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The Gerald Mast WPA Murals: Clare, Michigan

In 1938, four murals by Grand Rapids painter, mural painter, mosaicist, and educator Gerald Mast (1928-1972) were installed in the Clare, Michigan High School (now its middle school) auditorium, as part of the Works Project Administration art project. Each of the four panels that make up the mural are approximately 20-feet high and 8-feet wide. The panels were installed after being painted at the Detroit Institute of Arts, wrapped about stovepipe and transported by flatbed truck the 170-or-so odd miles to Clare.

Dayton Spence, an art restoration specialist and historian of 19th, 20th and 21st century American art, came to Clare in 1988 to clean and restore the murals. Dr. Thomas Moline was superintendent of Clare Public Schools at that time and on Sept. 8, 2012, Dr. Moline returned to Clare from his home in Illinois to take part in a fundraiser and Depression-era art tour sponsored by the Clare County Arts Council. Standing in the auditorium with the murals to his right, Dr Moline gave those in attendance the keynote address–as well as a history lesson.

According to Dr. Moline, the Mast Murals are some of the largest WPA murals in existence composed by a single artist and are snapshots in time. “They represent what was important to the Clare community and surrounding area at a time when the nation was wrestling with the effects of the Great Depression and the subject of the murals was chosen by Mast and the community.”

Moving from the back of the auditorium to the front (left to right in the photos) the murals illustrate agriculture, peacetime activities, science & education and the emerging gas & oil industry.

From picture to picture, the look on the people’s faces was the same, said Moline. No one seems to be smiling. Why is it that all, even the giants on both sides, look so somber and as if staring off into space? The following is taken mostly verbatim from Dr. Moline’s talk and based on his conversations with Dayton Spence and Moline’s own research:

“Many WPA works of art chronicle the effects of the Great Depression upon the people living through those years. During that period there was great debate about the actual effects of a capitalist democracy.

“There are two periods in the history of the United States that shook our nation’s foundation due to internal events. The most notable was our nations’ Civil War. The second was the Great Depression.

An emerging middle class that was gaining momentum in the 1920’s was leveled during the Great Depression. A great tide of resentment rose up against government by a nation that felt they should have been far better protected. Resentment formed even faster against the ‘capitalists’ who were viewed as being financially capable of weathering the Depression.

“As unemployment rose, as families lost homes, as individuals’ educations were squandered, a major debate took place within large cities and regions about the form and operation of government that would better serve and protect ‘the people.’ Variant forms of socialism and even communism were openly debated within a nation that was searching hard for answers to remedy economic and service delivery problems. In the 1930s, capitalism and the free market economy also became suspect for their perceived ability to make some rich while many laborers worked for subsistence wages.

“Dayton Spence related that WPA artists purposely injected the look of disassociation in their subjects to generate a feeling of questioning within the viewer…There seems an expression of loss in the faces in the Mast Murals,…or maybe a sense of being let down. Or is it a sense of looking out of the present situation…to something…beyond?

Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry Murals in the Detroit Institute of Arts, completed in 1933, have the same faces, the same expressions, the same staring off to the beyond. The message was very much the same as conveyed in the Mast Murals, except that one can also discern in Rivera’s work a critical treatment of the “capitalists” who appeared to be running the show. That criticism was not well received by those with large holdings in the automobile industry, some of whom supported an unsuccessful campaign to whitewash the Detroit Industry Murals out of existence. Rivera’s influence definitely shows in Mast’s art.”

Spence estimated each panel could demand a price (based on what the offshore consortiums were willing to pay) of approximately $5 million–or $20 million for the set of four. The federal government made it again clear in 1999, in a letter to then Clare Public Schools Superintendent, William Courliss, that the art belongs to the people of the United States and remains bequeathed to Clare Public Schools and its community, and shall not be offered for sale. (In fact, the Federal Government is making a concerted effort to recover WPA art.)

Moline ended his talk by commending the Clare County Arts Council for the important work they are doing to care, maintain and preserve the Gerald Mast Murals stating, “They are an historic treasure that will rise in national prominence with each passing year.”

Arrangements can be made to view the murals during the school year by contacting the Clare Middle School at (989) 386-9979.

