Sunday, April 22, 2018

When White Pine was Green Gold in Michigan

"Brag Load" of Logs and Ten Man Crew with a Team of Horses

The Michigan forest landscape was bountiful for early settlers. Rivers and lakes provided plenty of fish and wildlife while the forests and open glades provided game and fowl for hunters. Clearing the land was a slow process with timber cut with axes. The first order of business was throwing up some hasty shelter. Log cabins were built and railings cut for fences to pen livestock. What scrap wood was left became firewood. These small pioneer farms had minimal impact on the environment.

Rapid development of the American East in the first half of the nineteenth century depleted much of the lumber forests east of the Appalachians. By mid-century, New York lumber speculators discovered the vast virgin hardwood forests of Michigan's lower and upper peninsulas--especially the stands of old-growth white and red pine for building materials. Many of these trees were over 200 years old, 200 feet high, and over 5 feet in diameter.

With the invention of the steam-powered circular saw in the 1850s, the lumber business ramped up production. Fortunes were made by enterprising men who had vision and deep pockets. They bought large tracts of private and government land and were quickly dubbed Lumber Barons. They owned the saw mills and set up the system of lumber camps that made more than a few men rich. The "shanty boys" as the owners called the lumberjacks did the heavy lifting. After a harsh winter, they could walk out of the forest with several hundreds of dollars--big money in those days--only to be targets of robbery or worse. The lumber business attracted a tough crowd in and out of the forest like any boom town industry would.

The first great lumber area in the state was Saginaw Bay which fed into Lake Huron. What made this location ideal for the lumber business were the six rivers that converged to form the Saginaw River: the Chippewa, Tittabawassee, Cass, Bad, Shiawassee, and Flint. From 1860 until 1890, most of the trees from the heart of the state were felled and floated down these rivers on their way to the saw mills.

Logging was a cold weather job. The logs were too big and heavy to drag through the woods. The loggers cleared timber roads first. When the roads iced over in winter, huge sleds were loaded with timber and dragged by horses or oxen to the river's edge where they were stacked awaiting the spring thaw; then, the logs were pushed into the swollen rivers and floated down to the lumber mills. Once at the saw mill, the logs were cut into boards, kiln-dried to reduce weight and warping, and loaded onto ships.

Lumber camps were rustic, quickly built, and meant to be temporary. When the land was exhausted of timber, the operation moved on. The camps consisted of a bunk house, a cook shanty with dining room and kitchen, a camp store, a blacksmith's shop, and a barn for the horses. Each camp had about seventy men and two foremen, twenty teams of horses, and seven yoke of oxen. A ten man crew could produce about 100 logs a day with a two-handled, cross-cut saw and double-edged axes.

Lumberjacks worked from sunrise until sunset, six days a week out in the wilderness with little to occupy them. Their pastimes were telling tall tales and playing cards on Sundays, as well as any mischief they could get away with in town if they were near one.

Lumber camps competed with each other to see which outfit could stack the highest load--called a brag load--and pull it twenty feet over the ice with a team of horses. My guess is the winning camp won a wager and a keg of beer along with bragging rights. I hope the horses got a little something extra for their efforts.

Stump Prairie
When the logging industry was finished raping the land, lumber camps were abandoned because owners didn't want to pay taxes on the land they owned, so they simply defaulted and the land went to the state. In all, over nineteen million acres were clear cut with no reforestation strategy, leaving behind barren "stump prairies" contributing to soil erosion, river and lake pollution, more atmospheric carbon dioxide, and degraded wildlife habitat.

One of the few forest animals that benefited from the clear cutting was the whitetail deer. With new open ground for grazing and more abundant and accessible plant food, populations grew. Little good it did them though. By 1876, professional market hunters were killing 70,000 deer each year to supply the booming lumber camps, and ship what they couldn’t sell locally to big cities like Chicago and Detroit that had a taste for venison.

