Pine's Last Stand

I recently explored the ghost town of Pere Cheney, but elsewhere out in the woods of Crawford County lie the ruins of the sawmill town of Deward, which was infamous for a different reason.

Deward represented the great "last-gasp" of the legendary logging industry in Michigan, and its massive mill harvested the last remaining stand of virgin old-growth pine left in the Lower Peninsula in one final, dramatic bonanza.

As you can plainly see there is new forest growth covering most of Michigan today, but it will take another thousand years for it to recuperate to the level of maturity it was at in the 1800s.

Deward sits on the line between what is now the Pere Marquette State Forest, the Mackinaw State Forest, and the Au Sable State Forest; and near the corner of Crawford, Kalkaska, Antrim, and Otsego counties, by the headwaters of the Manistee River. The USGS Quadrangle map shows another ghost town, Ishaward, just to the south along the bank of the Manistee River, but does not show any structures' locations for either town.

Despite not being a very challenging place to pinpoint on a map, I had an extraordinarily difficult time getting to Deward, thanks to a streak of very bad luck. On my first attempt at finding the ghost town in August of 2015, I got my truck stuck in a sandpit at the bottom of Toll Hill, on Deward Road.

Some petroleum company truck had stopped in the intersection, forcing me to slow down through the deep sand, and since I have a standard, non-4x4 pickup, I got stuck. The other truck blithely drove away, leaving me stranded in the middle of nowhere, and I was forced to call for a tow from Grayling with one bar of cell service and one bar of battery power left on my phone, sweating bullets all the while that I might end up spending the night walking back to Frederic when I had to work in the morning. By the time all that was resolved I didn't even have time to look for any ruins of Deward.

I made a second attempt a few weeks later...and still couldnt find anything. I had parked at the top of Toll Hill so I wouldn't have to go through the sandpit again, but a freak thunderstorm came up as I was hiking toward the townsite and I ended up getting completely drenched while running a mile back to where I left my truck, which made for a miserable ride home...I started to think this place was cursed.

All I got to see of the town was this strange five-way intersection in the midst of a large clearing, with a DNR sign that said I was in the "Deward Conservation Area" or whatever:

On my third attempt I came in hot with all guns blazing, approaching at dawn from Manistee River Rd. instead of Deward Rd., and found the ruins with no problem. Of course when you come geared up for all-out battle you meet no resistance...figures.

Anyway, of all the hundreds of old ghost towns in Michigan, Deward might be the one that is the best-researched; I had no problem finding all kinds of historical information on it online or in the books on my shelf. This is partly because it was so much bigger and had existed much more recently as compared to other typical lumber towns; the sawmill was built in 1901, the last whistle blew on March 16, 1912, and the last family finally left town in August 1932.

As it turns out, professional historian and museum director Rob Burg--a friend of my girlfriend's, I just realized--seems to be something of an expert on Deward, and wrote an article on it in 2014. The town even was significant enough to have merited mention in Willis F. Dunbar and George S. May's authoritative tome, Michigan: A History of the Wolverine State. Deward was a company town founded literally overnight for the sole purpose of liquidating a recently deceased lumber baron's assets, per a stipulation in his will.

Mr. D.E. Ward (hence "Deward") of West Bloomfield owned timber lands that stretched across Crawford County, Kalkaska County, Antrim County, Charlevoix County, and Otsego County, and by the time of his death in 1900 he still owned 90,000 acres of standing pine in this area, according to Dunbar & May. Clearly Mr. Ward was a big deal 'round these parts. The executors of his will found that his estate had to be settled within 12 years, which sparked something of a race amongst his heirs to chop down this forest as fast as they could, so that each of them could get their inheritance cashed in.

When he was living, Mr. Ward had estimated it would take twenty years to log this 90,000 acre tract out, but according to author Larry Wakefield his impatient heirs did it in just ten. Obviously Mr. Ward never read The Lorax to any of them when they were kids, haha...maybe this is where Dr. Seuss got the inspiration to write it?

The headwaters of the Manistee River were too shallow here to float any logs, so Mr. Ward had built a logging railroad from Frederic to the port at East Jordan in 1886, according to an entry on But in their planning for Deward, Ward's heirs decided that it would be more economical to ship finished lumber over the rails than just the logs, so they enlarged the narrow-gauge railroad to standard gauge, and had a huge state-of-the-art sawmill built here with a spur connecting it to Frederic, to facilitate the fastest possible harvest. Operations began in September 1901, in the heart of Lower Michigan's last original forest.

Today much of what was cut has grown back of course, thanks to planting efforts by the CCC during the Great Depression.

