Category Archives: Michigan History

Articles, features, and posts about Michigan history and past events that shaped the state.

The Strange But True Story On How A MSU Professor Created Spring Break

Thirty-nine years ago this month, I met the woman who would become my best friend and life partner. It was 1983, and I met this beautiful freshman on the streets of Fort Lauderdale during Spring Break in front of the infamous Bahama Momma hotel. We married four years later after we both graduated. Some say it was fate however, little did we know, but the wheels of our fateful rendezvous were put in place about two decades before by a young college professor long before I was born. 

Spring Break Started With a Movie and a Song

Fort Lauderdale beach crowded with college students during Easter vacation. 1962. State Archives of Florida

MSU’s winter term ended in 1961. The students had already endured a brutal winter. Nonetheless, MSU students were buying 45s or crowding around jukeboxes to hear Connie Francis sing her dreamy, romantic song “Where the Boys Are,” which reached number one on the Billboard charts that year.

The film of the same name was released in March 1961, just before spring break started at MSU. The song was featured in a movie of the same name that had just been released and was a hit at the theaters.

The film’s plot revolved around four college girls who drove down to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, on spring break in search of love and romance. This is where they’re going to find their “boys.” The title song played over the opening credits as scenes of college students heading south flashed onscreen. 

As it turns out, Connie Francis herself was on campus at MSU that same year. She performed at Jenison Fieldhouse on March 19, 1961, with Johnny Mathis and Jerry Vale as part of an event called “A Merry Evening.”

Spring Trips to Florida Were Once the Purview of College Swimmers and Golfers on Spring Training

FSCW students playing golf on the course – Tallahassee, Florida. 1935 (circa). State Archives of Florida

Spring break has its roots in college sports. In the 1920s and 1930s, many schools on the East Coast held their first mid-winter breaks. Later, colleges in southern locales began having their spring breaks to escape cold weather.

In 1936, Colgate University students traveled by train to Fort Lauderdale for a vacation with other schools. They discovered that Fort Lauderdale had hundreds of hotels and motels. Soon after, other schools followed Colgate’s example and sent their students there. This was the first recorded spring break trip to that location.

The earliest record of college students taking spring road trips was 1939 when University of Wisconsin swimmers went to Fort Lauderdale for training. In 1949, Iowa State College’s golf team attended a tournament in Miami. And in 1956, Purdue University’s swim team took its first trip to Florida. Then came Connie Francis’ song “Where the Boys Are,” and college campuses across the north knew where they were going for a week in March.  

Spring Break Fever Across The United States

Advertisement for the Blue Mist Resort Motel, Miami Beach. 1961. State Archives of Florida

It was not just MSU students who were struck by this film. Students across America flocked to see it. Soon after its release, many college students began heading to Fort Lauderdale — or anywhere else they could find warm weather and few parental restrictions — for their spring break celebrations.

That spring, 2,500 Michigan State University students made their way south for spring vacation. They booked out every available hotel room in Ft. Lauderdale and Daytona Beach. One newspaper reported, “Thousands of college girls are pouring into Daytona Beach.

In 1962, University President John A. Hannah announced “Spring Break” as a formal holiday at MSU. Since then, students have traveled to beach resorts around Florida or southern Texas during Spring Break.

The Cultural Rite of Passage of Spring Break Started With a Book

Crowd on beach – Fort Lauderdale, Florida. 1960 (circa). State Archives of Florida,

In the spring of 1958, Dr. Glendon Swarthout was teaching an honors class at MSU when he overheard one of his students talking about traveling south during spring break. The concept intrigued him, so he learned that the destination for most MSU students was Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He asked if he could join them, and the students were more than happy to have a faculty adviser along for the trip.

Swarthout’s idea was to write about the experience and submit it to a magazine. “It occurred to me that this would make an excellent novel,” he recalled in an interview with Time magazine’s Joe Klein in 1980. “I could at the same time write a kind of profile of that particular generation-their aspiration, their hopes, their fears, and so on.” 

From that nugget of inspiration came That Summer in Paris (1963), which recounts a fictionalized version of Swarthout’s first encounter with Paris. And from his time with MSU students sprang Where the Boys Are (1960), which became one of his most successful works.

Swarthout wrote a 40-page piece for The New Yorker magazine titled “Where the Boys Are.” It came out in January 1960, and he thought that would be that. But then he got a call from a Hollywood producer who wanted to make a movie based on the article.

Spring Break In Florida Grows Over the Next 25 Years

Bahama Hotel – Fort Lauderdale, Florida. 20th century. State Archives of Florida,

Over the next two decades, the number of spring breakers in Fort Lauderdale increased from 15,000 to almost 370,000. The overall number of spring breakers—including those in the alternative volunteer programs—is projected to reach well over a million.

Spring break is a busy time for travel agents and destinations that cater to college students. Many communities and resorts rely on their business to remain profitable during their slow season. The economic impact of spring break tourism is so significant that many popular destinations have adopted policies or built infrastructure specifically to accommodate the needs of this lucrative market. For example, Panama City Beach approved a controversial ordinance in 2008 that allowed bars along its strip to remain open until 4:00 a.m., as opposed to 2:00 a.m., to welcome more college-age customers.

The Rise and Fall of Ft. Lauderdale and The Concept of Spring Break 

In 1959, Fort Lauderdale had about 36,000 permanent residents. During ten days each year (usually at the beginning of March), the city swelled with 250,000 college students on break.

The city tried to ban alcohol on its beaches, but the courts struck it down. It imposed a curfew that was also struck down. A couple of years later, it tried again and passed an ordinance against public drinking that held up to legal scrutiny.

