Unexpected History: Up North Edition

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Clear Lake from the trail

I think my favorite way of finding new historical spots is when I literally run into them. You may recall that a few months ago, while out jogging in Brighton, I happened to run by an old school house with a historical marker. Well, a few weeks ago it happened again. I was spending the weekend at a friend’s cabin on Clear Lake, which is in the northeastern part of the state about 40 miles east of Gaylord. Clear Lake is a beautiful small lake, with impressively clear water (hence the name), surrounded by private homes as well as a state park which has both camping facilities and a day use area. There are also number of trails around the lake, which make for a much more pleasant run than Detroit’s suburbs do, if you ask me. Sunday morning, while out for an early run, I went through the day use area and discovered that the park had added a new feature this year: a disc golf course. Even better, at the start of each “hole,” there was an interpretive sign with information about the history of the area as well as the animals and plants that live in the park. History as a part of a fun outdoor game? I love it!

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Click to enlarge

The course is titled “The Memory,” and many of the signs relate to the nature in the park. I learned, for example, that the lake is stocked with splake, a cross between brook trout and lake trout; that Clear Lake is a sinkhole; and that the endangered Kirtland’s warbler has been spotted in the park. Other signs give bits of history, such as information about the lumbering business in northern Michigan, and the fact that Michigan’s native elk disappeared in the 19th century but have been repopulated with transplants from out west. Most fascinating to me was the first hole, which stated that the park was the site Civilian Conservation Corps Camp V1670 from 1933-1942.  The men at the camp constructed a nearby airport, a campground, several local roads and bridges, planted trees and fought forest fires.

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I’ve always found the CCC to be an interesting piece of history. Part of FDR’s New Deal, the Corps provided jobs to millions of young men during the height of the Great Depression. Similar to the WPA, the CCC participated in public works projects, but with a specific focus on the land. It brought men together in remote camps to improve parks with upgrades in shelters and roads as well as conserve the nature itself through combating erosion and forest fires as well as planting new trees. In the beginning, nearby towns objected to the camps, as they feared strangers coming into their communities. Eventually, as their work became known, the CCC became one of the most popular New Deal agencies as it not only provided young men with jobs and a sense of purpose, but also increased awareness of the national treasures found in our parks and ensured the availability of these treasures for years to come.

There is plenty of information about the CCC on the internet, but I haven’t been able to find out much about the particular camp at Clear Lake. The signage itself it confusing – another nearby (and probably older) sign at the park call it “Camp Presque Isle 4612” and gives the years 1933-1939, three years shorter than the disc golf marker. Not only are the numbers different, but Presque Isle is on the shores of Lake Huron, more than 50 miles east of Clear Lake. I was a bit confounded by the whole thing, but after some more research, it the appears the older sign is partially correct – according the CCC Legacy website, V1670 was 19 miles south of Onaway and known as Presque Isle (according to Google Maps, Clear Lake State Park is 17.5 miles south of Onaway – close enough). The number isn’t right, however, as camp 4612 appears to have been in Grand Haven, on Lake Michigan. The years are a mystery as well, as the legacy website only gives the starting date in 1933, but I would lean towards believing the newer sign, which likely had access to better research materials than I.

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I was able to find a few pictures of the camp, which show a drab landscape of barracks and other buildings surrounded by pine trees. The park looks very different today, thanks in a large part to the work of the men in the camps – the barracks have been replaced by a lively and clean campground, easily accessible by local roads (I’ve stayed in the campground in the past, it’s great), many more trees, and an extensive trail system. And in the summer time, many, many people, enjoying all that Northern Michigan has to offer – peaceful retreat in the woods as well as fun in and on the water. Without the CCC, this area, and many others throughout the nation, wouldn’t be in as good of condition or be as accessible to to public. And for that I am very grateful.

CCC Camp, 1935. Courtesy of the Forest Historical Society

CCC Camp Presque Isle, 1935.
Courtesy of the Forest Historical Society

The Day Use area today. I swear, it is often packed with people - this photo was just taken at around 8am, so nobody was there yet.

The day use area today. I swear, it is often packed with people – this photo was just taken at around 8am, so nobody was there yet.

Last thought: I really love that the DNR put all of these history and nature facts on disc golf signs. A simple informational marker would not be able to include nearly as much information, and if it did nobody would read all of it (and fewer people would look at it at all). By spreading the information out, and inserting it into a fun game, it feels less like a history or science lesson and more like just learning a few fun facts about the area. I’m sure everybody who plays disc golf on the course won’t read every sign, and some may not ready any at all, but I bet more people come away with at least one fact about the area than would have otherwise. The idea of “edutainment” – entertainment mixed with education – is big right now, but isn’t always done well, and can come off as gimmicky. I think this is a great example of when it is done right. Simple, low-key, just a few facts about the land around you included in a casual game of disc golf. Perfect.

I’d love to hear about other examples of public history being snuck into other activities or locations. What surprising places have you run into history?

Sources:
CCC Camps Michigan,” CCC Legacy
History of Michigan CCC Camps,” Presque Isle Advance
New Disc Golf Course Open at Clear Lake State Park,” Michigan DNR

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