Merry Times in Pere Cheney

The ghost town of Pere Cheney is almost too cliché of a spot for me to visit for the purposes of this website, but eventually I figured why the hell not? It is kind of novel, despite its notoriety with the ghost-hunting crowd, in the sense that it is basically nothing more than a lost cemetery in the woods, sitting at a sharp bend in some old train tracks. Despite its incredible remoteness, Pere Cheney is definitely on the short list of the most well-known spooky spots in the entire state of Michigan, and as such falls within the realm of elementary school rumors of varying silliness. To illustrate this, there's now even a flavor of vape juice named after it.

There are actually lots of lost "forest cemeteries" scattered throughout Michigan's northern Lower Peninsula, the last surviving vestiges of the logging towns they once belonged too, all the clapboard buildings having vanished long ago. Tombstones tend to last quite a bit longer...long enough to be swallowed back up by the returning forests.


I always thought that "Pere Cheney" sounded French to me, and this conjured up mental images of the old voyageurs cruising the Michigan forests of old looking for furs in the 1600s. It also conjures up thoughts of werewolves and le feu follet. The word "Pere" also occurs in other Michigan place names, especially in reference to the Pere Marquette Railroad, but upon further research I don't believe that any branch of that particular railroad ever came near here.

I flew along bumpy, sandy trails in my truck for quite awhile before coming to the place where I would have to drive across the train tracks themselves.


It wasn't long after that where I had to slow down to a crawl over the extremely narrow, extremely uneven trail that made up the final leg of the trek to Pere Cheney:


It was actually somewhere off the righthand side of this trail that one of the three sawmills once stood. I was looking out my windows off into the trees, but did not see any ruins.


I was somewhat surprised to find the grass freshly mowed and the stumps of a couple large pines freshly cut down. Clearly this cemetery was very much still maintained. I was also soon to find out that it was also still very much frequented by various people.


The book Michigan Ghost Towns by Roy L. Dodge says that the railroad originally called this village just "Cheney," and later the post office dubbed it "Pere Cheney." Despite being so diminutive in stature Pere Cheney was the first Crawford County seat, and probably even its first settlement as well, having been settled in 1869-70. If you were to look at a map of northern Michigan from the 1870s, the types of towns you would see marked would be very different from the ones you see today. So many towns like Pere Cheney that were once relevant population centers have faded away completely.

When Crawford County was organized in 1879 Pere Cheney was designated the temporary county seat, sparking a rivalry with the village of Grayling, which later became the permanent county seat.


The cemetery is expansive and seems like mostly empty space, with few actual headstones to be found, randomly spread out in clusters far apart from each other.

The first thing I noticed was that all of the headstones were covered in pocket change, and sometimes other assorted trinkets. I've heard of putting two pennies on the eyes of the dead during the funeral to pay Charon for their ferry ride across the River Styx, but apparently people around here are convinced that the fare has gone up quite a bit lately from inflation.


One of my readers informed me that the placing of coins on tombstones has nothing to do with the supernatural in fact, and is actually a military thing that dates at least as far back as the Roman Empire. The tradition came back to life in America after the Vietnam War.

Some of the gravestones were new replacements for older stones that had either worn away or were destroyed by vandals. This next guy lived from 1886 to 1918, meaning he probably perished in World War I:


Pere Cheney was a station stop on the Michigan Central RR (the specific branch of which, as Larry Wakefield points out, was originally the Jackson, Lansing & Saginaw RR), and had a sawmill under the proprietorship of one Mr. G.M. Cheney. David M. Brown's Michigan County Atlas also has some notes on the history of the area as well. The Michigan Central had this line completed from Jackson to Gaylord by 1874, and George "Papa" Cheney applied to establish a stop on the line. He built his sawmill and later the Cheney House hotel. The post office also came that same year, and the village was platted, soon giving rise to "many fine, two-story homes." There was eventually also a wagon shop, blacksmith, a grocery, and two other sawmills.

I wonder then if my Victorian house was built with lumber harvested at Pere Cheney, since it dates to the same time period that Pere Cheney was thriving?


Looking up the word "Pere" in French just now, I'm coming up with the word père, which means "father," especially when talking about a Catholic priest. Perhaps "Papa" Cheney fancied himself something of an old voyageur or missionary as well as lumber baron?


David M. Brown writes that Crawford County itself was first set off in 1840, and named Shawono County (supposedly after an Ojibwe chief), but it was renamed in 1843 to honor Colonel William Crawford, a friend of George Washington's who was killed by Indians in northern Ohio in 1782. Either that or it was in honor of Secretary of War William H. Crawford. Personally I like Shawono much better.