In a report on Michigan Forest History compiled by the Michigan Department of Resources, researchers found that: "Land clearing for agriculture, logging, and settlement altered local stream flow patterns and volumes, eliminated some waters, and introduced pollutants into others. Huge quantities of sediment from log drives and sawdust from sawmills were dumped into rivers. In one instance, the mouth of the Manistee River accumulated sawdust to the extent that it formed a delta of several square miles. At sawmill locations throughout the state, wherever sawdust was dispensed into the river, toxic and oxygen-deprived conditions were created for fish. These detriments, combined with land clearing efforts, exacerbated soil erosion into rivers, significantly reducing the quality of fish habitat in rivers."

The Hartwick Pines State Park near Grayling has the only remaining stand of Michigan old growth forest. The park consists of fifteen square miles featuring forty-nine acres of old growth white pine saved from the teeth of the loggers' saw. The land was gifted to Michigan's Department of Natural Resources in 1927 by Karen Michelson Hartwick as a memorial to the logging industry in the name of her husband Edward E. Hartwick--a lumberman killed in World War I.

During the Great Depression, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) built a logging museum adjacent to the old growth forest in the park to educate visitors about the logging industry. The CCC also hired unemployed men to plant millions of seedlings to reforest Michigan's barren areas, but even after one hundred years, some of the "stump prairies" still exist. On a brighter note, over half of the state is covered by new growth forests.

Michigan Logging History (5 minute video):

Monday, April 16, 2018

All-Time Top Ten Blog Posts

Photo Credit: Nicole Fribourg
I won't lie, it takes time to research a post and write it concisely so readers don't feel like I'm wasting their time. But after seven years of blogging, I enjoy writing these smaller pieces largely because of the instant gratification of having readers respond, comment, and share my posts in real time.

One of my young critics wrote that my blog was old-fashioned and looked like a Monopoly property card. High praise indeed! That's when I knew I was onto something. No whistles, no bells, no GIFs, no capturing of readers' marketing information, just fact-driven posts that interest me--and as it turns out--interest others. As of May 2018, I have written 400 posts drawing over 630,000 page views trudging my way to a million.

Several people have asked me how to find my earlier posts. Go to the right sidebar and scroll down to the Blog Archive. You can browse the titles by year and month to find a topic you like. To receive new posts automatically, you can subscribe in the upper-right corner of the site.

Many thanks to everyone who reads, comments, and shares my Fornology posts. Here are the titles of my top ten all-time blog posts.


EntryPage views










Thursday, April 12, 2018

Willow Run Bomber Plant Changes Ypsilanti Forever

Original Three-story Ypsilanti Depot Station.
At the turn of the century, before the second World War, Ypsilanti had an active downtown area along Michigan Avenue. Northeast of town, there was a thriving business district called Depot Town.

Depot Town was the area's commercial hub and provided services for weary train travelers. Ypsilanti's three-story brick depot station was ornate compared to the depot in Ann Arbor. In its day, it was said to be the nicest train station between Detroit and Chicago.

The Norris Building built in 1861 was across from the depot on River Street. It was originally supposed to house a retail block on the ground floor and residential rooms on the two upper floors. Instead, the building became an army barracks during the Civil War. The 14th Michigan Infantry Regiment shipped out of Depot Town in 1862, as did the 27th Michigan Regiment in 1863. 

The facade of the historic Norris Building remains on North River Street, despite a fire which decimated the rear portion of this last remaining Civil War barracks in Michigan. Work has begun on rebuilding the historic building.

Michigan State Normal School was located west of Depot Town on West Cross Street and northwest of downtown Ypsilanti. It spawned a growing educational center which later expanded its mission to become Eastern Michigan University. 

Ypsilanti's residential area with its historic and varied architecture filled the spaces between. Surrounding everything was some of the most fertile farm land in the state.

The water-powered age of nineteenth century manufacturing on the Huron River gave way to the modern electrical age of the twentieth century. The soft beauty of the gas light was replaced with the harsh glare of the incandescent light bulb. The times were changing for Ypsilanti--ready or not.


The countryside was prime tillable ground with fruit groves scattered about the landscape. Henry Ford owned a large tract of land in an area known as Willow Run, named for the small river that ran through it. The Ford patriarch used the land to plant soybeans, but the United States government needed bombers for the Lend Lease program with Great Britain. On December 8, 1941, one day after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, the Nazis declared war on the United States on behalf of their ally. America was drawn into the second world war.

