Starving Gratiot

Gratiot County sits in the middle of Michigan's "Mitten," and there was one of those old water slide parks that stood on a hill overlooking the highway that I took to get to Mount Pleasant when I lived there. When it closed down and slowly started getting overgrown, I took notice more and more on my trips back and forth from Detroit, and thought it might make for a neat place to take some photos, but I never got around to it until recently.

Along the way I stopped to take a look at the long-vacant Ammi Wright House in attractive downtown Alma, but I didn't find any means of ingress that didn't involve a felonious act, so we kept going to the slide park. Getting to it involved a long snowy walk through a bumpy field, and when we started getting close I could see that there was a somewhat broken Bobcat parked halfway in a structure that it really didn't fit inside of:

Here was what looked to be a wading pool perhaps:

Steps led up to the large central building.

I would guess this place to have been constructed in the 1980s, but I wasn't really been able to dig up much about it online. According to a question on Yahoo Answers in 2007, there is a rumor that "15 years ago" a young girl hit her head on a wall at this slide park and was killed, allegedly prompting the owner to pack up that night and disappear. That post, and other search engine hits seem to name the park as "Alice's Wonderland."

Taking a peek inside, it looked like there was once a cafeteria or snack bar in here.

By the level of vandalism it looks like it's been abandoned for a few years.

This stack of pipes however might indicate that there was once an effort to remodel and reopen this attraction:

Mommy, what's a "payphone"?

Just beyond the main building was a smaller one, and the beginning of the slope that led up to the top of the tall hill that overlooks the highway.

It appeared to house the plumbing, filters, or pumps for the water slide system:

Old hand-railings mark former walkways, where barefooted or sandal-clad kids undoubtedly once scampered on their way to the many slides.

I think this shorter, gentler one was meant for the kiddies:

I should have brought a saucer sled!

The bulk of the hill still lay above us:

The highway began to come into view:

The view out over flat Gratiot County farmland was mostly blotted by the snow that was beginning to fall again. I have a feeling that on a clear summer day the view up here is excellent.

At the pinnacle of the hill was this overgrown tree, and the start of the tallest slide:

Gratiot County was set off in 1831 and organized in 1855, named after Captain Charles Gratiot, who supervised the construction of Fort Gratiot at modern day Port Huron in 1814.

David M. Brown writes in his Michigan County Atlas that even though humans have existed in Michigan for 10,000 years the Gratiot County area resisted encroachment, with the earliest evidence of habitation only dating back 2,000 years, thanks to the fact that it remained so densely forested and swampy.

The first white settlers did not make their way this far into Michigan's interior until 1846, and author Gene Scott says that Gratiot County was once nicknamed "starving Gratiot" because the land could be bought for 50 cents an acre, but it had to be developed within a year, under pain of foreclosure.

A lack of viable transportation routes into the county left a lot of buyers scrambling to make ends meet once they arrived and discovered the reality of the situation. Most ended up leaving, and Brown said that the first successful harvest did not occur until 1859. It was a couple more decades by the time the land was cleared and drained so that large-scale farming could begin, and "the county that could not feed itself" finally started to thrive, and dream of building water slide parks. Gratiot County was also where some of the Scotford Relics came from in the 1890s.

Another interesting place in southern Gratiot County that I've always wanted to check out was the semi-ghost town of Pompeii, which we visited after leaving the slide park. There wasn't much there except for four corners, but something in the damp gray of the misty winter day lent it a very moody atmosphere.

The book Michigan Shadow Towns, A Study of Vanishing and Vibrant Villages by Gene Scott says that Pompei (with one "i") was named after the famous Italian city that was buried by the eruption Mt. Vesuvius in the year 79AD, but it was founded in 1854 when a Joseph B. Smith built a "halfway house" here for travelers on the old state road to Ithaca.

A hotel, tavern, and some stores were built later, and by 1860 Pompei was a real village with a bid for a railroad stop. The Toledo, Saginaw & Muskegon Railroad that was mentioned in my post about Butternut Elevator was supposed to also pass through Pompei, but when the dogged villagers learned that the tracks were to actually be laid a mile and a half to the south, they moved their town down there in 1887.

