The "Remembering Tree" and Fate's Granary

Photos from November 2013.

In the village of Blanchard in southwestern Isabella County, I unexpectedly found a couple photogenic old places worth exploring. This old granary once stood on 3rd Street, between Cedar Street and Harry Avenue, but it has been demolished since I took these photos. From Gene Scott's book Michigan Shadow Towns, I gleaned that this must have been the old granary he said was built by Joseph Fate in 1905.


Scott says this area was first surveyed for timber in 1864, but Blanchard managed to prosper by smoothly transitioning to farming by the early 1900s, when many villages in the lumber tracts were failing. He also notes that a major fire in 1884 wiped out most of the town, so almost everything in the town today dated from after that time.

It looked like other structures to the left and right of the granary had already been taken down; their foundation ruins were still evident.


On the south side, you can faintly make out the painted words "MICHIGAN BEAN CO." on one of the cupolas:


According to archives.msu.edu, the Michigan Bean Co. was organized in 1915, and bought up several smaller local granaries across mid-Michigan, including some in this county, making it the largest exporter of grain in the state by the 1940s. The massive, soaring silo at their headquarters in Saginaw is the "world's largest bean elevator," and has been a local landmark for decades, as well as the light-up rabbit logo at its top. There is even a story that the rabbit logo was thought up after Harry Houdini performed a magic trick at a show in Saginaw with the help of the company founder's daughter. Michigan Bean Co. dissolved in 1955.

Notice the cobblestone foundation in the foreground:


I was a little nervous about the curtain-twitching reflexes of the neighbors in this sleepy town, so I took this quick shot from the doorway of Fate's Granary and called it good. 


If you want to see a better look inside a Michigan grain / feed elevator, see my post on the Tyre Elevator. Blanchard is also not very far away from the town of Altona, which I explored in another post.

Moving on to the other side of town to find the DeWitt Lumber Co. mill, I instantly noticed that the large mill pond on the Pine River had recently been drained, with only a trickle of a stream left flowing:


I've read that Blanchard Area Parks & Recreation is planning to dredge the silt-filled basin and re-establish the pond.

To the casual passerby, the Dutch-style gambrel roof of this mill might lead one to assume that it was just a barn...


It was also a little hard to tell at face value whether this thing was as old as it looked, or if it had just been made to look old-timey...


Blanchard had 12 separate lumber-related businesses in its heyday, but the only one that remained after the turn of the 19th century was DeWitt Lumber Co. which Scott says was opened in 1895, and still operates today as one of Michigan's oldest surviving businesses.


It would appear that their sluice is a bit clogged up with sediment:


Blanchard's population peaked in the early 1900s at 350 people, and it kept thriving on agriculture until the late 1950s. Industrial farming, the loss of railroad service in 1979, and the coming of the Interstate Highway System all contributed to the decline of Blanchard's economy, which continued to spiral downwards until the 1980s.


Gene Scott wrote that farms were slowly abandoned, the granary built by Joseph Fate in 1905 was closed in about 1964 (and stayed closed for "over forty years"), and the other businesses such as potato and bean processing plants, creameries, and the train depot also disappeared.

One of my readers has offered a slight correction to this however, saying that the Fate Granary was called the Blanchard Elevator, and that it had been used by Pillsbury as late as the 1980s-1990s.


Gene Scott noted that Blanchard experienced a little bit of a renaissance in the 1970s when state highway M-20 was improved and Central Michigan University in nearby Mt. Pleasant began growing. Most of the new residents were transient renters who commuted to Mt. Pleasant, but it kept Blanchard from dissolving into oblivion.

Now, the quaint village has become attractive to retirees and families seeking "the country life." There is also an art gallery / local history museum that draws visitors, and the "Remembering Tree" in the center of town, which I must have missed. There, villagers decorate it during Christmas with mementoes of old families that have disappeared from Blanchard over the years.