The Roosevelt administration asked the Ford corporation, now run by Edsel Ford, to build a factory that could mass produce the B-24 Liberator Bomber. Edsel Ford, Charles Sorenson (production manager), and some Ford engineers visited the Consolidated Aircraft Company in San Diego to see how the planes were built. 

That night, Sorenson drew up a floor plan that could build the bomber more efficiently. His blueprint was a marvel of ingenuity, but the Ford corporation made one significant change in his master plan.

The best shape to build a front to back assembly line operation is in a straight line. But to avoid the higher taxes in Democratic Wayne County, the bomber plant took a hard right to the south on one end to stay within Republican Washtenaw County, which had lower taxes. This was at the insistence of Harry Bennett, Ford's head of security who had strong ties to Washtenaw County being a graduate of Ann Arbor High School.

The construction of the plant in Willow Run began in May of 1941, seven months before Pearl Harbor. Legendary Detroit architect Albert Kahn designed the largest factory in the world, but it would be his last project. He died in 1942.

The federal government bought up land adjacent to the bomber plant and built an airport which still exists today and is used for commercial aviation. The eight-sectioned hangar could house twenty Liberators.

Soon, workers flooded into Ypsilanti and the rapidly developing Willow Run area where makeshift row housing was hastily constructed. The Ford Motor Company recruited heavily from the South. By March 1, 1943, the bomber plant brought in 6,491 workers from Kentucky. That's when the derisive term "Ypsitucky" was first heard. But Ford recruiters also brought in 1,971 workers from Tennessee, 714 from Texas, 450 from West Virgina, 397 from Arkansas, and 314 from Missouri. In the most demographic shift in the area since the white man drove the red man west, the sleepy farming town of Ypsilanti went from a sunrise-to-sunset community to a three shift, around-the-clock, blue collar factory town. 

Suddenly the area was hit with a housing shortage. Ypsilanti homeowners rented rooms to workers or converted their large Victorian homes into boarding houses. It was wartime and money was to be made. Some families rented "warm beds." One worker would sleep in the bed while another was working his shift, but still there was a housing shortage. Many people slept in their cars until they could make other arrangements. 

Long time residents did not like the changes they saw in their town. The bomber factory workers worked hard and drank hard. Fights broke out in local bars, often over women. Ypsilanti developed a hard edge and a dark reputation.

Because so many men were in uniform serving their country, there was a shortage of skilled labor at first. But then the women of Southern Michigan stepped up big time. To make up the labor shortfall, they donned work clothes, and tied up their long hair in colorful scarves collectively earning the nickname "Rosie the Riveter". It was calculated that by the end of the war, 40% of every B-24 Liberator was assembled by women.


Little known factoid: The first stretch of expressway in America was made with Ford steel and Ford cement. It connected workers in the Detroit area to their jobs at the bomber plant in Willow Run via Ecorse Road. It's still there and runs along the north end of the former GM Hydromatic Plant and Willow Run Airport.


The Yankee Air Museum housed on the east end of Willow Run Airport was established in 1981 to restore and preserve the almost forgotten history of Willow Run Airport, and to commemorate the achievement of the men and women who helped win the war by the sweat of their brow producing 8,685 B-24 Liberators.


Background history of the Yankee Air Museum:

Rosie the Riveter short:

The following link has some vintage bomber plant footage:

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Erie Canal Populates the Great Lakes Area

If you wanted to travel to the Northwest Territory from the East prior to 1825, your choices were limited to canoeing with portaging around sizable natural barriers, or a person could take a rugged land passage on horseback or a horsedrawn wagon over perilous dirt roads and Indian trails. Neither method was suitable for commercial success or serious westward expansion. There needed to be some way to open the interior of the continent west of the Appalachians to farming and settlement.

The driving force behind the Erie Canal was New York Governor DeWitt Clinton. His vision made Detroit a destination city in the nineteenth century and provided a water highway for many of our European ancestors--especially German, Irish, Italian, Polish, Scandinavian, and Greek. These settlers were not like the French who trapped and hunted wildlife establishing a lucrative fur trade with Canada and Europe. These new immigrants were land-hungry farmers and empire builders who wanted a fresh start in life, and they changed the face of the Great Lakes region forever.

