(Photo: What is believed to be the grave site of Franz Kulka)
By Kurt J. Kolka
When you research the history behind the name of a local landmark you might expect it to come from a civic leader or perhaps even a philanthropist. You don't expect to find a resident who was a frequent visitor to the Otsego County Jail. Yet even stranger is the irony between this man's final trial and the battle going on in courts today over the waterway bearing his name.
The name Kolke Creek today brings to mind water contamination issues. Residents and anglers have been waging war in the courts with the Dept. of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and Merit Energy over the discharge of 1.15 million gallons of treated water per day into the creek.
Prior to that however the small Hayes Township waterway was not well known among area citizens. It extends only six miles from Lake Tecon through Lynn Lake in southern Otsego County down into northern Crawford County where it joins with Bradford Creek to form the AuSable River.
The creek was named after Franz "Frank" Kulka, a local rogue, whose farm was located in a valley off Coot trail two miles west of the creek.
Various documents and journals from that era show his surname being spelled Kulka or Kolke. Frank preferred Kolka, which is how his children's names were spelled. Likewise, Kolke Creek Road which runs along side the creek in Otsego County changes to Kolka Creek Road upon entering Crawford County, where many of Frank's descendants now reside.
Frank Kulka, a Polish native like many county residents. As a farmer he raised and sold cabbage plants. The front of his house was set up as a greenhouse with numerous windows, where he raised the plants from seeds in early spring. People came from several nearby communities to pick up 18-by-24 inch wooden boxes filled with plants.
Kulka was married twice and had two boys and two girls by each marriage. His final marriage was to Anna Damer of Vanderbilt, with whom he had his youngest sons Daniel and Joseph.
Both of them world for the well-known lumbering town of Deward, now a ghost town in northwestern Crawford County, just a few miles from the family farm. Joseph, a machinist during World War I, settled in Grayling, and had 10 children who form the various Kolka families still living there today.
In contrast to his successful farming operation and fruitful family life, Frank Kulka had several run-ins with the law, which included trespassing, return of stolen goods and assault according to county records. The records also show he was taken to court a few times by other residents and corporations. His final appearance, according to court documents, involved the charge of manslaughter.
In January 1911, Kulka sold sold a pint of whiskey, contaminated with wood alcohol, to Mike Piani, an employee of a nearby lumbering camp. Descendants of Kulka believe him to have been a bootlegger and the whiskey to have come from his own still.
Kulka had one of his own sons, probably Joseph who testified at the trial, deliver the tainted whiskey. Drinking was forbidden in most logging camps. Piani shared the pint with Alexander Woisyski, who became violently ill and died.
Frank Kulka's trial went on during the time the Titanic sank. Wirt Barnhardt was prosecutor in the case, through which Kulka was convicted.
In a letter dated May 24, 1912, the late, Honorable Nelson Sharpe, judge on the manslaughter case, wrote of Kulka: "The respondent has borne a very unsavory reputation in this community for very many years. He has frequently been charged with serious crimes but has never heretofore been convicted. I have fixed the minimum time of his imprisonment at one year, solely on account of his advanced age, as, in view of his infirmities, it seems hardly likely that he will live longer than that time."
Frank Kulka outlived his prison term and passed away on March 31, 1914 at the age of 81.
Ironically, his legacy, a creek bearing his name, continues to bring others into the courtroom with its own tainted liquid.