Along with the Mast Murals, there is also another piece of WPA art on the school grounds, an 8-foot high statue called “Pioneer Mother,” by Samual Cashwan. It is deteriorating due to time and exposure to the elements, and in serious need of restoration. Unlike the Mast Murals, the statue has never been stabilized much less restored, Costs for work on the statue could run as high as $20,000.

Even the Mast Murals should be attended to every 20 years. Doing the math, that means an expert in restoration should have been called in 2008 to examine them; however, because of lack of funding that did not occur–and there are no plans to work on them any time soon. Although heavy drapes were installed on auditorium windows at one time to slow the murals’ deterioration due to sunlight little else has been done to protect them.

Mail Comes to Clare Painting in the Clare Post Office. Clare also has two other depression-era works of art of note. One, a mural called “The Mail comes to Clare”  is at the Clare post office and can be viewed during open hours. There is also a light-hearted mural that shows leprechauns making beer that covers approximately 70-feet of the wall in the restaurant of the Doherty Hotel. This mural can be viewed at any time. A. J. Doherty, owner of the Dhoerty Hotel in Clare, discusses the painting on the making of beer that covers the walls of his restaurant and bar.

Note: The information in this post on the Mast Murals is based on Dr. Moline’s talk of Sept. 8, 2012. Following his talk, Dr. Moline generously passed along his address and I am endebted to him for doing so. I hope my changes did not materially alter what was a highly educational and entertaining address. I hope to post an unedited copy of his address soon. 

Photos by Marty Johnson. Close-ups of the Mast Murals come from postcards sold by the Clare County Arts Council. Membership is $10/year. If you would like to help preserve the murals of the statute of the Pioneer Mother or wish to contribute toward work on the Mast Murals, please contact the Arts Council at clarecountyartscouncil@hotmail.com. Tell them “Marty” sent you!

Categories: Clare County, General, History, logging, Michigan, recreation, Travel and tourism | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Gerrish and His Logging Railroad (Part 2)

…Or how to Decimate a County in Under a Decade

Here is an excerpt of an article from the June 1878 issue of the Clare County (Michigan) Press concerning Winfield Scott Gerrish and his logging railroad that was mentioned in a previous post. Note: Red line indicates approximately location of railroad.

“But the object of my present raid into Clare County…to visit Gerrish’s lumber camp, near Lake George, said to be the headquarters of the most extensive lumber operations conducted by any single individual in the known world. The principle camp is about 15 miles northwest of Farwell, and to make that distance at this season of the year over a road, which scatters all over the country and has no bottom to speak of, requires both physical and mental ability of no mean order.

Luckily our little party…secured a span of ponies, somewhat larger than rat terriers, and a light single-seated buggy, which afforded ample room for one to ride comfortably in the middle and one to walk comfortably on each side.

Both buggy and ponies, however, deceived their looks and passed over, around, and through mud holes safely, which might have swallowed a heavier outfit from sight, and we reached our destination in safety, without getting more than a mile or two out of the way at any one time.

One would suppose there should be no difficulty in following a road through the woods over which a locomotive has passed in search of a railroad, as there did over this January last, but when he reflects that the winding path has branches for every hill and camp, and that a man might travel for hours–or possibly all day–on the wrong road without meeting any one to set him right, the probability of a stranger finding any given camp the same day he strikes out for it will be seen to be very small. We were especially fortunate in reaching the headquarters camp in time for a good square dinner, which was served up in a manner that would do credit to many a hotel.

The camp was started in 1870, and with its cluster of log shanties, blacksmith shop, railroad buildings, etc., it looks very much like a busy and permanent village, The little lumber railroad which passes through it and is the pioneer railroad of that kind, is now about 13 miles long and strikes the Muskegon River about 18 miles above Evart and about 40 miles below Houghton Lake.

It was begun in September 1870; the first locomotive arrived November of that year, the second in November 1877, and the third in January 1878, The first two were “poled” up the Muskegon on rafts from Evart, and the last was run through the woods from Farwell, feats in engineering, which the old-fashioned lumberman ridiculed as impossible. The main road has four switches, two train dispatchers, and a telephone running its whole length, by which the engineers receive their orders at each switch, and the trains are run with the regularity of clockwork.