Once Governor Clinton raised the seven million dollars for its construction, the groundbreaking for the Erie Canal began at a middle segment of the proposed route in Rome, New York, on July 4, 1817. When finished, the canal would stretch 363 miles from Albany, New York on the Hudson River to Buffalo, New York on the east end of Lake Erie, opening the Great Lakes to westward American expansion.

Untold numbers of Irish immigrants and draft animals provided most of the muscle power to dig out the canal. The excavated soil was piled on the north side and graded to form a towpath for horses to pull canal boats and barges along the route. Hundreds of migrant German masons were hired to build the stonework for thirty-four locks needed to raise the boats 565 feet--the elevation difference between the Hudson River and Lake Erie. Where the canal had to cross valleys and water barriers, the masons built eighteen aqueducts to carry the boats above them. 

Lockport, New York
In 1823, the builders reached the Niagara Escarpment at what came to be known as Lockport, New York. Canal engineers devised five locks along a three-mile stretch to carry the canal eighty feet over the dolomitic limestone barrier. The original Erie Canal profile was forty feet wide at the surface, twenty-eight feet wide at the bottom and four feet deep. In 1835, the State of New York enlarged the canal to seventy feet wide and seven feet deep, further encouraging westward expansion and making New York City the economic powerhouse of the Eastern Seaboard.

"Erie Canal Opening" by Charles Yardley Turner (1905).
The Erie Canal was completed in eight years, two years ahead of schedule at a cost of $7,143,000. In a grand ceremony, Governor Clinton and other dignitaries boarded the Seneca Chief steamer in Buffalo and traveled the length of the canal to the Hudson River and down to New York harbor. On October 26, 1825, amid patriotic fanfare and a brass band, Governor Clinton took a keg of Lake Erie water and poured it into the Atlantic calling it a "marriage of the waters." The keg was then refilled with ocean water for the return trip of the Seneca Chief to Lake Erie to consummate the exchange of water.

Erie Canal aqueduct
The Erie Canal became an instant commercial success and stimulated economic growth along its entire route. Before the canal, the only way west through the Appalachian Mountains was overland on rugged wagon roads. The trip to Detroit took five to six weeks. The Erie Canal cut that time in half.

Prior to the canal, bulk goods traveled on the backs of pack animals limited to no more than 250# per beast of burden. Canal boats could carry up to thirty tons of cargo. Shipping costs dropped 90% from $100/ton to less than $10/ton. Buffalo, New York became a major transhipment point for farm produce from Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Michigan going east while manufactured goods and European immigrants shipped west.

Historian Harvey C. Colburn wrote in The Story of Ypsilanti (1923) that "Immigration in Detroit from Europe was greatly facilitated by the Erie Canal. The first steamer on Lake Erie was the Walk-on-the-Water in 1819. By 1826, there were seven steamers on the lake, and by 1830, a daily service was established between Buffalo and Detroit." If your ancestors came to Detroit between 1825 and the 1850s, chances are they floated up the Erie Canal courtesy of the labor of thousands of skilled and unskilled immigrants who preceeded them.

The Erie Canal reconfigured the young United States' national religious and social dynamics by connecting the Hudson Valley with the Great Lakes region. By 1842, the New York Railroad had a continuous line linking the East with the continental interior. Passenger traffic on the canal tapered off in favor of the modern steam locomotives with their speed and relative comfort. The canal simply increased its commercial freight business. Water was still the most cost-effective way to move bulk goods, and the canal could ship thirteen times more tonnage than all the trains of New York Central Railroad.

By the end of the 1880s, railroads dominated passenger transportation, but it wasn't until competition from improved roadways and the trucking industry at the beginning of the twentieth century that the canal was rendered obsolete. Today, 200 miles of the old canal are used for public recreation like boating, biking, hiking, and cruising.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Detroit's Nineteenth-Century Moonlight Towers

Newport, Rhode Island introduced the first gas street-lighting in America in 1803. Throughout the nineteenth-century, it was the preferred method of outdoor street illumination, but the system was expensive to install and each lamp had limited range. In the 1880s, electric carbon-arc lighting offered a relatively inexpensive alternative to coal-generated gas lighting.

