L’Anse Our Community Tour: Henry Ford’s connections to the U.P. and the history of Alberta

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BARAGA COUNTY, Mich. (WJMN) – About ten minutes outside of L’Anse sits the small village of Alberta.
When you pass by it on US-41, you might spot the word ‘FORD’ spelled out in the grass in big, white letters. Henry Ford, the founder of Ford Motor Company, built the village and its sawmill after World War I to create lumber for his company.

“Even from the very beginning, Alberta was sort of visualized or imagined as a social experiment as well. A place where people could live, and work, and recreate. It was intended to be completely self-contained with agriculture feels and forestry and everything,” said Mark Rudnicki, Professor of Practice in Forest Biomaterials at Michigan Technological University.

According to The Henry Ford, throughout the 1940s Ford had multiple facilities throughout the U.P. He had operating sawmills in Iron Mountain, Pequaming, L’Anse, and Alberta where they produced wood for car bodies. Another mill was planned at Munising but never put into production. Ford owned nearly the entire town of Big Bay and operated its inn as a summer retreat for company executives.

After World War II, the Alberta sawmill lumber production declined and Ford Motor Company donated the entire village and 3,700 acres to Michigan Technological University. In 1954, Michigan Tech reopened the sawmill until it closed in 1981.

“Michigan Tech ran the sawmill for quite a bit longer than Ford Motor Company did. We used it for researching yield and grade on hardwood logs.”

Dave Stimac was the head sawyer at Michigan Tech’s sawmill. After the mill closed, he worked as a maintenance worker around the village and has retired after about 45 years. Today, he operates Nature’s Way Woodworking out of Alberta’s Gift Shop where he sells his Birdseye maple wood art.

“You get a lot of people here seeking history and education,” said Stimac. “And a lot of people don’t know what’s here. They go ‘What is this?’ I say ‘It’s owned by Michigan Tech’s Forestry Department,’ and nobody had any idea that Ford Company, that Henry even built the town in 1935 and then gave it to Tech back in [1954]. People from all over the world who happen to stop in here.”

Over the years, Stimac has met many people connected to Henry Ford, including Ford’s grandchildren and even the woman who the village is named after.

“Alberta Johnson, the daughter of F.J. Johnson who was the head engineer for Ford Motor Company for the whole U.P. operations; and so the town was named after her. Meeting Alberta was quite the highlight because she was quite the gal. I was head sawyer at the time and she came up for the 150th anniversary of Henry Ford’s birthday. It was a big deal here. So we sat and talked for a very long time. It was really very good.”

Although the sawmill is no longer in operation, Michigan Tech uses the village as its field camp for most majors in the College of Forest Resources and Environmental Science. Michigan Tech follows the sustainable morals and practices of Henry Ford and its usage for the land.

“Henry Ford, he understood sustainable forestry early on. He wanted forest practices that were sustainable, and so he instituted selective logging in these forests which we still do today. We do little things and it’s certainly more quantitative, but the principle is the same: that you only take the trees that are ready. That ethos is really important and I think it still exists in Ford Motor Company today and they are pioneering a lot of research in bio-based materials for cars today,” said Rudnicki.

The university is still working with the Ford Motor Company to this day.

“We are working on brand new materials that use wood products, so carbonized wood and foams for seats that are derived from wood as well.”

To learn more about the Ford Center, click here.

Check out Dave Stimac’s Nature’s Way Woodworking wood art here.

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