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History included big plans from Ford Motor Co.

ALBERTA MILL

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 — The sawmill at Alberta, in Baraga County, was to be the core of Ford Motor Company founder Henry Ford’s concept of a model company town.

The Ford Motor Co. already owned and operated several Upper Peninsula sawmills, including two others in Baraga County, that supplied necessary hardwood for his automobiles when he constructed the Alberta site near Plumbago Creek in 1936.

Just 17 miles to the north, on the shore of Keweenaw Bay, the company had operated a large mill at Pequaming since 1919. Ford also owned a mill at L’Anse.

In addition with the Alberta mill facility, Ford also had a dozen or so houses constructed for its employees and their families, along with two schools for the children of the community. But while Ford’s intention was to prove that a model company-owned town could still be successful long after the concept of corporate paternalism had faded from Industrial America, Alberta never became a town by definition. There were no stores, no churches, or even a gas station. It had no post office.

The mill opened on Sept. 1, 1936, according to the Michigan Technological University (Michigan Tech) website, and closed on June 30, 1954.

The Michigan Tech Archives, the permanent repository for archival material relating to the Alberta site, states that Alberta was as much a social experiment as a practicality. The first boards cut at the mill were used to build the first houses in the community. Ford’s plan for Alberta included a community of homes and schools to be built at the mill site, with each worker logging a sixty-acre company parcel and farming a two-acre farm plot. The idea was to provide double security for workers by conducting winter logging operations and summer milling and farming activities.

Ford’s concept was that the mill gave the public a chance to see a working mill in the context of a working community. But, it did not work out that way.

Although the mill started operations on September 1, 1936, the company soon turned to outside jobbers to provide logs to what eventually became a year-round operation.

The soil proved difficult to farm, and deer ate what few crops could be grown, says the Archives. With its well-constructed company housing and schools, Alberta continued as a good example of a small company mill town. But lacking any stores, churches, post office, bank, or doctor, it never became the self-contained village Ford intended. Ford continued intermittent production at the site until June 30, 1954.

While Alberta’s lumber production paled in comparison to Ford’s three other UP mills, it had a capacity of 14,000 board-feet-per-day of hardwood and more than 20,000 board-feet-per-day of softwood, wrote Mark Wilcox in his article, Company Town, in the 2016 Michigan Tech Magazine, Issue 2.

On Nov. 30, 1954, The Ford Motor Company donated the mill, housing, schools, and over 1,700 acres of adjacent timberland to the Michigan College of Mining and Technology, the gift of property having passed through the Ford Motor Company Fund. The site was renamed the Ford Forestry Center and currently operates as an experimental research station, educational laboratory, and learning center for the School of Forestry and Wood Products at Michigan Technological University.

On March 17, 1997, the Ford Motor Company fund made a contribution of $100,000 toward the rehabilitation and restoration of the mill as an interpretive center for the general public. Shortly thereafter, a committee consisting of MTU administrators, faculty and staff, as well as retired Ford employees and local community sponsors, was organized to carry out the funded restoration project, prepare interpretive exhibits, and establish operating procedures for the site. The restoration efforts, unfortunately, were not enough.

According to Michigan Tech’s Ford Center website, the electrical systems, walkways, and lighting in the sawmill do not meet minimum standards for safety for visitors, and Michigan Tech was compelled to close the sawmill to public visits.

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