Hard Luck, and Tractor-henge

Photos date from 2015, 2017, and 2019.

As the ever-so-clever title implies, I had a little difficulty finding enough material in Gladwin County to be able to come up with sufficient substance to write a post about. The good thing at least was that Gladwin County is almost always on the way to someplace else up north that I am trying to get, so making multiple jaunts through its sparse, wooded sectors was not a major inconvenience.


It was only a matter of time before I had enough photos of interesting things to put a post together, which explains why some of these shots have snow in them, others were taken in spring, and some in the height of summer.


I drove many backroads from the northeastern to southeastern corners of the county, but still had little luck. One place I tried to find was the ghost town of Smith, but nothing was evident when I passed through the area. I then passed through the town of Estey, which some sources label as a "ghost town," but I did not get any ghostly vibes whatsoever from that somewhat flourishing community.


I did happen to pass a couple of cool isolated scenes like this abandoned Victorian farm house, which the local farmer had apparently just plowed and planted around to extend his fields, without bothering to demolish the structure.


I would have tried to venture inside but the farmer was nearby and the field looked very mushy, too soft to walk through. Not to mention it's like a taboo in my mind to just walk across someone's farm field. And there were currently a bunch of cows or alpacas or something grazing in the immediate area and I didn't want to start a panic.


Sadly it looks like this beautiful house has been gouged open in the rear, and may be in partial use as a pen for said livestock... If you look close you can still see some of the original cedar shingles clinging to the roof:


Of course I paid a brief visit to Podunk—because of its classic name it's one of the best-known ghost towns in Michigan, which I guess is something that Gladwin County can lay claim to.


Everything is pretty snugly secured in Podunk however, and people do live here, so I took a few snaps and kept it moving. In case you're wondering, the name comes not from Michigan, but from an Indian tribe native to Connecticut; the name was popularized in the 1840s by a Buffalo newspaper that regularly published "humorous observations on small town living" under the heading "Letters From Podunk," according to David M. Brown. As a result there were several towns in America subsequently named "Podunk" (including another in Michigan in Genesee County, and a "Hodunk" in Branch County). Today the word "podunk" is generally used as an adjective or even a pejorative to describe backwater areas populated by simple folk.


This is the school, which was built in 1904 and closed in 1955. The farming town was settled in the 1860s and never got big enough to have its own post office, but it had a dancehall and a Free Methodist church in 1934. The nearest store was three miles away according to author Larry Wakefield. He also reports that the town was allegedly named for one of its first settlers, a Mr. Podunk.

Not far from Podunk I came across something that I had never seen photos of before, and can't find anything else about online. I can only describe it as..."Tractor-henge"...!


Some local farmer (or perhaps, artist?) took a few old John Deere tractors and set them up in weird abstract poses all over his land, ala the "Cadillac Ranch" along U.S. Route 66 in Texas.


Is this the kind of farming we can expect now that it's legal to grow cannabis in Michigan? ;)


Tractor-henge is near the corner of Eagleson Road & N. Bard Road.


There is also another ghost town on the eastern edge of Gladwin County, buried deep in the Au Sable State Forest, called "Hard Luck." With names like Podunk and Hard Luck, it would seem like I was in the winnings for cool ghost towns to explore and write about, but it wasn't going to work out quite so easily for me. I made an unsuccessful attempt in 2015 to get to Hard Luck, but the only access through that massive forest land is by winding truck trails, which can be hard to follow because they rarely have signs, and regularly make unexpected forks.

In 2019 I made a second, more earnest attempt. Along my way I passed through the county seat, the small town of Gladwin, which to my pleasant surprise had preserved their own historical village of log structures from the pioneer days:


Even though it was after-hours, I still stopped for a few photos. An old logging sledge stood out front along the highway, loaded with logs:


According to David M. Brown, Gladwin County was set off from parts of Midland and Saginaw Counties in 1831, and organized in 1875. It was named after Major Henry Gladwin, the British commandant of Detroit during Pontiac's Siege of that fort in 1763. The first white settler in the county was Marvil Secord, who canoed up the Tittabawassee River from Midland in 1861.


