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Reforestation in Manistee County

Hello. I am Kurt H. Schindler, a volunteer at the museum. I am scanning and indexing the museum’s estimated 20,000 old photographs. This is not the first time. When in high school and college my summer job was at the museum. Back then I was cataloging the museum’s books.

One book was a combination account book and journal kept by Charles Ruggles. Ruggles was one of the more eccentric lumber barons in Manistee. What struck me, and vividly remains in my memory today was in this journal Ruggles did calculations to figure out when he would be cutting his last tree. He knew how many acres his companies owned, approximate number of trees on each acre, and was able to know that in about 20 years, early 1900s, he would cut his last tree.

So here is the point:

Lumbermen in Manistee knew exactly what they were doing. It was not some fantasy about the “inexhaustible forest.”

Sometime in the 1980s former Museum Director Steve Harold showed me a photograph of a barren landscape. The photo was taken from a high point (might have been the top of the Udell Hills) looking west. In the photo you could see the rooftops of houses in Eastlake – about 10 miles west. You could see the roofs because there was no forest. The surprising thing about this photo was that it was photographed in the late 1920s to early 1930s—twenty years after the “last trees” were cut. Large parts of the forest were not growing back.

I have not found that photo – yet. So far, I have only scanned about one quarter of the collection. So it could still turn up.

The forests in Manistee, the Manistee National Forest, state forests, and forests on private land, are not “natural” forests. Reforestation was done at the hand of people. The book Planning a wilderness: regenerating the Great Lakes cutover region by James Kates, University of Minnesota Press provides a detailed narrative of reforestation, use of planning by landscape architects, the planting and creating of today’s man/woman-made forests.

The Great Depression in the 1930s provided funds and programs to do this work like the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), and the operation of the Chittenden Nursery near Wellston to start small trees for planting throughout the Midwest. Also in this era was the formation of Soil Conservation Districts to help such work on private lands. The district in cooperation with MSU Extension, township governments, and many others produced the first Manistee County land use plan in the 1940s – further planning the county’s farms and forests. That document is still on the shelf in the Manistee County Planning Department.

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