By the end of the decade, 200,000 college students came annually to party and drink into oblivion. The idea that spring break had become a “rite of passage for college students” grew during this time. By 1985, 60 percent of all 18-21-year-olds made spring break trips to Fort Lauderdale or another destination.

Fort Lauderdale has since been replaced by destinations such as Cancun, Key West, Texas’s South Padre Island, and Daytona Beach as top spots for college students during their week off from classes and studies. However, spring breakers found that Panama City has access to some of the best beaches in Florida. The city offers 27 miles of sandy beaches along the Gulf of Mexico that were ranked as one of the country’s top 10 beaches in 2013.

The Last Two Years May Have Changed Spring Break Forever

However, with two years of a Covid-19 pandemic and the high cost of education, some students are not heading south for the traditional spring break.

“Budgets and Covid are playing huge factors,” said a senior at Rutgers University in New Jersey. “It’s also difficult to plan something when you don’t know what will happen next week.”

Even though spring break may look a little different this year due to COVID-19, there are still plenty of ways students can enjoy their time off without compromising their health. Students turn to domestic destinations like Florida and book last-minute trips to avoid COVID-19 outbreaks abroad. Some students choose not to travel at all but instead take advantage of their extra free time by pursuing new hobbies or spending time with friends at a northern Michigan cottage or cabin.

Own A Bit of Spring Break Nostalgia

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Top US Spring Break Locations in 2022

South Padre Island, Texas

On the Gulf of Mexico, South Padre Island is the southernmost point of Texas. Every day, prominent entertainers will perform at some of the craziest beach parties in the world. Then, at night, explore the island’s waterfront nightclubs and pool parties you’ve only imagined.

This island may be small, but trust us when we say you’ve never seen a party like this before. Everything is more extensive in Texas, especially during South Padre Island Spring Break.

Miami Beach, Florida

It is possible that the very first spring breakers arrived here looking for a good time. Since the 1920s, Miami Beach has been regarded as a premier beach resort. Spring breakers on college spring break excursions typically stay in and around South Beach, but the chance to enjoy the nightlife goes well beyond South Beach into a city with fantastic nightlife.

South Beach is home to the famous (Google Jackie Gleason, this guy was excellent) and is considered a high-end spring break destination for college students. In addition, Miami is a cultural, historical, and architectural hotspot with its art deco style.

Ft. Lauderdale, Florida

On the Atlantic coast, Fort Lauderdale is the beach that started it all. This busy coastal city lies in South Florida, where warm weather is nearly assured in March. Furthermore, its proximity to Miami allows for a fast trip to the famed South Beach. As a result, Fort Lauderdale is a Spring Breaker’s ideal destination, with miles of beautiful beaches, hundreds of students from all over the country, and some of Florida’s finest nightlife.

Daytona Beach, Florida

Daytona Beach, which hugs the Atlantic shore, is located in Central Florida, where mild weather is practically guaranteed in March. With 23 miles of stunning beaches, hundreds of students from throughout the country, and some of the most fabulous nightlife in Florida. Daytona Beach was the original home of spring break. Its proximity to Disney World makes it an intriguing option for a day excursion away from the beach.

Panama City Beach, Florida

This resort area, located in northern Florida along the Gulf Coast, allows students from all over the country to get in their cars and drive to their own paradise. With its 27 miles of gorgeous beaches and crystal blue sea, Panama City Beach is where plentiful sunshine, convenience, and enjoyment converge. Panama City Beach is home to the country’s largest beachfront nightclubs, which are open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Destin, Florida

Destin Florida Spring Break is both classy and vibrant at the same time. Destin, Florida, offers the best of both worlds, from white sandy beaches ideal for a mid-semester vacation to a lively promenade lined with endless bars. Destin, Florida’s Panhandle, is approximately an hour’s drive from Panama City Beach and is easily accessible from hundreds of campuses around the country.

Key West, Florida

Located at the extreme end of A1A in the beautiful Florida Keys, this island beacons you for a week of fun in the sun. While many college students would choose to visit the relatively accessible Daytona Beach, Ft. Lauderdale, or Miami Beach, Key West is like stepping into another universe. It’s an island with culture and feeling like no other, and everything makes you feel like you’re in the Caribbean, which you are.

Driving to Key West is about a 36-hour jaunt from many midwest campuses. Or you can fly to Miami and rent a car for a slow roll to Key West. There are many stops across the bridges of A1A from Miami to Key West worth seeing, such as Islamorada for snorkeling, check out a beach that is one of the most beautiful in the world at Bahia Honda State Park, and try to find the No-Name Bar and avoid the famous little Key Deer on Big Pine Key.

Early Days at Grindstone City

Captain Aaron Peer founded Grindstone City as a company with quarry operations in 1834. The fine stone was used in the pavement of Woodward and Jefferson Avenues in Detroit. In 1836 he claimed 400 acres of land, which included the stone quarries, and in that year, he made the first grindstone and established the works to advance the business.

Grindstone Waiting on Dock For Shipment

Aaron G. Peer of Grindstone City is one of the earliest settlers of Huron County and holds title to many of the “firsts” in the Upper Thumb. Peer installed the first steam engine used in quarry operations at Grindstone City. The engine was prominent among the first “things” of Michigan”, as it was the first built at Detroit, and was the motive of the “Argo,” the first steamer that plied between Port Huron and Detroit. The land he “claimed” in 1836 was the first deed entered in Huron County.