DeWitt Lumber has a short company history posted on its own website, along with several historic photos. Contrary to Gene Scott's c.1895 figure, the company asserts that Mark and his son Homer DeWitt got their start here in Blanchard around 1884, when they started clearing timber and moving earth to build the mill pond, which was not complete until around 1890.

Another book called Looking Back: Memories of Michigan, by F. DeWayne Kyser also corroborates their 1884 arrival date, as well as notes that the fill dirt for the dam was mostly moved by hand, one wheelbarrow-load at a time.


Kyser says that Mark DeWitt was born in 1832 in Niles, New York, and eventually found his way to Millbrook, Michigan (not far at all from Blanchard) by 1880, where he operated a shingle mill. DeWitt relocated to Blanchard in 1884, building a new home, a saw mill / planing mill, and a flour / feed mill. 


Homer DeWitt took over the family business in 1913 following his father's death, and according to dewittlumber.com he also broadened their operations to include grinding feed and flour as well as retail sales. At one time they also had a cider mill and ice house as part of their business, Kyser writes.


When Homer himself passed away in 1947, his daughter Myrtle's husband, Leon Camp, took over. Aside from this building, there was also a lumber yard and storage building on the opposite side of the road, which was struck by lightning and incinerated in 1967, though DeWitt Lumber was still prospering so it was all rebuilt immediately.

Mr. Camp died in 1977, and his son, Alan Camp (and son-in-law, Dennis Riley), took over the company. In 2003 they opened another location, DeWitt Windows and Doors, in Mount Pleasant. Alan Camp retired in 2007 and sold the venerable family business, but Dewitt Lumber Co. continues to prosper as one of the oldest in the state of Michigan.


Near the mill's tailrace, I saw this large valve mechanism within an enclosed concrete room built onto the side of the mill's foundation. It must have been partially disassembled, I figured:


This mill was converted to diesel power by the 1930s, Kyser wrote, but a lot of the old gears and mechanisms still remained inside, whose discovery I was about to be thrilled by.


This concrete's reinforcing bars predated modern rebar, and were merely twisted square stock iron, as you can see sticking out of this degraded section:


An interesting conduit led off to the side...


Was this some sort of penstock?


I crawled through it to see the archaic underbelly of the mill itself...


...wow!


Wrought-iron flywheels, and big, toothy archaic gears meshing all around me...this was the real deal.


Another valve or floodgate control?


Remnants of a large, riveted tank:


I was too excited by the old-timeyness of this place to realize that it didn't seem like a sawmill at all...it bore the signs of a feed or flour mill more.


It was precarious and challenging to get photos in here due to the heavy incoming glare, lack of anywhere to stand, and the fact that I didn't have a tripod as usual. 


It's actually kind of amazing that I didn't fall in and drown...


This place was conjuring up images of an old-time America from my most bucolic fantasies, and old Peppridge Farm commercials. 


Just as much as the presence of so much archaic stuff around me, the notable absence of any of the typical intrusive modern stuff such as the ubiquitous potato chip bag, the half-crunched Bud Lite beer can, or those other similar litter items you always see while exploring built up around me a rare feeling of being lost in a time warp to the year 1890.


The heavenly odor of old wood also helped cast the spell.


A small window overlooked the tailrace, which was already crusted with late-autumn ice:


Arriving at the back of the mill, I finally came to the realization that this couldn't be a sawmill...


This was definitely a granary of some kind. This room was probably full of large dispensing bins at one time, filled with different feeds or other milled grains of various sorts. Recall that earlier in this post I mentioned that the DeWitt Lumber Co. not only established a sawmill in Blanchard, but also a flour and feed mill. I'm guessing this was it.


Only this little bit of equipment remained.


This was nonetheless the most intact abandoned mill I had ever come across. Well, to be exact, it was probably not abandoned, but seemed to be in the process of being preserved, perhaps as a museum.


I took the stairs up into the loft, but there was nowhere safe to stand, nor much to photograph as I recall:


Old lineshaft flywheels sat in a corner:


This next machine seemed to be some sort of a dispenser?