Each locomotive draws thirteen cars, and is kept running night and day, the three trains putting into the river 24 loads every 24 hours, or about 400,000 feet a day. Three men run each train, three remain on the river bank to unload, and 16 to 18 remain at the skidways to load, Each crew is on duty 12 hours, when it is relieved by a second crew for twelve hours, and so they alternate the season through, no train being delayed for meals or any other purpose. Over 50,000,000 feet have been put into the river over tills road this season, and from present appearances the cars will be kept running all summer.

This road has several branches which are run off to one side or the other, as the convenience of skidding and loading logs requires, while the main branch is being steadily extended. By fall, it will probably have reached the old State road, about six miles north of Farwell, when the depot of supplies will be moved to that point, and the plank road, which already runs nearly half way out from the village, will be extended to the proposed depot. This will lessen the cost of supplying the camps, which is now very great, to about one-third or one quarter what it has been. How much farther the road will be extended remains to be seen.

Mr. Gerrish already owns some 11 or 12 sections in the township, and is steadily adding to their number. There is doubtless standing pine enough within range of the road to keep it running a dozen years yet.*  There are a work in the camps about 400 men and 70 teams. During the winter there were nearly 700 men and about 225 teams. The sales of logs and lumber from the logs put in the past winter and spring, and those now on the skids, to be put in this summer, have aggregated $105,000. This is exclusive of Mr. Gerrish’s operations at Houghton Lake, where, in company with John L. Woods, of Cleveland, he has put in some 14,000,000 feet this season, and will put in 5,000,000 or 6,000,000 feet more. He also has other camps and investments in the lumber business, including a large steam sawmill at Muskegon, but the figures above given are enough to vindicate his title of being the largest operator in the business.

And here I should like to introduce the blue-eyed, flaxen-haired, athletic young man, still on the sunny side of 30, who employs so many men and so much capital in a precarious business so successfully, but personal allusions are distasteful and I forbear. Scott Gerrish has spent his life in lumber camps, and there is no part of the work which he cannot do as well himself as the employee who does it under his direction. Many stories are told of his remarkable industry and physical endurance; how he threw the champion wrestler of the camps at collar-and-elbow election day; how, after an arduous day’s work he is accustomed to sleep in his cutter at night while his horse draws him from one camp to another, and how, without overcoat or mittens, he rather enjoys weather cold enough to freeze the horns off a cast-iron ox. He has evidently an iron constitution and a capacity for both physical and mental work found in but few.”

* The writer of the article, as well as Gerrish and others, vastly underestimated the time it would take to cut the pines and other valuable timber. Basically, the county was bare within a decade and the county was soon to go into an economic decline.

Categories: Clare County, History, logging, Michigan, Travel and tourism | Tags: | Leave a comment

Gerrish and His Logging Railroad (Part 1 )

…Or How to Decimate a County in a Decade

Image of old railroad engine and trestleFellow Clare County Historical Society member Jon Ringelberg sent me a June 1878 article from The Clare County Press concerning Winfield Scott Gerrish, the first lumberman to purchase a railroad (locomotive, car assemblies, track, spikes, etc.) and bring them into Clare County for the express purpose of hauling timber out of the woods. Others had used trains before for that purpose, but not in Clare County. An excerpt of the article appears in the post following this one.

One of the things that makes this such a wonderful article is that it is a first-person account written and only a year or so after Gerrish brought his logging railroad to Clare County. And at a time the county was getting ready to experience an explosive building boom and population growth.

Gerrish got the idea of using a train while visiting the Centennial Exposition (World’s Fair) in Philadelphia in 1876. In one of the halls he saw a locomotive that ran on a narrow-gauge track, and thought it would be a good way to get cut timber out of his holdings that were located far from any river. (Rivers were needed at the time as they were really the only good way to transport logs to market or to major railroads.)

Whether Gerrish knew others had used a train for a similar purpose is not known. What is known is that the train arrived at the opportune time for Gerrish who was on the verge of bankruptcy. He was finding that the cost of cutting and transporting his timber holdings was higher than the revenue he was receiving.

Another factor was that the Pere Marquette railroad was laying track through the county at the time, from southeast toward the northwest. This meant it was now far easier to bring men and supplies into the county and to haul timber out of it.

