What To Do With Old Ruins

Wexford County (MAP) was set off in 1840 as Kautawaubet County, named after an Ojibwa chief (whose name meant "broken tooth"). The name was changed to Wexford County in 1843, after the county in Ireland--from which many boatloads of immigrants were steadily arriving in the wake of an Gorta Mór, or "The Great Hunger." Wexford was set off a second time, from Manistee County, and organized in 1869 according to Roy L. Dodge. When the railroad arrived in 1870, the heavily wooded county was opened to the logging era. This was also one of the counties in Michigan that had a contentious battle waged over what town would hold the distinction of being the county seat; Sherman and Clam Lake (Cadillac) vied for the title from 1863 to 1882, in what is known as the "Battle of Sherman."

Somewhere along the shore of Lake Cadillac, I knew there was the ruins of some old sawmill. Cadillac seems to be one of those rare American cities that actually decided to keep their old industrial ruins around as a symbol of pride, instead of trying to erase them as if history is some embarrassment to be ashamed of (I also mentioned Ypsilanti as having been fairly preservation-minded in an older post).

The people of Cadillac have incorporated the ruins into an attractive lakeside park, with flower plantings and nicely mowed grass around the ruins. The site even qualifies for a state historic marker:

According to the text of the marker, Cadillac's first sawmill began operating on this site in June of 1871, originally called the "Pioneer Mill," built by John R. Yak. It was bought in 1872 by William W. Mitchell (who was descended from the founder of the city of Cadillac) and his partner Jonathon W. Cobbs, who renamed it the Cobbs & Mitchell Mill No. 1. It cut pine, maple and other hardwoods, was expanded several times, and by 1885 was a major contributor to Cadillac's economy, having produced 5,679,000 board feet of lumber.

By 1940 this was Cadillac's only remaining sawmill. It closed and was demolished later that year. Material salvaged from the demolition was used to build an addition to the Wood Parts Co. plant. Luckily Wexford County was not solely reliant on the harvest of timber; it also manufactured a wide array of wooden goods. There are historic photos of the several Cobbs & Mitchell mills that once existed in Cadillac at wexfordcountyhistory.org.

The preservation of these ruins as a park is especially impressive in light of how valuable real estate is around Cadillac Lake, as illustrated here by the seven-story apartment building looming over them in the background:

I'm sure that more than one developer has gone past here wringing their hands at the "waste" of exploitable space taken up by these "unprofitable" ruins.

I didn't go all the way to the lakefront, but there is a walkway extending past the ruins all the way to the water, with a little pavilion for people to hang out and enjoy the view, or fish.

photo by Jason Rydquist shows the gorgeous, still-standing Cobbs & Mitchell Inc. office building in downtown Cadillac, built in 1907. It was recently inhabited by the Michigan Dept. of Transportation, but vacated around 2008. Other abandoned sites in the city included the old Chris-Craft factory, which went completely up in flames around Halloween of 2013, and the Harris Mill, one of the oldest standing structures in Cadillac. It was demolished in recent years, but can still be seen in another photo by Jason Rydquist.

The home of Frank J. Cobbs at 407 E. Chapin Street was allegedly designed for him by George D. Mason, the architect of the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, as well as the monumental Detroit Masonic Temple.

A lonely old firebrick...

...perhaps left over from one of the boilers that provided the steam to power the machinery?

These footings looked like they definitely once supported some large engine of some sort.

Here you can begin to see the waterfront in the background, and the pavilion beyond the shade of the spruce trees:

Leaving Cadillac behind, I went in search of the town of Harrietta, which I have seen listed as a ghost town in some of my books.

Near the Caberfae Trailhead in the Manistee National Forest, I came across an observation point atop a 1,422-foot promontory that allowed me to park near a radio tower and look out over much of the county.

The highest point in Lower Michigan is here in Wexford County, generally accepted to be the 1,700-foot Briar Hill, though that is closer to Antioch, a bit north of here.

After my low-gear descent of this steep hill, I found myself pulling into the ghost town of Harrietta.

I suddenly had this weird feeling like I was in an old mountain town in Colorado again; the air was crisp and clean, and wide slanting streets were lined sparsely with 100-year-old storefront structures set against a background of the green mountain I had just descended. It certainly was quiet, but there were plenty of people still living here and walking around.

Harrietta was platted in 1889 and sat along the Ann Arbor Railroad. According to David M. Brown, it went through about four name changes before finally settling on one in 1923: Harriette, Springdale, Gaston, Harrietta. Roy L. Dodge records that in 1918 there were 400 people, churches, a bank, a graded school, stores, a livery stable, a hardware, a sawmill and stave mill, kilns, a wood alcohol plant, a stove factory, and even telephone service.

