Volunteers spruce up aging Michigan treasure

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Outlined against a blue-gray October sky, an army of men and women (well, 135, at any rate) recently went to battle against the effects of time on the northern shore of Lake Michigan. Armed with shovels, rakes, paintbrushes and all manner of construction (and destruction) gear, the crew – made up of travel and tourism industry professionals, students who aspire to be such, and Department of Natural Resources parks and recreation employees – turned back the clock at Fayette Historic State Park on the Garden Peninsula.

Workers helped preserve and stabilize structures that have stood for nearly 150 years on a site that once buzzed with the activity of men hard at work, turning ore into pig iron at one of the Upper Peninsula’s most productive smelting sites. The Jackson Iron Company’s blast furnaces at Fayette churned out more than a quarter million tons of iron between 1867 and 1891, after which the company left, and the town slowly withered until the state acquired the site and it became a state park in 1959.

What stands today are more than 20 buildings – the old furnace complex, the machine shop, the company store, the hotel and others – on a 711-acre site that offers many of the things typical state parks offer and much more. Fayette Historic State Park boasts 61 modern campsites, 5 miles of hiking trails, groomed cross-country ski trails (in the winter), and a natural Great Lakes boat harbor to go along with a great view of a different time.

volunteers painting exterior of a Fayette building

“We have all the trappings of a classic state park,” said park manager Randy Brown. “And then we have this real cool historic site. We’re doing the work here that it would take our staff three or four years to get done.”

Cool, indeed, but in need of a bit of attention. The workers replaced dilapidated siding, tacked up lath to hold plaster, primed and painted siding and fences, cut down overgrown vegetation that was crowding structures and interfering with sightlines, even repainted and rebuilt the park’s welcome sign on the main highway.

“We came up with some projects that have needed to be done for years,” Brown said.

The work was ramrodded by Michigan Cares for Tourism, a nonprofit organization that puts hospitality industry associates – everyone from convention and tourism bureau directors to owners of bed-and-breakfast establishments – to work on some of the state’s travel and tourism gems. It was the group’s second project of the year (earlier this season, volunteers helped restore the grounds and facilities at Sturgeon Point Lighthouse) and the fourth in its relatively young existence.

Fayette Historic State Park was chosen for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the Upper Peninsula is “a great place to go in the fall,” said Maia Turek, a DNR recreation programmer who serves as liaison with the Tourism Cares crew. Many others agreed.

volunteers outdoors excavating at Fayette

“This place is really special,” said Dave Lorenz, director of Travel Michigan. “This is Michigan’s ghost town. We’re going to try to clean this up a little bit so people can see the story a little better. That’s what we do – we tell stories.”

Ray Fahlsing, manager of the DNR Parks and Recreation Division’s stewardship unit, said the assignment at Fayette really was no different than other projects the group has taken on.

“We’re getting an immense amount of work done in a short period of time,” he said. “And we’re trying to bring more attention to the site. This is one of our most important historic parks. It’s a little bit off the beaten path; it doesn’t get the visitation that a lot of parks get. In fact, some people who are here as part of this project said they’d never heard of it.”

Although it is the history that makes this park stand out from so many other Michigan state parks – which are often defined by natural resources – it is actually natural resources that caused the iron smelters to be sited here in the first place. 

There is a natural harbor nearby, so the iron ore could be shipped in. The limestone cliffs along the lake shore provided the necessary flux material for removing the impurities from the iron ore, and the surrounding hardwood forests provided the fuel for the blast furnaces. Ore was shipped by rail from the mines at Negaunee to Escanaba and then brought by ship to the blast furnaces. So Fayette Historic State Park is a unique combination of natural resources and an important chapter in Michigan history.

Volunteers work indoors inside the Fayette hotel

According to Patty Janes, the Grand Valley State University professor who dreamed up and oversees the Michigan Cares campaign, some 46 different organizations donated merchandise, services or money to make the event possible, but it was the human power that really got the work done.

“It’s interesting the various levels of industry people who are here,” said Dan Sippel, executive director of the West Michigan Tourism Association, “From travel bureau directors to students who want to see what the industry is all about, they’re seeing that giving back is one of the things we do.”

DNR Parks and Recreation Division Chief Ron Olson praised the volunteers’ efforts.

“The Tourism Cares program continues to be a great partner,” he said. “It has helped enhance valuable natural, historic and cultural assets in our great state parks system.”

Volunteers play an important role in maintaining and restoring unique Michigan gems like Fayette. The DNR’s volunteer programs invite people of all ages and abilities to get involved through a variety of opportunities, including invasive species removal, campground hosting, friends’ groups that support state parks, wildlife surveys and mapping, and many other efforts. Find the one that’s right for you atwww.michigan.gov/dnrvolunteers.

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