Death In the Long Grass

April, 2008.

According to the Belle Isle Conservancy, Detroit's first city zoo, the Belle Isle Zoo, was established in 1895 with a deer park and a bear den. By 1909, it had grown to 150 animals on 32 acres. The Belle Isle Children’s Zoo was established in 1947, but closed and was "dismantled by the 1970s." Belle Isle Safari Zoo--the one we see today--was opened in 1980 and featured raised walkways expanded into the wooded area.

The Belle Isle Safari Zoo closed in 2002 (because of the usual BS). It lies in the middle of the island, surrounded by a swampy woods on one side and the street on the other. Now that Belle Isle has officially become a state park, we can probably expect this eyesore to be cleaned up or disposed of soon.

This post shows what the zoo looked like before being covered in graffiti, and before the grass was 20 feet tall like it is now.

Some of my comrades had gotten in early in 2008, though I think they went through a massive hole in both the fences where a large tree had fallen and crushed them flat in a windstorm. When I came to pay my visit a few weeks later, the tree had been chainsawed up, and the outer fence was mended. I was bummed, but I knew I could climb the damn fences if I really wanted too, so I began a slow casual circle of the perimeter to look for easier spots in which to do so.

A small stream (much too wide to jump) ran through the zoo property, though the perimeter fences dipped down into the water to prevent either humans or animals from using that as a possible ingress (or egress) route. At least three such fences cordoned off this waterway, like submarine nets or something. As I continued around to the backside through the woods and swamp, I noticed that a couple huge wild turkeys meandered around–on both sides of the fence. It was weird...almost like the prisoners had taken over the prison.

I continued on and found what looked like a grave marker, obviously of some poor lost soul who sank into the Swamps of Sadness while trying to assail this place. It was just in the middle of some copse of trees and brush, not even close to anywhere that it might be seen by anyone. Bizarre. The only sound to be heard on this grey April day besides the wind was the forlorn groaning of passing freighters sounding their horns as they rounded the isle.

The marker says: "IN MEMORY OF DAVID CARL JAMES, 6-19-2004." I made sure not to stray too near the bog.

I found a couple potential places where the outer fence might be easy to hop, but again there was always the inner fence to contend with as well. Both were topped with barbwire. By the time I completed my circuit of the zoo, I came to a gate facing the street which had a huge enough gap in it for me to squeeze through, and beyond that another gate with a gap underneath big enough for me to slide under. With a quick look around, I forced myself through with a quickness, having not seen a soul about. On the other side of the inner gate I saw an old faded Detroit Police Harbor Master boat laid up in storage. Apparently extended storage...

The boat was old enough looking to where it could've possibly been one of the ones used in Detroit 9000.

The way this place was set up with the huts reminded me of either the Ewok Village in Return of the Jedi, or Rivendell from Lord of the Rings. Of course there was a super-strong Jurassic Park vibe too. I poked inside a couple of the hut structures and found there to still be power on. Crawly had reported that on his expedition they found handling collars for "big cats" in one of the cages.

I explored through what seemed to be replica African Savanna terrain, which had been allowed to grow wild since I had last been here as a kid. The occasional tipped-over tree added an especially forlorn appearance to this moribund landscape. The winding elevated boardwalks snaked every-which-where, and below them were fenced passages, apparently for zookeepers to move safely between animal holding areas. Visitors would view animals from the boardwalks above. A couple of the larger holding areas had vast concrete basins that perhaps simulated watering holes on the African plains.

It started to rain. I kept getting an uneasy feeling like I wasn't alone...the sight of open cage doors everywhere and the overall feel to the day made for an uneasy ambience. I kept waiting to hear a deep, bloodcurdling growl from somewhere unseen, followed by the rustle of grasses, a flash of stripes or talons, and to be torn to ribbons by a Velociraptor. I was beginning to ask myself, "What would Peter Hathaway Capstick do?"

The dense (though leafless) foliage gave me a feeling of isolation and insulation, but on the elevated walks I was able to see to the street if I wanted to. And I was beginning to notice DPD cars circle the place, more than normal.

Maybe my mind was just playing tricks on me, but I could've sworn it was like they were looking for me. Belle Isle had its own precinct station (a mere 300 or so yards away), and on a weekday noontime in shitty weather, they certainly had little to do in the way of normal policing, and I'm sure they must have their own keys to the gates to this place, so I was increasingly nervous. By the time I saw two patrol cars prowling together on the backside of the perimeter, I was formulating an escape plan in earnest. 

I had cover and camouflage on my side, but this place was difficult to navigate; not all of the fenced-in corridors under the boardwalks were unlocked, and not all the cages were either, meaning you could get in on one side but not necessarily out on the other. And going between the boardwalk and the ground meant climbing, because there were no stairways except in the domed huts. For awhile I was trapped in one of the big, open pens, and couldn't figure out a way to get back up on the elevated walkways. So I got frustrated and scaled the side of one.