Because of the fact that both the Manistee and AuSable Rivers passed through it, Crawford County became highly sought-after land for pine logging during the zenith of the lumber boom years. The rivers gave easy access to shipping on both Lake Michigan and Lake Huron, which allowed lumber to be shipped to both eastern and western markets. After all the virgin pine was gone, that was pretty much it for the white man's need for this huge swath of land. The population today is probably well under 14,000 people, distributed across 536 square miles.


Dodge says that in 1877 Pere Cheney had a population of 60, and Wakefield says that by 1881 it had 80 people and no less than three sawmills. In 1890 the big timber had been depleted, and by 1905 the population had dwindled down to 30. By 1918, it was a mere 18 souls, Dodge says. After the forest here was all cut down, farming turned out to be next to impossible; by 1912 the town's post office had closed, Brown writes.

Despite all that doom and gloom, a rather glowing article in the July 1878 Detroit Free Press touts the merits of settling in Pere Cheney and taking up farming:


I have a feeling that this spurious account was concocted as a last-ditch effort by some real estate crook to wring a few last dollars out of this soon-to-be-doomed village...or perhaps an effort by some bigoted fat-cat to clear the "professional starvers," as he calls the poor, out of Detroit with false promises of free and bountiful land just waiting to be claimed up north. 


The last remaining stand of virgin pine left in all of Michigan at the end of the logging era ended up being right here in Crawford County, near Grayling. It was owned by the estate of Mr. Edward Hartwick of Ann Arbor, and his wife donated the land as a state park in memory of her husband after he perished in World War I. Mr. Hartwick was a descendent of the original settlers of the town of Grayling. Today you can still go see the "Hartwick Pines," and experience something of what the massive forests of old Michigan used to look like prior to American encroachment.


In 1989 the Grayling VFW volunteered to clean up Pere Cheney Cemetery by cutting back the overgrowth, mowing the grass, repairing some of the shattered headstones, erecting a sign, and a flagpole. The entry for Pere Cheney on ghosttowns.com has older photos of the cemetery, and states that an old Indian used to take care of the cemetery, but when he died many years back that was when it plausibly began its descent into oblivion.

It wasn't long before I got the feeling that there were more graves in this cemetery than there were markers. This next one definitely seemed to be a grave, marked merely by a rock:


There were several other spots marked like this as well. Perhaps the gravestone was destroyed by vandals long ago, or the family of the person interred here never had enough money to buy a real tombstone.


I wasn't even sure at first where the townsite itself would have been located in relation to the graveyard. An image on findagrave.com (probably taken from Wakefield's book) shows the layout of the town as it stood c.1921, with most of the the buildings standing north of the tracks. The cemetery would be at bottom-center of the map:


By the 1920s when this map was made, I'm sure Pere Cheney must have already been well on its way to becoming a classic, creepy ghost town with slumping houses all abandoned in rows, tattered curtains fluttering from the gaping windows, and the sawmills in ruins. Even though "urban exploring" hadn't been invented yet (bit of sarcasm there), I'm sure plenty of early-20th century people had passed this way, whether incidentally or due to morbid curiosity, and gotten an eye-full of what the corpse of an old Michigan lumber town looked like before starting to sow the seeds of folklore.


A family plot, bordered with a concrete wall (and blooming yuccas, I guess):


Apparently some goofballs decided that it was cool to put tea candles on and around the headstones, and let them drip wax all over. This one is pretty well covered in wax, which probably won't be easy to remove:


Come to think of it, it also makes it look disturbingly phallic...I don't know if "Hattie A." or "Ray W." would approve of this.


An old Tripod webpage about Pere Cheney written by "JNA" seems to provide a more factually-grounded look at the story of the infamous ghost town than most other hits on the internet...
Ask any teenager what Pere Cheney is, and they might respond to you with stories of ghosts, witches, and paranormal happenings... There is one main story that every young adventurer knows by heart; the town was ravaged by an outbreak of *cholera, diphtheria, smallpox* (choose one), and many people died. From there, each story changes, and the teller will add a little bit of their own imagination to make their story more interesting. Whatever the story may be, nothing that resides in the world of imagination can be as brutal as the truth. I’ve gathered together as much information about Pere Cheney as possible and posted it here for public use and enjoyment. Have fun kids. -JNA
The "paranormal" incidents that are associated with Pere Cheney are pretty run of the mill...reports of lights in the woods, voices, apparitions, handprints on visitors' cars after they leave, visitors' cars spontaneously breaking down, trees making cracking or groaning noises, and the usual "orbs."


