1868 Northport and Onomonee, Leelanau Michigan
By Kevin Carl Brooks
Sybil Antoinette Powers, (Seddie), stood at the edge of the 200 foot ridge that dropped down to the Lake Michigan shoreline. The Onomonee School sat close-by just inside the dense wood. Summer had been dryer than most and the deep forest seemed to always be smoking. Now a hazy constant drizzle of rain soaked the earth and the dark skies cast a pale across the Manitou Passage. Willie, the grandson of Reverend Smith, came out of the schoolhouse that doubled as their home carrying the bell to be rung gathering the children for the school day. Standing expectantly, the boy waited for Miss Powers to give word. Stirred from her own reverie, lines for a new poem parading through her mind, Seddie turned and nodded to the boy. Willie smiled and swung the bell in long arches giving it a Twitch at the end of the upward and downward stroke. The sound rang out loud and clear through the rain and wooded tracts of land gathering the twenty or so native children to the mission school.
In 1868 when Seddie Powers came to Leelanau county from Wisconsin she was twenty years old. She had begun writing when she was fourteen though the earliest examples we have are drawn from her experiences in the isolated and lonely mission school at Onomoneeville. She had befriended Reverend Smith’s daughter Annie, most likely the year before when Seddie’s father lived for a time in Holland Michigan after the Civil War and Annie had come to her brother George’s aid after his wife passed away in Grand Rapids. Both men were members of the Unity (Masonic) lodge at Holland, MI. So it was no great stretch when Seddie, after returning to Wisconsin with Annie for company, started her summer escorting Annie back to Northport and an awaiting job.
Her tenure at the school was brief, only a few months, but the experience stimulated a wealth of poetry and prose that was, on the one hand, typical of a young victorian woman dreaming of love lost and dreary isolation, and on the other hand began showing a maturity and depth of character as the young woman sent in piece after piece to the newspapers and periodicals common to the day. In December of ‘68 Seddie married the recently widowed George Smith Jr. A minister in his own right for all of his life and in his later years a physician. Seddie had already studied medicine and was, for years, a practicing doctor. During the 1890s when they made Grand Rapids their home. Seddie’s office was, for a time, in the Widdicomb building downtown and her residence was near the current Butterworth Hospital.
Her early work was dominated by topics that would stereotypically engross a young victorian girl like true love, the unknown horizons, even suicide. As she matured, so did her topics and the depth they displayed. Love was still forefront but the characters crossed some psychological hurdles like the troubles involved with social acceptance of marriage between native and white in the NorthWoods, and the children who grow up trying to fit into both worlds in The Dividing Line. And the frustrations of doing those things we must do out of duty (sowing and reaping) versus those things that feed our soul, (writing) in the poem Discord.
Everywhere George’s ministry took them Seddie submitted poems and stories to the local press and to the national periodicals like Arthur’s Home Magazine. Writing under pseudonyms as well as her own name made for quite a challenge finding examples of her work. “Faustine” was the name she used in her youth. S. P. Smith, Seddie P Smith, Seddie Powers Smith, Dorothy Hunt, and Seddie Powers Wright (her married name after George passed in 1898) are those we know of. Others are hinted at but without the name, the work she did will go unfound. We have a few titles but so far the search for the actual poems has been fruitless.
Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio were all places that Seddie lived, though there was only one place that she truly called home: Fernbrook, the Northport residence that they returned to whenever the world got too busy or chaotic. Seddie was a woman of her time and a woman before her time. In 1890 she placed a notice in the Leelanau Enterprise decrying the low moral character of a traveling horse doctor who defamed her and ran to escape her horse whipping! “A Liar and Coward!” Seddie also wanted the rest of the population (Male) to know that she was perfectly able to protect her own name and defend herself against any who would assail it!
In 1904 Seddie remarried and lived in Detroit making frequent trips back to Fernbrook. She died in 1917 at the age of 65 of uterine cancer. She made one last trip north to be buried next to George in Northport.
At this writing we have found sixty-three pieces of poetry and prose attributed to Seddie Powers Smith. We’re still looking.
Kevin Brooks is an aspiring writer and has been in the process of researching his own family history in Leelanau County. He would like to give credit to Folklorist Eliot Singer and Photographer/historian Mark Smith for their initial research into Seddie Powers Smith.
As part of an ongoing series called "Women of Leelanau", the Leelanau Historical Society is dedicated to researching, preserving, and sharing the untold stories of women who's actions, advocacies, words, imagination, and every day lives contributed to the history and culture of the Leelanau Peninsula, MI. Discover more "Women of Leelanau" stories on our blog page.