Grindstone Quarry

He brought the necessary help and facilities and shipped the products to Chicago and other points. The mills now standing also contain machinery for the manufacture of whetstones, which is of the most improved character. He employed about 40 men when conducting the works himself. They have been rented since 1881, the lease running until 1891

More On Captain Aaron Peer & Grindstone City

Men in Quarry

The farm of Capt. Peer contains 225 acres, with 120 acres under cultivation, devoted to grain and hay. A fire-proof stone building, 28 x 50 feet in dimensions, was erected by Capt. Peer at Grindstone City, in 1884. It is two stories in height, and he has his residence on the upper floor. The lower story is occupied as a store. 

Grindstone City General Store – Still in Operation in 2022

The marriage of Capt. Peer to Euphemia West brook took place on his farm near Marine City, St. Clair County, in 1839. Four children were born to them.: Arthur H., who resides in Chicago and has been the owner and captain of a vessel for several years; Charlotte E., the wife of William H. Cooper, a merchant at Port Austin. Two children are deceased. 

Elevator and Flour Mill

The mother died in 1859 at Port Huron. She was the daughter of Capt. Andrew Westbrook was prominent in the war of 1812. 

Grindstone City Depot – Pere Marquette Railway

The second marriage of Capt. Peer took place at Port Huron, Nov. 16, 1869, to Sarah L. Hawkins. She was born in Geneva, N. Y. Capt. Peer is President of the Pioneer Society of Huron County and has been a member since its organization. 

Grindstone City School

Being, of all the residents of Huron County, probably the one most deserving of a representation in the portrait gallery of this recognition, as a conspicuous pioneer and still a most prominent citizen, the publishers of this work take special pleasure in placing a likeness of the Captain in connection with the above brief history. 

11 Michigan Indian Trails We Travel Everyday

Ojibwa Indian Encampment

If you think about it, it makes sense. The routes that the native Michigan tribes made and utilized for thousands of years cover the same ground that the Michigan Department of Transportation has paved and we are using today. We use ancient Michigan Indian trails as we cross the state to visit friends in Chicago, visit the wineries in Traverse City or watch the Thanksgiving parade in downtown Detroit. 

Amazingly, Michigan’s first trails were not made by Indians but ranging buffalo herds in migration. This was especially true on the St. Joseph trail in Southwest Michigan.

The major trails in lower Michigan tended to link Indian settlements of Mackinac, The Straits of Detroit, Saginaw, and Niles. The area around Saginaw had the most native American settlements in the Great Lakes region. 

Indian Camp

Major Michigan Indian Trails Systems

Major Indian Trails – Courtesy Michigan State University

Shore Line Trail – A minor trail starting near Toledo and hugging Lake Erie’s shore, the Straits of Detroit. Past Fort Gratiot and Lake Huron to a spot near White Rock. White Rock was considered a solemn spiritual place of offering. Today this route is mirrored by Lakeshore Drive from Detroit to Lexington and M-25 north. This trail continues north along the entire shore to Cheboygan. It was considered a minor trail as travel via canoe was preferred along this route. Michigan chose to utilize much of the original Native American trail along Lake Huron and Saginaw Bay to create M-25. Paving of Michigan’s First Scenic Highway was started in 1933 and completed in 1940.

Saginaw Trail – One of the oldest trails, this Sauk trail system, went from the Straits of Detroit to Saginaw. Today this starts at the Detroit River and heads northwest up Woodward Avenue to Pontiac, then continues up Dixie Highway through Flint to Saginaw. 

SandRidge Trail – An ancient trail from Saginaw to Port Austin in Michigan’s Thumb. Used primarily for access to the rich hunting ground of the  Thumb. Today, M-25 follows much of the same route. However, the old trail is still evident and marked as Sand Road in Huron County. A major canoe passage across Saginaw Bay occurred at Oak Point via Charity Island to reach the AuSable River. 

St. Joseph’s Trail – A major east-west system called Route du Sieur de la Salle and the Territorial Road. When the Territorial road was first built from Plymouth to St Joseph, a portion of the road was ‘corduroy.’ which means wood logs placed closely together in a fashion resembling the ribs in corduroy fabric.  Today this trail is part of U.S. 12 and vast parts of I-94. 

Cheboygan Trail – An interior Michigan trail to the Mackinac straits hugging the eastern forests. State road M-33 follows much of this trail system today. 

Mackinac Trail – An interior northern Michigan trial to the Mackinac straits hugging the western forests. I-75 covers much of this trail system today. 

Assiniboin Encampment on Upper Missouri between 1860 and 1870. Detroit Institute of Arts

Sault-Green Bay Trail –  An east-west route across the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. This system is followed by US 2 and State Rte. 35.

Grand River Trail – Trail between Detroit and Grand Rapids, whose route is now followed by the trunk line US 16.

Shiawassee Trail – Starting just south of Detroit, trail and ran northwest, passing first through the Tonquis’s Village in present-day Southfield. The trail continues northwest between the many lakes that dot the region then skirting today’s Farmington through Southfield. Ultimately terminating in Saginaw

Great Sauk Trail – This major system ran between Detroit and Chicago. In 1820 Henry Schoolcraft was on an expedition with Lewis Cass near Michigan City, Indiana, described the trail as a “plain horse path, which is considerably traveled by traders, hunters, and others…” and said that a stranger could not follow it without the services of a guide because of the numerous side trails. It was so well established that the state followed the Chicago Road (M-12) construction trail in 1827.

Cadillac – Traverse City Trail – Also called Old Indian Trail – Ancient system from 700 BC runs from Cadillac to Traverse Bay. Today this is a marked system with a map and guide. This trail system is maintained by the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa. 


Route Map of the Pere Marquette Railway for Michigan’s Summer Resorts 1913

Pere Marquette Railway Map Taken From the Last Page of Michigan summer resorts: including the Michigan east coast resorts: a guide to the summering places in the lake and river region of the state of Michigan.