JNA says that this cemetery was established in 1820, and there is a hand-painted sign posted at the entrance claiming the same thing. But according to JNA, the first recorded burial was in 1892--that seems like a long time for a cemetery to exist without anyone bothering to start a record, not that I would know.

Though I'm not sure how the cemetery or the town could've been established as early as 1820, since this land was not even legally open for settlement yet; the c.1819 Treaty of Saginaw came close to making this area part of the U.S., but Pere Cheney lies just outside of its boundaries. Not to mention this site would have been so deep into the impenetrable wilderness that no white man had likely been this far inland until at least 20 years later. A map of Michigan dating from 1822 shows again that Pere Cheney would have been well behind the "Indian Line" denoting unorganized territory. Wakefield, Brown, and Dodge all agree that the town of Pere Cheney was settled no earlier than the 1870s, and those are the three authors who I most often rely on to provide me with my info on Michigan ghost town history.


The records of the Pere Cheney Cemetery were once available online, but it appears to be a broken link now. "And then, of course," JNA says, "you have the question of mass graves." Regarding the tales of the town being wiped out by a plague, he writes:
Although a few documents mention that many diseases were present, cholera is mentioned more than any other disease in the documents. The town was supposedly burned to rid it of the disease, and its people fled to the nearby towns of Roscommon and Grayling. Then, supposedly 50 years later, the town was rebuilt and it became seat of the new county--Crawford. This new town was also supposed to be smaller than the first. Once again, disease struck the town and it again had to be burned.

JNA states that nothing about the town having to be burned was mentioned in any official texts he found, and I never heard or read that anywhere else either. He (or she) continues,
There are lots of rumors about possible things that caused Pere Cheney to fail. One theory is that it was built on cursed Indian ground, and that never could a town prosper. Another is that a witch cursed the land.
Of course it couldn't be due to the fact that the town economy was based on an extractive industry, and that the lumberjacks just ran out of trees...that's silly talk. Wakefield corroborates the story about diseases helping to kill off Pere Cheney however. In the winter of 1893 he says, diphtheria struck the town hard and one family even lost five children. Scarlet fever and smallpox also reared their heads, Wakefield writes.


A story about the witch is related by "Peg," a Roscommon resident, in the book Strange Michigan. Peg says that an old witch used to practice here, and that any candles or mementoes left at the graves are removed every day, and every night they mysteriously return. She says lots of children are buried here, and that the witch watches over them so that they don't leave the grounds.

An article on petoskeynews.com mentioned Pere Cheney, stating that there are "some trails that lead from the cemetery to farther back in the woods," and that one of them "leads to a pit containing a pile of wood that local youth colloquially refer to as 'the witch’s house'." I saw the beginnings of what looked to have been trails while I was walking around the edges of the cemetery, but none of them looked like they went anywhere interesting, and since it was almost sunset I didn't follow any of them.


I couldn't resist resorting to the Waybackmachine to pull up a web archive of Ghostzoo.com, an old website I used to follow a lot in the early 2000s before there were many other non-ghost-related pages devoted to exploring abandoned places even out there online yet. I knew that Ghostzoo must have an entry for Pere Cheney, but it was smaller than I would've expected:
Rumor has it that a witch is buried there who was burned at the stake. Also there is portal of some sort in the center of three trees that form a triangle. If you stand in the middle of the triangle you cannot hear anything on the outside of it. There is another rumor that the land once belonged to an Indian tribe and it was taken away from them; ever since then, the land has been cursed.
Boy that sure is a nasty rumor, eh? There is also some advice to "avoid the cemetery during Halloween," as it is said to be patrolled by a man with a shotgun. Since I don't recall stumbling into any portals that muted my being able to hear my surroundings, I'd say the bit about the shotgun guy is probably the most credible piece of info here.


And now for your entertainment, a full page of stories posted by Ghostzoo forum users who claimed to have paranormal experiences at Pere Cheney: web.archive.org/web/20020621144054
Here is a particularly good excerpt:
Anyway, from what I gathered about Pere Cheney is that there is a significant amount of evidence that would make the place succeptible for being haunted. Hell, for even being a down right bastion of evil. There was an incredible amount of pain and suffering that went on there. An incredible amount. Now I've heard stories about voices and ghosts and electrical problems with cars. I've heard about hidden houses, ghostly trains, strange lights, and tombstones that come and go as they please. I even remember when a friend of mines mothere, who worked for the Crawford County Sherrif's Department was involved in the arrest of a supposed satanic cult that practiced their rituals there.

