Onalee passed away on October 3, 2015 in Riverview, Mi.
I met Onalee years ago. She is the mother of a phenomenal woman I call my sister. Onalee is 3/4 Ojibwa, and my friend would often refer to her as a “happy little indian”. Onalee has a kind face and a big heart, and has brought her family through a lot over the years. It had been a while since I’d seen her due to health troubles, but she was just as I remembered.
Onalee Jean Cable was born January 6, 1930 on Mackinac Island at home. I should say at this juncture that Mackinac Island, to this day, does not allow motorized vehicles onto the island. It was so during Onalee’s time, and they were very fond of bicycles. Her father earned some money by providing a horse and buggy transport service – he’d pick up the goods from the bay that had come in on ships and carry them to their destination.
The family was located in what was known as “Indian Village” aka. Harrisonville, where the natives were pushed from the coast by the British after they took the fort in the late 1800’s, and they were poor. They had no running water or electricity. Every day, they would go ‘up the hill’ to her grandparents house to fill a tub of water to use for drinking, bathing, and washing dishes and clothes. Her family didn’t have water supply of their own until Onalee was about 7 years old.
At that age, the family moved to a house nearby that had water. There was no toilet or tub, however. Her father put a ‘two-holer’ (aka. outhouse) in the yard, himself. The tub came later. Onalee felt the contrast as if they went from living as paupers to kings.
Onalee’s family mostly ate from their garden or from foraged berries and nuts around the island. In the summer, her mother would offer each of the seven children a dime for five rows of vegetables weeded, and that dime was enough to go see the show (movie). The berries were often used in pies that her mother would sell at a local gambling house. Onalee recalled a time when her sister wanted so badly to go to the show, but hadn’t done any gardening that day. She egged Onalee on and on, pushing her higher and higher on the swing. “Go ask ma for money – go!” But Onalee wouldn’t. Her sister finally pushed her so high that Onalee’s foot hit the board full of fresh pies resting in the window to cool. Her brothers and sisters scattered everywhere, and Onalee was left to take the blame. Those were the good pies. The crust was made with lard.
The schools on Mackinac Island only went through the 10th grade in those days. To complete high school, one had to get to the mainland, usually St. Ignace (today’s launch point for the ferries), and the school board would pay for the ferry fee (the five mile Mackinac Bridge wasn’t built until 1957). As you can imagine, the ferries weren’t able to run in the winter – Lake Huron would freeze in spite of its great size. Onalee’s family couldn’t afford to board her or her siblings, nor fly them over the ice. Here, in her own words, she describes how they would get to school.
Despite their financial hardship, the family was the first to get a phone in the Village. Onalee’s father served as an Air Raid Warden during World War II, and was given the phone in order to communicate when there was an alarm, and go to the other homes and ensure everyone turned out their lights for the blackout. Onalee still remembers when she heard they were going to war. A neighbor boy came running up to the window and yelled inside, “We’re going to war! The Japs hit Pearl Harbor, and I’m enlisting!”
Onalee gave birth to the first of her seven children at age 16. She and her husband moved to North Carolina for his military term, and then to Wyandotte, Michigan, where they stayed. She can remember riding in a car for the first time, and being so frightened of hills which the horses she grew up with would not have been able to handle. When the children were older, she got a job at the local phone company, connecting calls. Some may not remember, but one couldn’t simply dial a phone number and have it go through – the phone was connected to the operator who would place the call for you. The phone company eventually moved to computerized connections, and jobs were cut. Onalee’s career at the phone company lasted 22 years.