I obviously couldn't exit the zoo by the same way I came in, since the cops undoubtedly knew about that way in, and if they were indeed on to me, they would be watching it from afar, waiting for me to emerge so they could pounce.

What it seemed like was they knew I was here but were not letting on...which is what was freaking me out. I would have to hop a fence on the back perimeter in the cover of the woods that I had scoped out earlier as a potential entrance. That way I could take my time and no one could see me.

But what I had not realized was the fact that I was now on the wrong side of the river, meaning I would have to ford that mucky shit if I wanted to get to the safe side where that easy spot was. My only other option was to go to the very far end by where I parked, which, unfortunately offered the least cover from the road. I tried it, but the fence climb was too tough and would require tight-rope walking across the barbwire of the two fences before I could drop down on the other side.

Somewhat exhausted from my cursory attempt (and having been totally spotted by a passing car–which luckily was not a cop), I retreated some and dropped down into a position of cover under one of the walkways that terminated at the river's edge. Here I came across a pile of old moose antlers, which I found...odd....

I resolved that perhaps my best option was to hop the fence here and do a crouched crawl along the muddy riverbank, down below grade where I could not be seen from any angle, then push my way underneath the fence that I had scoped before. There were a total of three such fences blocking the river like submarine harbor nets, the outermost of which had a shy spot blocked off by a railroad tie that had been wedged in place. I had made a mental note earlier that it could be moved easily enough, if need be. I was increasingly feeling like some kind of fugitive, though I still had no definitive proof that I was being hunted.

Wait...did I say hunted?

There were so many puns and references to old movies and such going through my head it was ridiculous. I even started humming Weird Al's "Jurassic Park" song to myself.

So I advanced downstream to the next fenced corridor, which dead-ended at the river, and painstakingly climbed the fence that separated it from the riverbank. Dropping down to the mucky, smelly, scummy bank, I was glad at least it was not muggy summertime or bug season yet. However I was still nearly soaked with a mixture of rain and sweat. I made slow headway in pushing my way through the brush at water's edge while in a low, squatted stance. Now I really felt like I was an escapee from some Viet Cong jungle prison. 

It took about ten minutes of hard slow work to make it within sight of the last fence across the canal. I slunk up to it and began pulling the railroad tie back, and moved it aside. Hmm. The gap there was a little bit smaller than I had remembered. I tried gingerly a couple times to curl myself under there, and soon feared it was not gonna be pretty. I planned it out so that if I grabbed a certain little clump of grass on the other side, while gripping a knot of tree root on this side, I would be able to slink under with no problem.

Instantly my plan went awry. The sharp, poky ends of the fencing grabbed my jacket and belt and held me like the closed jaws of a crocodile. I was fatigued already from the rigors of my adventure and present escape, and started to slide down into the mud. Swearing, I watched myself become more and more damned as I struggled to avoid going into the river or eating worm food face-first. As I tried more and more urgently to push myself through, I saw myself go deeper and deeper into the slime until it was a forgone conclusion that I was not getting out of this without a desperate, muddy struggle.

My whole right half was now thrust smartly down into the pasty shit, and I could feel the cold dampness soaked through past my long johns to bare skin. Swearing some more, I gave up trying to keep clean or stealthy and yanked myself the rest of the way through, clawing my way back up the river bank like a prehistoric amphibious beast leaving behind the primal sea to go on land and walk erect.

I sat down on the lumpy grass overlooking the stagnant grey river and took a rest while my exasperation cooled to resignation. I had perforated my pants, coat, and unmentionables; my boots and whole right side were liberally coated in slick, stinking mud, as were my hands. Of course I had just vacuumed out my car the day much for that. As I drove away there was not a cop in sight. It began to rain harder.


The Silk Road Wound Through Michigan

October, 2010.

Wow, the internet really is something, eh? Without leaving my chair I was able to learn about and quickly locate an abandoned silk mill in Ionia County in the small, quiet town of Belding. Once, however, this town was not so easily dismissable; it was the hub of a great American industry.

I remembered seeing the Belding silk industry mentioned in my copy of the c.1927 book, Michigan's Thirty-Seven Million Acres of Diamonds...

The Flat River cradled the mill town of Belding, and the industry it spawned there:

Seeing photos of a gothic clocktower lording over old redbrick mill buildings got my heart rate up. Hank and I saddled up the Buick and set out westward along I-96 through the driving rain. Three hours later we arrived in Belding, and the weather had abated into a gloriously sunny day. The sight of the various old brick mills along the Flat River running through town was just mouthwatering.

Finding a way through the fence was not hard. We crossed a former railroad trestle but had to sit and nonchalantly wait while some yokuls fished old scrap metal out of the river bottom (one guy was in waders). They were pulling up old railroad spike plates...2010 was desperate times, and scrap iron was still worth something.