Large municipalities who could afford them invested in moonlight towers to illuminate large expanses like parks and public squares. Each tower was crowned with six carbon-arc lights giving off 200 times more illumination than the most powerful incandescent light bulbs.

Because the "moonlight" was harsh, the arc-lights were mounted 175 feet high and lit up a circle with a radius of 1,500 feet.  Downtown nightlife became a new reality for many Americans who believed that general illumination drove criminals deeper into the shadows.

The lights buzzed loudly and dropped shreds of burning ash as the carbon electrodes burned quickly and had to be replaced nightly. The height of the moonlight towers made them difficult to maintain, so a counter-balanced "dumbwaiter" elevator system was soon developed to change out electrodes more efficiently.

Detroit winter street lit up by a moonlight tower.

Detroit had one of the most extensive moonlight tower systems in the country inaugurated in 1882. One-hundred and twenty-two towers were placed 1,000 to 1,200 feet apart. The entire system illuminated twenty-one square miles. By the turn of the century, most of the towers were replaced by incandescent lighting once the AC electrical grid was laid out. Detroit sold its towers to several small municipalities such as Grand Rapids, Michigan and Austin, Texas.

Austin moonlight tower.
In 1885, Austin, Texas was terrorized be a serial killer known as the Servant Girl Annihilator, who killed eight servant girls all attacked at night. The only night light Austin had in those days was moonlight, but when the evening skies were cloudy, Austin had no light at all.

Detroit agreed to sell thirty-one of their used moonlight towers to Austin. Over the years, the lamps have been refitted with modern mercury-vapor light bulbs which require much less maintainence than the crude carbon-arc technology. Seventeen of their original thirty-one towers--the last of the moonlight towers--are still in operation.

Austin city officials were ready to remove the towers by 1976, but they were too late. The moonlight towers were inducted into the National Registry of Historical Places. In 1993, the city dismantled and rebuilt each existing tower for a citywide Moonlight Tower Festival which began in 1995. Next time you are in Austin, Texas, behold some Michigan history.

Friday, March 30, 2018

Detroit's Great Fire of 1805

"The Detroit Fire: June 11, 1805" painting by Robert Thom (1965).

Detroit's history is forged in fire. From the furnaces of its steel industry to a history of blazing civil unrest, Detroit is as familiar with fire as Atlanta, Chicago and San Francisco. From the senseless arson of Devil's Night to the vigilante urban renewal of more recent years, fire has been an agent for change and part of the city's destiny.

Major General Arthur St. Clair
Territorial Governor Arthur St. Clair approved Detroit's city charter on February 1, 1802. On the 23rd of the month, the Michigan Board of Trustees adopted a fire code requiring all residents and business owners to sweep their chimneys regularly, have a large barrel full of water, buckets at the ready, and a ladder that could reach rooftops. The code compelled all residents to turn out to form fire brigades when necessary, carrying water from the banks of the Detroit River to the three acre timber stockade where the wooden homes were crowded together separated by narrow lanes. 

At about 9:00 am on June 11, 1805, the only fire-fighting equipment the city had were wooden buckets. Although no official cause for what history notes as the Great Fire was ever determined, it was widely believed that baker John Harvey carelessly tapped out some hot tobacco ash from his pipe catching some straw on fire. The fire quickly consumed his barn and spread embers throughout the city. It soon became evident that the fire brigade efforts were useless. The fire spread too quickly. Residents saved what they could and fled from the stockade. By afternoon, every home and building was razed except for the stone fort along the waterfront and some brick chimneys.

Father Gabriel  Richard
Fortunately, nobody was killed. Jesuit Priest Gabriel Richard comforted his parishioners in Latin before the smoldering embers of St. Anne's church, "Speramus Meliora Resurget Cineribus." Those words became the official motto of the City of Detroit in 1827.

Judge Augustus Woodward
The legacy of the Great Fire is still evident in 21st century Detroit in two ways. First, when Detroit was rebuilt, Judge Augustus Woodward took on the task of city planning by laying out a street plan that radiated spoke-like from the riverfront with broad avenues--Fort Street, Michigan Avenue, Grand River Boulevard, Woodward Avenue, Gratiot Avenue, and Jefferson Avenue reached inland to the outskirts of the city and beyond. The new municipal code called for larger lots for commercial development as well as a military parade ground named Campus Martius and a public park named Grand Circus Park anchoring what became Downtown Detroit.  

