The following text is an excerpt from the 1999 May
issue of Clevelad Magazine’s article Lake Erie’s Rattlesnake Island by Lynne Thompson.
Lake Erie’s Rattlesnake Island – located 60 miles northwest of Cleveland near Put-in-Bay, the popular South Bass Island resort town – has quite a history. Tales of smugglers who used it as a way station during Prohibition and an owner who hosted wild parties with mobster guests are still passed from generation to generation.
But those days are gone. Today, Rattlesnake Island is a peaceful, private retreat. The island’s claim to fame is the Rattlesnake Island Club, where a select group of well-heeled members spend their summers swimming, sunning and boating. But a fascination with Rattlesnake Island and its history persists.
Debates about island lore extend to just exactly how it got its name. One story holds that Ottawa Indians, who summered on Rattlesnake Island during the 16th and 17th centuries, named the ¾ mile-long island for its shape and two outcroppings of rock (the “rattles) at its northwest end. Another perpetuates the idea that the place was once infested with rattlesnakes.
Rattlesnake, along with the rest of the Lake Erie islands, passed from French to British hands with the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783. The second Treaty of Paris then ceded the island to the United States at the close of the Revolutionary War. Most of the islands were later included in the Connecticut Western Reserve, later known as the Western Reserve.
Rattlesnake Island’s value increased over the years when it was discovered that the surrounding islands’ climate and limestone soil were perfect for grape growing. At the end of the Civil War, a correspondent for the Put-in-Bay Register reported that bids for the island – which was purchased a few years earlier for $1,700 – had reached $60,000. Aside from its skyrocketing price, only two events worthy of putting ink to paper had occurred on Rattlesnake Island by the turn of the century: the Battle of Lake Erie, which was waged in the surroundings waters during the War of 1812, and ruin of The State of Ohio, a large vessel that ran aground one of the “rattles” on September 20, 1906.
In 1929, Toledo industrialist Hubert D. Bennett purchased Rattlesnake Island from the Doller and Haas families – described in newspaper clippings as “pioneers of the Lake Erie islands” – for $12,500. Bennett, who was president of the Toledo Scale Co., floated logs over from the mainland to build his summer vacation compound, spending a reported $250,000 to construct a main cabin complete with a servants’ wing, a four-bedroom guest cabin, a dining hall, a harbor with 185-foot dock, and a blockhouse containing an electric power plant and gas generator for heating water and cooking. He also stocked the island with pheasants for his guests’ hunting pleasure.
Bennett died in1951, and the island was passed from owner to owner like a proverbial hot potato. It was first sold to a Cincinnati group who planned to convert the property into an exclusive sportsmen’s club. When their plans fell through, the island was purchased by a nonprofit Catholic organization and turned into a summer retreat for boys. Next, the Cincinnati group bought the island back, then sold it to a group headed by Sanford T. Allen, president of Allen Travel Service in Cleveland. In 1959, the island was sold for $100,000 to a quarter of Clevelanders headed by Robert C. Shull, a stockbroker, and Dr. James P. Frackelton, who made a name for himself and the island by establishing one of the country’s few privately run post offices under a federal law that allows private post offices to operate in areas where the U.S. Postal Service does not provide regular service. The triangular stamps issued by the Rattlesnake Island Local Post, whose sale covered the cost of transporting mail between the island and Port Clinton via vintage Ford trimotor airplane, were faithfully snapped up by collectors until the project faded in the late 1980s. It was successfully resurrected by Dr. Frackelton in 2005.
The island’s odd history is best demonstrated by the fact that the Cleveland owners brought Barbary sheep (which subsequently died) to the Island from what was then known as the Cleveland Zoo, and they actually planned to turn the island into a rehabilitation center for heart-attack patients. The plan proved infeasible, however, and the group opened Rattlesnake Island to the public for the first time. According to a July 16, 1970, Plain Dealer travelogue, rooms in the main and guest cabins could be rented for $10 per person per day – “a somewhat cheaper tab than that offered by the motels on Put-in-Bay”. Lunch and dinner were served in the dining hall, now called the Golden Pheasant Inn, on a reservations-only basis.
During the early 1970s, Frackelton and his partners sold Rattlesnake Island to Dallas J. “Dutch” Biechele, a Sandusky trucking-company owner who used it as a family retreat while he continued to operate the inn as a public eatery. In 1979, John “Jack” Adam, president of Tempcraft Tool & Mold inCleveland, paid Biechele $594,000 for the island. He sank large amounts of money into the property, which he operated as the exclusive Rattlesnake Island Club, refurbishing and redecorating the lodges and Golden Pheasant Inn and installing a swimming pool and deck overlooking the harbor. The club’s membership roll, which includes a Who’s Who of Northeast Ohio business leaders and power brokers, remains closely guarded.
It was under Adam’s ownership that the island developed a reputation of mystery and intrigue. Rumors of wild parties, mob activities and armed guards circulated, while celebrities, politicians and business leaders retreated to the island for discreet fun and frolic.
In 1989, RI Resort Properties Inc., a Seven Hills group headed by Lucius B. McKelvey, president of Smythe, Cramer Co., purchased the island from Adam for $3.8 million. In addition to installing a lighthouse, sewer lines, a wastewater treatment plan and a manager’s house, the group also transformed the club into a family-oriented enterprise.
In 1998, RI Resort Properties planned to divest themselves of the island by scheduling an Oct. 10 auction at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Cleveland. The auction, with an established minimum bid of $2.78 million, caused a media stir and attracted hundreds of inquiries from across the United States and Canada. As one member told Port Clinton’s News Herald, “They’re not building islands anymore”. Ten days before the auction, however, approximately 50 of the Rattlesnake Island Club’s 68 members banded together and offered $4.6 million for their private paradise. The offer was accepted. The new owners continue to operate the club as a private retreat.
Under the new owners, Rattlesnake Island Club underwent a multimillion-dollar renovation. Amenities include a swimming pool and deck that extends over the shoreline, a hot tub, a lakefront bar, twin tennis courts, a racquetball court, a putt-putt golf course, a bocce court, a conference center, a game room, a fitness center, and a boutique that sells upscale resort clothing.
Aside from the spectacular views of the lake and extensive nature trails, the island is also a sanctuary for a variety of wildlife, including peacocks and pheasants. Colonies of purple martins and seagulls dot the landscape, which ranges from pebble beaches to 40-foot-high cliffs.
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