Pere Marquette Railroad. Passenger Dept. (1913). Michigan summer resorts: including the Michigan east coast resorts: a guide to the summering places in the lake and river region of the state of Michigan. 1913 ed. Detroit, Mich.: Passenger Dept., Pere Marquette Railroad.

The Beginings of the Pere Marquette Railway

The Pere Marquette Railway Company has grown slowly and laboriously. It was built piece by piece, often under difficult conditions, with the goal of serving new settlements and making available Michigan’s vast stocks of lumber and mineral richness.

Its history began with the formation of three railroads: the Flint and Pere Marquette, the Chicago and West Michigan, and the Detroit, Grand Rapids, and Western.

The first of these roads filed their Articles of Association with the Secretary of State in Lansing on January 22, 1857, and opened for business the first portion of its line, which extended from East Saginaw to Mt. Morris, a distance of 26.1 miles.

The Pere Marquette Railroad Company An Historical Study Of The Growth And Development Of One Of Michigan’s Most Important Railway Systems

President Nixon Visits Bad Axe Michigan, April 10, 1974

Here is the story of when President Nixon visits Bad Axe. During the Spring of 1974, the Watergate break-in and subsequent cover-up were still unfolding but yet to fully engulf the nation. However, the break-in was in the news and the President wanted to hit the road with a campaign day. A special election was to be held for a House seat pitting popular Republican James M. Sparing against Democrat J. Bob Traxler in Michigan’s Eighth Congressional District. It was an opportunity for some good news that Nixon was desperate for. 

President Richard Visit to Michigan’s Thumb

The trip started in Saginaw and then crossed the Thumb with stops in Bad Axe, Cass City, and Sandusky. The New York Times coverage of the event describes the crowds as curious and numbering in the several thousand as the President spoke at each stop.

This Diary of events comes from the Nixon Presidential Library in California.

President Nixon Visits Bad Axe – April 10th, 1974

9:12 am – The President went to the South Grounds of the White House.

9:16 am – The President flew by helicopter from the South Grounds of the White House to Andrews AFB, Maryland.

9:31 am – The President flew by the Spirit of ’76” from Andrews AFB Maryland to the Tri-City Airport, Freeland, Michigan.

10:55 am – The President deplaned.

11:11 am – The President addressed members of the crowd assembled for his arrival

11:29 am – The President flew by helicopter from Tri-City Airport, Freeland to Huron County Airport, Bad Axe.

12:06 pm – The President participated in a campaign motorcade through Michigan’s Eighth Congressional District from Huron County Airport, Bad Axe to Sandusky City Airport. The President’s accompanied by James Sparling, Republican candidate for Michigan’s Eighth Congressional District.

12:11 pm – The Presidential motorcade arrived at the Huron County Courthouse, Bad Axe.

12:23 pm – The President addressed members of the crowd.

1:20 pm – The Presidential motorcade arrived at Cass City.

1:27 pm – The President addressed members of the crowd.

2:45 pm – The Presidential motorcade arrived at the Sanilac County Courthouse, Sandusky.

2:50 pm – The President addressed members of the crowd.

3:00 pm The Presidential motorcade arrived at the Sandusky City Airport.

  • The President bade farewell to Mr. Sparling.

3:02 pm – The President flew by helicopter from Sandusky City Airport to Bay City Airport.

  • The President greeted local Republican officials:
  • Creighton Holden, Republican National Committeeman
  • Ranny Reicker, Republican National Committee
  • Jerry Rpe, State Republican Executive Director
  • Mildred Dunnell, Republican State Vice-Chairman
  • Jerry Nissley, Saginaw County Republican Campaign Director
  • Mrs. Elmer Smith, Co-Chairman of the Republican National Committee

3:52 pm – The President flew by the “Spirit of ’76” from Bay City Airport, Michigan to Andrews AFB, Maryland.

  • The President met with Senator Robert P. Griffin (R-Michigan), Congressman Elford A. Cederberg (R-Michigan)

4:56 pm – The President deplaned.

5:05 pm – The President flew by helicopter from Andrews AFB, Maryland to the South Grounds of the White House.

5:17 pm – The President returned to the second-floor Residence.

Plaque at the Huron County Courthouse


Richard Nixon’s Daily Diary April 1-10, 1974

Related Reading About Bad Axe




Port Crescent Sand and Fill Operations

Port Crescent State Park is one of southern Michigan’s largest state parks. The park, which is located at the tip of Michigan’s “thumb” along three miles of sandy beachfront of Lake Huron Saginaw Bay, has outstanding fishing, canoeing, hiking, cross-country skiing, birding, and hunting possibilities. It’s a popular tourist site, and because it’s a Dark Sky preserve, it attracts stargazers on clear summer evenings. However, a little-known fact about this park is that it is built on the site of a former Michigan lumber town and steamship port.

Sand Operations For Glass Manufacturing

By 1894, all of the buildings in Port Crescent were gone, leaving few traces of the town behind. Nathaniel Bennett Haskell, who owned the sawmill and salt plant on the west side of the river died at age 82.

Haskell’s daughter Elizabeth “Lizzie” Haskell began to realize the value of the local sand quality for copper-smelting and glassmaking. The Haskell docks became a sand quarry and shipping operation utilizing the large docks for freighters to load.

The unique sand along the beach was exhausted in the 1930s and the operations were abandoned. Lizzie died in 1936 in nearby Sandusky in Sanilac County, Michigan.

Today the site of the former lumber town and sand mining operations is known as Port Crescent State Park. There remain some concrete slabs of the pier and a huge dock that dominated the site in the early 1900s.

