney to become manager of the Wisconsin Land and Lumber Co. general store.”

In 1925, Bellaire moved to Manistique, purchasing the Riverside Coal and Produce Co. when it went bankrupt. About the same time, Bellaire began his nascent efforts to promote the Big Spring.

“Bellaire fell in love with the Big Spring when it was still a black hole all but hidden in a tangle of fallen trees,” according to a state park brochure.

The 300-foot-by-175-foot oval pool gushes more than 10,000 gallons per minute from numerous fissures in the underlying limestone.

“Vegetation grew lush, draping the piles of trash dumped into the pool by the lumber company which operated nearby,” the brochure stated.

In years past, the spring, with its constant 45-degree temperature and emerald-tinted waters, had been a popular picnic place. Visitors crossed Indian Lake — the eventual destination of the spring’s outflow — by boat and then hiked to the spring.

At one point, a narrow-gauge railroad brought visitors to the spot from Thompson.

Bellaire — who became thoroughly enchanted with the spring — collaborated with a poet and writer to produce “Namesakes” and “Medicine Water,” two booklets which sold in the thousands, describing the beauty of the area and the supposed American Indian legends surrounding the placid pool — the “Mirror of Heaven.”

“The Big Spring wasn’t too different in formation from the other sink holes in the area, except that it was tapped to a fast-flowing spring,” the brochure said. “Bellaire saw through the debris, saw the beauty of the emerald bottom of the pool. He watched the sand bubble and roll as some hidden hydrostatic pressure forced water through the narrow opening left when the slumping occurred in the glacial drift near Manistique.”

Bellaire, who could have purchased the spring and surrounding roughly 90 acres for himself, instead arranged for a sale of the property by the Palms Book Land Co. to the state of Michigan for $10.

A deed stipulation required the property to be used “forever” as a public park — Palms Book State Park.

Around 1930, Bellaire operated a five-and-dime store in Manistique where he sold water and sand from the spring, promoting them as “magical.” The sand was said to be called “Juggler’s Sand” by the Indians, and the water “Juggler’s Laughing Rain.”

According to the packets containing them, the sand and water from Kitch-iti-kipi are used thus: “The sand as an all-around good luck powder, and the water as a prevention against Bad Spirits. The sand, when mixed with a kind of bark the Indians smoked, becomes Takosavos, ‘Love Powder.'”

“Through the two books and other writings Bellaire succeeded in making the Big Spring one of the best-known scenic attractions in the Midwest,” the Daily Press reported.

Into his 70s, Bellaire, still mesmerized, continued to visit the spring almost daily.

In 1955, the local Lions Club erected a three-foot-tall stone memorial at the park. Attached was a bronze plaque honoring Bellaire for his “unselfish service in promoting and developing the Big Spring.”

Four years later, after an illness of several months, Bellaire died at age 87, roughly two months before the state police divers swam among the sparkling waters of “The Blue Sky I See” — one of numerous supposed Chippewa translations of Kitch-iti-kipi.

Today, a state highway brings visitors to the Big Spring. There, they sit and enjoy the eerie quiet or turn a large metal wheel to propel a glass-bottomed raft across the surface of the pool.

Large brown trout and lake trout haunt those depths and hide among the encrusted branches of the cedar trees that guard the rim of the spring.

At the bottom, coins dropped by visitors for luck lie half-buried in the churning sands.

Last fall, members of the Manistique Lions Club, in coordination with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, cleaned up the Bellaire stone memorial at the park and erected a new interpretive sign to bring more attention to Bellaire and his work at the Big Spring.

Now, decades after his altruistic efforts began, Bellaire’s waters of the Big Spring remain magical.


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