Once heavily timbered with hardwoods in the south and pine in the north, dotted with lakes, swamps, and bogs, and laced with rivers and streams, the Heartland of Michigan today is a region of open fields and woods. Well-established farms in the south and oil wells and refineries (some now converted to storage) in the central and northern portions now replace the forests. North of Clare the hilly and wooded land is sparsely populated, for the land is poorly suited for farming and the growing season is short. Eight miles north of Clare where elm and oak abruptly give way to jack pine and bush, the glacial moraine marks the beginning of northern Michigan—the land known to Michiganians as “Up North.” The rivers and streams in the east drain into Lake Huron, those on the west flow into Lake Michigan.
Hunters, trappers, and settlers arrived in the counties of the Heartland from the 1840s, making their way up the rivers and streams. Settlers reached Montcalm, Osceola, and Gratiot counties in the 1840s. In 1846 Arnold Payne and his family moved to what became Fulton Township in Gratiot County, began clearing land, and built a log house. They became that county's first settlers; others slowly followed. In the 1850s the first permanent settlers arrived in Mecosta and Isabella counties. And in 1861 Marvel Secord and his family traveled from Midland up the Tittabawassee River and built a log house at Dick's Forks. They were the first permanent Euro-American settlers in Gladwin County.
Lumbering was the first industry vital to the economic development of the Heartland. It began in the 1850s, later than it did along the coastlines and near the mouths of the major rivers. In 1850 Delos A. Blodgett formed a lumbering partnership in Muskegon with Thomas D. Stimson and James Kennedy, headed up the Muskegon River, and established a camp at the junction of the Hersey and Muskegon rivers, near present-day Hersey in Osceola County. They claimed land, cut timber, and in 1858 built a saw and a grist mill at Hersey. These mills and others became the foci for settlement and later communities. In 1851 Blodgett and Stimson continued farther up the Muskegon River and cut the first pine in Clare County. Lumbering boomed in the region after the Civil War, and Blodgett and Stimson's operation grew accordingly. Eventually they logged in several adjacent counties, shipping large quantities of timber to sawmills in Muskegon.
The region's rivers and streams furnished a ready-made system for transporting logs to mills at shipping harbors on or near Lakes Huron and Michigan. To float their logs downstream, loggers built dams that flooded large areas of land. The Muskegon and Tittabawassee rivers and their tributaries, together with the Flat and Chippewa rivers, all carried logs to processing mills downstream. Even so, it was only after the Flint and Pere Marquette Railroad was built in the 1870s to Clare, Farwell, and Reed City and narrow-gauge logging railroads were run into Clare, Osceola, and Gladwin counties that a transportation system permitted the full harvest of the forests of the Heartland. The result was the establishment of such lumber and mill towns as Big Rapids, Howard City, Greenville, Stanton, and Evart. These mill towns in the forests all possess excellent examples of Michigan's lively wood building tradition.
With the forests exhausted in the 1890s, the economy of the southern portion of the region shifted to agriculture. Farms produced oats, grains, clover, potatoes, sugar beets, dry beans, soybeans, and livestock. Herdsmen and dairymen developed large ranches in the vicinity of Clare. Their billowing barns, capable of storing huge quantities of hay and sheltering livestock, and their tall silos remain. Large grain elevators stand along the railroad tracks at Breckenridge, Clare, and other towns.
Some of the region's rivers provided the waterpower for mills, factories, and industries. In the 1880s William Horner's maple flooring company and the Reed City Woolen Mills were important manufactories on the Muskegon River in Reed City. In 1908 Frank S. Gibson began making wooden refrigerators and agricultural implements in factories and foundries on the Flat River in Greenville, and in 1931 the company made modern refrigerators. The arrival of the Grand Rapids and Indiana Railroad on its route north in the 1870s ensured the growth of Howard City, Reed City, and Big Rapids. It aided the growth of outdoor recreation, bringing fishermen and hunters to the region's lakes, streams, and woods. Many hunting and fishing cabins were constructed of logs and wood. In the first decades of the twentieth century, a network of good improved roads crisscrossed the Heartland. At Clare, the Doherty Hotel served automobile travelers.
Natural gas and oil deposits were discovered near Mount Pleasant in 1927, in Gladwin County in 1934, and in northern Montcalm in the 1920s and 1930s. The oil industry helped to ease the strain of the Great Depression. Profits from the oil industry went into some of the region's buildings, and the growth of three of its principal cities, Mount Pleasant, Alma, and Gladwin, was the direct result of this newly discovered resource.
Numerous institutions have established schools in the Heartland. In 1884 Woodbridge Ferris founded Ferris Industrial School, the precursor of present-day Ferris State University; the first campus building was erected in 1893. In 1885 the Presbyterian Synod of Michigan established Alma College in Alma. The red brick Dunning Memorial Chapel with its tall steeple and columned semicircular portico (1940–1941, Charles Z. Klauder) is a campus landmark. In 1891 the Mount Pleasant Improvement Company was formed; it acquired sixty acres of land and sold lots. In 1893 Mount Pleasant was selected as the site of Central Normal School and Business Institute at Mount Pleasant. Two years later this institution was given to the state and became the Central Michigan Normal School, now Central Michigan University. In 1893 the federal government opened the Mount Pleasant Industrial Training School for Indians as part of a cultural assimilation program. It was taken over by the state in 1927 but virtually closed in 1933. A small Native American reservation is on 1,220 acres near Mount Pleasant. The Soaring Eagle Casino and Resort ( IB5) has improved the economic well-being of tribal members.
The lumbermen of the region also nurtured new industries and institutions. Ammi Wright, a Saginaw and Alma lumberman, promoted the establishment of the Alma Sanitarium, the precursor of the Masonic Home, and of Alma College. He inaugurated Michigan's sugar beet industry. In 1906 the Alma Sugar Company and others formed the Michigan Sugar Company. The Alma factory complex is no longer extant.
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