Pioneer Spirits

Barry County is one of the more overlooked counties of Michigan, since it doesn't have any well-known towns within its borders, nothing extraordinarily historic ever happened there, and there aren't any especially distinctive natural landscape features. It's a big, flat square of farmland situated between Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo, but it is still as beautiful of a bucolic setting as you can ask for, and there are plenty of old buildings to look at.

After the native Ojibwe people ceded their lands here in the Treaty of Saginaw in 1819, Barry County was set off in 1829, and first settled at Prairieville in 1831. According to the Michigan County Atlas by David M. Brown, it was officially organized as a county in 1839, named for William T. Barry, U.S. Postmaster General under President Andrew Jackson. The astute historian will recognize that no less than ten of the counties of southern Michigan are named after cabinet members under President Jackson. They are sometimes referred to as the "Cabinet Counties."

The village of Woodland, according to Brown, was settled in 1837 by the Galloway and Haight families, and named for the fact that it was then in a densely wooded area (which I presume was immediately chopped down for farmland).

Several of the buildings in Woodland's tiny downtown still bore hallmarks of the 1800s and early 1900s. I think it's likely that the only reason Woodland even sees any traffic at all is because it lies along M-43 on the way to Lansing.

In a different corner of the county was the ghost town of South Assyria, but I'm afraid the only known remnant of South Assyria that still survives today is its cemetery, as author Larry Wakefield describes.

Joseph S. Blaisdell moved from Vermont with his family in 1834 Wakefield writes, and became friendly neighbors with a band of Potawatomis who lived here in southeastern Barry County. The Indians had already been there a long time, had established cornfields with fences, and a burial ground with many graves. Eventually more white settlers came, and by 1850 a post office with the name "South Assyria" was established here.

Blaisdell became the first interment in this cemetery when he died in 1848, but his grave was found to  be opened the next day and his corpse unaccounted for. A swift investigation by the townsfolk ascertained that the body snatchers were in fact medical practitioners from the nearby city of Battle Creek, who were apprehended. A judge failed to find enough evidence to convict the suspects at trial however, and the missing body of Joseph Blaisdell never turned up.

Setting out westward from South Assyria, I traversed many of Barry County's scenic country roads. I now wish I had consulted with my colleague Martin Hogan beforehand, since he seems to know a lot more of the countryside around the Grand Rapids region.

Before I reached my destination I paused when I saw an old railroad trestle crossing near the town of Morgan, along Thornapple Lake Road.

It looked pretty old so I figured it was worth investigating.

This was one of Michigan's "rail trails" that are common in the Lower Peninsula where old abandoned railroad right-of-ways have been converted for use by bicyclists and hikers.

David M. Brown's Michigan County Atlas writes that the town of Morgan was a station on the Michigan Central RR called "Sheridan," in 1878, and it was renamed Morgan when the post office opened.

Brown also notes that early settler E.E. Cook built a sawmill near here in 1866.

The Thornapple River by the way is the namesake of the once well-known Michigan-based brand of sausages called Thornapple Valley. I wrote about that company's Detroit slaughterhouse in an older post.

I continued on to Charlton Park. It was marked on my map nearby as a historic site, and it was situated on a small lake in a natural area, so I figured why not? Brown says the Thornapple Band of Ottawa established a village here in the early 1800s, as there was an intersection of Indian trails at this point on the northeast end of Thornapple Lake. One trail led to Canada, and the other to the Grand River. In 1936 the landowner, Irving Charlton, donated the land to the county for use as a park, and founded a museum here of his pioneer artifacts that he went on to direct until his death in 1963.

The first thing I saw was what looked to be an old foundation, and a sign indicated that this was once the spot of an old Indian mission:

In 1849 the Ottawa allowed the Episcopal Methodist minister, Rev. Manasseh Hickey to build a mission here on their land. It was a 12ft. by 27ft. log structure with a stone chimney. Historical accounts say that Rev. Hickey blew a loud horn to indicate when it was time for services, so that the residents on the other side of the river would hear.

The mission operated until 1854 when the Indians sold the property to Henry Edgecomb and moved away. After that time the mission became a house for a succession of different owners, and by 1894 all that was left of it was the foundation. An archaeological excavation was done in 2003-2011 by Grand Valley State University, which discovered the foundation and some artifacts.