Other area lumbermen initially scoffed at this train idea; however, they were just as quick to follow Gerrish when they found he was getting rich. Why did he make money? The railroad allowed Gerrish to cut and transport lumber year around instead of just during the winter months. That meant a steady and continuous revenue stream all year long.

Using trains allowed Gerrish to cut and haul logs from wherever he could lay track. And he was able to get them from woods to market in under a week, a marvelous feat at the time. Of course, there was an initial expense and delay before a train could run, since the locomotive had to be brought in, a railroad bed built, ties and track laid, and rail cars built. However, this work was generally done quickly and, in the case of the tracks, without regard to quality, since they were temporary, having to last just a couple of years, at best.

Map showing logging railroad beds

Many of the railroads that once covered Clare County. Green is used for major rail lines. Other colors show the beds of some of the narrow-gauge logging railroads. Map courtesy of Mr. and Mrs. Vanderbrink.

So the logging trains came in and the trees came out. In his book, Michigan Ghost Towns, author Roy Dodge estimated that there were more than 300 miles of logging railroads in the county and traces of many can still be found.

So what did Gerrish and his railroad mean to Clare County? Within a decade, Clare County went from being a peaceful, quiet and beautiful tree-covered county to one filled with giant stumps, scarred landscape with farmers trying to scratch out a future in what remained. However, for one short period in history, thanks in part to W.Scott Gerrish and his railroad, Clare County WAS a bustling, exciting place to be.

Note: Some articles (including the Gerrish link above) claim Gerrish was the first in the world to build a logging railroad. He was not. They were used in other states including Michigan decades before.

Categories: Clare County, Harrison, History, logging, Michigan | Tags: , , | 1 Comment

Every Picture Tells a Story–Some Are Incomplete

History is boring.

At least some teachers make it so by turning history class into a forced memorization of dates, names and places. So do parents. One of my closest friends refuses to visit a museum because, as a child (an only child), she was forced to endure day after day of museum visits during vacations. But history is much more than static displays. It’s the story of individuals told through their stories, their writings and their photos. Sometimes we are fascinated by what they tell us—and sometimes by what they do NOT tell us.

A few weeks ago, I was volunteering at the Clare County Historical Museum and looking through the photographs in its files. A few caught my attention and I wanted to share them along with a few thoughts.

Take the photo at left. What happened to the woman’s face at the upper right. Did a liquid accidentally fall on her (and only her) and did someone, in trying to remove it, ruin the photo or (as is more likely) was her face intentionally removed intentionally out of spite or hate. And if the latter, what did she do? There are four men in the photo and four women in the photo. Was she the wife of one of the men and was she guilty some horrible crime or greatly embarrassed him or the owner of the photo. Maybe committing adultery? We may never know but the photo intrigues me.

Old photo of two womenAnd then there is the photo of these two women. The one with the glasses and tie is attractive and has an air of authority about her. I see her as a manager of some type and proud of her role. Where did she work? And if she was a manager, did she only manage other women or men too? (Not sure if women in the 1890s were ever allowed to manage men.) Was she married? If so, when (and if) she had children did her work career come to an abrupt end and did she spend the rest of her days cooking and cleaning and raising children? Perhaps the other woman was her sister. Although well-dressed, she doesn’t have that professional “air” about her.  Was she more conventional? And if the two were sisters, were they close?  We may never know but the photo intrigues me.

Photo of two boys And here we have two boys. Brothers most likely, and maybe forced by their parents to get dressed up in their Sunday finest to have their photos taken. Maybe the first photos ever. Where they fidgety like many boys when it comes to photos? (And in those days one had to be verrrrry still during photos since shutter speeds were slow.) Were they the good boys they appear to be, or hellraisers? Once the photo was over did they tear off those (wool) clothes as fast as can be, or was dressing up natural to them? Who were they and what happened to them? We may never know but the photo intrigues me.

LumberjacksFinally, we have this photo of this group of men all fixed up. Maybe they were lumberjacks just arrived in town from a logging camp and had money in their pockets, and stopped for a photo before they cut loose.