Want to Know More About Port Cresent?

Michigan Ghost Town In The Thumb – Port Crescent State Park – One of the largest state parks in Michigan was once a thriving lumber town with over 500 residents.

A Michigan Shipwreck Off Port Crescent In 1887 Yielded A Lot Of Dough – One of the most unusual stories about the ghost town of Port Crescent was the result of a shipwreck just off-shore. Its cargo was dumped in an attempt to save the ship. It ended up a windfall for the locals.

Dark Skies Project For Michigan Upper Thumb Stargazing And Nightlife – At the tip of Michigan’s Thumb, Port Crescent State Park is one of six Dark Sky Preserves in Michigan. The park’s designation as a Dark Sky Preserve is another unique element. Visitors can experience this without having to drive further north or to the Upper Peninsula.

5 Of The Top Huron County Beaches Of The Upper Thumb – Huron County’s 93 miles of shoreline plays host to 17 public beaches. Here are our top five beaches and notable mentions of Michigan’s Upper Thumb

Michigan Plank Roads Craze Covered the State in The 1800s

Until the early to mid–1800s, many of our country’s highways were dirt and mud trails. A contemporary movement at the time advocated for the construction of timber roads, which would be a significant advance in transportation. These plank boards were put across the road on log foundations in various lengths, but the majority were eight feet long. The roadways were built for wagons and were 12 feet or wider. These Michigan plank roads were broader in downtown areas.

The First Michigan Plank Roads

While the first plank road was constructed in New York, the first corporation chartered to build a plank road was formed in Michigan in 1837. The Detroit, Plymouth, and Ann Arbor Turnpike Corporation or Timber Road Company was chartered by the Michigan House of Representatives on March 20, 1837.

 Over 200 plank road companies were founded in Michigan throughout the 1800s, with licenses granted for the building and operating approximately 5,800 miles of plank roads. Some were 220 miles long, from Zilwaukee to Mackinaw City via Traverse City. One was barely one mile long and was located in Sault Saint Marie, Michigan’s Upper Penninsula.

Michigan’s Hundreds of Miles of Indian Trails Made Today’s Highways Possible

Michigan Indian Trails

The United States Government dispatched surveyors from the east to Michigan in 1812. Settlers were given their first opportunity to begin farming. The settlers’ desire for a place of opportunity drove them westward from Detroit across Michigan. They took the Indian trails. The settlers were warned that the area ahead of them was worthless swampland as they progressed. The settlers’ aspirations faded with time, yet they persisted. The ladies drove the teams while the men walked. The 80-mile trek took the settlers three weeks to get from Detroit to homestead locations in west Michigan.

In the middle of the nineteenth century, the Grand River trail was enlarged into a plank road, which served as the foundation for one of the first state trunkline roads, M-16, in the early twentieth century. Later, M-126 was replaced by M-104, and the roadway was realigned.

Ann Arbor Turnpike Corporation

The Detroit, Plymouth, and Ann Arbor Turnpike Corporation were among the first to be chartered. It was chartered (with an extraordinary sum of $100,000 in its day) to create a “wooden road built of excellent, well-hewn timber” from Detroit in Wayne County to Ann Arbor in Washtenaw County. Later, in 1844, the state approved the construction of plank roads between Detroit and Port Huron and close Sylvania, Ohio, and Blissfield, Michigan. The Corunna and Northampton and the Marshall and Union City Plank Road companies were granted charters in 1846.

 Depending on the weather and topography, constructing a plank road ranged from several hundred dollars to several thousand dollars per mile. The construction process involved digging trenches on each side of the plank road to drain water and avoid mud from collecting under and over the boards as part of the upkeep. As a result, wagons filled with goods and agricultural products, as well as the animals hauling them, were not delayed or halted by mud and could enjoy a hazard-free trip once they reached a plank road. Planks were also used to build bridges. Even now, you can come upon a wooden bridge, comparable to an ancient plank bridge, on your travels.

Plank Roads Lasted Well Into the 1900s

Plank roads remained popular far into the twentieth century, when the first motorists, straining to navigate muddy roads and rough gravel roads in their Model Ts, were all too pleased to have a flat surface on which to travel. A great deal of pomp was typically associated with the inauguration of a plank road, just as it is now when a new section of roadway is finished. In July 1852, residents assembled in Lansing, Michigan, to commemorate the inauguration of the Lansing-Howell Plank Road. The stagecoach carrying the ceremony’s keynote speaker could be heard arriving from a mile away as it drove along the new plank road. The crowd began applauding as the stagecoach approached. Finally, they had a path on which they could rely.

 The plank road, like many other inventions, was a forward-thinking concept that significantly improved local transport. After a few years, though, the planks began to twist and rot away. Repair costs, additional timber, gravel, toll structures, staff, and management all played a role. Stone was used for compensating for the planks’ deterioration, resulting in a slower and bumpier ride.

Plank Roads in Saginaw

Stagecoach Grand Rapids to Kalamazoo c1860

Plank roads faded into obscurity, with several still lying dormant and forgotten beneath today’s concrete roadways. Then, in April 2010, a 159-year-old relic was discovered by Saginaw’s 19th-century city engineering staff. In terms of Saginaw history, it is “the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.” Crews discovered another portion of one of the community’s original highways, a plank road that ran from Saginaw to Flint beginning in 1851, at the intersection of E. Genesee and Baum. In the 1800s, early Saginaw residents erected the double-decker stacks to counteract the region’s marshy environment. The empty space between the stacks allowed air to travel, making the highway more stable in the bayou-like environment.

