Hittin' The Bricks

On a recent trip up north I decided to take a break in Grand Ledge on my way back downstate, to see if I could finally see the grand ledges of Grand Ledge, as well as the ruins of an old brick works I had been meaning to check out. After passing through the attractive historic downtown and entering a neighborhood of Victorian houses, I found an unassuming city park at the end of an unassuming residential street, at the back of which was a staircase leading down the cliff to the river. 

I was amazed at this geological grandeur to be found here along the Grand River, hidden in the midst of what is usually very bland mid-Michigan terrain. 

There were houses literally within a few yards of this beautiful scene...imagine living next to this. And it went on for quite a ways, too. I only visited a small section.

The ledges reached up to probably 20 feet high in some spots.

This was the kind of scene I would expect to find up in the Upper Peninsula, not the southern Lower...

And to think I had passed it up all those times.

Just when I thought the trail was going to lead back up and out, it kept going.

I was impressed at the lack of graffiti. 

Well, there was plenty of old graffiti scratched into the rock, going back over 100 years, but no spray paint.

There was actually a bit of a cave down in here...

Some local kids had been having campfires in here:

You will notice that even the Grand River was flooding its banks:

While in Grand Ledge, I decided to also check out another nearby spot on the Grand River where old industrial ruins had been preserved as the "Lincoln Brick Park." The Eaton County Parks system had the wherewithal and good providence to stabilize an old brick works and curate it as a standing ruins, plus combine it with a 90-acre nature trail system on the outskirts of town. It is curiously hidden behind an old farm field. 

As you know from my last post about Onaway, I love it when cities get this right instead of treating ruins as "eyesores" and squandering resources on (1) keeping people out, (2) prosecuting trespassers, and (3) eventually tearing down and sending a culturally valuable historic resource to a landfill. I heartily salute the communities of Grand Ledge and Eaton County for responsibly preserving their our heritage.

When I visited, it was right after a historic rainfall had just hit Michigan and the park was closed due to flooding, at least to vehicles. Naturally this did not deter me, since I still remembered how to use my legs.

Anyway, the Lincoln Brick Co. was the last of several brick makers that used this spot until 1949, and it was the third and final industrial clay works to be built in Grand Ledge. 

This ruined wall belonged to what was originally the "old" boiler house.

Once the new boiler house was constructed, this one was converted and used as storage. 

This structure immediately behind the old boiler house was the "sand house," where the sand was stored for the kiln process where it was used to keep the bricks from sticking together during the firing. Part of it also contained a section for specialized sand that was used in the brick glazing process. There used to be a railroad spur directly behind it for shipment.

The area is rich in clay and shale deposits, and local Anishinaabe tribesmen came to the area to make their pottery. According to the Grand Ledge Historical Society, early pioneers remembered seeing the ash kilns of the aboriginal pottery makers on both sides of the river. The first pottery works established here by a white man was that of George Loveless, around 1859, followed by that of L. Herrington in 1862 (the first settlers were in 1847). In 1886 the Grand Ledge Sewer Pipe Co. was founded, later to become American Vitrified Products. Grand Ledge Clay Products was formed in 1906, making conduits for underground telephone lines (which were also sometimes used as a mortared building material).

Finally, Baker Clay Company was founded here on this site, in 1914. They produced glazed tile for farm silos, which if you grew up in the Midwest, especially Michigan and Ohio, I'm sure you've seen the brown clay tile silos I'm talking about. The Baker Co.'s clay quarry was located right across the river from that of American Vitrified.

With Grand Ledge's history of brick making, it's worth noting that my other entry for Eaton County (at the bottom) is about the Dyer Kiln ruins, which was a site famous for making mortar. 

Back in this jungle was what looked to be another sort of kiln...

According to the sign nearby, it was in fact a kiln some 300 feet long, although most of it has crumbled now. It survived through all five owners of this site, as well as a fire that ravaged the complex in 1927, making hundreds of thousands of bricks that have been used locally and across the Midwest.

The Baker Clay Co. plant featured a new Canadian-designed kiln, called a “continuous kiln,” which was the first of its kind built in the United States. Unlike the "beehive" style of kiln, this design was a series of tunnel-shaped kilns built side by side, to allow heat from one kiln to preheat the next adjoining kiln, increasing efficiency.