Pompei then prospered with the construction of many new homes and businesses, including a grain elevator and sawmill. In 1897 they changed the name from Pompei to Pompeii, so as to better match its doomed Italian counterpart, though locals apparently pronounced it "Pom-pee-eye," and still do even to this day. Pompeii continued growing and in 1910 sported a state bank, 16-bed hospital, and 300 residents.

Pompeii started to decline in 1920. The hotel closed in 1930, the railroad stopped running in the 1950s, the old state road was moved further out of town, and the school closed by 1960. When Gene Scott was writing in 2005, there were about 70 families still living in Pompeii, and its post office--established in 1856--still operates. Gratiot County itself continues to thrive for the most part as well.

Michigan Shadow Towns, A Study of Vanishing and Vibrant Villages, by Gene Scott, p. 59
Michigan County Atlas, Second Ed., by David M. Brown, p. 52-53


  1. Ah, you finally got to my old-old stomping grounds. On a clear summer's day, the view from up there is... very, very flat. Sadly, the only other interesting ruins in Gratiot that I know of (my old elementary school, which was 100-ish years old and filled with fascinating stuff) are now a flat grassy field. The only other things I know of are abandoned farmhouses, but they're mostly falling apart with nothing left inside.

    1. Wow cool, I didn't know you were from around those parts. But yeah, I don't have much else on my radar screen for that county either, sadly.

    2. The Wright building used to be a women's hospital. My Mom was born there in 1954! (according to my Dad) Alice's Wonderland was such a fun place to go! There were many water slides, bumper boats, wading pools, food stalls, games and even a zip line that you could ride down to a big pool and drop in. There have been rumors over the years of it reopening but sadly it hasn't happened yet. Thank you for the trip down memory lane!

  2. I was VERY interested to read this article about the old water slide. I've lived in Gratiot County my whole life and when I was younger, I always held onto a little hope that they would once again re-build that slide, one day! However, As I kept reading and seen the Pompeii "corners" I was very impressed. I have lived in Pompeii for 32 years! My whole Life. Of course, I have ventured out, here & there but now am raising my kids here. In 2000, Pompeii did have a bar, a party store, a bank, post office & Bingo one night a week! I thought maybe our town would be like most towns in Gratiot County and start to thrive. Once, the bank closed, everything else closed right behind it. We even just recently just had an "Auction Place" that lasted about a year and is not closed, as well. I have old pictures of what Pompeii used to look like, when the railroad DID run through it and when it was a "Town". It's very interesting! Thank you SO much for posting and caring about our little "town".. :) (Even though if you tell anyone the zip code, it will usually NEVER pull up in any systems, and if you tell anyone the name of the town, very few can pronounce it. And, YES we do pronounce it Pom Pee Eye.. It's just easier).. Thanks again for the article, I love it!!

  3. Nail Hed, A better name would be knuckle head. First and for most, you trespassed on private land to get your pictures, anyone with an IQ of 16 that wanted to know about the park might have peeked there head in the hotel in front to ask a question. I opened the park July 5th 1985, and closed labor day weekend 1987. NOT BECAUSE SOMEONE GOT HURT!! Two people did die, in a Texas water slide, one girl on a California water slide because someone is as incompetent as you must had designed it without UV inhibitor. Since you wouldn't understand that, it means the sun deteriorated the fiber glass. It became impossible to buy liability insurance (in case of an accident) Therefore, I closed the park. Lost 750 thousand dollars and the only thing I have done with it since, is prosecute trespassers. You must have voted for Obama, hope the rest of your life is more successful. P.S. there is nothing wrong with the bobcat, I use it to pull idiots heads out of there ass's and would be glad to volunteer it for a rectal cranial extraction on you.
    Mike Pung

    1. Mike, thanks for the historical information on the slide park. I'm sorry that you had to close the business down under such unfortunate circumstances, and that it has apparently filled you with so much angst and apparent hatred toward your fellow man. I also empathize with you regarding the apparently false rumor about the death occurring at your park, since it sure is annoying when people see something online and don't read it carefully before casting judgement on someone regarding it.

