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  • Writer's pictureRobert Adams

Hundred Year Birthday

Updated: Dec 7, 2020

IN READING ABOUT THE HISTORY of our region it has been interesting to learn about the start of the logging industry that became so attractive to operators in the 1860’s. It makes sense, as our nation was expanding westward and Michigan was full of trees, not grasses like the plains. The demand for building materials and home furnishings were unprecedented and wood was definitely the material of choice.

Healthy prices received per board foot made millionaires of several who came to Michigan. They had harvested timber in Maine and New York in the surrounding forests and brought with them some of the "best practices" in milling and distribution. Conservation was not yet part of their vocabulary. The forests were meant to be conquered and they pretty well met this objective in four short decades.

Michigan was the ideal place to set up camps and mills with its desirable geography and abundance of trees and water. The vast wilderness supported pine and hardwoods for as far as the eye could see. The Government Land Office helped the entrepreneurs by selling land for as little as $1.25 an acre. The State's waterways helped in the transportation of the cut timber, and the milled lumber was sent to ports of call throughout the Midwest. Thousands of commercial ships collected wood on the temporary docks all along the Great Lakes. Money was being made hand over fist by the successful lumber barons in this Gilded Age.

Victorian mansions sprung up in harbor towns where their owners displayed their opulent homes erected from the rewards of the harvest. Many of these fabulous homes still stand today. Thanks to the efforts of public and private preservationists we are able to still marvel at their splendor and workmanship.

The decades passed quickly and by 1900 the timber industry was in rapid decline. Trees had been clear cut and the land was converted into farmland and orchards. Shoreline villages that shipped the lumber soon built hotels catering to wealthy tourists who arrived by ship and rail to experience the glorious summers and clean air that NW Michigan assured.

By the 1920s, the automobile captured the hearts of America, and with this transformative technology muddy ruts and roads gradually turned into hard pack connectors allowing autos access to the towns that once milled and shipped the region’s lumber. Tourism was taking hold in the middle class driven by the growth in free time and personal mobility.

One such highway patchwork was finally merged in 1920 and named M-22. Today, the iconic highway measures 116 miles with ribbons of blacktop connecting shoreline villages from Manistee to Traverse City. At last count, there were two traffic lights on the M-22 highway with little local interest in adding more.

It is one of America's great Fall drives and thanks to Mother Nature the splendid trees have returned for us to enjoy.

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