It was a glorious morning for this little the dew from the grasses soaked through the knees of my pants I just hoped that I was on the right track this time. A couple gnarled old apple trees next to the path told me that I was definitely in the area of a former settlement:

Suddenly, as I came within sight of the river access, my eyes locked in on something large and concrete--a foundation:

Looking closer, I saw that it had a big eye-bolt set into it, with some steel guy wire still attached...this must have been one of the anchors for the cables that stabilized the sawmill's massive 100-foot-tall smokestack:

The river looked happy today too:

Nearby, the other weight, again with the steel cable still tied through the eyelet where it was left on the day it was cut for good, and the smokestack taken down:

Peering a little farther back into the wood-line, I spotted what could only be the foundations of the actual mill, much to my satisfaction:

The sawmill at Deward was perhaps the biggest, most modern, and most productive mill in the U.S. at the time, cranking out an alleged 200,000 board-feet in 20 hours, and according to author David M. Brown its high-tech machinery was brought in from Germany.

Most of the mill was constructed of wood-plank walls, so the only real foundations that would remain behind are those that the actual machinery rested upon. Basically a sawmill is nothing more than a big temporary shell built around a giant saw to keep the workers and the equipment out of the weather just long enough to flatten the local forest and turn it into Thneeds...which, after all, are what everyone needs!

In this case, Rob Burg tells me, these foundations went to the steam boiler and associated engine apparatus that provided the mill's motive power.

At its peak the Deward mill was capable of cutting 52 million board-feet per year, more than half of what Perry Hannah's mill turned out in 15 years at Traverse City, Brown writes. The tallest tree ever processed by the Deward mill was probably close to 200 feet tall, and produced 7,856 board-feet of sawn lumber.

According to Wakefield, the mill had a system of clutches that allowed it to continue running constantly even with sections of it down for repair. The mill ran day and night for ten years, until all 90,000 acres were converted to stump barrens. After reaching East Jordan by train, the lumber was put on barges and floated to Chicago, where it was dispersed all over the country, Wakefield writes. He also said that once an entire year's production was sent to Argentina, which was experiencing a massive building boom in those days.

When the Truffula trees were all gone, the Deward sawmill was dismantled. Rob Burg says that it was rebuilt at Shelldrake, another ghost town in the Upper Peninsula near Tahquamenon Falls. It stood there for about two years before burning sounds like I have something else to go look for now.

I've heard that by the Great Depression, whatever structures of Deward were still standing at the time were consumed in a large fire as well, which swept over the town's remains.

A panoramic photo of the ruins of the sawmill in Deward c.1942 can be seen at the bottom of page 7 of the Railway & Locomotive Historical Society Newsletter Vol. 20, No. 1.

PhilAtTech, a user who posts on an exploring-related web forum that I am also on claimed that the concrete these foundations are made out of was mixed with slag as a filler, which most likely came from an iron smelter "located in a town to the northwest." Since the railroad that served Deward terminated in East Jordan, and since iron has always been big business there, I'd say it's a safe bet.

It looks like there are plenty of smooth cobblestones mixed in to the concrete as well, undoubtedly collected from the glacial till that can be found in the ground all over northern Michigan.

Plenty of threaded rod sticks up from the foundation, a telltale sign that heavy machinery was bolted down here.

If I'm not mistaken these bolts were about two inches in diameter--pretty beefy.

Along the forest floor nearby were a series of much smaller, square-pyramid-shaped concrete footings  arranged in seemingly uniform rows:

There were these few that were prominent, and seemed to be clustered by themselves, but upon closer investigation I discovered many more just by following the lines they made off into the woods.

Here is one hiding under a fern and some grass...

...while this one has almost crumbled away completely:

Rob Burg tells me these were most likely supports for the wooden trestle where finished lumber was moved from the mill's upper level where it was cut, to the lumberyard.

After having wandered a ways away from the mill's big foundations in search of these smaller ones, I began to see a couple long, straight trenches in the ground as well:

They seemed too straight and too uniform to have been natural topographical features, but I'm not sure exactly what function they could have served. Perhaps some kind of flume, or maybe just a natural gap occurring between two parallel railroad spurs? It didn't seem big enough to be a fire break. (Answer: the lines were indeed the spaces in between railroad grades, as the DNR re-planted these pine trees right over the former railroad spurs).

Having apparently exhausted my search for any other ruins of the sawmill, I decided to make my way back up from the river area where the mill was, toward the big field where most of the town site was.