Anyway it took them almost an hour to bugger off so we could make our way in.

Being totally boarded-up made it mostly dark inside.

According to the website of the Alvah N. Belding Public Library (which is where we parked),
Among the permanent industries of the United States were the silk manufacturing plants of the Belding Brothers & Company. They had mills located in four states and Canada - Rockville, Ct, Northampton, MA, Belding, MI, Montreal, Canada, and Petaluma, CA. All these mills ranked with the very best from the point of view of modern factory construction, mechanical equipment and liberal management.
What makes a record of the Belding Company’s enterprise particularly interesting is the humble way in which it was started. The foundation of it was laid in 1860 when Hiram H. Belding and Alvah N. Belding started from their home in Belding, Michigan (the western homestead of the family after leaving the east in 1858) selling silk from house to house. This silk was purchased for them by their brother, Milo M. Belding, who was then residing at their common birth-place, Ashfield, MA. This enterprise soon assumed the form of a large business and in a year after starting, the Belding brothers had extended the scope of their trade until it required the services of several teams, and embraced the largest part of the jobbing trade in sections in which they were operating. 

The library's webpage continues,
In 1866 the Belding Brothers began manufacturing silk thread in Rockville, CT. In 1872 the increased demand for their products compelled them to build an additional mill in Northampton, MA, where they manufactured various broad goods and embroidery silks of every description. The brothers found expansion necessary and established themselves in Belding, Michigan in 1890. The Belding location was their largest single enterprise, operating four mills. Mill No. 1 was for silk thread exclusively, Mills No. 2 and 3 for fabrics and Mill No. 4 for manufacture of sewing and embroidery silks of every description as well as a variety of crochet cotton.

We found the base of the smokestack to be resting on boulders:

The interiors reflect the hodge-podge add-on way in which this mill was built up over the decades--like any good mill! Lots of variety.

Belding Brothers & Co. established salesrooms in Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Boston, Cincinnati, St. Paul, Baltimore, San Francisco, New Orleans, Montreal and Toronto to market their products. "From these salesrooms traveling salesmen visited every city, town, and hamlet in the United States."

According to Dunbar's Michigan, A History of the Wolverine State, Belding Bros. & Co. employed 1,200 people by the year 1909--one quarter of the town's population. In fact the town was renamed Belding in 1871, in honor of the Belding family (it had previously been named Patterson's Mill).

After wandering through the dark for some time we found the staircase to the clocktower.

Seemed like a very long climb...we hit landing after landing, and the stairs got narrower & narrower...

As we neared the top, we found a darkened level with a small room in it, which housed--

The clock mechanism!

Made in Detroit, even:

Shinola this ain't.

At long last the uppermost floor was reached, which contained the clock faces:

4:20, man!

As the Belding Library's webpage explains, in the true paternalistic style of an old-school company town, the Belding Bros. Co. built housing for its workers.
The conditions at Belding, Michigan, were such that it became necessary to employ large number of young women who were not residents of the town and in view of obtaining the most intelligent and desirable class, which the nature of their business required, the Belding Brothers & Company built and maintained three high-class boarding houses, “The Ashfield,” “The Belrockton” and “The White Swan,” with ample accommodation for one hundred and twenty-five persons each.
The dormitories were all handsome pieces of architecture and were fitted with all the modern conveniences of their day. Steam heat, hot and cold water, baths, electric lights, free libraries, and comfortably furnished in order to afford the young women employed by Belding Brothers & Co. as good a home as could be found only among the more prosperous citizens of the country. Maintenance of these buildings was not philanthropy, but a business proposition. The Belding Brothers experience had taught that highly intelligent, contented, well-paid employees would produce goods of superior quality and would inspire the success of the establishment. The dormitories were presided over by a matron and governed by rules and regulations similar to those of college dormitories of previous years.
Today, all of the old dormitories have been torn down except the Belrockton, which acts as the Community Center, and houses the Belding Museum.

Notice the lightbulb sockets for illuminating the clock face:

Here was the gearbox that drove all four clock faces in synchronization:

Again, as with any company town, all the other amenities were provided for as well. After all, why would you want to live anywhere else? Heh.
Belding Brothers & Co. had also a well-established corporation hospital at Belding for the convenience and welfare of their employees and their families. The charges were very modest, the equipment modern, and staff well-trained. 
Belding Brothers & Company merged with Heminway Silk Company in 1925 and did business as Belding-Heminway. Soon after, the company was acquired by Corticelli Silk Company and did business as Belding-Heminway-Corticelli. The last mill in Belding closed in 1932.
Dunbar says that company operations to moved out of Belding due to a more attractive offer from a company based in Putnam, Connecticut in 1925 to relocate there. The new Heminway management of the company was attracted by this and moved out of Michigan. "Adjusting to the loss of its biggest employer was painful but Belding survived, as did the Belding name, which continued to appear on the spools of thread used by dressmakers across the country."