Author Rick Sigsby explains that vast tracts of Gladwin County are now state forest land, mainly due to the fact that the lumber companies abandoned their property holdings once all the virgin white pine was cleared out in the 1890s, leaving the citizens of Michigan to absorb the cost of their unpaid back taxes, the subsequent wildfires, and painstakingly turn their cutover stump barrens to farming. Many of the farmers eventually gave up due to the difficulty, and the devastated land reverted back to the state. Only today, a century and a half later, do we see a forest that is somewhat back to how it used to be before we destroyed it.


The log buildings here include a blacksmith, a trading post, a milk house, a church, and a cabin. This is the blacksmith:


These five log buildings were moved here from nearby and reconstructed on the original site of Cedar Village, which is what the city of Gladwin used to be called. The c.1912 train depot was already moved here in 1977, and the c.1900 schoolhouse was added last to round out the collection.


Even though it is sort of like a "Greenfield Village," it is always good to see pioneer-era log structures preserved.


This was the old train depot, which houses the historical museum itself, and a cornerstone sits by the door:


They also had a logging era version of an inkjet on display:


So I set out on the road for the ghost town of Hard Luck again.


I was noticing that some of the crossroads were flooded and impassable...


Inexplicably, despite its exceptionally obscure status, Hard Luck does however show up on my trusty 1:150,000 scale Michigan Atlas & Gazetteer, even though it probably hadn't physically existed as a town for well over half a century when the atlas was printed in 2001:

Image courtesy of DeLorme
It is shown floating off in a swamp next to the "Sterling Truck Trail," which appears to be a nice solid road...

But as I was rocketing along deeper into the woodlands, I suddenly decided that the ground was getting a little too soft and the puddles a little too deep...you can see the ruts from my tires here where I stomped the brakes before plunging into this last mud hole:


The ol' 2-wheel-drive Ranger didn't have the tires for this kind of trail, so it was time to continue the last mile or two on foot. Since it was still the tail end of bug season and I was basically walking through a swamp, this meant putting on the bug mesh hat and hosing myself with repellant. I would soon see that both of these moves—going on foot, and gearing up for serious bugs—were very wise choices:


I had entered what the Michigan DNR now calls the "Lame Duck Foot Access Area," marked by plentiful signs reminding the prospective visitor that wheeled vehicles are not allowed anywhere off the road. But, knowing what I know now, I'd say you're doing well if you can even manage to leave this road on foot! With the extreme rainfall levels we had in the first half of 2019, there wasn't much solid ground to be had out here; the forest was flooded everywhere I looked. Furthermore the area was actually surrounded by floodings of the Molasses River, which had long ago been dammed in several places nearby.


There is almost no information available on the town of Hard Luck, but something about its name seems alluring enough to have made several people wonder about it. A quick Google search brings up the usual robo-hits, all of which are just the same copied information repeated over and over again: the name, the fact that it is in Gladwin County, and sometimes the (supposed) GPS coordinates. I can find no one who has actually been there though, and seemingly the only person to have ever produced original information on the town is David M. Brown, whose compendious c.1980s Michigan County Atlas offers but two sentences:
A busy lumber town at the turn of the century, with a population of 200 in 1904. The origin of the name is uncertain, but early resident Fred Bowman remembered the name "Peter Hardluck" written on the side of the switch engine that was stationed here.
Brown actually spells the town name as one word, "Hardluck," unlike my DeLorme atlas which shows it as two words. As if to pun even further on the name, Hard Luck is located in the borders of Grim Township.


The book Gladwin County, by Rick Sigsby mentions Hard Luck on three pages, but only in passing to say that it was a lumber camp that no longer exists.


Even that annoying 99WFMK guy with all the pop-up ads throws his hands up in defeat, saying, 
That's it. No pictures, no recorded history, no videos, no old news articles, NOTHING. I'm gonna challenge some of the brave Michiganders to visit the area and take pictures, video, whatever!
Well then, if that doesn't sound like a job for Nailhed. I love it when other people say that there's "no history" to be found for a certain site, because then I know I can get the exclusive scoop. But don't get too excited, since even though I did get to the location of Hard Luck, I'm afraid that there's nothing much to look at in terms of ruins or any man-made evidence, as you will soon see.


