Preservation work continues

Photo provided by Wayne Abba Historian Keith Whitman speaks about Henry Ford’s ties to the Upper Peninsula to a crowd of about 140 people Wednesday. The public also heard more about a citizen group’s plans to restore the Alberta sawmill and possibly reopen it as a historical site.

ALBERTA — Efforts to preserve the sawmill and pump house building in Alberta are gaining traction.

A citizen group mobilized earlier this year in response to Michigan Technological University’s tentative plans to tear down the sawmill building and pumphouse. Tech is now working with the group to find ways to preserve the building and restore it as an operating historical exhibit.

The citizen group is now working as a subcommittee of the Baraga County Historical Society.

Michigan Tech has provided strong support, said Wayne Abba, a member of the subcommittee. Tech’s forestry department provided an assessment of the sawmill’s condition conducted several years ago.

“That gives us a baseline for figuring out what the priorities are and what needs to be done,” he said.

Mark Bevins, an engineer on the subcommittee, will survey the site to provide an update to help form a master plan for restoration work.

Tech’s history department has also been given the green light to cooperate with the subcommittee, Abba said.

“They want to assign student sin their industrial archeology class to do projects that would be in support of the mill,” he said.

The sawmill was opened in 1936 as part of Henry Ford’s planned community in Alberta to provide a public demonstration of Ford’s lumber operations.

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

The museum 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.

Friday, the group met with the chair of the L’Anse Township board to discuss possibly incorporating the sawmill into the township’s system. The group plans to get onto the agenda of a future township board meeting, Abba said.

Before that, the subcommittee has a conference call planned with Michigan’s State Historic Preservation Office tentatively scheduled for mid-October. SHPO could give the subcommittee the options for designating the site as a historical landmark. Subcommittee members might be joined by members of the historical society and Michigan Tech, Abba said.

“We’re not entirely sure what the best route is to take, or what the criteria are for the different designations,” he said. “If it turns out doing this in concert with a local township government is a good idea, then we can take it from there.”

Help could also come through the Henry Ford Heritage Association, an 800-member group with ties to organizations including the Ford Motor Company and Ford Foundation. The group has taken an interest in the preservation efforts, and its treasurer and chief operating officer plans to visit the Upper Peninsula to see the sawmill, Abba said.

“He’s been to the U.P. before, but he’s never taken a specific sawmill tour,” he said. “We’re so excited to see where that affiliation might take us in the future.”

Wednesday, the group hosted a talk by historian Keith Whitman on Henry Ford’s developments in northern Michigan. Whitman also brought a Ford fire truck he owns, designed in part by Henry Ford.

“The fire truck sat out in Pequaming when the mill was open, and when Henry came to town, he would use it to entertain the kids,” Abba said. “He’d take it down to the store and buy candy for them.”

About 140 people came out to hear the talk, held at the Whirl-I-Gig, a dance hall built in 1933 between L’Anse and Pequaming during their boom days as Ford lumber towns, Abba said. Most of the attendees, including Abba, had roots in the area dating back to the Ford days. Many of them spotted their parents or grandparents in historical photos Whitman presented.

“For a turnout to hear a historical presentation, that’s really awesome,” he said. “To me, that’s a demonstration of how important that is that a sawmill be preserved.”


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