Comments on the Clare County Historical Tour

Twelve signs have been erected in Clare County, Michigan denoting historical places or celebrating events that took place within county boundaries.The sites are promoted a local Chamber of Commerce. I was told that the sites were chosen by Clare County Parks & Recreation, the Clare County Historical Society and Central Michigan University’s history department. Most of the markers are related to lumbering that took place in the later part of the 19th century. During that period lumberjacks came by the thousands to mid- and upper-Michigan to cut the towering virgin pines that grew to feed the growing hunger for boards and shingles in cities throughout the state and Midwest. These included cities like Chicago that was rebuilding after its massive fire in 1875.

People became rich during that era. Not the lumberjacks who cut the trees and moved the logs, but those who owned the land, ran the railroads and the mills–and perhaps those owned the bars where the loggers drank away their earnings.

I took a trip across the county in July to locate the historical sites to see if I could find the landmark signs and to see what I thought of them. In the end, I visited all 12 sites although I found only 10 markers. I am not sure if some of the sites on the tour should remain since nothing remains at the sites of an historical nature. However, perhaps landmarks, like art, is in the eye of the beholder.

Below is my take on the 12 sites along with directions, links and information that doesn’t appear in the Chamber tour that history buffs may find helpful.  And although I may not agree with all the sites chosen, I still invite you to take the tour. It does make for pleasant afternoon drive.

1) Leota:  (Jonesville Rd., ½ mile north of Muskegon Rd.) Leota was a major logging town on the Muskegon River. Loggers brought their logs to the river  where they were floated downstream to sawmills. I could not find the marker in the area, which is now an ORV trail parking lot. In the lumbering era, the site was reportedly used as a railway roll-off for timber being moved out of nearby forests into the river for transport to mills downstream. Although the Chamber tour states the bridge on the site was used by the railroad, it was part of the Old State Road built in the 1930’s.

2) Merideth: (M-18, 3-miles north of Arnold Lake Rd. in the northeast corner of the county.) This site of intersecting railways was once a bustling lumber town. In 1885, 500 people lived in the town that sported several saloons, three hotels, an Opera House, jail, rail depot, roundhouse and three-story school. One of Merideth’s most infamous residents was saloonkeeper Jim Carr who is said to have trafficked in vices of all kinds including murder. It is said that when he died, seven ministers refused to officiate at his funeral and he was not allowed burial in the local cemetery. Not much of a historical nature remains in town. There is a screen from a drive-in theater that closed in the ’80s and a general store made of stone that may or may not be on the site of the former train depot. According to the book Michigan’s Ghost Towns, the theater stands where most of the former town once stood. The old town cemetery is unmarked and on private property.

3) Surrey House: (125 E. Beech, Harrison) Originally called the Ohio Tavern when constructed around 1880, the Surrey originally had an attached livery. Rumor has it that the second story was used as a house of ill repute during its saloon days. It is also rumored to be haunted by the non-violent spirit of a boy.  The building was remodeled into a hotel in the 1940’s and has been used most recently as a restaurant and bar. It is currently closed.

4) Spikehorn’s “Bear and Deer Park”: (Corner of M-61 and Business US-27, Harrison) John “Spikehorn” Meyers was one of Harrison’s most colorful characters. With his long white hair and full white beard, he was part showman, part naturalist, part politician and full-time foe of Michigan’s conservation officers with whom he fought legal battles because of his possession of wild animals.  Spikehorn opened his park around 1930 as a tourist attraction and would hand-feed the bears and, along with his friend Red Eagle, would regale tourists with stories of their adventures in the woods.  The park burned in the 1950’s. The photo depicts the site before the fire. Currently, part of the stone foundation is visible.

5) Campbell: (1901 E. Main, Temple) Now called Temple, this town, platted in 1899, was originally named after Mary Campbell who donated land for it along the Ann Arbor Railroad that ran past her property. Once home to 400, Campbell/Temple’s buildings included two hotels, a train depot, several saloons and grocery stores, sawmills and a two-story town hall.  This was another Clare town that declined when the timber played out. The final blow was when the railroad ended passenger traffic shortly after WWII.  Now a quiet village, it is home to Duggan’s Canoe Livery and a man who must love birdhouses (photo).

