Okay, class, settle down and pay attention. Today’s lesson is history, and our field trip to Historic White Pine Village will give us a glimpse of life in 19th century Mason County, Michigan… Walk the paths and explore the buildings of a logging and farming community frozen in time. Let’s take a tour, shall we? Stay together, please!
The first Europeans to arrive in Mason County, Michigan – around 1835, before it was Mason County – were the trappers. Foremost among them was William Quevillon, who built this log cabin in 1850. Five years later Quevillon was appointed postmaster, and this tiny cabin became the first authorized post office in Mason County, while still housing a family of six. Think your mail is slow and expensive? Postage on a letter to a nearby town was 50 cents, and mail was delivered just four times a year!
1847 saw the first permanent settlers. Burr Caswell, his wife and four children arrived by schooner. With no proper harbor at the time, the family’s livestock had to swim to shore. The coast was a dense wilderness of tall pine trees, wolves and other critters, and the closest settler was in Manistee, 30 miles away. Did I mention it snows 90” a year here? By 1855, there were enough settlers to form Mason County, and Caswell’s frame house did double duty as the county seat. With the family upstairs, the main floor became the courtroom. The jail was this comfy space in the basement. The county seat moved to Lincoln Village in 1861, and the Caswells got their home back.
With all those tall pine trees, it was inevitable that lumbering would become the predominate industry in the area. The first mill was built on Pere Marquette Lake in the late 1840s. Other mills followed -14 on Pere Marquette Lake alone – and by the 1870s, business was booming. The sawmill shed pictured holds a 48’ portable sawmill that would have been moved from camp to camp. The railroad arrived around 1875. Competition was fierce among the lumber barons, but by 1910, the lumber industry was collapsing, as the timber supply had become completely depleted.
Farming was and continues to be very important in Mason County. In 1880, Thomas Burns Sr. paid $1,190 for 80 acres of land to raise apples, peaches, cherries, vegetables, chickens, cows and grain. Thomas and his wife Mary had nine children, all of whom were needed to keep the farm running. Cooking was done on a wood stove, washing on the back porch, and – ahem – other things in the outhouse. The tiny bedrooms are just barely bigger than the beds they house.
The Burns family would have had a barn similar to this, built without nails. The windmill was used to pump water from the well. A typical farm would use many pieces of machinery, including plows, hay loaders, grain drills, wagons and corn binders.
The Burns children would have attended a school – in the winter only – like the Marchido Schoolhouse, built around 1895. Imagine going to school every day here – kids of all ages together with one teacher, wood stove for heat, outside privy. Every child has a slate and desk, there’s a piano in one corner, and even a dunce cap. Better behave yourself!
If you’ve visited my Michigan gallery page, you will be familiar with Epworth Heights. To put the Methodist resort in historical perspective, it was founded in 1894, with the first cottages built the following year. Imagine – just 47 years after the arrival of the first permanent settlers, Mason County is popular enough to have its own resort!
CONSERVATION PIECE: Commercial logging in Western Michigan in the late 1800s had a devastating effect on the environment. Wide scale clearcutting left a landscape of stumps and woody debris; erosion was widespread, and fires frequently broke out. Furthermore, these areas were intentionally burned to provide farmland, which they were ill-suited for.
Fortunately, wiser minds began to see the danger, even while the destruction was going on. In 1887, the Forestry Commission was formed to protect and restore the state’s forests, three years before lumber production would reach its peak. In 1900, state reserves were created for reforestation. In 1938, Manistee National Forest was formed; it now encompasses 540,187 acres, including portions of Mason County.
Today, a large part of the logged areas have been reforested, with white and pine forests replaced by aspen, birch, oak and jack pine. The production of wood and forest products continues, albeit with an emphasis on sustainability and preserving the health and diversity of habitat and waterways. Particular care is taken to protect threatened species such as the Kirtland’s Warbler, Piping Plover, Karner Blue Butterfly and Pitcher’s Thistle. In addition, a wide range of recreational opportunities exist within the forest.
In other words, Michigan’s forests may not be pristine, but they’re a darn sight better than they were in 1890, and the days of uncontrolled clearcutting are long gone.
I hope you’ve paid attention, class. There will be a pop quiz tomorrow…
Coming soon: Farm Country