Sunday, November 21, 2010

Michigan History: Fayette Historic State Park

A while back, John Lindstrom of Gongwer wrote an essay about the preservation of Michigan history; how it tied into the campaign promises of those running for office this year, how easily it can be lost due to such things as budget cuts (and I would add privatization), and the transitory nature of people and culture itself. He focused on the loss of the Michigan State Fair, but I immediately thought of the Fayette Historic State Park in the UP.

Nearly 20 miles off the beaten path of US 2 on the Garden Peninsula, Fayette was a "company town" built by the Jackson Iron Company in 1867...

The location for the village of Fayette, around Snail Shell Harbor, was chosen for its protected, deep port, the limestone, and the hardwood that covered the entire region. The limestone and the lumber was used in the smelting process and was essential. Fayette was founded in 1867 by the Jackson Iron Company. The only reason the town was built was to extract iron from the iron ore mined nearby. The settlement by Snail Shell Harbor was purchased from a local land owner in 1864. A total of 140-acres made up the town-site. The town was named after Fayette Brown, the Jackson Iron Company agent who chose the site. The town site soon housed two blast furnaces, a large dock, several charcoal kilns, a hotel, a company store, and many houses. The whole village was owned by the Jackson Iron Company, and workers rented houses from the company and bought goods from the company store. At the height of the smelting operation nearly 500 people lived in the area. Most of these residents came from Canada, Great Britain, and northern Europe. These workers produced a total of 229,288 tons of pig iron in 24 years.

Stop and think what that must have been like - you're an immigrant in the middle of nowhere, essentially owned by a company, and you work in blast furnaces, or cutting lumber, or chiseling limestone, or any of the jobs in what must have been a very physically demanding and grueling life. No cars, no electricity, certainly no labor laws or regulations, no nearby hospitals should you get hurt doing any of this work - it was probably a pretty tough life, even though you had a tight community of family and friends and were surrounded by such natural beauty everywhere you looked.

Like many cities and towns in Michigan, Fayette eventually fell to the fortunes of economics. Calumet with mining. Muskegon with lumber. In our modern day, Flint and Detroit with autos. They rise, they decline, the process repeats over and over again. In the case of Fayette, they had cleared the surrounding land of the lumber that was used in the process to make the pig iron, and then they discovered a cheaper way to make the iron altogether - and the charcoal kiln process became history. The company closed the furnaces and left, and over time, the town dried up as people moved on to find work. The state of Michigan made the area a park, and with help from colleges and preservationists, work began on refurbishing the buildings and bringing this ghost town back to life. Today, it is a living museum of sorts, with artifacts from the era and guided tours of the grounds, as well as diving and camping and skiing in the surrounding wilderness. You should go see it sometime, and plan to spend a day walking the area. It is stunningly beautiful.

You have to wonder though - had we left this to the "free market", would it still exist? Hard to tell. Chances are, no. It's not on a main route, there aren't a lot of other things on that peninsula to bring people down there. Farms and hunting camps, and that's about it. Without the state stepping in, this piece of Michigan history would have been lost to us forever.

So back to Lindstrom's question: Does the past matter? Is Michigan culture and history important to us? Are we willing to pay to keep places like Fayette from the hands of those who would let it fall to ruin, or sell it out if they couldn't turn a profit on it? For now, it is still part of the state parks system. The new Recreation Passport license tag, if successful, will help fund the effort, or perhaps the History departments of our universities will step in, if need be.

It's something to watch though, and something we should guard if it is threatened by the "privatization" crowd coming into power now. Don't let them sell our history for a quick buck. We owe it to future generations to preserve places like Fayette, and other historical sites in Michigan. Buy those tags and help the state park system, and keep your fingers crossed that greed doesn't destroy our heritage.