Ghost stories

Faded and freshened, Michigan’s small towns get their due

For good or for ill, metro Detroiters have long looked upon “Up North” as their personal summer playground. But a new book from local historian Gene Scott, Michigan Shadow Towns, shows that outstate Michigan wasn’t always pretty and pastoral. Scott’s backwater Baedeker chronicles the boisterous salad days of small-town Michigan, tracking the rise and fall of more than 120 small towns, 44 of them in the U.P.

The narratives of Michigan’s small towns feature a typically American cast of characters: greedy developers, religious charlatans, frontier outlaws, persistent reformers, and fires, floods and explosions. The book is filled with some real rip-roaring tales. For instance, the town of Bertrand in Berrien County was destroyed in the 1850s by the greed of its own developers, who undermined their village by charging whatever the market would bear for property and commodities. Or take the fantastic story of St. James, situated on Charlevoix County’s Beaver Island. It was founded in 1848 by Michigan’s only king, James Jesse Strang, an early Mormon who claimed that he, and not Brigham Young, was to lead the new religion. He named his island kingdom after himself and ruled there until his assassination in 1856.

Some Michigan towns were as rowdy as any storied Wild West locale, such as Clare County’s Leota, where, in 1908, hard-drinking, hard-fighting lumbermen ran crusading, moralizing preacher D.C. Jones out of town in a hail of rocks and bullets. Other towns went out in a blaze of glory, such as Iosco County’s town of AuSable, a town of 5,000 that burned completely in less than one day in July 1911.

And, though it’s not written in a grand literary style or presented with glossy maps and insets, Scott’s book gets the job done nicely, furnishing the historical backdrop against which the idled mills and derelict railroads make sense to the downstate visitor. As the book makes clear, Up North grew at a time when every settlement needed its own mills for flour and lumber. In the 1880s, when Michigan produced as much as a quarter of America’s lumber, the state’s great lumbering centers throbbed with steam-powered lumber mills and locomotives. Throughout the 19th century, the great natural riches of the state — lumber, iron ore, grain, copper, sand, gravel, salt — poured into Michigan’s small industrial centers, where they were processed locally in hundreds of small mills and plants.

But as resources gave out or as industries were consolidated, these far-flung operations died or were retired, changing the contours of the state’s industrial landscape. By World War II, what ores remained were ruthlessly carved out of the earth, fed into the bottoms of massive freighters, and shipped directly to the Steel Belt’s vast mill towns for processing. Unable to compete with the big mills in Chicago, Detroit and Pittsburgh, Michigan’s factory towns died between the world wars, while cities like Detroit and Flint swelled with workers and industry.

As the book tells it, Michigan went from having 3,823 towns in 1910 to only 1,295 in 1940. Whole boom towns died when their mines went bust. Others were destroyed by fire or flood — sometimes more than once. Still other settlements were choked off when bypassed by the railroad, or were destroyed when a freeway was rammed right through.

Whatever the cause, between 1920 and 1940, hundreds of ghost towns began to dot the state, what we might now call “little Detroits” — places where industry and capital sped off to more profitable locations, leaving hulking, obsolete factories and abandoned, decaying infrastructure.

If that story sounds ominously familiar to those living in Detroit, the unusual and inspiring ways these towns responded can sound familiar too. In Ostego County, when the lumbering business died out in the town of Waters, the mill owner’s son built his mansion there, and tried to revive the town with a seemingly absurd endeavor: He built a fence out of the thousands of whiskey bottles left by the town’s booze-swilling old residents. The 15,000-bottle fence was four feet high and two city blocks long. It’s a story that would likely bring a smile to the Heidelberg Project’s Tyree Guyton.

Though this book hardly suggests summer travel destinations — it’s more a guide on what was there than what’s there — it will most certainly suggest an interesting detour or two for the history-minded.


Michigan Shadow Towns can be ordered from the author by sending $15 plus $3 shipping and handling to Gene Scott, 8861 Utah, Livonia, MI 48150. For more information, e-mail [email protected].

Michael Jackman is a writer and copy editor for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].

About The Author

Michael Jackman

Born in 1969 at Mount Carmel hospital in Detroit, Jackman grew up just 100 yards from the Detroit city line in east Dearborn. Jackman has attended New York University, the School of Visual Arts, Northwestern University and Wayne State University, though he never got a degree. He has worked as a bar back, busboy,...
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