Tag Archives: Michigan History

Lumbering in the Great Lake State

Grace Gillengerten

Præteritum Michigan contributor

The beautiful Michigan we know today was once called a land worth nothing unless you wanted to raise frogs or mosquitoes. After land surveys were taken in the first half of the 1800s, the knowledge of Michigan’s dense and vast pine forests spread far and wide. Soon enough, Michigan became the country’s leader in the lumber industry, at least for a short while.

Exploration and Treaties

In 1820, Michigan’s Governor, Lewis Cass, gathered together a party to explore Michigan. He wanted to promote Michigan as a desirable place for settlement as well as make contact with natives, study the topography, pick out locations for forts, and find the source of the Mississippi River. Cass and his crew discovered that for hundreds of miles, Michigan’s great forests were untouched. It was said that Michigan had enough pine to build a floor that could cover all of the Michigan land area plus all of Rhode Island, but even this estimate proved to be low. One New Englander claimed, “We’ll never cut all this pine if we log it until hell freezes.” In 1897, an estimated 160 billion board feet of pine in Michigan had been cut, with plenty still to go.

At the time, there were 40,000 original settlers living northwest of the Ohio River. Before the sought after white pine could be cut down, deals with the natives would first have to be made. Over the course of Cass’ term as governor, he made a total of 22 treaties with different tribes. Though not all natives moved west, they no longer were a major obstacle in the settlement of Michigan.

Further reading on the Saginaw Treaty:


Map of Indian Land Cession Treaties in Michigan
Map of Indian Land Cession Treaties in Michigan. Source: http://geo.msu.edu/extra/geogmich/Indian_cessions.html

The New Settlers and Settlements

Many men from the east headed west to Michigan. The lumber supply in the east was beginning to become exhausted. Many men came from Maine, which had previously been the source of prime lumber for the United States. Michigan was yet to be civilized; that meant plenty of space, plenty of jobs, plenty of lumber, and also good wages. One could be expected to be paid twenty or even thirty dollars a month. These higher wages meant the workers would have ample money to spend in town.

Image of a nineteenth century lumbering camp
The men of a lumber camp. Source: http://geo.msu.edu/extra/geogmich/whitepine-loggingII.html

The lumber industry of Michigan was born around the Saginaw area. There were three million acres of white pine ready to be harvested. Rivers such as The Cass, Flint, Shiawassee, Bad, Tittabawasee, and Chippewa, converged to form the Saginaw River. This provided 864 miles of water for the logs to be floated on to the sawmills, making Saginaw an ideal place for logging. An estimated 15,000,000 trees we cut in Saginaw alone between 1851-1897.

The Process

The race to profit from the pines started with men who scouted the land. Land lookers, also called timber cruisers, were expert judges in pine. They were hired to pick the best available tracts of land. Taking into consideration the quality and quantity of the lumber as well as studying the terrain for waterways to transport the logs. Hills and swamps were obstacles that timber cruisers had to keep a lookout for. Once a section of land was determined to be desirable, the surveyors had to make a claim on it for their employer. The system was first come first serve. If two scouts both wanted the same piece of land, it was only a matter of who got to the land office first.

Logs being hauled out of the forest on horse-drawn sleighs
Lumber sled pulled by four horses.
Image source: https:// www.wisconsinhistory.org/Records/Image/IM57239

With a spot for the lumber camp picked out, an advance party would head to the site in early fall to prepare for the winter. A number of shantys were set up depending on how large the crew would be. Winter was ideal for the cutting of the timber because it was easiest to move the logs to the river banks. Huge bobsleds were used to slide logs piled twenty to thirty feet high over the iced logging roads. When the ice thawed, the logs were then dislodged from their piles and all sent tumbling into the river. Rivermen then worked to drive the logs. Preventing and fixing log jams, navigating dams, rapids, and falls, were all part of the job. When the logs reached the mouth of the river, they were sorted according to the initial or insignia on it of the company it belonged to. Once sorted and tied together to form a sort of raft, they were then hauled off to the surrounding sawmills. Later on in the 1870’s, the methods of transporting timber changed with the use of locomotives. Without the absolute need of a river to transport their logs, lumbermen could now attack pines several miles from rivers. Along with locomotives, “big wheels” led by horses were used to haul three or four logs at a time. These new methods of transportation also meant logging could take place in the warm seasons as well as the cold ones. The cut timber was used to build Chicago and other growing midwest cities.

