When Lois Mollick was growing up in Garyton, one of several communities and farms that would become Portage, eating out meant traveling to Lake Station.
“We moved here when I was 6, and I’m 89 now,” says Mollick. “At the time. many of the roads were dirt, and there weren’t that many people living here. I went to the grade school in Garyton; the school house is still there — it’s a food pantry now.”
Call them the lost communities of Portage — their names include Crisman, McCool, Garyton and, according to Mollick, Gavit though she describes that settlement as just a name bandied about by locals.
Some of these can be spotted on old maps and in photos found in such archives as those belonging to the Portage Community Historical Society and the Northwest Indiana Genealogical Society.
Most had a post office (McCool and Crisman did but Garyton didn’t), a grain elevator (this was farmland after all), a general store (sometimes the location of the post office) and an elementary school. A few were stops on the railroad. The communities were small, often a cluster of homes.
Some are so far in the past that they don’t show up in Google searches, and others live in names such as Crisman Road also known as County Road 550 West and further north as Indiana 249.
Complicating the effort to track Portage's past are old maps that show the village as Crisman Station, Crissmn, and Crissman Station, the later completed in 1852 when the Michigan Central Railroad, which became the Norfolk and Western Railway, stopped there.
In 1812, Garyton became one of Portage Township’s first communities; two Garyton subdivisions remain.
Though the Crisman Depot and elementary school are gone, other landmarks still exist.
As Mollick mentioned, the two-story Garyton Elementary is now a food pantry. Mollick, a long time member and board member of the Portage Community Historical Society, is the granddaughter of Minnie Otelia Johnson Moore. Daughter of Swedish immigrants, Moore was born in 1873 and lived in what would become Portage. Her father, Swan Johnson owned a farm, on which now stands the Rees Funeral Home.
Alice Gray, who became known as Diana of the Dunes, came to the area in 1915, supposedly with just a few items including a jelly glass, spoon, blanket, two guns and a knife, settling in an abandoned shack that belonged to Civil War veteran George Blagg, who had died in January of that year. She lived there for four years before moving west into Gary's Miller Beach area, where she became a beguiling local legend for her pioneering efforts to save the Dunes.
In a lengthy article, Steve Shook, who grew up in Chesterton and writes Porter County’s Past: An Amateur Historian’s Perspective (blog address porterhistory.org) notes the mounds that existed in Porter County. He cites McCool, where Native Americans built a mound—an archaeological term for an earthen construction that showed signs of ritual activity such as for a burial. At the southern edge of the village on the eastern side of Main Street, it was more than 6 feet high and 30-feet in diameter and removed by the property’s owner for use as land fill.
According to an account in the Vidette-Messenger, one of the leading papers in Porter County, tomahawks, skinning knives, arrowheads and pieces of flint arranged in a circle around burnt reddish earth indicated that it might have been the burial place of a chief.
These artifacts were given to Harvey McCorkel, described in the 1935 article as “a young student of the village” who watched the excavation. Other Indian tribes to settle the region were the Wea and the Potawatomi, whose leader, Chief Simon Pokagon, sold settlers a vast tract of land stretching to Chicago, including a parcel that became Gary.
In 1950, the population of Portage was about 2,100. When Valeria Roach, president of the Portage Community Historical Society, moved in some 58 years ago at age 25, the population was 8,000 to 10,000.
“Now it’s closer to 40,000,” says Roach. “My neighbor, Arthur Olson, who became mayor, was one of the people who helped Portage become a city in 1968.”
Much of this history is on display at the historical society’s Alton Goin Museum and next door in the recently restored Traeger House, dating to the 1800s and available for special occasions.
“We’ve had so many wonderful donations from families that had lived in the community for a long time,” says Roach, noting that the Countryside Park, the museum's setting, is a lovely, peaceful retreat with a stocked lake behind the museum, picnic area, hiking paths, and part of the Prairie Duneland Trail.
The museum, 5250 U.S. Hwy. 6, is open 1-4 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through mid-November with special Christmas hours.