Osceola County is one of the many counties in the middle of Michigan that starts with an "O," and which I never thought much about because it's not really known for anything particularly unique...but for my purposes it does have a few notable "ghost towns" worth seeing. It was first named Unwattin County in 1840, after an Ottawa chief mentioned in the Washington Treaty of 1836, in which a large part of the northwestern Mitten was ceded to the U.S. by the local tribes. Then it was renamed in 1843 to honor the famous Seminole warrior Osceola, who lived in what is now Florida. Logging was the main industry for a century after it was first settled in 1850. Today the big business in Osceola County is oil and natural gas, as well as farming.
Before I get into the ghost town end of things, let me begin with a strange little abandoned airport I found near Reed City, called Nartron Field. Sitting in plain view near the intersection of two major highways, I couldn't figure out why this place was left wide open like this with no apparent barriers of any kind, but it seemed that one could just walk up to it and go in (so I did).
Nartron Field was originally called Miller Airport, named after Jim Miller, founder of Miller Industries, one of the town's biggest employers, who manufactured various glass and aluminum products according to the book Reed City Boy, by Timothy James Bazzett. An ad in an old issue of Trucking News found via Google Books seems to indicate that it was built around 1958, and had its entranceways made by Tubelite, which I presume is a Miller Industry.
From a glance at Tubelite Inc.'s website I see that they are still around, and are based in Reed City. As a leading supplier of storefronts and entrances, Tubelite has been in the business of fabricating and distributing extruded aluminum products for the glass and glazing industry since 1945, which explains why this entire building is basically just a giant, horrendous pile of extruded aluminum and glass...kind of like a gigantic showcase of their product. Can you tell I despise 1950s architecture?
According to Timothy Bazzett again, Miller Auditorium was where they hosted the "Crystal Ball," which was a big social event for Reed City, with a sit-down dinner catered by the Osceola Hotel and music by the Les Elgart Orchestra. Another book by Marjorie Brown White called One Hundred Going on Two Hundred: Reed City Centennial, says that "many residents will remember the excitement caused by the Dawn Patrols held at Miller Airport, generally around Labor Day. It was great fun watching the many planes land that arrived here for the event." There was also a popular pancake breakfast afterward.
An entry on waymarking.com says that the Nartron Corporation purchased Miller Airport in the 1970s to house its engineering and manufacturing operations, "which have since all moved up the road." There are two runways on site, at 4,500 and 2,500 feet long. The northernmost building was used by a radio-controlled airplane club, according to the link.
Some Eisenhower-era decor "graced" the side of the entryway that I ducked through before finding myself in a large, equally hideous auditorium of some kind.
Nartron's own c.2012 website says that their company was established in 1967, to "design, develop, manufacture, and market proprietary electronic systems and components that typically 'sense, compute, and control®' for automotive, truck, military, and consumer product markets." Their 200-acre complex included modern engineering labs, a tech center, a test track--and of course their own airport. I imagine they probably used the other building that I didn't go into, since this auditorium didn't look like there's been too much innovation going on in there for a few decades.
Since it was just basically that one big open room, I spent perhaps a full minute inside the building before deciding to go back outside and see about getting to the control tower part. Just as I stepped back out through the busted doorglass, a pickup truck just as rickety as mine was approaching and slowed to a stop, the driver hollering something to me about it being "a shame something-something...they scrapped all that, something-something..."
I couldn't muster much of a response, since I only heard half of what he said, and didn't notice much scrap metal missing, and furthermore it looked to me like he was the type of person who might like to scrap out a place like this, had I not been cock-blocking him currently. I mumbled an equally incoherent reply while nodding confidently, and the man continued along his way with a tip of his hat to acknowledge that we had apparently communicated successfully.
Elsewhere in the county was this old trailer home or camper, which I suppose I deemed interesting enough to stop for:
It is representative of the thousands of old-time "Up North" deer camps across Michigan that so many families grew up with since the Postwar era.
The inside is rather spartan...to remind you that you are camping, as opposed to today's million-dollar RVs, which are about 20 times nicer than the house I actually live in...
There was also the ubiquitous essence of eau de racoon feces.
Time to move on and see something besides fugly mid-century wreckage--the ghost town of Dighton was next up.
I smooshed the brakes and downshifted, and turned onto the unexpected main street of Dighton.
First called Rolfe, this village was later named after Dighton Marvin, an early settler who everyone referred to as "Dight." In the late 1880s the population got up to 1,000 people, and no less than three sawmills were operating.
In 1910 the timber ran out, and in 1914 the flooring mill burned down. The mill was not rebuilt, and by 1917 the population had fallen to 500. By 1920 the railroad was abandoned, its tracks pulled up. The post office operated until 1955, however. There are a few overgrown backstreets, and the population is about 50.
Larry Wakefield tells a few stories about Dighton's rougher days, when men were sometimes defenestrated from upstairs dance halls, and two local men conspired to kill a new black settler because of his skin color.