When concrete began to eclipse clay tile for building silos, this plant became the Grand Ledge Face Brick Company and switched to making regular bricks. They had a good product, but financing was reportedly a perennial problem for this company and they eventually sold out to one of their major clients, the Briggs Company in Lansing.

The plant was sold again to the Lincoln Brick Company sometime in the 1940s, before quickly closing it down in 1947 or 1949, to consolidate production at their Grand Rapids location. Honestly, I have had some difficulty in pinning down exact dates for the history of this site; it seems no one has yet done a comprehensive historical study of it (at least that I can find online), and it is not found in the HAER. This factory then lay idle for most of the next three decades before being sold to Eaton County in 1975, and finally becoming a park. How long it took the county to turn it into a park after the sale is not stated. 

The bricks produced here were used locally around Grand Ledge (e.g., the city hall, post office, old library, and Sawdon School), and at places like Michigan State University (e.g., Beaumont Tower), and some of the Oldsmobile factories in Lansing. They were stamped "GRAND LEDGE" on the back.

This new boiler house was fired using gas produced from coal, which was said to be more efficient burning, and allowed for more heat control, and thus a better brick.

A glimpse in the underbrush along the trails reveals that there is a lot more out there than just what the standing buildings show.

This twisted metal alongside a trail was the wreckage of one of the mining carts that moved chunks of shale dynamited from the quarry down to the crusher in the pug mill, to be pulverized.

This was part of the pug mill, if I'm not mistaken:

And here is the quarry pit, now filled with water:

It was said that the quarry pit was 60 feet deep when the clay works was shut down, and began to fill with water, and that a steam engine that was used to pull the loads of shale from the pit was left down there. Scuba diving missions in recent times have reported that the depth is only 25 feet however, and no steam engines were found.

Some of the grand shale outcroppings that gave Grand Ledge its name are evident here as well:

According to the Grand Ledge Historical Society, the workers at the clay factories were known to make art objects during off times when the kilns were hot. They made alligators, frogs, lambs, and other objects, but apparently the "Grand Ledge Lion" was the best known. Here is a photo of a surviving example of a Grand Ledge Lion, from an auction website:

There is another lion connection in Grand Ledge, according to this c.1929 postcard, there is a rock formation along the river that was known as "Lion Head Rock":

I don't know how much more of the "ledge" outcroppings are here in the area, but there's more than I thought

Michigan County Atlas, 2nd Ed., by David M. Brown, p. 42

Steering the World

In the town of Onaway, Michigan, there are the ruins of a factory that was once the biggest producer of steering wheels in the world, the American Wood Rim Co. In recent years the Moran Ironworks next-door has made Onaway "roadside famous" for the strange metal sculptures they produce in their apparently abundant spare time. Partnering with the local Awakon Federal Credit Union, they formed "Awakon Park," as a place to exhibit these bizarre sculptures amongst the ruins of the factory. The most recognizable one is a huge bust of George Washington that can be seen from the highway. The "world's largest steering wheel" is also amongst the sculptures to be seen here, emblazoned with the words, "Onaway Steers The World"...

There are plenty of signs telling you what the ruins were. They also apparently designed and built their own style of trashcans for the park as well:

This small stone hut was part of the water works system. The plant originally had its own self-contained water system fed by a well, although as the company expanded it was no longer adequate, and it was connected to city water. Once the company left Onaway, the well was taken over by the city for municipal use.

Edward Lobdell moved his bicycle parts manufacturing company here from Ohio in 1901 in order to take advantage of this hardwood supply (his previous factory conveniently burned down under suspicious circumstances, right around the same time). With the advent of the automobile boom, Lobdell shifted away from bicycle parts and started making steering wheels for the cars being built in Detroit, calling his new venture the American Wood Rim Co. 

Bicycles still remained in their repertoire however, and they even opened a new factory near Paris, where French demand for wood rims was still increasing. I wonder if that factory is still around...?

American Wood Rim Co. became the world’s largest producer of automobile steering wheels and bicycle rims, while its sister company Lobdell-Emery Manufacturing owned the forests, handled the logging, operated two sawmills, and also produced items such as dowels, broom handles, wooden flooring, lath, and coat hanger stock. Most of the automobile rims for average cars like Huppmobiles and Maxwells were made of maple or beech, but exceptional brands such as Duesenberg, Packard, Peerless, Pierce-Arrow, Rickenbacker, and Cadillac received wheels made of local black walnut and imported mahogany. Not surprisingly Ford was one of the only car companies that made its own steering wheels, rather than do business with Onaway. The bicycle rims were made of hard rock maple, or beech. The company owned 28,000 acres of virgin hardwood left behind from the pine-logging heydays of northern Michigan. 