In the days of horse-drawn carriages and wagons, the street arrangement may have seemed elegant and sophisticated. After all, the street plan was based on the urban layouts of Washington D.C. and Paris, France. But in our modern fast-paced society of high speed automobiles, the eighteenth-century arrangement of diagonal streets is difficult to navigate by car and not particularly pedestrian friendly.

The second way Detroiters are reminded of the Great Fire is emblazoned on the city's official flag reflecting its early history. The flag's field is divided into quarters. One panel represents the city's French heritage with five golden fleurs-de-lis on a white background. One panel represents British rule with three golden lions on a red background. The other two panels represent the United States. One has thirteen stars on a blue background and the other has thirteen red and white stripes. The city's emblem and motto are centered on the flag. A woman weeps while another comforts her with the words of Father Richard, "We hope for better times. It will rise from the ashes." In our time, these words are prophetic.

Link to post about St. Anne's Catholic church:

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

More Ypsilanti, Michigan Hidden History Revealed--the Richard Streicher, Jr. Murder

Bill Kurtis and Company

A CBS interview opportunity for Through the Decades with Bill Kurtis--about the John Norman Collins murders--brought me to Southern Michigan last week. Just as I thought interest was dying down after a year and a half on the market, Terror In Ypsilanti still has some legs. This interview segment is scheduled to air sometime in August. The national exposure is welcomed.

While in Ypsilanti, I was pleased to discover that NPR/WEMU producer Patrick Campion won an "Excellence in Broadcasting Award" from the Michigan Broadcasters Association for his radio feature "Hidden in Plain Sight--John Norman Collins." Patrick interviewed me while we went to several of the key locations in Collins's killing spree. Patrick did a fine job. There is a link to the program at the end of this post.

Museum and Archives
I went to the Ypsilanti Historical Society (YHS) to get the go ahead to publish the true crime story of one of Ypsilanti's most disturbing events--the Depression-era murder of seven-year-old Richard Streicher, Jr. found stabbed and frozen to death beneath the Frog Island Footbridge in Depot Town. The unfortunate boy's 1935 murder was investigated by Ypsilanti and State Police over a two-year period. Although townspeople and police were in general agreement who the guilty party was, investigators were not able to make a direct connection to bring charges. Richie Streicher, Jr.'s body was buried in an unmarked grave in Highland Cemetery over eighty years ago and his murder fell into obscurity.

Beginning in 2007, YHS docents George Ridenour and Lyle McDermott began collecting any documentation they could find. Responding to their Freedom of Information Act request, Michigan State Police produced 1,100 documents related to this case, some more revealing than others. A number of relevant documents was clearly missing, but there was enough factual information to recreate the history and the atmosphere of the era.

In 2011, George and Lyle interviewed Richie's last living classmates who remembered him. They were in their mid-eighties. These several interviews were the living history materials George and Lyle were able to collect. It was George's intention to write a book telling this piece of Ypsi's hidden history, but his failing health overtook him in 2016.

George helped me with local research on serial killer John Norman Collins for my Terror In Ypsilanti true crime book which was most helpful. When Lyle McDermott asked if I would be interested in taking on George's project, I was honored to take on the challenge of making his vision a reality. It took me two years to puzzle the pieces of this tragedy together and to begin the publication process, but this summer, The Richard Streicher, Jr. Murder--Ypsilanti's Depot Town Mystery--should be available for purchase.

In 2016, a fundraiser was held to purchase a headstone to mark Richie Streicher's gravesite.
When I return to the Detroit area in mid-July for Bookfest 2018 at the Eastern Market, I hope to schedule a couple of Ypsi speaking engagements to discuss the project and promote the book locally.

Initially, the paperback will be available from Amazon, the YHS Archives on N. Huron Street, and at my book talks. The ebook will be available in Kindle, Nook, iPad, Google, and KOBO formats.

Link to NPR/WEMU's Hidden in Plain Sight John Norman Collins interview: