Monday, February 11, 2013

The ghosts of Deward

By Mike VanBuren
From the early February edition of The North Woods Call

     Ongoing debates over open pit mining and hydraulic fracturing in drilling operations have made me think of earlier times when Michigan’s resources were under assault—particularly during the late 19th and early 20th century logging of the Deward tract in the state’s upper Lower Peninsula.
     I first visited the site near the intersection of Antrim, Kalkaska, Crawford and Otsego counties in 1978 with the late Ford Kellum, a retired Department of Natural Resources wildlife biologist and somewhat of a legend among Michigan’s conservationists.
     Kellum was irritated at developers and oil companies that day, which he said were continuing the abusive practices that turned the fragile land surrounding Deward into a case study of mismanagement.
     As one of the last remaining stands of virgin white pine near the end of Michigan’s fabled lumbering era, the majestic forest offered tremendous potential for a hungry industry.  By the late 1970s, however, it could only be described as God-forsaken brush country, punctured by oil & gas wells and scarred by various other development activities.
     What we saw that day was a virtual wasteland of weathered and decaying stumps on soil so delicate that bruises left by horse-drawn wagon wheels more than 60 years earlier could still be seen.
     We walked through the old town site, over long-abandoned railroad grades and past the huge concrete foundations of a sawmill that once ran without stopping day and night, producing as many as 52 million board feet of lumber in a single year.
     The town began to die, of course, as soon as the last giant pine completed its run through the mill.  In March 1912, as suddenly as the town was created, the mill was dismantled and moved away.  The local population gradually diminished until the last resident deserted the site in August 1932.
     Deward had become the last of Michigan’s lumbering ghost towns, leaving behind a prairie-type land mass marked only by the huge white pine stumps.
     Repeated fires and soil too poor to bring the forests back kept much of the land from recovering.
     During the 1920s and 1930s, huge flocks of prairie chickens could be flushed from almost anywhere on the tract, but—due to the fires, natural growth and development—they eventually disappeared.  Sharp-tailed grouse were introduced south of Deward in 1933 and did well for a short time  until they, too, became the victims of growth and development to the point where—at the time of our visit—there were only a few remaining in the area.
     For more than a generation, there was little activity on the Deward tract.  Then a pipeline construction crew moved through the area, uprooting stumps and leaving a large scar on the land.  Later, a large development firm took over 12 square miles of the tract surrounding Lake Harold in Antrim County.  Roads were cut and paved, recreational facilities and an airport were built, and lots were surveyed and sold.
     Elsewhere on the tract, drilling operations continue today.
     Several years ago, I returned to Deward with my then nine-year-old son and a former college roommate.  We camped for two days at the old town site, hiked along the Manistee River and searched for memorabilia.
     Natural growth and a 25-year-old pine plantation were beginning to reclaim some of the land, although large areas remained sparsely covered—sporting nothing more than a few scrub trees and a thin layer of soil and grass.
     The nights were dark and relatively quiet, save for the occasional yip of a coyote and the rhythmic pounding of nearby oil wells.
     On our last morning in camp, while we were packing tents and preparing oatmeal for breakfast, a large explosion shattered the Sunday morning calm.  Each of us jumped a bit—startled by the loud boom and resulting percussion that we felt forcing its way through the trees.
     Then the quiet returned, with only the lingering odor of natural gas to remind us of the disturbing noise we had heard.  We saw no smoke or flames and heard no emergency vehicles responding to whatever had caused the blast—only a gentle breeze rustling through the leaves.
     Just another day in Deward.
    We finished breaking camp a short time later and drove away, never having figured out what had exploded, or how far away it was.  Not much to get excited about, I guess, because we never heard or read anything about it after that.
     I returned home haunted by the strange experience and by memories of my first visit to Deward many years earlier with Ford Kellum—who was a tireless advocate for better resource management right up until his death in October 1991.
   It seems like there is so much that he left unfinished.

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