Alberta sawmill: Can it be saved?

A 1930s picture of Henry Ford’s sawmill in Alberta shows the eelative size of the facility. (Photo courtesy of the Baraga County Historical Museum)

ALBERTA — An informal group of Baraga County citizens is working with Michigan Technological University on ways to preserve the sawmill at the Ford Forestry Center.

The sawmill building dates back to 1936, when it was opened as part of Henry Ford’s planned community in Alberta. While other Ford mills in Baraga County — in L’Anse and Pequaming — produced more lumber, the mill was intended to give the public a close-up view of Ford operations.

It remained in operation through 1954. Ford Motor Company funded renovations to turn the site into a museum, Michigan Tech’s website said.

It remained open to the public from 1996 until being closed to the public about five years ago. Tech’s website identified several safety concerns, including electrical systems, walkways, and lighting.

“We have to think about the safety of people that are visiting and so it’s been a few years since it’s been open to the public,” said Andrew Storer, Dean of Tech’s College of Forest Resources and Environmental Science.

Tech uses Alberta as a teaching and research facility for forestry, wildlife and applied ecology students. Storer said Tech is involved in long-range planning for Alberta, which he called critical for Tech’s education and research programs. Recent upgrades have included a new roof on the dorm building and upgrades to its water infrastructure.

“Now we’re thinking about, ‘Okay, what’s the long-term for the sawmill?’ and as we teach our students, we’re considering all options,” Storer said. “And the good thing is that we would like to keep the sawmill, and there are people in the community who would like to see the sawmill remain, and so we’re now starting to work with them.”

After a L’Anse Sentinel article in May in which the Tech’s Ford Forestry Center director discussed tentative plans to tear down the property next year, Baraga County residents began talking to the university and local governments to find a way to ensure the landmark building could stay. After hearing public comment from several people, the Baraga County Board approved sending a letter to Storer to support restoring the building at its June meeting.

Wayne Abba, one of the residents involved, was also introduced to Glenn Tolksdorf and Jim Dougovito, both Tech forestry graduates, and in Dougovito’s case, the former director of the Ford Center.

“They had the same reaction we all did,” Abba said.

Tolksdorf helped get in touch with Michigan Tech, which sent a representative to the citizens’ first meeting last month, Abba said.

“He opened the meeting by assuring us there was no official plan to tear down the sawmill,” he said. “There’s no us vs. them. This isn’t like the fights that we’re having over things like wind turbines and seaplanes. Dean Storer has been really good in working with us and he invited us to share any interests or ideas that we might have.”

Abba said the interest group includes representatives from numerous groups throughout Baraga County, including the Baraga County Chamber of Commerce, Convention & Visitors Bureau, Model A Club and the privately owned sawmill at Big Bay, another Ford legacy project.

“We have a lot of people who say that’s such a natural tourism gateway at Baraga County,” he said. “Baraga County without the sawmill is like Houghton and Hancock without the Quincy Mine Hoist. It’s kind of iconic.”

Storer said Tech will also meet with the group at the Ford Center this month to discuss the sawmill and the investment that would be needed to ensure it remains.

Work would likely be multi-stage, Storer said — first shoring up the exterior, then seeing if the interior could be restored.

“It remains to be seen whether or not they’d be sufficient resources to actually be able to open up the building to people just because of safety compliance and those types of things,” he said. “We’re looking forward to working with the community on that plan and working with them to look for resources to do it.”

Storer said the university had not estimated the total cost of restoration, but would first get an estimate for the initial phase of work.

At the June Baraga County meeting, residents suggested possibly moving the building to another site if Tech was not interested in keeping it. Storer said the university did not want to sell or relocate the building.

“I don’t think there’s going to be a situation where we would sell a building,” he said. “I could see us just working with a group and having them participate in the management of it.”

Group members have come up with several ideas, including making the sawmill a commercial tourist center for Baraga County and the Western Upper Peninsula. It could also be used as an informational center for Tech to aid in recruitment, Abba said.

Longer-term, the group hopes to find some way to reopen the sawmill as a museum. That could be something as simple as something where people walk in and look at items behind Plexiglass, Abba said. It could also include something where people walk through and look at exhibits incorporating audiovisual elements.

“It’s our hope that because there’s been such a quick meeting of the minds on this that we will work this into Tech’s administration process,” Abba said. “They already run a museum at the Seaman Mineral Museum, and they have people on staff that are familiar with grant writing. We are hoping to lend our support to anything they might be able to do after this meeting.”

Endowments would be the best way to secure the financing necessary to make long-term improvements to the sawmill, Abba said. Group members have talked about reaching out to members of the Ford family about a donation.

The museum could also be expanded beyond the sawmill to talk about other parts of the Ford legacy, Abba said. For an anniversary celebration, the Fords had signed a lease with a Baraga County resident who owns the Model A to temporarily display it.

“There’s a tremendous amount of history with some of these old cars, and these people would like to have a chance to display them,” he said.

Another idea is attempting to have the site recognized as a historical landmark.

“That of course opens the doors to other kinds of grants and recognition as well,” Abba said.


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