Onaway's population at its peak in the 1920s was around 4,000 people, and up to 1,500 of them worked at either American Wood Rim or Lobdell-Emery.

This was the dynamo house for power generation:

On January 14, 1926 this factory was destroyed by a catastrophic fire, which claimed the lives of four employees (unlike the previous Ohio plant, this fire was not deemed suspicious). In order to fight the blaze Cheboygan Fire Department had to be called for mutual aid, but the local water reservoirs had already run out and municipal water had to be shut off to the town for four hours so they could be replenished, while the plant continued to burn. The firemen were able to save the lumber stockpile from destruction however.

Ray Young, an employee of Hudson Motors recalls how the fire in Onaway crippled the Detroit auto industry. After their stock of steering wheels was exhausted they "had to drive the otherwise finished cars and trucks off the assembly line with monkey wrenches." One might compare this situation with the current microchip shortage that is causing unfinished, unsellable vehicles to pile up around the Metro-Detroit area today. Henry Ford, of course, was unaffected by this steering wheel shortage.

American Wood Rim announced that it would take too long to rebuild in Onaway, and instead relocated to the vacant Republic Truck factory in Alma. Everyone who worked in the Onaway plant was offered a job if they chose to follow the company to the new location. Overnight, the town of Onaway lost half of its population.

The graffiti reads, "LOVE THIS LAND." It was the only grafiti to be seen anywhere, and it carried a positive message, so...?

Partly due to the loss of the town's main industry, the Onaway State Bank closed in 1933, and the city found itself in debt when its assessed valuation dropped from $1,500,000 to $200,000. During the Great Depression Onaway's many empty houses were reoccupied by squatters. American Wood Rim Co. merged into Lobdell-Emery Manufacturing as one company. It continued on to become the largest employer in Alma, with a workforce of around 600 people, staying in business until 2005.

One of the many interpretive signs to be found in the park:

Click to enlarge

Inside the powerplant:

Iron scraps.

The interior of the powerplant was mostly overgrown.

The base to a large smokestack:

A smaller, brick & cobblestone chimney base:

At this point another couple pulled into the park and began walking their dog. Despite being located behind a warehouse and a gas station, I'd say this park is fairly popular with the locals, and isn't just meant for downstate gawkers.

A side trail leads to the ruins of the foundry and machine shop, where the metal spokes (or "spiders") of the steering wheels were made:

Most spiders were made from pure aluminum ingots, but iron was used for the truck steering wheels. Bronze was available as well, and generally steering wheels for luxury cars could be custom ordered in any material or style.

Even with as many different minerals as have been mined in Michigan aluminum was never one of them, so back then it had to be brought in from Britain.

There were a couple spots here where the woods were thick, and I suspected that a lot more small ruins could be hidden within.

If you look through the window in the next shot, you will see part of a locomotive:

Actually a sculpture of a locomotive, over in the sculpture section of the park. This one is decidedly less unnerving than the giant George Washington head...

What the...?

Slowly it dawned on me that the sculpture park was in fact tied into the ruins park.

Now this one is creepy. It's either General Patton, or a Dire Straits music video version of Homer Simpson. In either case, his mouth was a detail considered superfluous. And those eyes, man...

He looks like he wants me to help him move some refrigerators and color TVs...

These ruins are the footings to the sawmill, and sawdust kilns. According to the sign, very little waste material was left behind from the milling and manufacturing processes. What scrap wood was left over from steering wheels was used to make other products, and the sawdust was burned for heating.

Gotta make sure our logo is also on our own custom park benches...

Honestly this is a very nice park, despite the creepy sculpture and ubiquitous corporate logos—and I will never complain about reusing ruins or turning a former industrial site into a public space / natural area, so I am still calling this one a win. It is clean, they didn't molest the historic ruins in order to Disney-ify them for their own purposes, and it is certainly unique.

Honest Abe, with authentic 1¢ copper-tone skin.

And judging by those pupils I'd say Abe's enjoying a NICE-ass buzz... There were more sculptures further into the park, but it was starting to rain, and I was due for breakfast at my friend's place shortly...