The "old mill" is a type of once-quintessential American structure that is disappearing from the landscape even faster than the classic barn, taking with it another connection to a past where we lived on food that was grown and processed manually by humans, instead of merely being sprayed out of some mechanical sphincter at high speed into a plastic wrapper, to be fired off into a vast shipping logistics network before ever reaching our mouths. 


I lament that as we slowly forget where we came from, we will forget who we are, and thus lose sight of what we are supposed to be.


No one will ever get this nostalgic about a Hot-Pocket factory.



References:
Michigan Shadow Towns: A Study of Vanishing and Vibrant Villages, by Gene Scott, p. 70-72
Looking Back: Memories of Michigan, by F. DeWayne Kyser, p. 30-31

7 comments:

  1. Someone just shared this with me. My name is Kimberly Camp - Smith and this old flour mill belongs to my family, Homer DeWitt was my great Grandfather. My father was just a tyke when Homer died, but my father remembers looking up at him as he was 6' 5" tall. Homer was a bigger than life man, much like my father actually. Sadly my dad passed away due to pancreatic cancer just over a year ago, but my Dad considered it his duty to care and preserve this Mill to the best of his ability. My father started working at DeWitt Lumber when he was 12 years old, and gave DeWitt Lumber the best of his life. It no longer is in the family, but the Mill remains with the family. Thank you for giving it your time and for celebrating what is and what it was. The Mill speaks of the innocent days gone by....days of hard work, a commitment to God, family and country. It was a special time indeed. I shared your website with my family, I know my Mom will very much enjoy it. Blessings to you and yours, Kimberly

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    1. Thanks for reading, glad you enjoyed it.

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  2. The building you called Fate's Granary, was called Blanchard Elevator and was an open business in the 1980s & 1990s. It was part of the Pillsbury Company.

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    1. Interesting, thanks. It did seem rather odd that it would have sat truly vacant for 40 years, as stated in the one source I found that mentions it. As always, deeper research could undoubtedly turn up much more, but I'm usually limited to mostly online searches when dealing with these sites that are far from where I reside.

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    2. Michigan Bean and the Blanchard Elevator were one and the same. They were bought out and run for over a decade by Wickes Agriculture out of Saginaw, MI, before becoming part of Pillsbury. This facility handled grains and beans and served the wonderful farmers of Isabella and neighboring counties for many years. They not only took in their crops but sold the seed, herbicides, pesticides, fertilizers, feed and everything else needed for healthy crops and farm animals. Dedicated employees worked there and took pride in what they did. I was blessed to be one of them.

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  3. Ginger (Olger) BarnesonNovember 18, 2015 at 7:18 PM

    Thanks anonymous, I was going to post that I remember going to the Blanchard Elevator with my father and I wasn't born until 1965. We were there several times as my entire family was born and raised in the area. My dad Jack Olger was born in Millbrook in 1938 and his daughters, my two older sisters and myself were all born and raised in the area. My oldest sister still lives in the area and my aunt and uncle, Steve and Pam foster have been in the area their entire lives also. Uncle Steve's family ran Foster's Gas Station for many years in Blanchard. Wow did this article bring back many memories. I am definitely sharing with my entire family as I know they will enjoy this as much as I did. Thank you!

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  4. According to the Blanchard Centennial book, the J.W. Fate & Co granary was purchased around 1931 by the Michigan Bean Co of Saginaw with Sylvester Yeager as manager for over 25 years. This was when electricity, new floors and siding was added. My grandmother, Freda Myers, started working there in 1943, and retired after about 30 years. Trains used to run through there every day (except Sundays), sometimes twice. We used to watch and wave at conductors as they practically went through our back yard. Blanchard is full of many buildings that are original to the beginning of our town. Loafer's Glory, the old hardware store, the building where Twelve Baskets is in. The dental office, Kings Trading Post, and the library are just a few. I actually grew up in the house that Mr. Blanchard built. We were the third family that ever owned the house. The second was Blanchard's first doctor, Dr. Houghton. There are many families that still live in this area whose forefathers were instrumental in building this town. People here are very proud of their heritage.

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