Big wheels invented by Silas C. Overpack, making logging possible in all four seasons.
Source: http://geo.msu.edu/extra/geogmich/big_wheels.html

Source: http://www.catskillarchive.com/rrextra/lgjam.html
Image of logs at the mouth of a river in the late-1800s
Logs arrived at the mouth of a river.
Source: http://geo.msu.edu/extra/geogmich/whitepine-loggingII.html


After the valuable timber had been cut, the land it had been taken from was no longer of any importance. Many big names in the lumber industry were also political leaders. The mixing of pine and politics meant the abuse of the forests for the benefit of the lumber companies. No effort was made to conserve uncut trees or replant the cut ones. The lumberjacks were careless and often responsible for causing forest fires. When the pine had been hauled away, a wasteland of stumps and cut branches were what remained. The mess left behind was essentially kindling, waiting for dry conditions and a spark to set it ablaze. Forest fires were commonly started by a forgotten campfire, sparks from a locomotive, and “pasture maker” fires used to clear a plot of land.

On Sunday, October 8th, 1871, three major fires took place in the midwest. The Great Chicago Fire, The Peshtigo fire of Wisconsin, and Michigan’s Thumb Fire of 1871. 200 lives were lost in Michigan on that hot and dry day. Affected by the fire were the towns of Manistee, Holland, Richmondville, White Rock, Forestville, Sand Beach, Lansing, Forester, and Huron City. Whole towns were in ruins. Families were forced to flee from their wooden homes to search for safety in their wooden towns that were surrounded by woods. Many people were trapped on all sides. At the time, there were no firefighters to come to the rescue.

A decade later, on September 5th, 1881, a fire even more terrible broke out in Michigan. The Thumb counties of St. Claire, Lapeer, Tuscola, Huron, and Sanilac, were primarily affected. The Thumb Fires of 1871 did not stop the lumber companies from continuing to operate in ways that posed great threats of forest fires. No rain had fallen in the two months prior to early September. As it was common for small fires to occur as farmers burned their brush, no alarm was raised at the scattered fires happening at the time. It was not until a southwest wind, reported at 40 mph, swept up these scattered fires and turned them into huge raging flames. It is estimated that the fire killed nearly three hundred people. Notably, the 1881 fire was the first disaster relief project of the American Red Cross.


At the turn of the century, the logging industry began its decline. Pine was no longer seen as inexhaustible as its numbers dwindled. The Lake States’ lumbering history summed up, “Its rise swift, its heyday short, its effects devastating, its decline precipitate.” Ghosts towns became more common as employment dropped by almost half. Conservation efforts by national and state governments set aside forest lands to preserve what was left. Though huge plots of land were now available for farming, much of the land cleared of pines was not suitable for growing crops. The best answer was to replant trees. The reforestation was able to restore some of the former pineries, though it will never be the great sea of timber it once was.


The lumber boom in Michigan is a prime example of how an industry can be very destructive when there is no forethought into the future consequences. The case of lumbering in Michigan opens the door to further discussion in other areas of conservation in Michigan such as hunting, fishing, and Michigan’s bodies of water. Different narratives to consider in land use and conservation include that of native groups, everyday men and women, and industry and political leaders. Born through the harmful environmental consequences from early land exploitation came legislation for conservation and later groups such as the Civilian Conservation Corp. Today the conversation of environmental protection continues as climate change and corporations threaten animal populations and precious resources.



Wells, W. Robert, Daylight in the Swamp!, New York, Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1978.

Dunbar F. Willis, Michigan: A History of the Wolverine State, Grand Rapids, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995.

The Black Legion and the Wolverine Republican League

Black Legion – Part II, The Wolverine Republican League

By David Siwik – Præteritum Michigan Editor

The previous post covered the rise of the Black Legion, a Ku Klux Klan-type, right-wing, white-supremacist group that rose to prominence in Michigan in the 1930s.  The Legion were feared by many who had the unfortunate occasion of crossing their path, as the case of Charles Poole (discussed in the previous post) shows.  Yet, the ranks of “Legionaries” included more than secretive men who rode out at night to commit their dirty deeds.  Indeed, they had a more “respectable” front organization that held its meetings relatively out in the open.  The Wolverine Republican League, or Wolverine Republicans, functioned much like one would expect of a politically minded sodality.  They had membership, held meetings, raised money, and most importantly, recruited or advocated for political candidates and issues.

As it turns out, through the Wolverine Republicans, the Black Legion had a surprisingly substantial influence on Michigan politics.  And, while they mostly supported Republicans, a few prominent Democrats appeared to have ties to the Legion through the Wolverine Republican League as well.  Holding their meetings in a former Masonic Temple turned banquet hall on the corner of Waterman and West Lafayette in southwest Detroit, the Wolverine Republicans recruited members, discussed the pressing issues of the day and held candidate screenings and political rallies.  Further legitimized by a mailing address in the Guardian Building office suite of one of Detroit’s most prominent attorneys, Wolverine Republican meetings had the appearance of benign legitimacy.  This is something the Black Legion, with its secretive nature and far-from-legal activities could never have enjoyed.

Two Michigan governors, both Republicans, Wilbur Brucker and Frank Fitzgerald had ties to the Legion through the Wolverine Republicans.

Brucker was a decorated veteran, serving in the France during the First World War, including the bloody Meuse-Argonne operation, as part of the 42nd division of the National Guard.  Despite being the son of a rather prominent Democratic congressman, after the war, Brucker became a Republican and entered office as Michigan’s 32nd Governor in 1931.  Things did not go well for his political career, as the Great Depression, already well underway, only grew worse.  The auto industry shed nearly three quarters of its workforce and the state’s unemployment rate soared to nearly 50 percent by the time he left office in 1933.  Out of this economic angst, he failed to win re-election in 1932.

This did not mean the end to Brucker’s political ambitions though, and this is where his ties to the Legion developed.  The 1932 Presidential and 1934 Mid-term elections had been utterly devastating for the national Republican Party.  Although he had no more or less to do with the economic downturn than any other President, Herbert Hoover, and eventually his Republican Party took the brunt of the blame for the collapse of the American economy.  Industrial states like Michigan were hit hardest of them all.  The Democrats swept into power among Franklin Roosevelt’s promise of a New Deal.  By 1936, however, Republicans hoped for a renewed show of force.

Clara Helen Hantel and Wilbur Brucker, Image Source: Library of Congress

In 1936, Brucker sought his return to politics and eyed the seat of fellow Republican, Senator James Couzen, as his potential inroad.  Brucker’s challenge to Couzen would begin at a meeting of the Wolverine Republicans in southwest Detroit.  In launching his campaign, Brucker expressed some of the same racialist, anti-immigrant and anti-New Deal sentiments rife among the Legion and their front organization, the League.  Brucker went on to defeat Couzens in the primary, but lost to Democrat Prentiss M. Brown in November.  His decision to launch his campaign at a Legion meeting and continued association with the organization throughout the campaign is something that few know about.  Perhaps this was all overshadowed by his more admirable appointments in the 1950s as a member of the General Counsel for the Department of Defense during the Army-McCarthy hearings, and as Secretary of the Army during the Eisenhower Administration.  Nonetheless, it is a part of his past, and a part of Michigan’s.

Frank Fitzgerald is certainly one of the most well-known Grand Ledge residents of the 20th century, having served as Governor of Michigan from 1935-37, and for two-and-a-half months of a (non-consecutive) second term before he died in office on March 16, 1939.  Fitzgerald had his links to the Legion and the League.  Anecdotally, the brother of his chief of staff was a member of the Legion.  However, much more seriously was the appointment by Fitzgerald of Harry Bennett, yes the Harry Bennett of Ford Motor Company’s “Service Department,” to the position of Commissioner of Prisons (precursor to the Department of Corrections).  Bennett, with ties to the Legion, used his position to parole men straight into the Ford Service Department.

(For readers unaware, the Ford Service Department were a group of union busting thugs whose preferred tactics included violent assaults on workers attempting to organize.  Upon becoming Ford Motor Company President, Henry Ford II sought to fire Bennett.  He gave the potentially dangerous job to Vice President John Bugas; wherein, upon delivering the notice of dismissal, he and Bennett supposedly drew pistols at one another).

The ties of these men and others, including Detroit Police Commissioner Heinrich Pickert, and Oakland County Prosecutor David C. Pence, certainly shows how prominent an organization the Black Legion were in Michigan.  Wayne County Prosecutor Duncan McCrea, a Democrat, was also believed to have had ties to Legion members, though he vehemently denied membership.  It is worth noting however that McCrea was later convicted in a bribery scandal.

Through their front organization, the Wolverine Republican League, the Legion gained support at the highest levels of local and state government.  The 1930s produced a lot of angst in America.  Experimental solutions to deep-seated economic and social problems can be seen throughout the decade.  Yet when it comes to the rise and eventual dissipation of the Black Legion, the same nativism and racism that had already long been a part of American history seems not so different from the previous decades.

Listen to David Siwik interviewed on Stateside, with Lester Graham on Michigan Radio.


The Black Legion in Michigan

by David Siwik, Præteritum Editor

Taking the long view of American history, the decade of the 1930s looks different than those that preceded or followed. In a nation historically stubbornly resistant to change, in the 1930s, Americans experimented with new ideas and new possibilities of doing things in ways they had not done before. Some of these experiments were grand, so much so, many are still with us, including Social Security, millions of acres of forests planted by the Civilian Conservation Corps, and bridges, hydroelectric dams, post offices and schools, built by men and women and financed by the Federal government. Scorned by many at the time (and a not insubstantial portion of the populace to this day), nonetheless a consensus developed among the majority of Americans for a more useful expenditure of tax payer dollars, ushering in a different relationship for many with their government.

There were however other experiments, including a more sinister and ultimately deadly form of nativist, anti-immigrant sentiment that had long formed an important part of the American narrative. In Michigan, one form this took was the development of a Ku Klux Klan type secretive terrorist group with fascist sympathies known as the Black Legion. Telling their prospective recruits that the threat to the working class were immigrants and union organizers, competitors for the precious few jobs remaining (bear in mind, the unemployment rate in Michigan in the 1930s was as high as 49%), the Legion drew in the disaffected and appealed in a similar way fascist political parties and leaders did to many in Europe.

It’s difficult to tell just how many men counted themselves among the Black Legion, secretive as the organization was by its nature. However, estimates run into the tens of thousands, and whatever their numbers, they made their presence known, often times in deadly ways. Armed with pistols and cloaked in black hooded robes with masks looking like something out of a 1930s pirate movie, the Legion terrorized those who it deemed a threat to the “American way.”

Black Legion Men

A list of men murdered reveals who the Legionnaires targeted. One of their first victims was George Marchuk, a communist and union organizer at Ford Motor Company, gunned down by Legionnaire thugs in 1933. John Bielak, also a union man, who attempted to organize workers at Hudson, was killed in 1934. Silas Coleman, a black construction worker was murdered by one account, because Black Legion members wanted to know what it “felt like to kill” a black man. Ultimately, the murder of Charles Poole, a Catholic who had earlier been driven out of Kentucky by the Klan, brought the group into the public knowledge, as during the trial held to hold those who killed him responsible for the crime, dozens of Legion members were named, and ultimately implemented in a slue of crimes across southeast Michigan.