 The pioneers and early settlers were very proficient engineers. Highway workers uncovered the plank road fragments while working on a multi-million dollar East Genesee restoration project. Because of the nature of the terrain, this was not a simple one to create. One has to envision what it was like building the plank road along what is now Michigan’s part of Dixie Highway. Workers have to chop down and mill “thousands of trees” during construction. 

The Rise and Fall Of Michigan Governor Epaphroditus Ransom Due to Michigan Plank Roads

Epaphroditus Ransom

Epaphroditus Ransom arrived in the Michigan Territory with his family on November 14, 1834, after a month of a journey by riverboat and stagecoach. He and his wife settled in Bronson, Michigan (the residents eventually changed the settlement’s name to Kalamazoo) and immediately applied for the bar. Ransom traveled extensively on horseback throughout western Michigan as a lawyer, practicing his profession and earning many political connections. He would go on to become Michigan’s 7th governor and Chief Justice of the Michigan Supreme Court. On January 3, 1848, he was inaugurated in Michigan’s brand new state capital in Lansing, Michigan.

 Among his significant successes during his governorship was the development of privately maintained plank roadways. These linked rapidly developing cities such as Grand Rapids, Saginaw, Lansing, Kalamazoo, and Detroit.

Michigan Plank Roads Law Under Governor Ranson

Michigan in 1841


In 1848, the Michigan State Legislature passed a comprehensive Plank Road Bill. Ranson quickly signed the bill into law. A legislative charter was no longer necessary to build and administer a plank road. According to the new regulation, any business may operate a plank road as long as it meets specific standards, such as being two to four rods wide, with 16 feet of it in a good, smooth, permanent road well-drained by ditches on either side. In addition, a minimum of eight feet of road was to be covered with three-inch-thick boards. The legislation also stipulated that no grade should be greater than one out of 10 and that business charters should be valid for 60 years. 


Ransom and his son sold the family property and made significant investments in plank road firms following his time as governor. However, they lost everything after the Panic of 1855 and when plank roads gave way to the ever-expanding railways.

Mid Michigan Had Its Growth Due to Plank Roads

The original Grand River Avenue corridor walk was an Indian trail, a footpath utilized by the aboriginal inhabitants. The earliest European immigrants in the region used this path, which they widened in some places to allow carts to pass. Grand River Avenue in Detroit is one of five primary streets designed by Judge Augustus Woodward in 1805 that stretched from Center Detroit in different circumferential directions; (along with Woodward, Michigan, Gratiot, and Jefferson) Grand River Avenue stretches northwest from the city’s downtown.

Early Plank Roads Created Michigan’s Pre-Tourist Hotels and Inns

Waterford Hotel c 1910 on Saginaw Trail

The first inns and hotels in Michigan catered to settlers and laborers rather than tourists. As people traveled west to experience what Michigan had to offer in terms of harbors, rivers, woods, and agriculture, modest inns were built in major population areas. These inns were generally situated along water transit routes or, following the introduction of stage travel, along the three principal trails that crossed southern Michigan in the early nineteenth century: the Chicago Road, the Territorial Road, and the Grand River Trail.

 Due to the restricted distance that could be traveled by horse, wagon, or stage in a single day, it was common for inns to be placed close to one another. Between 1820 and 1840, these inns were often built with a wood structure. They were typically small, with a few sleeping chambers and a taproom with a big hearth where meals might be prepared and served.

A Michigan historical marker denotes one such inn. “Peter Seitz, a German immigrant, erected a home on the North Custer plank toll road in 1856 as a residence and stagecoach inn. Stagecoaches were formerly hauled by teams of up to four horses. The plank roads were constructed with wooden planks to facilitate driving during the “muddy season.”

The inn was a favorite meeting place for residents and stagecoach travelers alike. The package includes a hotel, dinner, drink, and entertainment. Dances and other social and community gatherings were held in the second-floor ballroom. Residents in this area began the planning that led to the building of St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church in 1860. These inns were widespread in the little towns and villages along the early plank highways.

The structure was utilized as an inn until it was converted into a single-family residence around the turn of the century.”

The Gratiot Plank Road Company

Genesee Street Plank Road c1860


The Gratiot Plank Road Company was founded in 1868 by Ammi Wright and William Glasby, with Wright serving as president and Glasby as a contractor. The Michigan state government has hired them to construct a 32-mile-long plank road made of excellent, well-hewn timber three inches thick to connect Saginaw and St. Louis. Farmers, merchants, and a stagecoach line traveled daily on the route that ultimately became M-46 between Saginaw and St. Louis by 1870. 

A photograph of the plank road was found in the Saginaw Public Library archives dated 1860. This is Genesee Street, according to the sign. It appears to be from an old western movie set rather than a tiny hamlet in Michigan. Norman Little created the first plank road from Saginaw to Flint, paving the way for Saginaw’s prosperity. 

Plank Roads and the Birth of Motor Vehicle Travel

Stage lines traversed terrain that was frequently made up of plank roads, making stage riding extremely rough. The roadbed was likewise alternately dusty and muddy. By 1904, Tuscola County had just a few stage lines left, and they traveled to locations where there were no railroad connections. The speed and comfort of the train finally put an end to the stagecoach industry. Railroads were faster, and their fares were less expensive.

Grand River Avenue Opens, First Paved Road Across State

Grand River Ave Detroit 1900

Fast forward 70 years to 1926, when US Highway 16 was one of the main routes in Michigan before the post-World War II development of freeways. Before establishing the United States Numbered Roadway System in 1926, the highway was classified as a state highway with the designation M-16.

