- Historic Sites
A Michigan Boyhood
THIRD OF FOUR INSTALLMENTS A FAMOUS HISTORIAN RECALLS THE COUNTRY WHERE HE GREW UP
June 1972 | Volume 23, Issue 4
We lived where we lived because the wealth of the state’s great twilight of pine woods had been discovered just when the nation needed unheard-of quantities of pine boards. The exploitation of that resource had gone more rapidly than anyone supposed it would go because as rising demand met unlimited supply the growth of technological knowledge made it possible to turn trees into boards faster than had been done in all the history of mankind. The unlimited supply disappeared altogether, because in fact it was sharply limited by man’s capacity to use every last splinter of it, but the technological progress remained and exerted its own pressures. The one certainty was that everything was going to change. We might well have altered that old saying: Whatever is, is temporary. That is a hard truth to live by.
So over most of the state of Michigan the forest was destroyed, with single-minded dedication and efficiency. Sometimes it seemed as if men of that time definitely hated trees, although it was noted that once a lumber town was built its people hastened to set out little saplings in the yards and along the streets to soften the harsh outlines—which could be extremely harsh, in a jerrybuilt backwoods village—and to provide shade. But the original growth was made up of enemies, and no quarter was given. I remember a characteristic incident from my innocent home town of Benzonia.
On a hillock back of the girls’ dormitory there was a nice stand of second-growth hardwoods, mostly maples and beeches—the same in which I played the part of Daniel Boone with my trusty broomstick rifle. In the middle of this little wood lot there was one towering tree that had somehow escaped the axe and saw when the village was built. I do not recall what sort of tree it was except that it was a hardwood, and it was a noble tree, rising far above all the other trees, a landmark visible from anywhere in town. Now there lived in Benzonia a man who served in some official capacity—member of the county road commission or the county surveyor’s crew, or something similar. This man looked upon this tree every day, and apparently it offended him. It had survived, the only tree in the whole township that dated back to the original forest, and he seems to have felt that he ought to do something about it. He consulted the blueprints on which the village had been platted and discovered that this tree grew right in the center of what had been marked out as a highway. The highway had never been built, and never would be built because it would be a dead-end street at each end, it led neither to nor past anything of consequence, and to build it would have required the builders to cross two deep ravines. It was wholly impractical and everybody knew it, and to this day it remains unconstructed. But the plat said there was a roadway there, and the big tree was a trespasser. So this petty official got a few men with saws and axes, went up to the hillock, and cut the tree down.
It came down with a soul-satisfying crash, and it lay, butt-end upward, on a steep hillside, leaving a flat stump as broad as a dining room table. It stayed where it fell, slowly rotting. Nobody cut it into logs or did anything else with it; nobody had ever intended to do anything with it, it was just a big tree that deserved to be laid low. A number of people shook their heads and made noises of disapproval, and my father, thinking that the tree was on ground owned by the academy, lodged a protest. But there was the plat, the tree grew in the middle of what had been laid out as a public highway, and nothing could be done. Presumably its destruction satisfied something in the soul (if that is the word for it) of the man who felled it. Anyway, what was one tree more or less in Michigan? It was gone, and my small sister found that the big flat stump made a fine place for her to play house with her dolls.
It was not often necessary to hunt down survivors in that way because as a general thing survivors were most uncommon. Land that had been combed over for its pines got another combing, and if necessary it got a third, and in the end the lumber crews missed nothing. (If it has roots, cut it down.) The narrow-gauge network that had expanded so mightily contracted with equal speed, rails and rolling stock carried away, ties left to crumble where they lay. Open places surrounded by secondgrowth saplings, unspeakably desolate yet at the same time throbbing with life, terminal points once for busy little carriers, complete with sidetracks, water tank, an uneven wye to turn locomotives around, and donkey engines to pile logs on flatcars—these disappeared altogether, everything removable gone, tangled underbrush covering the barren ground, roadbeds turning into low grassy ridges and at last losing their identity entirely, so that now only a local antiquarian or two can come within a mile of saying where they were.