Gene Scott's research indicates that Harrietta's population once reached 700 before World War I, but (like so many others) it experienced a rapid plummet in the 1920s when the timber ran out. Forest fires devastated what remained of the great primeval forests after the logging days concluded. By the time Dodge was writing in 1971, there were only 60 or so people still left in Harrietta. Scott wrote that some of the backstreets of Harrietta have become overgrown with grass, and some old house foundations can be found along such lost streets, but I didn't find any signs of such streets on my quick drive-through.

Limited farming kept Harrietta going through the 20th century, but the main reason it survived was the old State Fish Hatchery.

Not far outside Harrietta proper lie the ruins of the original Harrietta State Fish Hatchery, another example of Wexford County ruins that have been kept around *as ruins*, and curated as something for people to actually come look at and learn about. The hatchery was started in 1901 and later rebuilt (across the street from the old one) in 1977.

A sign says that this is the site of the century-old ruins of the hatchery's system of raceways and rearing ponds, but they are now mostly buried. The Harrietta State Fish Hatchery was the first of its kind in Michigan. Gene Scott writes that the idea of a state hatchery was to increase the stock of brook trout in local streams. Despite starting with a tiny annual budget, it became one of the most successful conservation programs of the Michigan DNR. I imagine the boon to the local economy from attracting recreational fisherman was significant.

In 1977 this old system was superceded by a new hatchery on the opposite side of the road, which still operates today. The old ponds and raceways of this first hatchery were filled-in, and left to apparently revert to wetland habitat. The new hatchery's apparatus was supposed to be more efficient, disease-free, and easier to clean.

An interpretive sign explained that the concrete foundation behind it was where one of the first hatchery buildings was located...the new hatchery building can be barely seen in the background.

A fanciful concrete bridge to my right spanned over the creek, so I decided I needed to go see what might be over there:

The deep evergreen shade and contrasting bright sun-on-concrete made this a challenging scene to shoot for my camera...

Looking down into the gurgling Slagle Creek, I could see some more crumbling concrete ruins...

...was this like some kind of a flume?

On the other side, after hiking a bit across the open area beyond the bridge, I saw that part of a filled-in pond or raceway could still be seen:

The hatchery took its water supply from the fact that it was built on the site of several freshwater springs, which make up the source of the Slagle Creek--which is in turn one of the headwaters of the Big Manistee River. This watershed eventually drains into Lake Michigan to the west.

This cobblestone structure looked like an outlet of some kind, and another branch of the creek bubbled out in front of it:

Not much else to see above-ground here, so I tip-toed through the mud back to the old bridge.

A view underneath:

Next I decided to pass through the ghost town of Yuma, called the "Village of Giants" in Mark Jager's book Mystic Michigan. In the 1890s the town supposedly marked its boundaries by planting cottonwood trees, which by recent times had grown to mammoth proportions, before finally dying and having to be cut down. Supposedly there were once a dozen of the giants, some with trunk circumferences of 27 feet, thought to be the largest trees in the state.

According to both Brown and Scott, Yuma was a station on the Toledo, AnnArbor, & Northern Michigan Railroad in 1888, and became a village when Roland Jenny's 48 coal kilns and wood alcohol plant were moved here from Harrietta to be nearer to the railroad and the timber supply. That timber ran out after World War I and the chemical plant closed. Yuma's population went from 400 people in 1900, to 200 people by 1930. The post office closed in 1961 and only a handful of families live here today; besides a few sparse houses, this church is the only significant structure.

This was the only large tree I could find on my drive-through, a bleached dinosaur bone that stood in someone's front yard as a monolithic ruin of the past...apparently no one in town had a saw big enough to fell the base of this monster:

It certainly doesn't look like 27 feet in circumference though, but I imagine it's probably close to 15.

Other abandoned sites in Wexford County that I had wanted to check out but didn't have time for included the ghost town of Harlan, the Sargent Sand Co., and the ghost town of Sherman.

Michigan Ghost Towns, Vol. II, by Roy L. Dodge, p.182
Michigan County Atlas, 2nd Edition, by David M. Brown, p.176
Michigan Shadow Towns, by Gene Scott p. 154
Mystic Michigan, Vol. 1, by Mark Jager, p. 65


  1. Nice write-up, man! Thanks for the shout-out.

    Similar ruins of the flooring plant in Jennings can be found on the shoreline of Crooked Lake. Sherman and Harlan have a few treasures still around.

    - JRYD

    1. Thanks. I've actually been meaning to check out the Cummer-Diggins plant ruins in Jennings for a long time...