October 2, 2017

From The Vaults: Timber!


         “Let Trees and Children Grow Together” was emblazoned on the sign in a photo attached to an article sent to me from the MTU archives.  The article recounted the dedication of the MacMillan Township School Forest that took place in the late 1930s.  The State of Michigan routinely granted local governments and school districts tracts of land to be used for parks, dumps, and school forests.  The only proviso was that the land would revert back to State ownership if the granted parcel was no longer being used for the original intended purpose.  This was one more clue for us to follow up on.   Former Ontonagon Area Schools biology teacher Chuck Zielinski and I had already spent a number of years trying to get a straight answer to what we thought was a simple question:  “Does the Ontonagon School district have a school forest?”  Seeing proof that at least one other Ontonagon County district had been granted land for that very purpose, we continued searching for what was proving to be an elusive answer.

    Correspondence with various parties eventually lead me to a forester from Baraga who offered to spread the word among his peers that we were seeking information about school forests in the western U.P.  A year and some later, I received a copy of a type written sheet from a forester working for the State of Michigan in Grayling.  It detailed all of the State lands that were parceled out in Ontonagon County over the years.  We finally had a definitive answer to the question about an Ontonagon school forest:  “No.”  This would have been a disappointing turn of events except the list showed two adjacent forty acre parcels just outside of Mass City had been designated as the Greenland Township School forest.  The Greenland Township School was consolidated with the Ontonagon School district in 1967 (along with Rockland, the consolidated district became the Ontonagon Area Schools whose new maroon school color scheme was derived from MAss, ROckland, and ONtonagon). This meant that the newly formed Ontonagon Area Schools also gained the eighty acre school forest in the consolidation process.

     With this information in hand, the Ontonagon Area Schools Board of Education set about the task of verifying that they were in control of this property.  Two more disappointments reared their ugly heads at this point:  1) The property transfer at the time of consolidation had not been recorded at the State level and 2) The 1990 plat book showed only one forty acre parcel of land adjacent to the old Greenland Township dump designated as the school forest, not the two forties that were shown on the list we had been sent.  Both problems were resolved in a relatively short period of time.  The district completed the registration process for the consolidated school properties and the purchase of a newer plat book showed that the forty acres missing in the 1990 book had been a printing error.  There were and still are two forties that abut highway M 26.  One had been inadvertently removed in the 1990 plat book.

    With the paperwork completed and the lost forty found, the next logical step was to survey this parcel and map the forest types and health of the trees growing there.  With a little help from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources Forestry division, we were able to secure two grants to hire Green Timber Forestry from Pelkie, MI to cruise the property.  In May of 2016, I had the pleasure of walking the forest with Justin Miller from Green Timber.  He used Google Map photos of the area to guide our route through the various forest types that could be discerned from the photos.  The boundaries were mapped using Ground Information Systems (GIS) and his practiced eye soon had given him the data necessary to construct a map of forest and soil types.   These were later built into a comprehensive report prepared for the OASD board to review.  He also included some suggestions for future harvesting and educational use of these 80 acres.

    The late Mike Uotila of Mass City had mentioned years ago that he remembered planting trees on a portion of this school forest when he was a student at the Mass City High School (circa 1960 to 1963).  As one drives out of Mass City toward the junction of M 26 and M 38, the orderly ranks of Norway (or Red) pines can be seen in the crowns of these nearly sixty year old trees.  Harvest and replanting this section of the forest is one of the recommendations in the Green Timber plan.  Reducing the percentage of Ash trees (which approach 80% in some parts of the forest)  is also in the plan.  Should the Emerald Ash Borers discovered in the Calumet area spread south, we would not want that much free lunch waiting for them.  With several feeder creeks and swampy areas that lead to Adventure Creek, establishing some kind of trail network on the property will take planning.  No doubt any steps toward a trail system will wait until the forest has been logged.  It is rather exciting that our current school students will get to be involved in the study and management of a forest that some of their grandparents had a hand in shaping in the past.