In the photo above is what looks to be the concrete border around another family plot, but I don't see any markers within it.

At one point I nearly twisted my ankle on some uneven ground and spun around to take this photo of the oblong depression I had tripped over, recalling that sometimes in really old cemeteries the pine coffin lids will eventually give way under the weight of the earth above, resulting in a short depression in the ground; I wonder if that's what this was:


The depression was about the size of a person, and there were other similar depressions elsewhere in the graveyard. I ran into a similar series of depressions at the old Schoolcraft Cemetery.

Some of the tombstones were surrounded in ornamental plantings that had since grown to envelop them, like this lilac bush hiding another toppled tombstone with the name "ODELL":


Another Odell, this one served in Company C, 11th Infantry, of the Union Army during the Civil War:


Charles and Nina Richardson, born in the 1860s...apparently their headstone had been so decayed or vandalized that a new modern one had to be made:


Here are another couple almost eerie excerpts from a page in the December 1896 Detroit Free Press, in the section called the "Merry Times for Girls and Boys," which featured weekly stories and letters from children all over the state. This edition featured no less than three letters from children residing in Pere Cheney (two of whom appear related):


See if you can spot one of their names on a tombstone in my photos.


By 1896 Pere Cheney was well past its prime with the timber having just been depleted, and would have been already in the depths of woe brought on by the plagues of disease mentioned earlier. Yet here are these cheerful letters sent from afar by young children who lived in the midst of this fading village, seeming now like distant long-lost echoes from over a century ago. The letters mention living on farms...I wonder if they were among those who made the ill-fated attempt to cultivate these harsh soils once the sawmills shut down for good?


Below is the grave of an infant boy who died in what looks to be that same year, 1896 (can't quite make it out):


In the northern end of the cemetery I started noticing these little numbered cement markers in the absence of headstones, just like you might see at a pauper's cemetery next to an older mental hospital, such as the one at Eloise Asylum:


They were only about the size of a silver dollar, and they didn't seem to be numbered consecutively, but I assume that they may mark the graves of lumberjacks too poor to afford headstones, or those who spent their tombstone money on booze and hookers. Or perhaps these are the supposed plague victims of the rumored mass graves?


Vandalism has always been a problem at this cemetery for whatever reason, with tombstones being knocked over and broken by local kids, or painted on. A recent article at petoskeynews.com says that the sheriff is still often called out to the cemetery "to disperse unruly visitors."

Perhaps the most grisly thing that ever occurred here was not perpetrated upon the living by the dead, but rather vice-versa. A story dated December 14, 2001 from the Crawford County Avalanche stated that three teens had lately been in court for attempting to unearth a gravesite in Pere Cheney Cemetery that May. They were charged with disinterment/mutilation of a grave and faced up to 10 years in prison before pleading guilty to a lesser charge. They had been spotted in the act of digging up a grave by local turkey hunters, before dropping their shovels and taking flight.


The county sheriff apprehended the two would-be grave robbers quickly, but the report said that they "had managed to dig three to four feet down into the grave before they were spotted," and "no skeletal remains of the grave dated 1919 were disturbed." When squeezed for information the teens claimed that they were "trying to find rings and other jewelry," but they changed their story later when they were interviewed more closely by the county prosecutor. "It was revealed the suspects had heard there was a witch in the grave and they were attempting to dig her out."

I have a feeling that the first version may have been the true case, and their lawyer advised them to make up something about the paranormal in order to make it easier to have their sentence reduced. They still ended up doing 90 days plus community service and fines.


According to Wakefield, one of the "worst" juvenile cemetery vandals ended up becoming the Crawford County Sheriff later in life. But as a teenager he was known to have rode around with a skull in the back window of his car, which he presumably grave-robbed from Pere Cheney.


This is a home-made tombstone, apparently poured from the same cement as the numbered tablets, which says "DEAR MOTHER AT REST":


As night began to fall I settled into my truck, hoping to stealth camp here for the night before continuing on to Deward, my next destination, early in the morning. It was a perfectly cool, clear night, and the woods were very quiet and peaceful. No hint of rain threatened, so I rolled out my sleeping bag in the bed of my truck and laid down, watching the stars come out. The mosquitoes got pretty annoying though, so I had to move back inside the cab of my truck since I had forgotten to bring my bug-proof hat.


