Pink wine, root beer and milk disease: Catawba Museum shares sweeping island history

Jun 18, 2024 | Featured, Around Ottawa County | 0 comments

Craig Koerpel, left, and Rick Thomas, right, have worked hard alongside other volunteers to create exhibits at the Catawba Museum that give visitors a sweeping, chronological view of Catawba history. (Photo by Sheri Trusty)


Married couples may be familiar with the seven-year itch, but Catawba Island Historical Society Trustee, Craig Koerpel, said the Catawba Museum at Union Chapel is going through a seven-year switch. The museum, which opened in 2018, had an early focus on the area’s ice harvesting history. Today, the museum offers a sweeping look at Catawba history from prehistoric times through the present.

“Over the years, we had a vision to change the museum to a timeline tale of Catawba Island,” Koerpel said.

Visitors take a chronological tour of the museum’s history displays, beginning with an exhibit on island geology. The exhibit showcases the Columbus Limestone that spurred the creation of quarries in the area, and it highlights the short-lived Catawba Island quarry and cement factory which faltered in just a few years because the Silurian dolomite the quarry drew from the earth, which was commonly known as sugar rock, was inferior. Its magnesium component didn’t allow it to hold up well when used in production, and the business closed, quickly dissolving the town of Ottawa City that had sprung up around it.

Museum Designer Rick Thomas stands next to an exhibit he created about Catawba’s ice harvesting history. (Photo by Sheri Trusty)

Exhibits on the earliest inhabitants of the island feature Native American tools and history. The displays are popular with children.

“We put as much effort into young people as we can because they will be carrying the torch of history,” Koerpel said.

The next exhibits focus on the earliest interactions between natives and white people. Museum Designer Rick Thomas said natives first encountered the French, who intermarried with the natives. Later, a wave of Europeans migrated to Catawba. Then, the Indian Removal Act of 1830 signed by President Andrew Jackson caused the Ottawa Indians living on Catawba to move west. Suddenly, Catawba Island was white man’s land.

The museum’s timeline tale continues with the grape vineyard, winemaking and peach orchard histories of Catawba. New this year is an exhibit designed by Thomas entitled Catawba Island Waterways – Commercial and Passenger Travel. The display showcases the progression of water travel and speaks on the shipwreck of the C.B. Benson.

Catawba Island Historical Society Trustee, Craig Koerpel, talks about a display on local Native American history at the Catawba Museum at Union Chapel on June 12. (Photo by Sheri Trusty)

The museum also highlights the significance of hunting and fishing around the island and features an exhibit on the Rock Ledge home that overlooks Lake Erie on Sand Rd.

Throughout the museum, visitors will learn about the fascinating stories in Catawba history, such as the Ottawa Indian woman who killed her children by using them to test the safety of toxic milk, causing milk disease; the transformation of the Catawba Cliffs from sheep pasture to a gated community and the Catawba Island Club; the accidental creation of sparkling pink Catawba wine; and the historically significant sword that was discovered in the dirt by a child. Museum docents can tell the connection of Catawba Island to poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, author Harriet Beecher Stowe and the founders of Hires Root Beer.

The Catawba Museum is housed inside the 1888 Union Chapel, a nondenominational church that served as a spiritual and community gathering place for local residents. Many of the museum’s artifacts belonged to the late Don Rhodes, a local historian whose vision helped preserve and promote Catawba history.

The 1888 Catawba Museum at Union Chapel is open for the summer. (Photo by Sheri Trusty)

“Don Rhodes was the original picker,” Koerpel said.

The museum is packed not only with artifacts but also with information.

“It’s an information-dense experience. You can’t get through it in one day,” Koerpel said.

The Catawba Island Historical Society invites guests to visit the Catawba Museum at Union Chapel from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and the second and fourth Saturday of each month. The museum is located at 5258 E. Porter St. on Catawba Island. For more information, call 419-967-5363 or visit

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July 2024

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