Grand River Avenue’s current course runs northwest-southeast across the Lower Peninsula, from Grand Rapids to Detroit. Between 1955 and 1965, US-16 used other routes between Muskegon and Grand Rapids, then Grand River Avenue via Lansing to Detroit. US 16 was converted from older roads to modern highways in the years preceding the formation of the Interstate Highway System. It was later classified as an Interstate. When the highway gap near Lansing was closed up, the state’s US 16 designation was discontinued. East of Grand Rapids, the highway was only known as Interstate 96 (I-96), and west of the city, it was known as Interstate 196 (I-196).



Henry Ford Charcoal – If You Really Like to BBQ, Thank Ford Motor!

After two failed attempts at establishing an auto company, Henry Ford founded the Ford Motor Company on June 16, 1903. It was only seven years before Ford Motor’s founding that Henry had completed the development of his horseless carriage that he dubbed the Quadricycle, which spurred the Detroit Automobile Company’s formation in 1899. In 1901 a company reorganization yielded the Henry Ford Company. However, within a  year, disputes with investors forced Ford to leave. 

How Did Henry Ford Come to Manufacture Charcol?

Ford founded a whole new company and immediately began producing the Model A at the Mack Avenue Assembly in Detroit. This model proved profitable, and for the next twenty years, a succession of models would be developed, culminating in the Model T, which would sell over 15 million vehicles. 
At that time, automobiles were crafted with about 100 board feet of wood in each vehicle. Finished wood could be found in the steering wheel, dashboard, chassis, and wheels. Wood consumption was huge. Each production day, one million board feet a day was used to manufacture the popular Model T’s, whose chassis was made mostly of wood. 

The Village Industry Experiment

Ford, ever the innovator with minimizing waste, sought solutions to avoid depending on suppliers for components that made up his marvelous machines; this included milled wood. During this period, Ford was also in the midst of a massive undertaking to bring small-scale manufacturing to rural areas. His Village Industry experiment sought to reduce the reliance on large centralized factories. Ford was also concerned about the reliance on fossil fuels. He saw it as a potential threat to national security and to the Ford enterprise. The innovator’s interest in producing Henry Ford Charcoal came out of that same mindset.

Ford’s Upper Peninsula Operations

Image Courtesy of The Henry Ford

After camping and exploration trips in northern Michigan, Ford focused on making its own wood components. He reached out to his cousin’s husband, Edward Kingsford, operating a Ford dealership in the remote mining and lumbering town of Iron Mountain in Michigan’s Upper Penninsula. Ford wanted to purchase forest land for lumber products at Ford Motor, a true vertical supplier integration play.  Kingsford found and purchased 313,000 acres for the operation. Sawmills were built at Pequaming, L’Anse, and Alberta. Iron Mountain was one of the biggest operations as it included an extensive sawmill and hydroelectric plant. Kingsford became Vice President of its operation.
While not considered one of the 20 Ford Village Industry sites, Iron Mountains operations shared many aspects of the rural sites. Most notably is the use of locally created power utilized to run the plant. 

Lumber and Milling Operations at Ford Motor in Iron Mountain

MIlling Operations at Iron Mountain, MI – Courtesy The Henry Ford

The operations in Iron Mountain, besides milling wood, also included distilled scrap wood into chemicals for downstate plant operations, paint production, and antifreeze. The tons of sawdust and scape wood from the lumber mill and production process were collected, dried, and burned in special ovens. The resulting charred wood was crushed, mixed with potato starch, and compressed into usable briquettes for heating, cooking, and smoking meats and fish. 

Charcoal Operations – Courtesy The Henry Ford

The at its height, the plant produced 100 tons of charcoal briquettes a day. However, this amount exceeded what was needed in northern Michigan. Soon the charcoal briquets were packed, branded, and shipped to its dealerships, who sold the charcoal across the country. Ford was so pleased with this innovative product that during Chicago’s 1933-34 Century of Progress Exposition, Ford included the packaged charcoal in the exhibit. “Picnic Kits” with Ford charcoal and portable grills were sold to promote leisure motoring, and picnicking soon began appearing for sale in Ford dealerships, and a whole new industry was born.

The Begining of Kingsford Charcoal

Ford died in 1947, and the company was taken over by his grandson Henry Ford II. The grandson, known as the Deuce, worked to phase out the Village Industries and Ford Charcoal Briquette Company at Iron Mountain. Ford sold the wood chemical operation to local businessmen who changed the name to its founder. The Kingsford Chemical Company was founded in 1951. Kingsford Charcoal remains is the largest producer of charcoal briquets in the world.
In a way, Henry Ford was responsible for today’s popularity of backyard grilling using charcoal that is the same type.


  • All images From the Collections of The Henry Ford. Gift of Ford Motor Company.

Related Reading Henry Ford Charcol


Belle Isle State Park Works To Restore Historic Sawmill

By KATHLEEN LAVEY – Michigan Department of Natural Resources

For decades, City of Detroit foresters industriously labored away in a quaint sawmill within Belle Isle Park, giving trees from streets and parks new life as usable wood after they were removed for road widening or death from disease, pests, or storms.

Shut down more than 40 years ago, the sawmill sat quiet and mostly forgotten, until 2014, when the Michigan Department of Natural Resources began managing the 982-acre island in the Detroit River as the state’s 102nd state park. 

Now, the 80-year-old sawmill building is getting a new life of its own. 

Since autumn 2020, workers have carefully restored its roof, replacing rotted boards with tongue-and-groove Douglas fir planks cut to match the originals as closely as possible. Rotted beams are being replaced, and shingles are next.

