In October 2018 I took a couple of trips to Cadillac, MI. They were part of a personal field trip for my American Environmental History class at Western Michigan University. I attempted the trip the weekend of the 19th with my family but we were snowed out on the second day so I went back alone the following weekend. This post is based on the PowerPoint I submitted as my final project.
Cadillac, MI started out as a lumber town, but due to the foresight of its founders, instead of being deserted when the bulk of the trees were gone, it transformed into a lasting city.
This area was once populated by Native Americans who used the products of the land for subsidence living. This marker (located on Lake Mitchell) is the first of 33 markers along a trail that was once a main transportation route for Indigenous peoples. There is evidence that this trail saw continuous use starting as long ago as 600-700 BC. Now the trail is cut up by private property and it is advised to drive along the road where the markers are instead of trying to hike the trail itself.
Cadillac was founded in 1872 as Clam Lake by George A. Mitchell. George’s father (U.S. Senator William Mitchell) was an investor in the Grand Rapids & Indiana Railroad (G.R. & I.). The railroad was persuaded to relocate their Grand Rapids to the Straits of Mackinac tracks slightly and go north of the lakes instead of between them. This gave George the opportunity to buy most of the land in the area for timber harvesting and to reserve the lakes for timber storage.
These are just a fraction of the tools and images related to the timber industry that are on display at the Wexford County Historical Society Museum.
Michigan logging wheels helped eliminate the need for icy ground and extended the lumbering season. These are located at the Mitchell State Park Campground. The lakes that were once an important resources for the lumber industry are now important to tourists and private homeowners.
Cadillac reached a point were the timber was getting hard to harvest. Horses were unable to go down hills because the large loads would drive over them, so better technology was created. The Shay Locomotive was designed to be able to run well on the uneven, temporary tracks laid down by lumber companies.
After the pine was gone, a foundry and the ability to cut hardwoods for furniture building in places like Grand Rapids kept the town going. This is now marked with a Michigan historical marker. It is very cool, but is surrounded by private property and difficult to get to. There is no parking and I walked from a shopping center about a block away with no sidewalk.
The Sweet Shop has been in business over 50 years and Horizon Books was founded in Traverse City in 1961.
To the west of Cadillac is the Baldwin/White Cloud Ranger District of the Huron-Manistee National Forest. This forest is here because after the Civil War the U.S. government gave stumpy former timber land to former soldiers. When the land failed to be productive for farming the soldiers gave up and the land defaulted back to the government.
The Carl T. Johnson Hunting and Fishing Center showcases the past and present of hunting, fishing, and trapping in Northern Lower Michigan. There is information about Native American practices all the way up to modern rules.
Of course lumbering wasn’t the only thing that changed in the Cadillac area, fishing is another industry that changed greatly. From the poster: “…lore has it that anglers could catch three fish with one cast. Early accounts tell of grayling that ‘ lay like cordwood in the Au Sable’.” Logging was the major cause of their extinction but invasive trout and overfishing played parts. Where fishing used to be easy and supplied without human input…
…now fishing in the area is no longer able to thrive without human management. The Harrietta State Fish Hatchery is one of Michigan’s six state fish hatcheries. The original facilities were built in 1901 making this the oldest operating state hatchery. 1.2 million fish, including rainbow and brown trout, are raised here each year. Because they are grown in a feedlot type environment their waste must be dealt with in sludge ponds instead of nourishing water systems, and oxygen (AKA “Fish Gas”) must be pumped into their water.
Part of the old structures at Harrietta State Fish Hatchery. These are across the road from the newer facilities.
More of the remains of the 1901 Fish Hatchery. Second photo was shot from the bridge.
Cadillac is a lovely place to spend a holiday. Even on a fall day with storms quickly approaching you can appreciate what made George A. Mitchell want to build something lasting here.
One of the many tourist attractions in Cadillac is a monument to a KISS concert played at Cadillac High School in 1975. The short version of the story is that the football coaches used KISS music to energize the players, the players won a conference, and KISS came to play for the school. There is a four stop route you can follow to see the important stops on their visit, but the weather was getting ominous so I wanted to get to my hotel room.
Whatever happened to George A. Mitchell? Well, for a man who had a lot of foresight when it came to founding a town, he didn’t have much for self-preservation. One night he was taking his horse buggy through the main street of town. The main street was still full of hard to remove stumps and his buggy was going too fast. A wheel hit a stump and he was thrown from the carriage and hit his head on another stump. He died from the injury. References
Cadillac Area Visitors Bureau. (n.d.).
. Retrieved from Explore Cadillac Old Indian Trail – Cadillac to Traverse City
DNR. (2018, October 19). Displays for Carl T. Johnson Hunting and Fishing
Museum. Cadillac, MI, USA.
DNR. (2018, October 27). Displays for Harrietta Fish
Hatchery Self-Guided Tours. Harrietta, MI,
(2018, October 27). Display for Huron-Manistee National Forest Baldwin/White
Cloud District. Baldwin, Michigan, USA.
County Historical Society Museum Volunteer. (2018, October 19). Notes From My
Visit. Cadillac, MI, USA.