I had been thirsty for about an hour, but I held out until I got to the old Dighton Store, so that I could patronize the (only) local business in the area--something which I know my oft-time traveling partner Navi would have heartily approved of. It is an old "false-front" style building that dates back to 1887:
Aside from the nice lady at the counter, I was literally the only person anywhere in sight when I entered and exited the store. It was obvious that more people lived here, but none of them were to be seen at the moment.
Another abandoned one, Jacobs General Store, sits across the street:
Somehow I missed the three-story school, and Gibson's old drugstore on my visit (it's been demolished, according to my colleague Marty Hogan). If only I could have seen Dighton back when Roy L. Dodge was writing in the 1970s--he simply said, "Dighton is a real ghost town."
According to David M. Brown, Tustin's first settler came in 1872, and it was soon peopled by Swedish refugees seeking to escape the famine in Scandinavia. "In 1870 the Episcopal Diocese of Western Michigan, the GR&I Railroad, and the Evangelical Church of Sweden joined forces to promote Swedish immigration to Michigan, and sent the Reverend Josiah Tustin to Sweden to recruit laborers."
About 1,000 Swedes came to the region by 1872 thanks to Rev. Tustin's personal efforts, 300 of whom came to this town on the promise of free land; there were 80 acres donated by the railroad to promote a colony here, which was first called "New Bleking." It was renamed Tustin in 1872 when the post office opened. Many left when the timber was all logged out, but many remained, and the village incorporated in 1893.
The only really abandoned looking thing I saw was this old house out near US-131, but I could have sworn there was at least one old false-front general store here.
The next point on the itinerary was the ghost town of Hersey, which I was sure had a few industrial ruins to poke about in, from what I could see on Google Maps. When I found the place I had spotted from above however, it was sadly bereft of anything of interest:
There had clearly been a plant of some kind here but it was gone now, so I went back into town.
According to David M. Brown again, Hersey was named after a trapper, Nathan Hersey, who was thought to be the first visitor to the county in 1843. Delos (Doc) Blodgett, and familiar family name from the annals of Michigan history, and his partner Thomas Stimson canoed through this area in 1850, he liked it so much that he claimed squatter's rights and logged a plot near the river to plant potatoes. By 1858 he had a sawmill and several farm buildings, as well as a gristmill, and he was elected township supervisor in 1861.
In 1869 the village of Hersey was platted. Blodgett arranged for the county courthouse to be erected here--by 1875 it was the county's foremost settlement--and went on to become one of Michigan's most famous lumber barons. The general store was run by Winfield Scott Gerrish, who went down in history for founding the first logging railroad in the world, according to Roy L. Dodge. The "famous" Hersey Roller Mills was also built here, but things began to decline in the 1890s when the timber ran out. By 1918 the population was down to 300, and a vote resulted in the county seat being moved to Reed City in 1927.
According to a mention in the book Biographical History of Northern Michigan, this was no lumber mill, it was a flour mill that had been built by Doc Blodgett in the 1860s or 1870s and was one of the first flouring mills in this part of the state. It was also the most modern and considered one of the best in Michigan, with an output of 75 barrels per day. The brand of flour that it was best known for was the Snow Flake brand, which was so popular that it was even shipped out of state. The mill had burned down in a fire in 1903, but was immediately rebuilt (hence the cement block walls).
I was hungry for a snack, but when I walked toward the door the friendly proprietor was just coming out to lock up for the day unfortunately, so instead of detaining him late on a Sunday afternoon I decided to let the man have his weekend. I continued along my way down US-10 to the ghost town of Sears.
According to David M. Brown, the first business in the village of Sears opened in 1869 (which was originally called Orient, after the name of its township). It was renamed after a railroad surveyor when the F&PM railroad came though in 1870. There was also another village nearby called Orient Station, so a name change was definitely in order. The post office opened in 1871.
During peak logging years in the 1880s the population of Sears reached 500, and was back down to 100 by 1917. Today it looks like less than 50, but the post office still seems to be here, operating, possibly in its original structure still. Roy L. Dodge wrote that before it was all said and done there was a hotel, two general stores, a drug store, a grocery, a constable, a doctor, a grain elevator, sawmill, and a blacksmith in Sears.
Today there wasn't nearly that much left; aside from a handful of occupied houses, the church, pantry, and post office, Sears made for a quick visit.
Ghost Towns of Michigan, Vol. 1, by Larry Wakefield, p. 59-65
Michigan County Atlas (2nd Ed.), by David M. Brown, p. 140
Michigan Ghost Towns Vol. II, by Roy L. Dodge, p. 133, 135, 137
Reed City Boy, by Timothy James Bazzett, p. 143 & 145
One Hundred Going on Two Hundred: Reed City Centennial, by Marjorie Brown White, p. 74
Trucking News, 1958, p. 202
Biographical History of Northern Michigan, Containing Biographies of Prominent Citizens, by B.F. Bowen & Co. (1905), p. 51