His Own Private Island

Imagine owning your own lush green island, lounging on its sandy shores and hiding away from the day-to-day madness of the mainland? For Jim Neumann, that dream became a reality when he bought Lake Erie’s Turtle Island. As it turns out, island ownership can be sublime — and sometimes not.

Jim Neumann is a dreamer. When he was a kid, he would spend time in Luna Pier, Michigan, a small cottage community on Lake Erie near the Ohio border. In the 1940s, his father and uncle purchased a former bathhouse on Luna Pier Beach and converted it into a summer cottage, where they’d go to get away and maybe do some fishing. From his bedroom window, young Neumann could see Turtle Island off shore, and it captured his imagination. He would stare out the window as long as he could, trying hard to keep his weary eyes trained on the tiny land mass before drifting off to sleep each night, dreaming of eventually making it his own private island.

When he was old enough, he would hop in a small fishing boat with a five-horsepower outboard engine, and motor 3 miles across Lake Erie to, in his words, “putz around.” The seemingly neglected and deserted island was punctuated by an abandoned brick lighthouse tower that was once one of the finest beacons on the Great Lakes, guarding the entrance to Maumee Bay through a shallow and treacherous shipping channel. At the mercy of relentless weather and unscrupulous vandals, the lighthouse was already in a state of disrepair when a tornado ripped through the island on Palm Sunday of 1965, blowing the metal cupola with the lantern room right off the tower and scattering bricks from the keeper’s house across the island. 

When Neumann had the opportunity to buy Turtle Island in 1995, he jumped at the chance without much thought. With the purchase, he became the proud owner of the derelict, 1.5-acre island, peculiarly divided in half by the Michigan-Ohio border. 

A quarter-century later, Neumann is still a dreamer, but the reality of island ownership has jaded him slightly. “You know what it takes to own an island?” Neumann asks while motoring on his neighbor’s pontoon boat over shallow water around his island dominion. “Stupidity! You have to be nuts.

Dropping anchor just off a sandy bank on the west side of the island, he hops in the knee-deep water and leads the way to a small beach surrounded by thick shrubs and towering trees, including hackberry, maple and cottonwood. Beyond the thicket, the true magnitude of two centuries’ worth of human intervention, combined with Mother Nature’s wrath, comes into view. It’s not as pretty as it looks from the water.

“The island itself is a disaster,” he warns. 

Turtle Island is littered with debris, including a blue portable toilet on its side, a derelict bulldozer and a construction crane precariously tipping toward the water. Neumann picks his way over an old stone wall, weathered stacks of 2x4s and giant strips of white plastic sheeting that once wrapped construction supplies. 

Developers who had contracted to buy the island from Neumann in installments in 2002 brought over most of the materials to build a few vacation homes. When they failed to secure building permits in Ohio, a lengthy cross-border court battle ensued, eventually yielding a permanent injunction. 

Construction ceased, the island was abandoned and the land contract nullified. In 2008, Michigan and Ohio officials ordered the unfinished homes to be demolished. A year later, ice floes from a harsh Lake Erie winter did some of the work, toppling one of the clapboard buildings like a house of cards.
“They burned the remaining structures and left me a mess,” Neumann says. “Gosh, how times flies when you’re having fun.”

After leaving the island to languish for almost a decade, Neumann has renewed interest in making improvements — on his own terms. 

 “I’d like to clean it up and rebuild the lighthouse,” says Neumann. “The mess the developers left is a bit frustrating, but nothing I can’t deal with. It just takes effort — something to do while on the island between campfire, fishing, stargazing, dreaming and smoking weed, since it’s legal on the Michigan half of the island.”

Extremely realistic when it comes to such a lofty goal, he knows it’ll take lots of capital to bring equipment and supplies across the lake to first stabilize the island from further erosion. It’s going to take time and money to bring the lighthouse back to life, too. At 73 years young, he says time is not necessarily on his side, nor does he have the strength to do the back-breaking work himself. But he holds out an incredible amount of hope for Turtle Island, especially now that his son, Bryan, has shown interest in his dream.

Take one look at the meme that’s the cover photo on his personal Facebook page, and you get a feel for what his ideal island getaway might eventually look like. A simple wood cabin is surrounded by floor-to-ceiling windows. The one-room interior is bathed in warm light, while flames flicker outside in a patio firepit flanked with two simple folding chairs. Above the cabin, the meme reads: “Right where I want to be.”

After all these years, Neumann still stares out the window of his lakefront cottage in Luna Pier, keeping an eye on his fantasy island and making plans for the future.

“If you stop dreaming, you die,” he says. “So, I keep dreaming about stuff.”

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