Just as I was about to fall asleep I was disturbed by the noise of another vehicle slowly approaching on the small dirt track that led to the cemetery. They pulled into the cul-de-sac where I was and parked across from me. I was happy that it was not the sheriff, but I was afraid that this was a bunch of partiers who would make it impossible for me to continue camping here. I heard a few people get out and through my half-asleep memory I recall hearing enough scraps of whispered conversation to suspect that they were there to look for ghosts. Terrific. Anyway, they didn't stay very long, apparently being unnerved by my presence.

About 2:30am, I was jerked from a sound sleep by another vehicle approaching down the trail to the cemetery. What the @#$%, man!? These people were talking loudly as they stumbled out of their truck and had apparently just closed out the local bar. Obviously I had chosen a very poor place to "stealth" camp...Pere Cheney Cemetery is apparently a lot more popular of a hang-out spot than I had ever surmised. I hoped these people would leave soon, and I could get back to sleep. Just then I heard a loud tapping on my window and some lady's voice saying "HEY THERE'S SOMEBODY IN HERE....HELLO? ARE YOU OKAY? HELLOOOO?" I groggily rolled the window down and asked what was up, noticing that she was clutching a boomba of frothy beer in one of her hands. She claimed to be a "township official," and in a slurring train of speech asked me what I was doing here. After laboriously convincing her that I was okay and meant no harm by being here, she finally dismissed herself to rejoin her friends (who apparently did not share her interest in bugging me), and I laid back down to sleep.

About ten minutes later I heard her tapping again on my window, so I got back up and rolled the window down, this time much less courteous in asking her what the matter was now. Apparently she just wanted to re-ask all of the questions she had asked me earlier, but now with a much more suspicious attitude as to why I was here. She wanted to know where I was from, what I was up to, and why I was here "in the middle of nowhere," at a place that "no one knows about," and how I had found it. Wearily rolling my eyes at the assertion that this place was some sort of closely-guarded secret location that nobody ever goes to, I blurted out that I would cooperate and leave if it wasn't cool for me to be here. She backpedalled a bit, saying that it was fine for me to be here, but apparently she was just unable to reconcile the presence of a stranger in their midst. Granted, given all of the vandalism and other weirdo sh*t that apparently goes on out here I don't blame the locals for being suspicious. But come on--I wasn't the one showing up here all drunk in the middle of the night to do...whatever it was they were here to do. At the moment I was behaving much better than they were. Just then one of her male companions walked up to try and get her to leave me in peace, which wasn't easy, but she finally relented and they eventually drove away.

It was hard for me to get back to sleep, and I expected the sheriff to be paying me a visit any minute to kick me out since I assumed it was pretty likely that the lady would make such a call, but no one else came all night. Nonetheless I seriously debated just getting up and driving to Deward, now that I was completely awake.


I ended up getting a couple more hours of sleep and woke up again around dawn to move out. I wanted to stop first near the Georgia-Pacfic sawmill and photograph the surrounding areas of recently cleared forest, as a sort of modern take on the activities that once occurred here back in the 1870s when Pere Cheney's sawmills carved away this forest.


Today, the surrounding re-growth forests await their turn at the modern Georgia-Pacfic sawmill, which I could hear making noise off in the distance while I was going to sleep last night.


References:
Michigan Ghost Towns, Vol. I, by Roy L. Dodge, p. 77
Michigan County Atlas, 2nd Ed., David M. Brown, p. 40
Ghost Towns of Michigan, Vol. 2, by Larry Wakefield, p. 32-36
Michigan Place Names, by Walter Romig, p. 436
http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=cr&CRid=2206989
http://www.ghosttowns.com/states/mi/percheny.html
http://perecheney.tripod.com/home.html
Strange Michigan, by Linda Godfrey & Lisa Shiel, p. 147
http://www.shiawasseehistory.com/jackson.html
http://www.petoskeynews.com/gaylord/featured-ght/top-gallery/nearby-ghost-towns-feature-echoes-from-the-past/article_dc26f259-34a7-53d9-8fe3-3461b3def1d3.html
https://web.archive.org/web/20010316082309/http://www.ghostzoo.com/pere.html
"Pere Cheney," Detroit Free Press, July 9, 1878, p. 8
"Some of the Mail," Detroit Free Press, December 12, 1896, p. 7
http://www.snopes.com/military/coins.asp

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