My roots as a history nerd run deep, probably from the time my mom began reading me the Little House series, when I was a child. Because my parents’ idea of a vacation often involved sailing or cross-country skiing, we saw a lot of Michigan, and often our destinations had historical significance, such as the lumberman’s camp at Hartwick Pines where we would ski, or the historic village in Fayette, which once housed an iron smelting operation and today is a very well-preserved ghost town, where we got weathered in on our sailboat for three days. As a kid, I loved these places for both their natural beauty, and that hallowed sense of something big having happened there.
As a hiker, it is incredible to me to stumble upon different sites and artifacts, some long-forgotten. Many are things I would not have known about had I not been out for a hike. From abandoned homesteads, to artifacts such as tea kettles and medicine bottles, these things have sparked my fascination, wondering what life was like for the people who lived there.
One of my first long hikes was the section of North Country Trail that runs through Pictured Rocks. I’m sure the old car along the trail near Beaver Lake has been Instagrammed too many times to count by now, so you may have seen it before. I’m constantly amazed by the old cars I find in the woods–trees growing up through the floorboards, the seat cushions home to burrowing rodents, and graffiti that spans decades. Who left these cars here? Some tourist who got stuck in a rut? Someone who didn’t want to pay the fee at the dump? A homestead long decayed, with the exception of the vehicles and machinery?
As our destination of Grand Sable Point came near, we spent our last night of the Pictured Rocks hike at the Masse Homestead campsite. I found myself wondering about the Masse family, and what their homesteading experience was like in this remote place. As a student at Northern Michigan University, I often marveled, as I drove back and forth through the Upper Peninsula to go home to Lansing for breaks, who would try to farm in a place where the growing season was so short, and the winters so brutal? Even now, it looks like a hard-won existence. The Masse homestead seemed an extreme example of the hardiness of the pioneers and homesteaders who hoped to live off of the land. No remains of the homestead were visible (to me, anyway) but the name of the campsite itself got me thinking about what their lives must have been like.
On a hike between the Dead River Storage Basin and Marquette, in a rocky, hilly, beautiful but steep stretch of trail, my friend Tammy and I found the iron door to a wood stove. Just the door! We were quite a ways up, in terms of elevation, and there was no sign of any kind of homestead or camp nearby. Again, I was struck by the harshness and isolation of the location. It’s one thing to hike through an area like this, and quite another to plan to make it your self-sustaining home.
On North Manitou Island, there are many relics of the folks who lived there before the National Park Service purchased all of the land and turned it into a wilderness area. While some homes and barns have been preserved by the park service, one can still find surprise cars and even a homestead here and there when venturing into the brush. The cemetery paints a little bit of a picture of who made this island their home.
One of the most unnerving experiences I’ve had while hiking, which turned out to have a historical explanation, took place on the North Country Trail west of Wagner Falls, near Munising. My friend Tammy and I had just begun a multi-day hike when we encountered a weight plate alongside the trail–a 25-lb. disk. We assumed someone had weighted down their pack for training, and then decided to unload the weight. That was, until we came upon a rectangular pit, just off the trail a couple of feet. While it wasn’t long or deep enough to be a traditional grave, it sure looked like it could hold a body, and we began to joke, uneasily, that perhaps the weight was the murder weapon. We put a few long sticks in a cross over the opening, hoping to draw attention to it so no one would accidentally step in, and continued along our way. Later, I learned from another hiker, Loretta, who had passed through on a day that college students were there on a dig, that this was actually near the location of a POW camp during one of the world wars, and that archaelogical digs were conducted from time to time. She said that she and her grandson had gone metal-detecting in the area, and had found pieces of a clock, and other trinkets. Fort Custer State Recreation Area, down by Battle Creek, is another former POW camp location, and the foundations left behind make for an interesting hike, too.
Isle Royale, is of course, home to many historic sites–old mines, a powder house where blasting powder for mining was stored, fishing shanties and all kinds of interesting ruins and machinery. On a visit there in 2019, my little group encountered several park employees who were excavating an area near Hugginin Cove, looking for artifacts. I’ve often wondered what they found. After reading The Diary of an Isle Royale School Teacher, written by Dorothy Simson over the course of the 1932-33 school year, I gained a whole new sense of the hustle and bustle that once existed on the island. It was strange to realize, after seeing more moose than people on our trip there, that for hundreds of years, between the Native Americans who mined there, and the settlers who came later, this island’s isolation is a relatively recent thing.
As a history teacher who educates students about the New Deal of the 1930’s, it is also interesting to encounter some of the work completed by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), which at one time had 41 camps across Michigan, housing almost 8,000 young men. As I look down the straight rows in pine forests, rest in a stone shelter along the trail, or sleep in one of the state park rustic cabins, I often wonder how many of these things exist because of their efforts.
It is often surprising for me to realize that the ghost towns of Copper Country, and the sleepy little towns of northern lower Michigan were once bustling mining or logging towns, with a lot more going on in the past, compared to now. And as I wander through the woods, it is also surprising and wonderful to find the artifacts left behind, evidence that they were once inhabited by people trying to tame the land that today I value as wilderness.