The town of Deward was built as two long rows of houses with room enough for 200 families, and according to Roy L. Dodge, Deward's population made it up to 800 people at its peak. It had a post office, school, church, community hall, boarding house, a hotel and the usual stores.

There was also the roundhouse, depot, and warehouse at the yards of the Detroit & Charlevoix Railroad, "over which eight engines steamed day and night," Dodge says, hauling nearly half a million board feet of lumber out of the mill per day. The village had a brief revival in 1917 where the population went back up to 191, and it still had an operating hotel--and even one of those new-fangled telephones.

An article about Deward by Carl Addison Leech was printed in Michigan History Magazine in 1944 that described the layout of the town. It had two halves essentially, one representing the mill "group," and the other being the railroad group, with a main street connecting the two.

The part of town for the mill men was where the company general store, two-story boarding house, and two-room schoolhouse stood, as well as the Swedish Lutheran church and 300 or so cottages for the families. It was the north end of town where the railroad men and their buildings were grouped, such as the depot, roundhouse, boardinghouse, and cottages.

While crossing the large field in search of any other ruins, I paused when I saw this sudden depression in the ground, thinking that it might have once been someone's cellar, or an outhouse:

I recalled that PhilAtTech had also said that there was a line of depressions left in the ground from the outhouses in everyone's backyard, and I believed that I saw a pattern on aerial imagery that showed some depressions of that nature back when I was doing my research. He said that there were also a couple asparagus plants that keep popping up where they had once been planted in the gardens of the houses that once stood along here.

It wasn't much further before I came across this large concrete foundation. Supposedly there was a large concrete and brick foundation "left from where the town bank vault was once securely mounted," but I'm not sure this was it. Seems a little bit long for a bank vault. Besides, Rob Burg tells me that there was no actual bank in Deward; that is a popular misconception. This foundation went to the railroad scale building--which I sort of had a feeling about, since it stands very near a few obvious railroad grades.

Deward Town Hall was actually located on the second floor of the D.E. Ward Company store and office building. Although it did not actually serve as the seat of town government as its name suggests, it was where "the elite or young set held dances and played games" according to Leech's article, one of which was called "No master in the hallway." In this game, a man with the smell of liquor on his breath was given the "foot-lights," whatever that means.

The seat of local government was in Frederic; in a company-owned town, there is no "governmental system" per se, but for the company itself.

Leech wrote that the town hall had a kitchen and was used for social functions such as Thanksgiving dinners, and hunter’s feasts known as the "fin, fur and feather party." On Thanksgiving, Mr. Ward's estate provided turkeys for the feast, and the women prepared them while the men went hunting to see who could bring back the most game. Since that was before DNR game limits, everything the men bagged counted in points, Leech explained.

"No story of Deward would be complete without reference to the baseball team," Leech insists. The Deward Bush Rangers were "the pride of the town" and the players wore a big "D" on white serge suits trimmed in blue. Deward's Bush Rangers played other bush league teams from Frederic, Mancelona, Gaylord, Grayling, and Waters.

Off to the side of the foundation was this large pad, which had almost like a pass-though going under it...I assume it was an integral part of the scale that measured the weight of the railroad cars passing over it:

I also began to discern a couple distinctive former railroad grades--long, unnaturally flat paths that once would have held railroad tracks. I got the impression that there were several spurs arcing through Deward.

Along my return path to where I parked, I suddenly noticed that the gravel trail was actually also composed of the ground-up shards of glass from bottles and other various things leftover from Deward's period of occupation.

It was as if grading this trail had dredged up all of these artifacts and deposited them on display along the shoulder of the "road."

By the types of glass and shapes of bottlenecks I was finding, it was clear that most of this stuff dated pretty far back, at least as far as the early 1900s.

There were some spots that had so many different shards of glass concentrated together that I thought the road had been cut right through a former town dump:

After leaving the Deward townsite area, I decided to go across the river to see an area that has been designated as a "pine stump preserve"...

It is an eerie sort of "forest graveyard" where the sun-bleached stumps of trees felled over a century ago still remain scattered like rows of tombstones from the primordial forest of old. It is also technically in Kalkaska County.

The stumps were not just found in the clearings, but they were also seen everywhere deep in the second-growth woods as well:

Rob Burg wrote an article on Deward in 2014 where he delves into the Mabel Edwards Secord papers at the University of Michigan’s Bentley Historical Library, which once belonged to the wife of James Secord, the foreman of the Deward Mill during it's entire operational life. Besides her diaries, the collection also contains the sawmill's record books from 1901-1907, and letters between her husband and others.