It seemed that this was some sort of mini-Greenfield Village kind of historic park, but it was apparently still closed for the season. So I decided to just get out of the car and walk around a bit anyway. The preserved original town of Charlton was a pretty picturesque scene on the banks of the Thornapple River...

It wasn't long before I spotted an old log cabin off in the woods.

Well ain't that just a purdy sight now?

From some fairly hardcore Googling I came up with a reference in the Historic Charlton Park Volunteer Manual, which says that this was the c.1870 "Robinson Log Cabin," reconstructed in 1999, but that's all I know.

Appears to be sitting on a cobblestone foundation with a central chimney, and dovetailed / mortared walls, with a second story. I presume that's a shake roof under that snow there.

There was a wood shed too, with wood in it, so I imagine that this structure was probably still in use for historical interpretation during the summer months.

I walked around it, enjoying the hell out of this beautiful afternoon light, but all the shutters were firmly screwed shut on this old cabin. 

The only ingress I could find was a tiny little gap in the wall where a beam had rotted away next to the front door, just big enough to stick my face into like a cat:

So I took a few flash photos, and this is what I got. That's a pretty rad fireplace:

Moving on from Charlton Park, I also had plans to check out the village of Coats Grove, where I knew there was an old abandoned church and school.

According to David M. Brown, Coat's Grove was named after George Coats, its first postmaster, in 1879. This is the old methodist church:

And across the street, the old schoolhouse:

Notice that both structures still have their bells intact in their belfries--a real rarity.

Picture perfect:

Not far away was yet another derelict schoolhouse...

I had also paid a perfunctory visit to this area while on my way to Grand Rapids the summer prior, which is when I took these photos. Here's an abandoned house across from the schoolhouse:

So, there are still plenty of occupied houses still in Coat's Grove, but I'm wondering at what point one can one officially bestow (or burden) a community with the designation of "ghost town"? Where is the cutoff mark for that?

I have a feeling it is pretty unscientific, and left mostly at the discretion of tourists and careless travel writers. Rarely, I think, would a town ever decide to start willingly referring to itself as a ghost town.

According to one reader (see comment below), Coats Grove was featured on an episode of The X-Files, season 5, episode 9.

Michigan County Atlas, Second Ed., by David M. Brown, p. 14
Ghost Towns of Michigan, Vol. 3, by Larry Wakefield, p. 95
Historic Charlton Park Volunteer Manual


  1. Ah, Barry County. Farming mostly died out there by the 1930's, and the government bought up a ton of land and turned it into Yankee Springs State Park. It's nice for hiking and skiing, not so great for exploring. I've spent a LOT of time bushwhacking, but I've never found remains of any old farm houses (or heck, even an old fence row...).

    There is *one* reasonably distinctive natural landscape feature: Devil's Soup Bowl near Gun Lake. It's a huge (glacial) hole in the ground. Not exactly a tourist mecca, but you take what you can get.

  2. Yeah, I'm not sure why anyone would try to call Coats Grove a "ghost town." It's not actually a village or a town... little more than an unincorporated collection of houses, most of which are still lived in and maintained. Even that creepy schoolhouse you feature had someone living in a trailer outback up until recently. Pretty far removed from a ghost town...

    Anyway. I grew up there. I'll echo the previous commentator's sentiment... it's not the most exciting area. Pretty area, but not a whole lot going on in there beyond farmers and church folk. Most exciting anecdote I've got about the place is when Coats Grove, MI was featured on the X-files.

    1. Yeah "ghost town" is a pretty loose description....usually based more on appearances than anything objective.

      Also, I had no idea that Coats Grove was on the X-Files, but apparently you are correct.

  3. I have lived in Barry Co. most of my life. Yankee Springs has many old house foundations to explore but no abandoned buildings. I believe the DNR has torn them down as they were aquired. Most of the buildings at Charleton Park were actually moved there from other locations. The bank and at least one of the homes were in Hastings where I grew up. Mr. Charleton's home is a few miles away from the park and is pretty cool. It is a big square house made of stone. The walls are at least a foot thick. It's pretty run down now, but is still pretty cool.