I think this is a Dwarf Lake Iris, native to northern Michigan, although I have been chastised by my readers before for being a botanical tyro, so I'll just say it's an iris:


The puddles kept getting larger and the road kept getting softer, reminding me I made a good call on parking the wheels. You can see the deep impressions made by my mere 140lb footprints:


Soon it wasn't just big puddles, but actual flowing water was making the roadbed into a riverbed, complete with fish and turtles:


It is worth noting that this probably didn't start out as a road, but as a narrow-gauge logging railroad grade, built in the 1800s to facilitate hauling logs out of the Hard Luck camp by train. After about two miles of walking, I came to what I believed was the bend in the road that signified the location of Hard Luck. If my calculations were correct I should see Center Fire Line Trail intersecting from the south.


And here we are:


Looks like a good location for a town to me. In fact this reminds me very much of the mysterious "Corned Beef Junction" on Drummond Island, with this monster oak tree sitting right at the crossroads.


Knowing that the marked location of Hard Luck was on the north side of the trail just about half a mile past the intersection, I now kept my eyes peeled even harder into the dense woods for any sign of manmade traces. This was especially difficult however given the fact that I was wearing bug mesh over my face and my glasses were tending to fog up from the high humidity...


I was alone for about three miles in any direction...probably a lot more in some directions. Another factor limiting my ability to find anything was the fact that I couldn't really leave the trail 90% of the time because the woods were completely flooded. It was a rare dry spot that I could actually stand on without needing waders. I certainly saw a lot of wildlife on this hike, including a porcupine, plenty deer, a raccoon, and several turtles. I also observed that once I passed the intersection, the recent tire tracks I had been seeing from a bigger truck were no longer present. This section of road had not been traveled in days, maybe weeks.


After walking and searching for a ways without finding any kind of clue as to past civilization, I was forced to turn back toward the intersection for another look, since the sun was sinking fast and I needed to find my truck before dark. Perhaps the maps show Hard Luck to be located east of the intersection, but experience tells me that towns are located at intersections, and maps are often wrong—especially in regards to places that haven't existed for decades.


So I spent some more time tromping through the woods around the intersection scanning the ground for any telltale signs. Not even an old bottle or rusty bucket presented itself, and you can usually at least count on one of those two items to show up. The only human signs I saw along this whole trail were the typical Bud Light and Natty Daddy beer cans left by the 4x4 people. It would seem that Hard Luck had been completely devoured by savage mosquitoes—even the structures themselves!


As I walked back to the truck I could hear a pack of coyotes howling about a mile away. By the time I reached my truck again, it was twilight and the wet forest was beginning to emit ghosts of bluish haze. I think the Finns call this effect sininen salo, or "backwoods blue"...they would know, right?


It was time to leave Gladwin County behind, and head for the next leg of my journey.


References:
Michigan County Atlas, 2nd Ed., by David M. Brown, p. 48-49
Michigan Ghost Towns of the Lower Peninsula, by Roy L. Dodge, p. 85-89
Michigan Atlas & Gazetteer, by DeLorme Co. (2001)
Gladwin County, by Rick Sigsby, p. 7, 13, 77
Ghost Towns of Michigan, Vol. 2, by Larry Wakefield, p. 185
https://www.gladwincountyedc.org/1/378/gladwincountyhistoricalsociety.asp

3 comments:

  1. "Along The Tracks: A Directory of Named Places on Michigan Railroads" by Graydon M. Meints, lists "Hardluck (one word) as on the Michigan Central Railroad, Gladwin Branch, section 1, Township 19 North Range 2 East. So that would locate Hardluck at least one-half mile east of the trail road intersection you mention. Meints also indicates the station was 17.9 miles from the initial station on that line, but in this case that does you little good unless you can find an old railroad map from that era. Regardless, I would be astonished if you could find any remaining evidence considering how fast mother nature reclaims these sites.

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  2. Much like Trudeau congratulated Navi for visiting every Newfoundland town, I look forward to the day you're presented the key to Lansing by Jennifer Granholm for documenting every Michigan county.

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