Mrs. Secord was highly involved in the social life of the town, and she was the designated piano-player for church services at both the Swedish Lutheran church, and the Protestant services at the aforementioned Deward Town Hall on the second floor of the company store.

Mrs. Secord's diaries capture a snapshot of life in this long-vanished community, telling of activities like the Swedish Ladies Aid Society, box socials, sleighing parties, the annual Thanksgiving hunt, and a "Colonial Tea" to raise money for the minister's salary. There was also a Temperance movement in Deward; despite the fact that liquor and saloons were forbidden in the company-owned town, men still procured what they needed by making trips to the town of Frederic, eight miles away.

The ban probably prevented a lot of the vice that plagued other lumber towns, but it also made it hard to retain good workers, since many of the men could find work in other areas that weren't as restrictive.

One other interesting tidbit from Mrs. Secord's diaries was that there was a labor strike in May of 1907, when the mill superintendent Mr. Shoaf hired 23 men from Detroit to work in the lumberyard. The strike was "put down," Burg says, which I take to mean is a turn-of-the-century euphemism for "the men were beaten with clubs and the agitators were chased out of town or killed." According to the diary most of the Detroit men drifted away afterward, since they apparently weren't particularly keen on the eight-mile hike to Frederic to get booze.

Just for fun, Wakefield provides a transcription of an angry letter that was apparently written by a lumberjack who worked at Deward, to the Cleveland Saw Company in May 1903:
I got a saw which I buy from you. But why for Gods sakes you doan send me no handles? I loose to me my jobbing. Wants the use a saw when she doan got no handle? Sure thing you doan treat me rite. I rote ten days and my boss he holler for logs like hell for saw.
You know it is plenty cold winter now. And the men no pull the saw, she got no handle pretty quick I goan send her back. I goan got some handle saw from Meyers Company. Good-by!
Yours truly,
Anthony "Push"
P.S. Since I write you I find de (expletive) handle in the box. Excuse please.
Whether that letter is legit or a hoax is up for question in my opinion, but I would sure pity the fool who causes an angry Swede to "loose to him his jobbing," doan'cha know.

A February 2013 story in The Northwoods Call entitled "The Ghosts of Deward: A Study in Mismanagement" discusses how this area was not only raided for its natural resources back in the 1900s, but it has seen an ongoing tradition of extractive industries leaving behind a scarred landscape. Deward was even used in a recent MLive editorial as an example of unchecked capitalistic greed let run amuck until natural resources were depleted. The "Once-lers" have definitely had their way with this part of Michigan.

My photos don't show any of it, but there were so many petroleum wells in this area that I don't think I was ever out of earshot of at least one. Talk of doing open pit mining and fracking has floated around as well. By the late 1970s Deward "could only be described as God-forsaken brush country," the author grumbled, "punctured by oil and gas wells and scarred by various other development activities."

Even after that much time, the author still described this area as "a virtual wasteland of weathered and decaying stumps on soil so delicate that bruises left by horse-drawn wagon wheels more than 60 years earlier could still be seen." Again it was the fact that the soil here was relatively poor to start with, as well as occasional wildfires that kept the land from being able to recover properly.

The Lorax said nothing, just gave me a glance. Just gave me a very sad, sad backward he lifted himself by the seat of his pants--and I'll never forget the grim look on his face when he hoisted himself and took leave of this place through a hole in the smog without leaving a trace! And all that the Lorax left here in this mess was a small pile of rocks, with one word: UNLESS.

Maybe I should have brought some black paint and painted the word "UNLESS" on the side of the mill's foundation.

Michigan Ghost Towns of the Lower Peninsula, Vol. I, Roy L. Dodge, p. 78
Ghost Towns of Michigan Vol. 1, by Larry Wakefield, p. 15-20
Michigan County Atlas, 2nd Ed., by David M. Brown
Michigan: A History of the Wolverine State, by Willis F. Dunbar, George S. May, p. 344
Michillaneous II, by Gary Barfknecht, p. 287
Railroad Depots of Michigan: 1910-1920, edited by David J. Mrozek, p. 111
"Deward: A Lumberman’s Ghost Town," Michigan History Magazine, Vol. 28, No. 1
Railway & Locomotive Historical Society Newsletter Vol. 20, No. 1


  1. My grandfather, who was in the lumber business, told me that the mill from Deward had indeed been moved to Shelldrake. One of his favorite occupations when he and my grandmother had retired and moved back to Marquette was to take his Cadillac and go out poking around on logging roads throughout da Yoop. He was very knowledgeable about logging and lumber mills in da Yoop in the later days of the business up there.

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