Nativism, what we usually refer to nowadays as xenophobia or anti-immigrant attitudes, has long been a part of American history. Going back to outbreaks of violence against Catholics in the decades before the Civil War, and culminating in the restrictive immigration quotas passed into law in the 1910s and 1920s, America has had a history of immigrants living juxtaposed to those who would just as well see them elsewhere. Sometimes these attitudes took on deadly forms, as in the case of the Black Legion. Political parties have taken up the cloak of nativist sentiment as well. And at times, the different reactions to immigrants have blended into a difficult to distinguish amalgamation of underground terrorist organizations and overt political action.

Indeed, many of the names of Black Legionnaires brought to the attention of authorities in the case of the murder of Charles Poole included men who worked in local government positions in places such as Detroit, Pontiac, Royal Oak, Highland Park and Ecorse. The Black Legion also had more “legitimate” political connections, including through a front organization that shared many members called the Wolverine Republicans.

The Boardman, a Post-Industrial River?

Boardman River, Grand Traverse County, Michigan. Photo by David Siwik
Boardman River, Grand Traverse County, Michigan. Photo by David Siwik

by David Siwik, Præteritum Editor

Mention Michigan industry and many people will think immediately of the southern part of the state, and for good reason.  Southern Michigan cities from Muskegon to Grand Rapids, from Benton Harbor to Detroit, while varying greatly in size, share in common an industrial heritage.  Yet the northern part of the state too saw substantial impact from America’s industrialization in the 19th century.  And a brief look at the Boardman River gives us an interesting glimpse into this part of Michigan’s economic and ecological history as well as an opportunity to track appreciable change over time.

The Boardman River is not a long stream.  It’s two branches have their headwaters near Kalkaska wherein they meet about 20 miles to the east of the stream’s outflow, Grand Traverse Bay of Lake Michigan.  As is typical of northern Michigan, the dense forest the stream flows through provides both excellent cover for rainbow, brook and brown trout and a considerable contrast to times past.  In the late-1800s, rivers such as the Boardman saw trees, measured by the board feet, piled up along their banks, soon to be turned into homes near and far away and filling local lumber companies’ coffers with handsome profits.  In the early-20th century power companies constructed hydroelectric dams along the Boardman and other northern Michigan rivers to provide electricity to the region.

Michigan Logging. Illustration by David Siwik.
Michigan Logging. Illustration by David Siwik.

Like much of northern Michigan, resource extraction played a key role in the developing industrial economy of not only the rest of the state, but the Midwest as a whole.  Michigan copper once accounted for half the nation’s copper output.  Michigan trees helped build (and rebuild) Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland and many other industrial powerhouses.  Michigan iron ore fed the steel mills located along the southern shores of Lakes Michigan and Erie, as well as Youngstown and Pittsburgh.  Northern Michigan was part of the industrial revolution which greatly increased America’s wealth and power in the nineteenth century.

Little if any of this seems an obvious thought to consider when climbing along the high banks of the Boardman River, a stream known for its excellent trout fishing, as indeed Ernest Hemingway himself discovered over 100 years ago.  (Compared to other northern Michigan streams such as the AuSable, the Boardman was spared the worst of the barren stripping of its banks).  And yet, resource extraction and economic activity are never too far away.  Logging still happens along the Boardman; however, it is not ecologically devastating as in times past.  With scientific management of forests and controlled logging, trees can be a renewable and sustainable resource.  People get paper and 2x4s, and the stream maintains its ph and temperature to support a healthy trout population.

No longer needed for power, the hydroelectric dams once constructed along the Boardman are now being removed and portions of the stream are now flowing as they once did before the days of the lumbermen and the power companies.

The past is often times viewed as better than the present.  But as it turns out, sometimes people do learn better ways of doing things from their ancestors.