    Green Timber also offered our school the opportunity to join their Tree Farm group.  This group is an association of forest landowners who share information and resources to assist each other in managing their own forest properties.  We will be proudly displaying our membership sign where it fronts Highway M 26 in the near future.  We would also like to erect some form of signage that will educate those who visit the forest about the historic nature of the  property and the evolving use plan.  This information would be updated as the plan is put into action.

    On June 9, 2017, I was able to attend the annual Green Timber Tree Farm group picnic held at the MTU Forestry Center located at Alberta, MI.  Established as a model community around one of his U.P. sawmills by Henry Ford, the Alberta mill was last operated by Ford in 1953.  It was then donated along with some 5000 acres of forest land to the the Michigan College of Mines for use in their forestry program.  I have driven by this mill and town site hundreds of times over the years but only knew the brief version of the site’s history.  A chance to tour the historic mill after a picnic dinner and an opportunity to network with fellow members of the Tree Farm group was a great way to start the summer.

    Tour guide Ken Vrana was our knowledgeable host and his introductory comments about Ford’s interest in a concept he championed called “vertical integration” were enlightening.  “Vertical Integration” simply means Ford wanted to be in control of all aspects of his manufacturing process. By owning his own forest lands, sawmills, shipping line, and factories, Ford could control his costs and profits.  At one point, Ford controlled over 500,000 acres of UP forest land with sawmill operations at Pequaming, Alberta, Big Bay and Kingsford.  Anyone familiar with the Beach Boys music and their mention of the iconic ‘Woody’ automobile knows wood was needed to make a car in those days.  According to the late Fred Rydholm of Marquette, it took 250 board feet of wood to manufacture a 1921 Ford Model T.   When our guide asked us the names of Ford’s other sawmill locations besides Alberta, I mentioned Sidnaw.  When he asked why I thought of Sidnaw, I recalled the famous photo of Ford, Thomas Edison, and Harvey Firestone sitting together in front of a tent in Sidnaw, but then it dawned on me that it was on a hunting trip, not a sawmill site inspection tour.

    Both the state of the art mill and model town he created at Alberta were modern and efficient.  Despite the long working days, family men were able to spend more time with their families than would have been possible if they were working in the woods at one of the logging camps.  Ford wanted his workers to be comfortable because they would be more productive and be less prone to unionize.  One must wonder how Ford felt when the United Auto Workers became the voice of his assembly line workers, but that will be fodder for a later day.   Ford also invested in the sandstone and slate quarry businesses around Keweenaw Bay.  These materials were used in his building projects in Detroit and he had a shipping fleet, so it made sense to use the water shipping route as much as possible.  I am not sure that he had anything to do with the lead mines in the L’Anse area, but he did dam up Plumbago Creek which formed Plumbago Lake to provide a steady source of water for Alberta.  “Plumbago” comes from the Latin word “plumbum” which accounts for our use of the “Pb” symbol for lead on the Periodic Table of Elements (the same way we use “Fe” for ferrous, the Latin term for iron instead of “Ir”).  The name of “Lead Creek” was probably derived from the nearby lead mine.  Anyone who has driven past Alberta on US 41 has driven across the roadway that was built on top of the Lake Plumbago dam.  The lead mine was located just north of the present day lake and mill site.

    The tour of the mill is well worth one’s time.  If someone offers you a chance to see the collection of MTU researcher Rolf Peterson’s moose bones, the sheer volume of specimens stored at Alberta will amaze you.  The Knothole gift shop features many examples of John Stimac’s prize winning Nature’s Way wood work.  If you want to learn everything you need to know about birdseye maple, this is definitely a worthwhile stop.  You don’t really have to travel all the way to Detroit to visit a museum dedicated to Henry Ford.  We have one in our own backyard.

Top Piece Video: The Trees (of course) by Rush from Rush30