Why lumberjacks? Look closely at the boots on one of the men. The hobnails help identify them.  (The protruding spikes easily dug into the bark making it easier for lumberjacks to walk on logs without slipping.)Hobnail boots

Maybe he wore the boots because they were the only footwear he owned. (One pities the woman who had to dance with him!) I figure after the photo the men left to hit the bars, gambling establishments and local “sporting” houses. How old were they at the time, and did they all survive to become old men?  Doubtful as the life of a lumberjack was a hard and dangerous one. Maybe they got into a fight (a favorite occupation of lumbermen) that night and one of them never made it back to camp, ending up instead in a pine box in a long forgotten graveyard. Or they were on their way to church.  We may never know but the photo intrigues me.

And with photos like this telling stories and asking questions, history, at least to me, will never be boring.

Categories: Clare County, Harrison, History, logging, Michigan | Leave a comment

I’m a Slow Reader (of Topography)

I have a bit of property east of Harrison, MI. As some of you may know, I have the remains of a couple of old buildings on my property. I have also found some artifacts while metal detecting around there. They include an axe handle, small railroad spike, broken horseshoes, metal straps for wooden barrels, bent square nails and even a broken piece of plow and what appears to be a broken section of railroad track.

One of the foundations I have I have known about for a couple of years; the second I found earlier this spring. Yesterday, I found one more, maybe two. I just don’t know for sure. Digging into one of them I found several bent wooden nails and some charred wood about a foot down. Maybe it was an outhouse since there is a rather large depression nearby. Maybe there is more to be found (bottles, trash) if I take time to dig there. I just don’t know for sure.

As far as I can tell, the dwellings, whatever they were use for, burned during one of the fires that roared across this property, 60 or even 100 years ago. I just don’t know for sure. I can estimate the time the buildings were constructed to the 1880s to 1900s or so. That’s because no one settled here until after 1880 and round nails came into widespread use around 1900 or so. In addition, there are a number of large trees on the property and in locations that make me believe that they grew after the area was abandoned. However, I just don’t know for sure.

This is a great time of year to be out and about the woods since the spring rains have washed some of last fall’s leaves off some of the higher mounds on my property. What I also noticed yesterday was what may be the outline an old road or railroad bed that cuts across the property near the foundations and parallel to an old stream bed. It’s a couple of hundred yards long.  What it is, I just don’t know for sure.

That’s because I am a slow reader of the land. I see the features but don’t “SEE” them. I don’t know what I am looking at when I am looking at them. That’s alfun but it’s also frustrating. What I need is someone who is good at this kind of thing and can tell me what I’m looking at and maybe where to do. And the clock is ticking because soon the sprouting vegetation will hide many of the features I’ve found for another year. Plus, a few mosquitoes have already started buzzing around and they take some of the fun out of wandering the property.

So if anyone knows how to read the land for signs of roads or foundations or knows of someone who can, please let me know. I want to know for sure.

Categories: Clare County, Harrison, History, logging, metal detecting, Michigan, Travel and tourism | 18 Comments

Spring is a Great Time to Find Some History

Spring has sprung early this year. Hard to believe spring peepers are in full chorus and butterflies are flitting around. Oh, and the mosquitoes are non-existent. So get outside and enjoy it. It may not last for long. And while you are out combing the woods, stay alert for history. With the snow gone and the spring vegetation yet to start to grow, the contours of the earth are easy to see. That means one might be able to see a discarded antler or maybe an old railroad bed or other remnant of the past.

For example, I was out walking my property today and I found the outline of a foundation. Now I’ve owned that property for eight years and I’ve walked that section numerous times but today was the first time I saw the outline of the foundation that measures about 10 foot square. That makes two I’ve found on my property. The first one I found a couple of years ago (well, to be honest, my neighbors noticed it). Last year, for the first time, I took a metal detector and explored in an around it and found some neat stuff. Here’s the post with some photos. I’m still not sure of the age of either but because of some square nails and horseshoes that turned up, I’d wager the foundations were from Clare County’s logging days (circa 1880’s). I will be out there again tomorrow marking the corners of the two foundations and looking for more.

So go outside and take a walk and look around you. Even if history is not your bag it’s still a great time to be out in God’s soon-to-be-green earth.  Enjoy!

Categories: Clare County, Harrison, History, logging, metal detecting | 1 Comment

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