According to the HAER, the Mill #2 was used exclusively for the manufacture of silk cloth until it was closed and dismantled from 1935-36.

There was yet one more level above us--the belfry.

The bell however, was absent.

The striker at least was still here:

We were the equivalent of about seven stories above the ground...the view was excellent.

There's our railroad trestle across the Flat River. Railroad trestles are the explorer's friend.

Across the courtyard, we could see another shorter looked like a watertower whose roof had been chopped off:

Also in the distance to the upper right, is the Alvah N. Belding Memorial Library, who have provided this quick run-down of the four mills:

· Mill #1 (aka Red Mill) was built in 1890.

· Mill #2 (aka White Mill) was built in 1901, a clock tower was erected there in 1903. This building is also standing. It is located directly west of the Alvah N. Belding Memorial Library.

· Mill #3 (aka Electric Mill) ws built in 1909.
· Mill #4 (aka as Richardson Mill) was built in 1886) – It was built and immediately sold as the Richardson Silk Mill because the Belding Brothers did not want their name associated with it until they were certain it would be successful. It was reacquired in 1907 - This building is still standing. It was converted to Richardson Silk Mill Apartments 1986.

We spent about an hour here in the clocktower, just reveling in the coolness.

Our descent back into the completely darkened regular levels of the mill came eventually, but mostly so that we could make our way to the next point of interest--the watertower.

The stairway to reach it was much the same as the clocktower's stairway.

The climb was shorter, but the view was just as good. And we had roof access.

In the far distance beyond the clocktower I could see the Richardson Mill, which had been converted to apartments in the 1980s:

After this we went down again for a well-deserved more thorough inspection of the rest of the mill below us.

What a nifty old cupola.

There were now some huge well-lit sections with a production line partially intact as well.

Belding also played a part in the important refrigeration industry in Michigan...

Here is an excerpt of an article from MLive, describing the uses the plant went through after it ceased silk operations in the 1930s:
In 1890, Alvah Belding and his brother, Hiram, established Belding Brothers & Co., which became a national leader in the production of hand-sewing silks for embroidering, crocheting and darning. The firm later manufactured sewing thread, fabrics and satins, employing 500 to 750 people at its peak before closing in 1932. 
The mills were purchased by Greenville-based Gibson Refrigerator Co., which converted them into a plant for central and room air conditioners.
Gibson Refrigerator's roots date to 1877, when cabinet makers produced wooden ice boxes at Belding-Hall Co. in Belding. Belding-Hall was purchased in 1908 by Frank Gibson, and the ice-box production was moved to Greenville. Gibson Refrigerator was bought by Hupp Corp. in 1956 and sold in 1967 to White Consolidated Industries Inc. In 1986, Sweden-based Electrolux AB bought White Consolidated, which later became White-Westinghouse. 
The Belding air-conditioner plant was operating as Belding Products when it closed in February 1988, with White-Westinghouse moving the operations to Edison, N.J. The factory had employed nearly 450 workers.

The assembly lines you see here today are leftover from that phase of the mill's history, where it made air conditioners.

I originally hypothesized the genesis of a world-class silk industry in Belding to be a direct effect of being located so near to the world-class furniture industry in Grand Rapids, Zeeland, and Holland, Michigan.

Regardless, I truly am descended from a once-great and revered state. European nobility were known to patronize the works of the Dutch-blooded furniture makers on Michigan's western coast.

A more modern addition to the plant:

I found the main power room, with all the massive disconnects and breakers for commercial power entering the mill.

I noticed there was no powerplant in the complex--remember, this mill was literally a mill originally and used water power. The next building to be built after this one, Mill #3, was the first one built for electric power.

Just outside this room in a small courtyard was a collection of monstrous old transformers.

Heading back inside, the sun was starting to settle into the west and cast those golden rays of pure artsy-fartsiness into the mill, better known as "The Magic Hour."

Time to run around and kick up some dust off the floor, then hurry up and get a picture!

I also noticed that some of the bricks strewn about were stamped with the name of the company/town on them:

I was not smart enough to steal one.

The main courtyard was where I wanted to be during the sunset, to catch the awesome glow of red brick in the dusk, so that's where we wrapped up:

Hank spotted this cool base to...a lamp post?

All told, we spent several hours in the mill. We finally adjourned ourselves at dusk to the nearest pub for some beers and chow.

Michigan's Thirty-Seven Million Acres of Diamonds, by Clyde L. Newnom
Lower Peninsula of Michigan, An Inventory of Historic Engineering and Industrial Sites, HAER, 1976
Michigan, A History of the Wolverine State, by Dunbar & May