The white pine forests and the lakes, streams, and rivers on which the initial economy of the North-Central Lakes and Forests Region was founded in the late nineteenth century, and which wisely were replenished by twentieth-century reforestation and conservation programs, are the basis for the region's outdoor recreation industry today. The logging camps and sawmills from the earlier years and the Great Depression–era Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camps are no longer extant. Many camps, mills, and towns were lost to fires that plagued the region. Rustic hunting and fishing camps, however, along with canoe landings, cottages, and golf and ski lodges—tangible architectural evidence of the pursuit of outdoor activities—do survive and are among the most interesting buildings of the region today. The rustic Black River Ranch (1923 lodge, H. Augustus O'Dell; 9410 Clark Bridge Road, near Onaway) established by Detroit industrialists on six thousand acres of woods, lake, and streams in Montmorency County dates from the 1890s. The huge modern but rustic Garland Lodge and Resort (1986–1988; 4700 North Red Oak Road, Lewiston vicinity) erected of precut logs from Montana is a contemporary example. These facilities are easily accessible by automobile and camper to weekend vacationers from the urban centers of southeastern Michigan and northern Ohio. Also surviving from the first half of the twentieth century are several log community buildings, dance halls, and churches. Houghton and Higgins lakes, at the heart of the region, are particularly appealing and easily reached via I-75.
This region was first settled in the 1870s by the lumbermen who came to harvest the white pine. At first, the logs were floated down the rivers to sawmills. It was not, however, until networks of narrow-gauge logging railroads were opened in the late nineteenth century to the Michigan Central, the Detroit and Mackinac, and the Jackson, Lansing and Saginaw railroads that full harvest of the forests became possible. Lumbering companies ran huge logging, transporting, and milling operations.
As lumbering waned in the early twentieth century, the people of this region realized that its sandy soil was unsuitable for farming. Nevertheless, a few farms were established on some of the region's cutover lands, most notably in Kalkaska and Missaukee counties. Potatoes, apples, and Christmas trees were cultivated and livestock and dairy cattle raised, but farming is nonexistent in most of the area. Instead, outdoor recreation became an important segment of the economy. The region's natural beauty and trout streams were advertised, and accommodations and transportation were promoted by railroads; the Grand Rapids and Indiana Railroad's “Fishing Line,” which pushed its way north through the northwestern corner of the region, is a good example. Grayling fish attracted fishermen to the Au Sable River, but unrestricted overfishing extinguished the species in the 1930s. Today the region celebrates its outdoor activities with canoe, trout, tip-up town, and maple syrup festivals.
Conservation efforts attracted the formation of sportsmen's hunting and fishing clubs. Reforestation programs initiated in 1903 were carried on by the Michigan Department of Conservation in 1924 and continued by the CCC in the 1930s. The CCC planted seedlings across barren cutover wastelands and built campgrounds. Large acreage in Oscoda, Iosco, Ogemaw, and Alcona counties is included within the boundaries of the Huron National Forest. The Au Sable, Mackinac, and Pere Marquette state forests conserve timberlands throughout the region. Hartwick Pines State Park is in Crawford County.
The discovery of oil and national gas in the Kalkaska area in 1970s was followed by the drilling of oil and gas wells and a petroleum boom, and that activity continues to some degree into the twenty-first century.
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