The work is the first phase of a coordinated effort to renew the sawmill building. The restored site will serve as a hub for interpreting a unique aspect of Detroit’s history related to urban trees and forestry.

The sawmill’s second act will be to engage visitors in learning about the practice and benefits of urban forestry today, specifically the importance of trees and forests in our communities. Trees provide products and services and improve our quality of life. 

Since last operating in the mid-1980s, the mill has sat largely forgotten, its huge, circular saw blade rusted in place as weather and abandonment took their toll on the rest of the building.

“During the DNR’s transition to managing Belle Isle, there was a process for identifying the nature and infrastructure resources present. At that time, we realized this old sawmill existed,” said Kevin Sayers, urban forestry program manager for the DNR’s Forest Resources Division. “To this profession, restoring this sawmill is restoring a fundamental piece of forestry and forest history.”

Preservation of a 1900s Urban Sawmill

The sawmill on Detroit’s Belle Isle Park seemed to be an odd but interesting artifact.

However, it turns out the City of Detroit had a bit of a progressive streak during the early 20th century related to utilizing urban streets and park trees for wood products.

An old, silent Detroit News newsreel video documents this mill’s early existence and demonstrates one of the earliest examples in the United States of urban wood utilization or repurposing city trees after they’ve been cut down. 

Joe Aiken is an arborist and president of the Arboriculture Society of Michigan Foundation and Historical Society. He and others have collected historical materials regarding arboriculture and urban forestry to establish an urban forestry museum. 

The Belle Isle sawmill building may be the perfect place for that.

“It was like finding a Christmas present under the tree that you forgot about,” Aiken said. “The sawmill has probably been in that specific spot since 1900 or 1905, maybe. They built this building in 1937.” 

Aiken said he believes the last wood milled at the site was used to build platforms and other structures for an event at the old Cobo Hall, now the TCF (Bank) Center. Other wood was used for various purposes, such as park benches, city buildings, and fuel for wood-burning stoves and furnaces.

Sayers and Aiken are excited about the possibilities of having a historical and working sawmill in a thriving urban park that sees millions of visitors each year. 

“This is a place where we can show how valuable trees are in an urban setting,” Aiken said. “There is really no other place in the world that I can find that will be focused on this agenda, and having it in Michigan at a state park is an opportunity.”

Restoration of the Sawmill is Part of A Long-Range Plan

The work to bring the building and the sawmill back to life will take time. It’s happening in phases as funding becomes available and a long-term plan is laid out.

The structural beam repairs, new roof, masonry work, gutters, and downspouts comprise the first phase, a $200,000-plus project funded jointly by the DNR’s Forest Resources and Parks and Recreation divisions, as well as the ASMF, Michigan Forestry Association, and the Belle Isle Conservancy (acting as project fiduciary for the DNR).

The second phase of restoration work, which planners hope will take place this year, will make the building entirely weather-tight with new windows, doors, and exterior paint. 

After that, work will move inside, including electrical updates and new interior doors. Later phases include refurbishing the sawing equipment, exterior landscape, and, finally, opening to the public. 

For various reasons, Sayers said sawing demonstrations will likely take place using a portable sawmill outside the building, at least initially. 

“The site could be great for highlighting and interpreting the history and then demonstrating the current equipment and practices using a portable sawmill,” he said.

Belle Isle is Not the Only Sawmill Managed By the DNR

DNR staffers do have some experience with the type of sawmill on Belle Isle. It’s an electric version of the same model as the steam-powered mill used for demonstrations at Hartwick Pines State Park near Grayling in Otsego County. That park includes exhibits, displays, and events centered around Michigan’s logging era.

Amanda Treadwell, the urban field planner for the DNR’s Parks and Recreation Division, applauded the teamwork that has helped launch the restoration efforts.

“Parks and forestry were able to team up together to fix the roof before it deteriorated to a point where it wouldn’t have been salvageable,” she said. 

She rated the project’s coolness factor as “11 out of 10.” 

“It allows for educational programming and resources for school kids to come onto the island and learn about environmental careers, what the DNR does in urban areas, forestry practices in urban areas,” she said. “It’s a great connection between the outdoors and urban ecology and forestry.”

Aiken said his organization has various artifacts to display that will help tell the story of urban forestry, including climbing ropes and saddles used by urban foresters, insect and disease management, and more.

“The goal would be an interpretive center very similar to what Hartwick Pines does,” he said.

Check out more information on Belle Isle Park. To learn more about forestry in Michigan, see

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Kinde Michigan Grain Elevators and Depot c1940


Pigeon Michigan Amusement Parlor c1900

Amusement Parlor – Pigeon Michigan

This picture of a street scene in Pigeon, Michigan is thought to be taken right around 1900. The amusement parlor or penny arcade was popular in the 1890s through the early 1900s. These storefront shops were stocked with slot machines, phonographs, muscle testing machines, guess your weight scales, and fortune-telling card dispensers. The clientele was typically men and these storefront amusements were very popular.

The most popular attraction was the kinetoscope, a moving picture peep show that some called penny vaudeville. By the time this picture was taken, it’s likely that the owner was also showing moving pictures shows for five cents a sitting. The typical amusement parlor or dance hall would wall off a back room and set up benches, a screen, and a projector. One reel show could be shown for a nickel. These small initial theatres sprung up like weeds in large cities and small towns as they were inexpensive to set up and run.

Site of the Amusement Parlor Today

Despite our best attempts, we don’t know too much about this amusement parlor. Maybe someone has some background. We will go out further on a limb and make a guess that the old amusement parlor was on the same location as Thumb Cellular. I’m sure someone will chime in if that is not the case.

Site of the Amusement Parlor Today in Pigeon, Michigan