6) Gerrish Railroad Plaque: (Roadside County Park on S. Clare Rd., south of Mannsiding Rd., between Clare and Harrison) Clare county probably has more miles of old railroad grades than any county in the state and that is in no small part due to Winfield Scott Gerrish, who introduced the first logging railroad in Clare County in January 1877. (Note: This post originally and incorrectly stated that Scott’s logging railroad was the first un the world. Gerrish got his idea after seeing a locomotive made for just such a use at a exposition in the eastern states. He bought two locomotives and had them brought to Michigan.)  Called the Lake George & Muskegon Railroad, his train revolutionized the logging industry that, up to that time, relied on horses or water to move cut timber out of the woods. Even taking into consideration the time and expense needed to build the railbeds and lay down the track, the railroads proved extremely profitable as they cut expenses associated with moving timber out of the woods. A plaque commemorating Gerrish can also be found in the nearby community of  Lake George.

7) Cornwell Ranch: (Cornwell Ave. ½ mile south of Mannsiding Rd. and east of S. Clare Rd.) A key employer in the early era of this county, this ranch had a major influence on the development of surrounding communities. Many of the buildings on the ranch, as well as portions of the fence line are built of fieldstones and cobblestones found in abundance in the glacial moraine just to the south.

8) Depression Era Mural: (Doherty Hotel, McEwan St, Clare) Painted by Jay McHugh in 1932 this mural that is approximately 4-feet high and 75-feet long depicts leprechauns making beer. McHugh painted the mural in return for room and board. Articles in the lobby tell the story of the murals and the history of the hotel.

9) Depression Era Murals:
a. Treasury Art (Clare Post Office, Fifth St., Clare) Entitled “The Mail Comes to Clare County,”  this mural was produced under a Treasury Section of Fine Arts program similar to those down by the Works Project Administration. More than 50 post offices in Michigan have murals. The mural in Clare can be seen during regular postal business hours.
b. WPA Art: (Clare Middle School, 209 E. State St. Clare)  A mural, by Grand Rapids artist Gerald Mast fills one wall of the auditorium and celebrates farm life.  It can be viewed by appointment. Call 989-386-9979 to arrange a tour. A second piece of art, an 8-foot tall sculpture entitled “Pioneer Mother” by Samuel Cashwan stands in front of the school.

10) Clare County Museum Complex: (Everhart and Dover Rds., five miles north of Clare and one miles east of S. Clare Rd.) The former town of Dover is now the site of the Clare County Historical Museum complex that contains a museum with displays highlighting county history, the original Dover school built in 1876 and a log cabin used by Louie and Emma Ott to raise their 18 children. It was moved to museum grounds from within the county in 2000. The buildings are open Saturdays from 1-5 p.m. from May through September.

11) Farwell Historical Museum: (221 Main, Farwell) The museum highlights the history of Farwell, which once served as the county seat. The town was established in 1870 along the line of the Pere Marquette Railroad and named for Samuel Farwell,  a resident of Utica, New York and contractor for public works in the state.  However, Farwell was also a major stockholder in the Flint Pere Marquette Railway Company that eventually came through town.  It’s possible that Farwell was so named to curry favor with the railroad and ensure the town became a major stop.   The museum is open Saturdays during the summer. The town also has a wonderful Queen Anne style house built in 1895 by George and Martha Hitchcock that stands at the corner of Michigan and Superior.

12) Wilson State Park: (Shore of Budd Lake, Harrison) William Wilson of Wilson Brothers Lumber Company that had owned much of the land around Harrison and ran a sawmill on the banks of Budd Lake, deeded 40 acres to the City of Harrison to be used as a park. The park was given to the state in 1922 and became a state park in 1927. In 1939, the Civilian Conservation Corp constructed the main park building, which is still used today. They also built a stone residence with rock from nearby counties.  The park is located right in Harrison and has  modern campsites, a beach and is adjacent to the county fairgrounds. More info.

Note: All photos, except for the Spikehorn photo were taken by the author. The Spikehorn photo is from the collection of Forrest Meek and can be found in the Mid Michigan Community College library. Please contact the author if you find any of the information in this tour to be in error or know of any other historical sites in the county you believe deserve recognition.

Categories: Clare County, Harrison, History, Michigan, Travel and tourism | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

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3 thoughts on “Comments on the Clare County Historical Tour

  1. WC44

    Nice job. A friend of mine is trying to get me to go back to a football game at Central so I’m always looking for something to tie into the trip. Spent a Weekend at the Cornwell Ranch as a guest of Mrs. Carter back in the late eighties.

    • Thanks for your comment. I have a tour that was written sometime in the late 1930’s that I plan to copy, convert to text and post. It contains a section on the ranch and mentions the Carters. I bet your visit was a memorable experience. Maybe you could post some memories of it sometime.

  2. I’m not that much of a internet reader to be honest but your blogs really nice, keep it up!

    I’ll go ahead and bookmark your site to come back down the road.
    Many thanks

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