      For what it's worth I didn't vote for Obama, and I had no idea there was a hotel anywhere nearby that I could peek my head into for asking questions about the slide park...alas, my IQ is only 15 so I guess I failed there. Surprisingly, 15 was still enough for me to comprehend the meaning of "UV inhibitor," but thanks for the tip anyway. By the way, I didn't trespass on your property, I borrowed a drone from President Obama to get the pictures.

    2. i remember an article in the morning sun where he went off on the lack of business his park had, how he blamed the people, and i paraphrase, everyone complained about there being nothing to do here so i opened this park and nobody came. you took a chance and it didn't pay off. Mr. Pung apparently still harbors a great amount of anger towards the people of Gratiot County.

  4. I used to work at that water park when I was in high school. I don't know the story about anyone being killed there (valid or otherwise). It was called Alice's Wonderland and was owned by Mike Pung of Alma when I worked there in 1985-6. That first big "wading" pool was actually a bumper boats pool.

    There was also a go-cart track and the two slides, plus a "Tarzan Drop" which was a zip-line that fell into the pool. A mini-golf course surrounded to pool and slides in various parts of the hill.

  5. The Railroad has not stopped running thru Pompeii. The train hauls grain out of MAC in Middleton on a regular basis. But .. I loved your story.

  6. ...and to think, I was just thinking the other day of how thankful I was to live in the country in Gratiot County. There are good people around me, beautiful sunrises and sunsets to enjoy and we seldom hear a siren. I love country life in Gratiot County...when I first moved here, I thought it was the flattest, ugliest place God had created, but you find beauty wherever you are if you look for it.

  7. Some of my greatest memories growing up in Alma came in the the summer of 1985. My father was the general contractor on the job helping Mike to get the park opened up. I'll never forget my dad coming in at 5 am waking me up and heading back to the park, we wouldn't get home until after sunset 7 days a week. Once the park was opened up in July, Alice's Wonderland was the only place in town to be. Thanks for the memories Mike!

  8. I lived in Pompeii in the mid to late sixties, my grandmother was there until she died at age 92 (late 90s). Seems so foreign now, living in the uptown area of San Diego (population1.4 million.) I sometimes wonder where all the kids I grew up with are now. I left there in 1967 @ age 14 . Marta (Harlow) Lamb

  9. Lots of memories of Pompeii. The dances in the Odd Fellow Hall above Mahar's grocery. Wood's furniture. The telephone office I worked at run by Mrs. Spicer. When I rang a phone number it was a combination of long and short rings and it usually was a party line. The board opened at 7 AM and closed at 10PM. There were only 3 operators and we slept at night. I was related to half the town but I never knew which half. They all treated you as family.

  10. As a former "Pompeiian" now living in East Tennessee, I remember fondly all the highlights of Pompeii. My grandmother, Grace Sooy lived in Pompeii since 1956. She is now deceased as well as her home that was located across from the Pompeii Schoolhouse...just a couple of blocks north of beautiful downtown. Pompeii was small but we had everything including peace of mind that millions of kids will never know. I remember adult family members that belonged to the Odd Fellows and Rebekah Lodge that was located on the second floor above Mahar's Grocery that operated for many years. Mr. Mahar recently passed along with Mr. Dodge, the Pompeii Banker. The Pompeii Methodist Church is still alive and operating while the congregation has dwindled. I was just there in May, 1915 for my Uncle Richard Stoneman's funeral. It was fun to return to my beginnings and I have to say, the church ladies still know how to put on a great "dead spread" the church hall. Thanks to my cousin Nancy and Linda for their efforts that were certainly taught to them by the previous generations of church ladies.

  11. Very cool and exciting someone has thought our history was worth showing the internet world. Aside from lost fortunes and pissed off motel owners... Good page!~

  12. Also there is a church that has recently closed in Alma. St Marys. They just closed the doors and now are leaving it to rot... A lot of sad people in the community...
    Too bad someone local could not invest in it. It is a modern architectural wonder. But the people that ensure starving Gratiot still starves would rather see it rot!? Check this place out you wont even have to use a drone. Thanks for the time!


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